'Die Nibelungen': Enthralling silent classic despite complex plot and countless characters
Based on the medieval epic poem Nibelungenlied, itself inspired by the early medieval Germanic saga about the Burgundian royal family, Fritz Lang's two-part Die Nibelungen is one of those movies I can enjoy many times without ever really understanding who's who and what's what. After all, the semi-historical, fantasy/adventure epic is packed with intrigue, treachery, deceit, hatred, murder, and sex. And that's just the basic plotline.
As seen in Kino's definitive two-disc edition, artistically and cinematically speaking Die Nibelungen contains some of the greatest visual compositions I've ever seen. Filmed mostly in long shots that frame the imaginative sets and high ceilings, each static shot is meticulously composed with such symmetry and balance that, even though Die Nibelungen takes the viewer through a mythical fantasia, we are completely grounded in this make-believe world.
Die Nibelungen's Part I and Part II – Siegfried and Kriemhild's Revenge – were both released in 1924, six years after Germany's disastrous World War I defeat. Their respective storylines are detailed below.
'Siegfried': Dragon slayer
Emboldened by a magic sword, Siegfried (pasty-faced blond Paul Richter) goes off to slay the dragon in the forest.
The beast is first seen lying in the sun and getting a drink from the river; he doesn't look particularly ferocious and he's not bothering anybody. Nevertheless, Siegfried comes along and punctures the poor creature with his sword, later bathing in the dragon's blood in order to become invincible.
Once that is out of the way, Siegfried meets with a dwarf creature of the forest, Alberich the Nibelung (Georg John), who hands him a magic helmet that renders its wearer invisible.
Now our hero can proceed to the city of Worms to ask in marriage the beautiful Kriemhild of Burgundy (Margarete Schön), a blonde with large, piercing eyes and long braids surrounding her head while falling into two long ropes on either side.
First, however, he must help the wimpy, ineffectual King Gunther (a believably limp Theodor Loos) defeat the Warrior Queen Brünhild of Iceland (Hanna Ralph) in some track and field events, thus winning the queen as his bride.
Not one to be defeated by a mere man, Brünhild – a frightening, formidable force with wild eyes, wild hair, and a wild face – is certain she can beat her suitor in any competition.
This turns out to be one of the best sequences in Die Nibelungen: Siegfried: King Gunther – it's hard to imagine him in any position of power – must beat Brünhild in the rock toss, long jump, and spear throw. But even though Brünhild is an Amazon of a woman who could beat the pants off a mouse like Gunther, she's no match for a superhero.
Siegfried dons his magic helmet, becomes invisible, and wins the match for Gunther. Defeated, Brünhild grudgingly marries the king while Siegfried is now free to marry his beloved Kriemhild.
There's one problem: Siegfried has an Achilles' heel spot where a tree leaf fell on him while he bathed in the dragon's blood. Thinking she would be saving her husband's life, Kriemhild, whose icy stare gave me chills, reluctantly reveals that secret to the king's advisor, Hagen Tronje (Hans Adalbert Schlettow).
Should she have trusted him? Hagen has a large, dark, ominous bearing, while sporting a dirty, scraggly beard. One eye is missing and seems to be rotting in the socket. To top it all, a huge winged helmet makes him look much bigger than life.
Unsurprisingly, Kriemhild has been deceived and Siegfried is slain.
As its title makes clear, Die Nibelungen: Kriemhild's Revenge is concerned with vengeance. Bereaved beyond belief following Siegfried's death, Kriemhild devises a complex plot of revenge and murder.
She goes to the Land of the Huns, populated by dark, hairy creatures with bizarre features. There she marries the infamous King Etzel a.k.a. Attila the Hun (Metropolis actor Rudolf Klein-Rogge), a grotesque little man with large eyes, a distorted face, and simian features.
His looks notwithstanding, King Etzel enjoys great power. Besides, he loves Kriemhild and would do anything for her, even murder.
He becomes overjoyed when Kriemhild bears him a son, but the Queen uses the child as a bargaining chip in exchange for Attila to keep his promise to take revenge on the man who killed her beloved Siegfried.
What a stunning visual treat is Die Nibelungen. As a plus, not only has Fritz Lang's epic been lovingly reconstructed and beautifully tinted, but Gottfried Huppertz's original music – synchronized by Marco Jovic and Frank Strobel – fully complements the action.
When my eyes were not feasting on the depth of focus of Carl Hoffmann and Günther Rittau's cinematography,* and on Otto Hunte and Karl Vollbrecht's production design, I was in awe of the characters themselves – despite Paul Richter's lack of dramatic presence, as his face seldom changes expressions and his scrawny body hardly matches the image of the heroic Siegfried.
Fantasy from another time, another place
For me, Die Nibelungen works as sheer escapist fantasy. The story seems to be not only from another time and place, but from another galaxy. In general, the acting feels spooky and strange, just as it should be.
Now, one element that I found particularly striking was the portrayal of the female characters found in the screenplay by Lang and his then wife, Thea von Harbou (formerly the wife of Rudolf Klein-Rogge). These are not your average sex kittens or evil vamps, but real powerbrokers who are forces to be reckoned with.
My only complaint about Kino's Die Nibelungen DVD transfer is that some of the English title cards were lost under the large gothic German titles, and were thus hardly legible. I only wish I could have read them.
* Walter Ruttmann was responsible for the “falcon dream” segment in Die Nibelungen: Siegfried.
Die Nibelungen: Siegfried / Die Nibelungen: Siegfrieds Tod (1924)
Die Nibelungen: Kriemhild's Revenge / Die Nibelungen: Kriemhilds Rache (1924)
Dir.: Fritz Lang.
Scr.: Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou.
Based on the medieval epic poem Nibelungenlied.
Cast: Paul Richter. Margarete Schön. Rudolf Klein-Rogge. Hanna Ralph. Theodor Loos. Hans Adalbert Schlettow. Georg John.
Hans Carl Mueller. Erwin Biswanger. Bernhard Goetzke. Rudolf Rittner. Gertrud Arnold. Fritz Alberti. Grete Berger. Iris Roberts.
Die Nibelungen movie cast info via the IMDb.
Paul Richter in image: UFA/Kino Video, via basvanstratum.nl.