Though not a huge box office hit when first released in 1924, and the subject of some controversy in the intervening years, Fritz Lang’s two-part, five-hour long, epic silent film Die Nibelungen is finally beginning to enjoy a reputation as one of the celebrated German directorâs finest works, along with Metropolis, M, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse and The Big Heat.
A fantastic restored print of Langâs entire film is now released as part of Eureka’s superlative Masters of Cinema series on DVD and Blu-ray for the first time in the UK. Looking at the film today it is clear that Die Nibelungenâs extraordinary sets, classic themes and uninhibited aspiration are the foundation for every fantasy style film that has subsequently followed in its wake, including John Boormanâs Excalibur, George Lucasâ Star Wars and Peter Jacksonâs Lord Of The Rings.
Lang and his then second wife Thea von Harbou wrote the script based upon many versions of Das Nibelungenlied, an epic poem originally composed sometime in the twelfth or thirteenth century, including Friedrich Hebbelâs mid-nineteenth century play, Die Nibelungen, and, though Lang loathed his music and anti-Semitic views, Richard Wagnerâs famous opera. For Lang and von Harbou, the fact that the story had been told so many times confirmed its durable dramatic ability to evoke German patriotism.
In Part One, Siegfried, the pictureâs eponymous hero (Paul Richter), a noble buccaneer with the objective of marrying King Gunther (Theodor Loos) of Burgundy’s conceited, detached sister, Kriemhild (Margarethe Schon). On route to Burgundy, Siegfried slays a dragon. Bathing in the dragonâs blood makes Siegfried invincible, apart from a small area upon his shoulder where a lime leaf falls and covers his skin. Further on his journey, Siegfried kills dwarf king Alberich (Georg John), then takes possession of his cloak of invisibility and purloins his vast treasure trove. At King Guntherâs behest, in order to obtain his blessing for Siegfried marrying Kriemhild, an unwise encounter ensues with the fearsome Icelandic warrior queen Brunhild (Hanna Ralph), in which the gallant hero tries to win Brunhildâs hand for the ineffectual and morally weak Gunther.
In Part Two, Kriemhilds Rache (Kriemhildâs Revenge) the reprehensible Lord Hagen Tronje (Hans Adalbert Schlettow) steals Siegfried’s treasure, which prompts the grief stricken and vengeful Kriemhild to marry Atilla the Hun, instigating a revenge plot that will enlist his armed forces climaxing in mass butchery, blazing inferno and one of the most invigorating and petrifying closing sequences in the annals of early cinema.
A foundation stone of German culture, probably most famously adapted into Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Lang began Die Nibelungen in 1922 as an attempt to honor the shattered country and shore up its deteriorating self-esteem during its forlorn post-World War I period. Patrick McGilligan, in his definitive 1997 biography of Lang, The Nature Of The Beast, relates that Die Nibelungen had a disastrous premiere, during which the arch perfectionist Lang was still editing the later reels of the picture even as the previous spools continued to play to the audience. Many critics were uncomfortable both with its overt patriotism, which some claimed was bordering upon nationalism, and with, for its time, the filmâs extreme violence.
With disheartening inexorableness, Die Nibelungen was later acclaimed by the Nazis: the National Socialist newspaper Der Angriff described the film as “a film of German loyalty.” Goebbels praised it during a speech at the Kaiserhof on 28th March 1933, and in the same year Part One would be re-released as âSiegfrieds Todâ with a voice over by King Gunther actor, Theodor Loos. Significantly, the final subsidence of the picture for the duration of Part Two into a cycle of vicious bedlam and full blown nihilism was completely beyond the pale for what the Nazis wished to derive for propaganda purposes from Langâs magnificent work.
It is worth noting how incredible it was that Lang managed to produce a picture that was too dark for the Nazi party and that his uncompromising vision of Siegfried, Kriemhild and the odious Burgundians was all too acute. During Hitlerâs rule the film was only ever shown in a curtailed form. The problematic, for the Nazis, second half was withdrawn from exhibition. Lang understandably detested the shortened version. The master storyteller was further enraged when another abbreviated version was released in America and used Wagner’s opera as the score (surprisingly, Lang was no fan of any classical music) but particularly reviled Wagner), rather than the remarkable soundtrack composed by Gottfried Huppertz. When Lang was courted with the offer of being the Third Reichâs âFuhrer of Filmâ, the âMaster of Darknessâ took flight from Germany in 1934, first for Paris and then Hollywood, where his distinguished career would continue until 1960.
Lang was repeatedly required to protect the film until the end of his life. In one of his final interviews in 1976, he told The Village Voiceâs Gene Phillips, âTo counteract the pessimistic spirit of the time I wanted to film this great legend so that Germany could draw inspiration from her epic past, not… as a looking forward to the rise of a political figure like Hitler or something stupid of that sort. I was dealing with Germany’s legendary heritage – just as in Metropolis, I was looking at Germany in the future.”
Patrick McGilligan describes Die Nibelungen in The Nature of The Beast as “one of the breathtaking wonders of the silent screen.â In all its beautiful and fearsome two-part, five-hour long glory, as presented in this incredible Eureka DVD/Blu-ray edition â featuring a spectacular new HD restoration, immaculately presented in the film’s original frame rates and aspect ratio withnewly translated English subtitles for the original German intertitles – Die Nibelungen definitely lives up to McGilliganâs claim. The art direction, costumes by Acnne Willkomm (which effortlessly blend medieval and modern elements) and staging are simply fantastic. Siegfried’s world of dragons, ogres and dwarfs is rendered on a convincing and panoramic scale, while the scenes of Siegfriedâs journey through the misty forest possess a semi religious quality.
Die Nibelungen confirms that Lang was one of the greatest and most influential directors of the 20th century.
All words by Ian Johnston. More Louder Than War articles by Ian can be read here.