- Die Nibelungen: Siegfried & Die Nibelungen: Kriemhild’s Revenge (1924) movie overview: Fritz Lang’s two-part semi-historical epic is a cinematic masterpiece.
Die Nibelungen: Siegfried & Kriemhild’s Revenge overview: Fritz Lang’s enthralling two-part silent epic tragedy is a world cinema masterwork
Based on the late 12th-/early 13th-century Germanic epic poem Nibelungenlied, itself inspired by an early medieval legend about the Burgundian royal family, Fritz Lang’s two-part Die Nibelungen – Siegfried and Kriemhild’s Revenge – is one (or two) of those movies I can enjoy many times without ever really understanding who’s who and what’s what. After all, this semi-historical fantasy/adventure epic is packed with intrigue, deceit, hatred, treachery, murder, and sex. And that’s just the basic storyline.
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 symmetrical 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 were both released in 1924, six years after Germany’s disastrous World War I defeat. Their respective narratives are detailed below.
Die Nibelungen: Siegfried
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’s 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.
Shortly after his arrival, Siegfried is asked to help Kriemhild’s brother, the ineffectual King Gunther (a believably limp Theodor Loos), defeat the Warrior Queen Brünhild of Iceland (Hanna Ralph) in some track and field events, so he can win 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 Burgundian suitor in any competition.
This turns out to be one of the best sequences in 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, 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 far bigger than life.
Kriemhild has been deceived and Siegfried is slain.
Die Nibelungen: Kriemhild’s Revenge
As its title makes clear, 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. He becomes overjoyed when she bears him a son, but the Queen uses the child as a bargaining chip in exchange for the King to keep his promise to slay the murderer of her beloved Siegfried.
Visually stunning fantasy
Die Nibelungen is a stunning visual treat. As a plus, not only has Fritz Lang’s epic been lovingly reconstructed and beautifully tinted, but Gottfried Huppertz’s original score (with new arrangements and instrumentation by Marco Jovic and Frank Strobel) – fully complements the action.
When my eyes were not feasting on Otto Hunte and Karl Vollbrecht’s production design and on the depth of focus of Carl Hoffmann and Günther Rittau’s cinematography (Walter Ruttmann was responsible for Siegfried’s “falcon dream” segment), I was in awe of the characters themselves.
That’s despite Paul Richter’s lack of dramatic presence, as his face seldom changes expression and his scrawny body hardly matches the image of the heroic Siegfried.
In all, Die Nibelungen works as sheer escapist fantasy. The story seems to be not only from another time and place but from another galaxy, while most of the acting feels strange and spooky – just as it should be.
Now, one element that I found particularly striking was the portrayal of the female characters in the screenplay by Fritz 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 power brokers 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 all but illegible. I only wish I could have read them.
Die Nibelungen: Siegfried / Die Nibelungen: Siegfrieds Tod (1924)
Die Nibelungen: Kriemhild’s Revenge / Die Nibelungen: Kriemhilds Rache (1924)
Director: Fritz Lang.
Screenplay: Fritz Lang & Thea von Harbou.
Based on the medieval epic poem Nibelungenlied.
Cast: Paul Richter. Margarete Schön. Rudolf Klein-Rogge. Hanna Ralph. Hans Adalbert Schlettow. Theodor Loos. Gertrud Arnold. Georg John. Hans Carl Mueller.
“Die Nibelungen: Siegfried + Kriemhild’s Revenge (1924) Movie Overview” endnotes
Paul Richter and Margarete Schön Die Nibelungen: Siegfried and Die Nibelungen: Kriemhild’s Revenge movie images: UFA | Kino Video.
“Die Nibelungen: Siegfried + Kriemhild’s Revenge: Powerful Women in Masterly Epic” last updated in September 2021.