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Fritz Lang's Die Nibelungen

February 17th, 2009 (12:43 am)

Die Nibelungen - Siegfried was made in 1924, and is perhaps the most involving silent film I've seen. I don't know Wagner's Ring cycle so had no preconceptions about the story. Lang's film depicts a Siegfried who has a lot in common with the Perceval of mediaeval Arthurian legend, naively pursuing goals which he does not fully understand. Mime, his blacksmith-tutor, predicts when Siegfried sets off from his home of Xanten that he will never reach his goal, the Burgundian capital of Worms, but he does so because he triumphs over challenges without knowing enough to be afraid of them. He slays a superbly-executed dinosaur-like dragon, drinks its blood out of curiosity, gains the power to understand birdsong and so is advised by a bird to bathe in the dragon's blood and so gain invincibility; he subsequently vanquishes the king of the Nibelungs and gains their treasure, again without understanding the forces with which he is dealing. He then subdues twelve kingdoms, rather as Britain supposedly built its empire, in a fit of absence of mind.

Reaching Worms, he finds the Burgundians ruled by the ineffective King Gunther and his adviser Hagen, a man rarely without his winged helmet. Siegfried asks for the hand of Gunther's sister Kriemhild but first agrees to go to Iceland to win its queen, Brunhild, for Gunther's wife. Brunhild and Hagen are the only characters to wear chainmail, rather than the late Roman-influenced costume followed by the Burgundian court; they are out of step with the court's ideals but are more effective because they are willing to lie to achieve their objectives and also admit to themselves and others that they have lied; at the core of the tragedy is the deception engineered by Siegfried to make Gunther appear strong enough to have won Brunhild's hand. At the end of the film Brunhild is dead through suicide; Siegfried is dead through betrayal, having made enemies through having neither guile nor humility; Hagen has secured control of his king once more, though Gunther is a broken man; and Kriemhild has discovered new strength in widowhood, a strength drawn not only from a desire for vengeance but also from her cause being God's. A court of young people have been let down by their elders - the manipulative Hagen, the withdrawn and excessively contemplative Queen Ute and perhaps also the warrior queen Brunhild, who unlike Gunther, Kriemhild or Siegfried is a full adult through having no parent to keep her in tutelage. There's a unity of vision in the film which is very successful, and I look forward to part two.


Posted by: foradan (foradan)
Posted at: February 17th, 2009 08:12 am (UTC)

The first section sounds like it is based on Wagner (or on the Eddas, which Wagner bases his story on), but the second part (with the Burgundians) is more based on the Nibelungenlied, which is a medieval German version of the same story with all the gods, magic and monsters removed, and is the source of the German version of the names even for Wagner.

As an aside, the bypass road than loops around modern Worms is known as the Niebelungenringen.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: February 17th, 2009 10:54 pm (UTC)

I suspect that Lang was keen to avoid the suggestion that he was directly borrowing from Wagner... though my more musical hosts thought some of the music reminiscent.

I shall pass on your information on the Worms bypass...

Posted by: Марья (dreiviertel)
Posted at: February 17th, 2009 10:31 am (UTC)

I really like this film - admittedly it is a child of its time, but I like the way it exposes the glaring modernity of most "medieval" movies of our own time. And it is refreshing to see certain visual and narrative elements still used freely without the stigma of Nazism attached to them.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: February 17th, 2009 11:05 pm (UTC)
Arthurian Logo

The dedication is 'To the German People', and I read into it a story relating to Germany's defeat in the war, of idealistic youth let down by elders. This is a flawed interpretation, after all; Siegfried is hardly guiltless as he learns only imperfectly from his experiences.

I noticed the late Roman influences on costume and design (though Brunhild [at least when we first meet her] and Hagen wear the costume of a later period) but one of the friends with whom I watched it emphasised the Bauhaus elements in the sets (which I wouldn't have noticed). The dragon was superb, complete with poison dripping from its mouth, and a realistic eye to be gouged by Siegfried's sword. We thought that the film had to be known to Messrs Gilliam and Jones, as there were some foreshadowings of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Posted by: Марья (dreiviertel)
Posted at: February 18th, 2009 12:21 am (UTC)

The Pythons must have known it - and both their films are a brilliant illustration of the fact that you don't have to splash out on CGI and fancy animation if you know what you are doing - you can still have impressive special effects even if the range of materials is limited.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: February 18th, 2009 12:58 am (UTC)

Very true. I'm looking forward to seeing the second part (as currently arranged) of Die Nibelungen the week after next.

Posted by: The Two Trees (arda_unmarred)
Posted at: February 18th, 2009 02:37 am (UTC)
Looking Out

From when I watched it a few years ago I remember thinking the designs were very Art Deco, but maybe I'm misremembering (or confusing it with Metropolis). I have to confess Lang's films don't take my breath away, give me Chaplin any day :-)

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: February 18th, 2009 10:23 am (UTC)

'Art Deco' was my thought, too, certainly in terms of the palace interiors; and the exteriors, too, are very 1930s, though my first reaction was to think of them as late Roman - they reminded me a little of the mausoleum of Theodoric at Ravenna, particularly its roof.

Posted by: widsidh (widsidh)
Posted at: February 17th, 2009 07:00 pm (UTC)

I am not familiar with Wagner's version either, but I know the Nordic and German versions of the stories.

I love these films (originally a trilogy, later restored to to parts) - pretty much all I've seen of Fritz Lang's (admittedly not that much) has taken my breath away.

It's a while since I've seen the film(s), but I seem to remember that there is an element of mockery in them of the "genre" itself. Siegfried is just that bit *too* blond and heroic, and Hagen just *so* much the villain, physically.
By 1924 national romanticism had long lost its innocence, and I'm sure Lang is making some subtle commentary, quite aside from telling a good story...

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: February 17th, 2009 11:10 pm (UTC)

I think that this is the first Lang I've seen - perhaps shamefully, I've never actually seen Metropolis.

I wasn't sure whether there was an element of mockery or not - the warrior maidens who accompanied Brunhild did have the air of boarding school girls on the last day of term, or perhaps (more cruelly) the girls St Trinian's didn't want.

Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: February 18th, 2009 01:38 pm (UTC)

I've never actually seen Metropolis.

That may need to be remedied :-)

'To the German People'

Presumably like the rather prominent inscription on the Reichstag building in Berlin...

Posted by: widsidh (widsidh)
Posted at: February 18th, 2009 01:41 pm (UTC)

do'h - wasn't signed in.
Trying again.

I've never actually seen Metropolis.

That may need to be remedied :-)

'To the German People'

Presumably like the rather prominent inscription on the Reichstag building in Berlin...

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: February 18th, 2009 01:42 pm (UTC)

Isn't there a new extended version of Metropolis about, after footage excised decades ago, but which was included in Lang's original cut, was found in South America?

Posted by: widsidh (widsidh)
Posted at: February 18th, 2009 01:50 pm (UTC)

If it's the one I've seen, it is not that new a find - must be nigh on 20 years ago by now. That one had English titles and was 3h long, and I a lot better than the short German version.

Can you get your hands on a copy?

PS It was also shown with live music...sweet memory

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: February 18th, 2009 01:53 pm (UTC)

I've checked online - a print reportedly surfaced in Argentina last year which contains the missing footage, lost since the first re-edit for American consumption. It's not been restored or released yet.

Posted by: wellinghall (wellinghall)
Posted at: February 18th, 2009 08:50 am (UTC)

Thanks for the recommendation!

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: February 18th, 2009 10:30 am (UTC)

My pleasure! One thing which I didn't comment upon was Siegfried's progress from the magical world to the non-magical. He is first seen learning to be a smith among dwarves, and then in the magical forest realm of Alberich from whom he wins the Nibelung treasure. We are only told of the wars in which he subdues twelve other kings, and then at Worms Christian symbols abound and the supernatural appears tamed. Brunhild has a pagan prophetess in Iceland, so perhaps the voyage to meet her has elements of re-engagement with the magical; on her arrival at Worms the priest who is to marry her seems to exorcise her too, and she is seen to flinch from the cross.

Posted by: wellinghall (wellinghall)
Posted at: February 18th, 2009 11:28 am (UTC)

It just gets better ...