Fritz Lang – Die Nibelungen

March 17, 2008 at 6:21 pm (Fróðleikr) (, , , , , )

Here begins my series of reviews on the directing efforts of Fritz Lang. I’ll review films as I can view them: they’re not easy to find, and the typical Lang effort is anywhere from two to six hours long.

Die Nibelungen consists of two films, both released in 1924. Siegfried, part one, was the first I could find on my “must review” list. It was shown separately from the second part, Kriemhilds Rache (Kriemhild’s Revenge), a practice that was routine for audiences, as Lang’s films were often split into parts. The pair were great favourites of the NSDAP party leaders, reportedly reducing Adolf Hitler to tears.



Die Nibelungen is based on an epic poem written in the early 13th century in Middle High German, with basic motifs that are from oral traditions going back as far as the 5th or 6th centuries AD. The plot, then, is certainly rich enough for Lang’s purposes, but he does not simply translate the poem into film; Siegfried is much more subtle than I expected it to be.

The poem exists in many forms (Siegfried’s doppelganger is called “Sigurd” in the Poetic Edda, the Old Norse equivalent); Lang chose to interpret the poem with as little emphasis on fantasy as possible, and focused his camera on the peculiarities of personality that must be present in the epic, were the characters to behave like real people.

This doesn’t mean to say that Siegfried requires no suspension of disbelief, but that the more fantastic elements of the story are almost shrugged aside, to allow for important plot development. The plot is neatly tied up at the end of the film; only one important loose thread remains, and that serves to introduce the second film. Certain cyclical motifs make for a satisfying ending to the story, and lend it that sort of importance one finds in fairy tales: if a motif repeats itself, that repetition bears some meaning, in this case making a point about the personality of the main character, Siegfried. In my opinion, were Hitler and Goebbels inclined to subtlety, they would not have enjoyed this film, an observation that could be supported by Lang’s move to the United States in 1934; Lang did not seem to back the Nazi party, nor share its sympathies.

Throughout Lang’s filmography, his favoured method of introducing characters is through a vignette, instantly giving the audience a complex picture of a character that they can then build on. He does not use the technique very frequently in Siegfried to allow for confusion and uncertainty; the audience, if it is a perceptive one, will not have a decided opinion about any of the main characters until the film ends, and beyond, for Kriemhild’s personality does not solidify at all. Only Brünhild is presented with a vignette, as her character must be sketched quickly before it is allowed to develop in the second half of the film.

The part of Siegfried is played by Paul Richter, a shining, golden-coloured example of classic Aryan aesthetics, who liberally showers everything in his path with masculinity and dominance. The same actor is completely emasculated in an earlier Lang film, Doktor Mabuse, as the young, quite normal and a bit goofy Lord Hull, who loses his head over a dancing girl. Richter is a talented actor, but very limited to silent films; he would not have done well in the less exaggerated world of “talkies”.

King Gunther, played by Theodor Loos, would not appear so critically weak-willed if he were not surrounded by uncommonly dominant men; he is a normal man who is not fit for rule, but who must rule nonetheless. The intricacies of his character come from his normalcy; he does not belong in an epic.

To fully understand the character of Hagen von Tronje (Hans Adelbert von Schlettow), it might be necessary to watch Kriemhilds Rache. In Siegfried, his personality is never fully resolved; his motivations are left unclear. In my opinon, this is deliberate, as his character seems to be tightly interwound with that of Siegfried.

Brünhild (Hanna Ralph) is a woman whose immense strength of character and constitution is betrayed by the weakness of the social position of her sex. Ralph does a wonderful portrayal of Brünhild’s impenetrable madness; the audience is left with no certainty about the character’s motivations, although there are some psychological facts that are made quite clear. Brünhild is the most interesting character in Siegfried, in my opinion.

King Gunther’s sister Kriemhild (played by Margarete Schoen), the naïve and initially foolish foil to Brünhild, comes into emotional power by the end of the film; her mildness and weakness (traits that initially attracted the attention of Siegfried) are destroyed.

The  acting is not particularly subtle, but it is good; the characters’ complex personalities are built from simple emotions that the actors capture. Lang chose his actors well, and although the leading women are not beautiful by modern standards, their faces recall an ancient standard of beauty.

Although the cut of the fabrics and the set design suggest the era in which the poem was written, the patterns of the fabrics remind the audience of the era in which the film was made: art deco, geometrical designs are ubiquitous. Although the sets in this film are not as beautiful nor impressive as for some other Lang films, they were obviously designed with care and were costly.

The special effects, as in all Lang films, are executed with a degree of elegance that makes them seem much more advanced technically than they really are.

The film at certain points suffers from an unintentional closeness, claustrophobia caused by certain sets and camera angles; the dragon-killing scene, for example, is not as grand as it could be. It’s somehow more “realistic” (ignoring the presence of  a dragon) that fighting in a small clearing would feel claustrophobic. This could have been on purpose, for a number of thematic reasons, but you would have to see the film first before I’d discuss them with you, else spoil the ending.

After a slow start, the film dove into the psychology of its main players and became fascinating. The advantage to this is that the film is unexpectedly rich, but the downside is that the richness is by necessity delayed until Siegfried arrives at Gunther’s court, which makes for more than half an hour of plot establishment and introduction.

It is an excellent film, and should be of particular interest to those fond of epic poetry and oral tradition, as Lang’s reinterpretation is psychologically sound, but does not dispute the basic turn of events nor the fantastic elements of the poem. It is a humanistic re-imagining, rather than a historical one.

Kriemhilds Rache

(Review when I can find a copy.)


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