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Fritz Lang is my favourite silent director - just edging ahead of Buster Keaton. A lot of silent film can be difficult to sit through, and I've even struggled with such sainted works as Murnau's Sunrise and DW Griffith's endless Intolerance. Lang's work is usually exciting and watchable, and while very of its time, it also feels immeasurably more modern than anything made at the same time by people like Chaplin or even Hitchcock.
I hadn't seen Die Nibelungen (1924) before, although there are a couple of very famous stills from it that get reprinted everywhere. I was always put off by the length (five hours!) so although I owned it on DVD for some years, I'd never even opened the box. When it came out on Blu-ray, in a newly restored edition, I finally gave it a go.
It's based on a medieval German epic poem, the Nibelungenlied. Siegfried is a mighty hero who slays a dragon and kills a villain named Alberich, stealing his treasure. He falls in love with Kriemhild, a princess in the city of Worms. Her brother Gunther, the king of Burgundy, has taken a shine to the Icelandic princess Brunhild, but she will only marry a man who can best her in various physical trials. Siegfried, who has the power of invisibility, agrees to trick Brunhild into marrying Gunther in return for Kriemhild's hand. All goes well at first, but inevitably Brunhild finds out the truth and connives with Hagen Kronje, Gunther's right hand man, to dispose of Siegfried. And that only takes us halfway through. The second half involves Kriemhild's rather unlikely marriage to Attila the Hun.
It's actually two films, 'Siegfried' and 'Kriemhild's Revenge', so it's not so daunting as you might think. And each of those films is broken up into a number of chapters (or 'Cantos'), so you can watch this over several days if you want to without really breaking the flow too much.
It's a much slower film than Metropolis, everyone's favourite Lang film; that's fast and frenetic. Die Nibelungen is a much more old-fashioned feeling epic, where each shot seems to last forever, and the plot advances very slowly. This isn't a problem - the film is so visually stylish that it manages to be fascinating even when little is happening, and I assume most of the audience in Germany at the time would be expected to know the story anyway. I was expecting it to follow the plot of Wagner's operas, but it's completely different apart from in a few details. There are no pagan gods here - Siegfried and the Burgundians are Christians, although they exist in a world of dragons and lakes of fire that seem to belong to older mythical traditions.
Siegfried's legendary deeds - his fight with the dragon, for instance - are over pretty quickly. The dragon itself looks kind of cute, like a big dinosaur, and in all honesty, seems to be happily minding its own business before Siegfried comes along. The special effect is a bit dodgy - there's no way those legs could support the bulk of its body! - but as one of the first giant monsters in film history, it deserves respect. Siegfried also fights Alberich the Nibelung and steals his treasure.
After that, though, he gets bogged down in tricking Brunhild on behalf of the weakling Gunther, and the plot becomes slower. The Burgundy castle and court are beautifully designed, having a lovely art deco feel. Just as Metropolis represents a very 1920s view of a future that never happened, so Die Nibelungen shows us a very 20s version of the past. The high-arched doorways and massive staircases of the castle are a nice counterpoint to the fairytale forests with their enormous tree trunks, and the teeming, distorted sets of Attila's kingdom.
The performances are very typical of the era. Characters stand around striking poses (often framed by huge doorways or thrones or whatnot), and facial expressions are all exaggerated. There are a couple of actors familiar from other Fritz Lang productions, including Rudolf Klein-Rogge, the mad scientist from Metropolis, here playing Attila (none of the supposedly Asian characters seem to be played by Asian actors). The women, Kriemhild and Brunhild, sadly look an awful lot like men in drag.
It's notable that Siegfried isn't a terribly sympathetic hero. He smiles a lot, but that doesn't make him likable. His main activities in the film involve tricking a Viking princess into believing the weakling Gunther has bested her in physical contest (which he hasn't). Later, Siegfried uses his transformation powers to impersonate Gunther on his wedding night to break Brunhild's spirit - it is difficult to see that as anything other than rape. It's an adaptation of a legend, and mythical heroes do things like that all the time, of course. Had Hollywood adapted this they'd have cut that bit and people would be moaning about lack of faithfulness to the original. But it does make our notional hero impossible to like, even if he hadn't already come across as a blond bully-boy who killed a perfectly harmless looking dragon for no reason.
Likewise, Kriemhild is a dour, miserable heroine. Her lust for revenge knows no bounds, and towards the end she stands around wearing fairly intense-looking black cloaks, looming like a statue as she demands vengeance. But it doesn't make her terribly sympathetic either. I found that I was identifying most with Attila the Hun, who actually seemed quite a decent sort, if a little excitable. His bald head is unrealistically large and square, though, and he has scars ion longer shots that tend to completely vanish in close-up.
As with a lot of silent films, it's the scale that's most impressive. Not satisfied with anything nature could offer, Fritz Lang had a forest built in the studio, with huge concrete trees. Later we see enormous buildings burned to the ground, an entire village of Huns, and a massive staircase, all of which would now be computer generated. Back then, they had to actually build it all. The sense of them doing things very differently in those days is enhanced by how dangerous some of it looks - falling, burning chunks of roof seem to land remarkably close to real live actors, although I guess there might be some visual trickery at play that I didn't notice. (The reflection of the cameraman's hand can be seen in a supposedly underwater shot).
Naturally, given the subject matter, the film was later adopted by the Nazis. It's difficult to see a film which ends with the Asiatic horde treacherously attempting to destroy the flower of Germanic manhood and not suspect that something a bit rum might be going on. Lang himself was certainly no Nazi - part-Jewish, he left the country when Hitler came to power - but his then-wife, who wrote the screenplay, stayed in Germany and may have had Nazi sympathies. Either way, Goebbels seems to have liked the film very much. One particular intertitle ("In the name of Siegfried, who was murdered and whose murderer lives," which is quoted on the back of the box) looks like it's crying out to be used as a slogan on a Nazi poster. It's almost obligatory to find foreshadowings of Nazism in Weimar German films, but here it would seem perverse not to.
This shouldn't really mar your enjoyment of the film. To my modern eye the Huns' chaotic society looks a lot more appealing than the sterile Burgundian court (they even have topless barmaids! In a PG film!). This is a splendid silent film which is overlong but holds the attention. As with all silent films, dialogue is conveyed by intertitles - these are in German, and the film is subtitled. There's also a stirring orchestral accompaniment, which unsurprisingly pastiches Wagner to good effect.
Given its age, this looks almost miraculously good on Blu-ray. There are the problems you always get with silent films - there are scratches and blobs throughout, the image flickers a bit sometimes, and there are a few shots that are quite heavily damaged compared to the rest (this has been pieced together from various surviving prints of the film). But the clarity is remarkable, the image is sharper than almost any other silent film I've seen on Blu-ray, and the yellow/orange tinting that's been applied to the film gives it a lovely, textured feel. A couple of shots had a hint of excessive digital smoothness, but only a couple, and that may have been in my head. This is the best silent Blu-ray I've seen so far.
There's a booklet with the disk, which contains excerpts from various older publications. The main extra is a lengthy 'making of' documentary, which covers production of the original, the ways in which it was used by Nazism, and also details of the restoration. It's in German, and subtitled, and is interesting enough to be worth watching at least once.
I'd always been a bit put off by Die Nibelungen - it felt a bit monumental to be fun. But while it isn't quite as frenetic as Metropolis or M, it's certainly damn good, and very watchable. It's great to see silent films getting this kind of high-quality HD upgrade, and this is definitely worth getting hold of.