This five hour silent era epic in two parts is a striking cinematic rendering of one of Germany’s greatest national myths: that of Siegfried the dragon slayer – a poem from pre-Christian Germanic folklore, and a myth that’s more usually associated with the lengthy Viking and dwarf-populated operas of Richard Wagner and, for a time, came to be uncomfortably connected with National Socialist Party propaganda in the 1930s when the film was singled out for praise by Joseph Goebbels. But, in the early 1920s, the two parts of this dramatized legend constituted the German film industry’s post-war popularist attempt, during the culturally fertile but inflation-wracked era of the Weimar Republic, to compete with the sort of grandiose large-scale Hollywood epics then epitomised by works such D. W. Griffith’s ambitious three-and-a-half-hour 1916 production of “Intolerance” – itself one of the silent cinema’s earliest efforts to engage with a world of ideas that extended beyond the act of pure narrative storytelling. The director assigned this project -- dedicated in its opening title card ‘to the German People’ -- was the Austrian-born Fritz Lang; his co-screenwriter, the aristocratic former actress turned writer Thea von Harbou, who would also successfully collaborate with the likes of F. W. Murnau and Carl Dreyer, but who was soon to become indelibly associated with Lang’s spectacular Ufa films of this period, and for her conversion to the Nazi cause Lang was eventually to flee.
In 1924 both still worked under the auspices of Ufa’s head of production Erich Pommer, and were riding the wave of the enormous success achieved by their previous four-and-a-half-hour collaboration, “Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922)”. That two-part adaptation had been the culmination of its director’s artful employment of a stylised visual vocabulary known as expressionism, after it was first applied to film a few years previously in Robert Wiene’s “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1920) and subsequently brought to bear on Norbert Jacques’ pulp creation in combination and in tension with a mise-en-scène that saw the technique’s patina of shadowy decadence draping Lang's production’s opulent set designs and elaborate art direction. “Die Nibelungen” slots neatly between the Mabuse films and Lang’s masterpiece of the German silent era, “Metropolis”: across two connected works made by the same crew, each clocking in at a prodigious two-hand-a-half-hours in length with the second part still in production on the expansive lots of Potsdam’s NeuBabelsberg Film Studio even as the first film -- “Siegfried” -- was opening to great reviews in Germany’s cinemas, Lang’s grand visual sense and von Harbou’s taste for the exotic were allowed full expression by Pommer, in an ambitious example of spectacle cinema which anticipates the Bankruptcy-inducing extravagances of “Metropolis” which were very soon to engulf Pommer’s reign at Ufa in scandalous financial turmoil.
Despite inevitably gearing itself towards the parochial expectations of German audiences, who would be instantly familiar with the film’s mythos and attuned to its patriotic references and significance for German culture, designed as the film was to elicit a restorative sense of national pride in the face of the nation’s recent defeat in the Great War, the previous international success of “Dr Mabuse” also ensured that “Siegfried” was eagerly snapped up by foreign distributors. Lang actually shot the film with two cameras at once from slightly differing angles, and many scenes were also repeated several times in order to be able to furnish enough negatives to meet the demand for distribution copies (this is because the copying process took a toll on the negative with each copy made), leading to slightly different variants being produced for different countries. The film even played in Britain (distributor Wilcox even secured one of the original negatives from German handlers Decla-Bioscop), albeit with an added prologue to explain the context of the opening scenes in terms that played up their fairy tale elements as opposed to the nationalistic sentiment. Nevertheless, the version now restored in HD by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiffung and released to Blu-ray disc, here, by Eureka Entertainment as part of their Masters of Cinema imprint, attempts to re-create as closely as possible the version of the film originally released to German cinemas in 1924.
Today, the first part of this five-hour spectacle is easily the most accessible for a modern audience; its enchanted imagery, with its awe inspiring sets, and art direction which largely draws on the mythical, ruin-haunted landscapes of Swiss Symbolist painter Arnold Böcklin, fitting easily with the template of imagery familiar to us from the modern fantasy cinema of the “Lord of the Rings” variety, while Gottfried Huppertz’s magisterial score, full of undulating emotional peaks and troughs and melodic sophistication, is of a character equally indicative of that style of film-making, only on an even more impressive scale. Lang was attempting to push beyond the material’s inherent association with Wagnerian imagery, and both the score and the look of the film in particular were carefully engineered with a view to re-moulding Siegfried’s adventures in a language more suitable to cinema -- and it’s a language which still resonates today, apart from Lang’s use of a static camera throughout (noticeable now, but at the time a completely normal aspect of cinema), which gives the entire five hour opus the aesthetic feel of a moving frieze of meticulously composed fantastical images -- as though Böcklin’s work had been brought to life with a magic spell.
To realise the landscapes of a timeless heroic legend for the screen, Lang once again called upon the rampart of technical genius and talent whose amazing work previously graced “Dr Mabuse”: Otto Hunte’s dream-like magic forest set, built, like many the film’s various settings, on the grounds of Neubabelsberg because it was too big for the studio itself, is a wondrous creation composed of huge, concrete-made tree trunks forming a shroud-like canopy through which shards of sunlight are made to glint off of the gauzy ground mist by the great Carl Hoffmann’s luminous cinematography; Erich Kettelhut’s creation of a giant dragon for Siegfried’s battle with the mythical monster is both charmingly naive and of its time yet an amazing feat of engineering: a ‘life-size’ fire-breathing model, worked by six crew members encased inside the main body and moved along from beneath by a fleet of technicians underneath the soundstage!
A modern audience will also feel right at home with the hero-centric nature of Siegfried’s person and the "Star Wars-like" quest he sets out on. The first part of the film is essentially arranged around the same basis as a superhero origins story, which explains how the central character gains his amazing powers. Siegfried starts the story as a sort of privileged Bruce Wayne type. He’s the strapping, good-looking son of King Siegmund of Xanten but has been apprenticed to the underground workshop of a troglodyte swordsmith who dwells in the woodlands between the great kingdoms. While on a quest to claim the hand of the princess of Burgundy (someone he’s only ever heard about from the tales told to him by his co-workers at the forge), who lives in a great city on the Rhine with her brother, King Gunther, Siegfried encounters a dragon in an enchanted wood and gains the rather handy, Superman-like power of invulnerability to all injury after bathing in its blood, having defeated it in battle. But like Superman, he has one weakness: a spot on his back which was not bathed in the blood of the vanquished beast because a leaf from a lime tree clung there. Siegfried then encounters Alberich, King of the Dwarfs, who guards the treasure of the giants of the Northlands with the aid of a grotto of dwarf workers. Thus, Siegfried becomes not only all-powerful, but fantastically rich too boot, after he defeats the deceitful Dwarf king, and his minions turn to stone.
But these recognisably contemporary story qualities, so redolent of the modern superhero, also clash with another not so happy characteristic of Siegfried’s portrayal, which appears to make the film slightly more problematic for the modern viewer: played by the young Austrian actor Paul Richter, Siegfried is an example of what one critic later termed ‘immaculate Aryan picture-book beauty’. Lang’s imagery at the start of the film highlights Siegfried’s toned body, dynamically flexed in the act of toiling over the smelting of the perfectly forged sword he’s been trained to make, with his tousled blonde hair and chiselled features making for an uneasy contrast with the grotesquely hirsute ape-like wild men this exemplar of royal lineage dwells among in dark caverns during his apprenticeship. The king of the dwarfs, Alberich, is similarly hunched and exaggerated in his monstrous features (both Mime the swordsmith and Alberich were played by the same actor, Georg John) and in retrospect we know that not only did Goebbels try to appropriate the film as an example of approved Nazi art, but that such images of ‘healthy’ Germanic physical excellence as are embodied in Richter’s form, were copied and reproduced throughout subsequent National Socialist propaganda.
With that truth inescapably in one’s mind, it’s easy to fall into the idea as we watch the film that the grovelling, distorted features of every low being Siegfried encounters during his stay in the forest are meant to be read as a caricature of Jewishness. This is a reading which applies only in light of what we know followed though, for, as superheroes go, Siegfried turns out to be rather an arrogant little so-and-so, filled with the reckless abandon of callow youth. Lang and von Harbou, despite intending the film as a means of gathering national sentiment around one of Germany’s most treasured myths, seems to have deliberately or otherwise accentuated the fact that a young man with little experience of life such as Siegfried, who suddenly lucks into possession of such life-changing powers, is probably inevitably going to turn out to be rather immature and imperfect as a human being. With his superpowers and untold wealth (as well as a magic net which gives him the power of invisibility and a means of disguising himself as any person he wishes), not to mention the earthly power that comes of being transformed after his acquisition of the Nibelungen treasure into the leader of twelve mighty kings, the character isn’t actually all that sympathetic, and brings much of the tragedy which follows, upon himself. The fact is that all the talk of destiny and the air of fate which hangs around the characters in the film through premonitory dreams of impending disaster etc., seem to be a prophetic warning from Lang about the dangers of attempting to make a life-affirming mythology into a reality. This film was after all, made in the aftermath of German defeat in the Great War. In the film, Siegfried is motivated in his initial quest by hearing stories of the great beauty of Kriemhild, the princess of Burgundy (Margarete Schön), which are shown to us as they are relayed to Siegfried by the forge workers. But then we see Kriemhild herself, residing in the fortified turret-topped palace of the Burgundians, also hearing tales related to her in song by court musician Volker von Alzey (Bernhard Goetzke) of the dragon-slaying adventures of Siegfried the great hero.
So each of these central characters is a myth to the other, but things go pear-shaped once they actually meet, fall in love and Siegfried is catapulted out of his airy-fairy world of dragons and magic forests into a duplicitous world of court politics. Persuaded to use his powers to help Kriemhild’s brother King Gunther (Theodor Loos) in his efforts to court a warlike queen who resides in the craggy kingdom of Iceland, surrounded by defences of fire, and who is required to marry whoever can defeat her in a threefold test of strength, Siegfried’s fate is sealed by the conspiratorial efforts of the vanquished queen Brunhild (Hanna Ralph) -- who becomes angry about the trickery used by Siegfried and King Gunther to force her into wedlock -- and the manipulations of Guther’s one-eyed chief warrior Hagen von Tronje (Hans Adalbert Schlettow), who has that one eye of his on the Nibelungen treasure.
Sclettow and Ralph provide the film’s two most compelling performances as the villains of the piece, with the black-cloaked Ralph in particular convincingly transforming herself progressively into a cackling wicked witch as the film moves toward its climax, while Sclettow’s turn as the implacable, bearded warrior presence, always at his master’s side while conniving to have the Burgundy kingdom profit from the inheritance of Siegfried’s treasure -- kept stored in an underground cavern on the banks of the frozen Rhine -- sets up the dark turn taken by the second instalment, “Kriemhild’s Revenge”. Interestingly, although “Siegfried” tells only half the legend and was a success at the German box office, its follow-up was somewhat less well-received and suffered from hasty last minute revisionist editing from Lang, which left some of its climactic scenes of fiery conflagration looking incoherent.
The second part is a pretty relentlessly doom-laden affair that makes “The Empire Strikes Back” look like a sit-com as it tells of the widowed Kriemhild’s determined efforts to exact revenge on the warrior Hagen for his plot against Siegfried. The imagery is darker and the geometric patterns adorning the set design of the palaces and court squares of the Burgundians in the form of tapestries and decorative designs now cloak Kriemhild’s shroud-like costuming, transforming her from the white, blonde, angelic fairy tale princess vision of the first film into something that’s more akin to the brooding presence of her nemesis, Queen Brunhild -- with piercing unsmiling eyes intent on avenging her betrayed spouse, even if it means the eventual fall of her brother’s empire, which has been now transformed into a fanciful kingdom of Aryan demigods by Hagen’s deceitful acquisition of the Nibelungen treasure.
It feels somewhat odd, given the events of the first film, to suppose that we’re now expected to side with Gunther and Kriemhild’s brothers in their attempts to defend Hagen from the wrath of Siegfried’s widow, yet that’s the course this Shakespeare-like tragedy follows as it heads towards a grim visual litany of carnage and destruction, in which just about everyone is to die as a consequence of Kriemhild’s deranged quest for revenge at all costs. Just as Kriemhild takes on the appearance of the female villain of “Siegfried”, so her surroundings start to mimic the underground netherworld inhabited by her husband at the start of the first instalment, when he was shown in Mime’s forge in the forest. Kriemhild’s plot for revenge is a long game which involves her travelling across the wilderness of the steppes to the kingdom of Attila the Hun, installing herself as his queen and giving him a son, then demanding he swear (“on the sword, not the Cross!”) to kill Hagen for her.
The physical portrayal of Attila and the hordes of the Hun once again might be seen as grotesque racial stereotyping: Attila’s gold trinket festooned cave-like dwelling establishes the race as primitive, warlike underground dwellers, and the striking make-up of Otto Genath renders Lang’s regular leading man Rudolf Klein-Rogge completely unrecognisable in the role of Attila, with a misshapen balloon-like head and gargoyle features that put his performance on a par with that of Karloff’s as Frankenstein’s Monster for its ability to transcend the restricting nature of such all-enveloping prosthetics in conveying the humanity of the character beneath a monstrous physiognomy. Yet it is ultimately Attila who comes off here as the only really sympathetic character in the whole five hour grand extravaganza of visual showboating; the warlord is made to pay a heavy price for his devotion to his white-skinned queen and her cause – being unwillingly embroiled in a vicious and hopeless war, seeing the fall of his kingdom and the death of his only son by the sword of Kriemhild’s greatest enemy, Hagen, while he’s a guest in Attila's home.
While the atmosphere conjured for “Siegfried” was one of fairy tale enchantment, filled with exploits involving fantastical magic, heroism and adventure, here all-encompassing hatred and torrid scenes of war and battle-death fill most of the runtime. Lang stages what were at the time the biggest battle scenes ever filmed in the history of German cinema, and the last hour consists of almost nothing but wall-to-wall battle scenes and slaughter. Even so, it’s a much tougher watch than its predecessor: the static camera renders a lot of the action somehow inert, despite the frame being constantly crammed with action and Huppertz’s score rising to ever-more delirious crescendos. Lang’s ambitious finale involved his simply filming the destruction of the entire Babelsberg set, burning it down and filming the razed spectacle with a fleet of fire engines on standby should the inferno start to get out of control. It’s an astonishing sight – with one of the earliest utilisations of night-time photography enhancing its realism to unprecedented levels. Despite all this, the film was less successful than the first instalment and was unsympathetically edited, especially in its journey abroad. Yet one cannot deny the raw spectacle and the technical feats of cinematic extravagance Lang and his accomplished crew managed to bring about across the whole span of this epic feature. Every ten minutes or so there’s at least one astonishing, memorable sequence or shot that reminds one just how industrious Fritz Lang was in demanding excellence at all times from his cast and crew. Actor Hans Adalbert Schlettow tells tales of screaming matches with the director when his exhaustion on set during the long, demanding, action-heavy days led Lang to believe he wasn’t committed enough in his performance. With its scenes of wild fantasy, exquisite geometric production design and apocalyptic conflagration, we can see presentiments of the genius of Lang’s next project, “Metropolis”: the film in which his fantastical imagination would be unleashed to its fullest extent yet. “Die Nibelungen” is a flawed spectacle but it’s an important one, both for the development of fantasy cinema (in which it is a landmark without which there couldn’t have been a “Star Wars”) and as a staging post in the development of Lang’s full expression of the strain of dark dystopian fantasy he was about to unleash on world cinema and sci-fi.
This high definition transfer takes levels of detail and contrast to unheard of levels of excellence. Of course, the varied history of the film means that the print seen here has had to be assembled from a patchwork of recovered camera negatives and damaged prints, with some bits necessarily taken from distribution copies (to try and re-create the original German cut) but which inevitably display less resolution than those which come from the original neg. Also, there are a few scenes which are scratched or damaged beyond total repair. But even so, the levels of detail achieved here are almost unbelievable. It looks amazing! Adding to the entrancing effect of the restored visuals, is the 5.1 Surround Sound rendering of Gottfried Huppertz’s score, which has been orchestrated using partially complete existing copies of the composer’s original notes wherever possible. The whole spectacle has been tinted gold-orange in its entirety, as was the film in its original release print.
This release from Masters of Cinema features two discs – two Blu-rays featuring each film instalment separately. There’s also a seventy-minute long documentary on the original production which also covers the issues surrounding the restoration of film, as well as the recovery and archiving of original design drawings and the discovery of a copy of the original score, enabling a close approximation of the intended orchestration. The German produced documentary goes into some detail on the distribution history of the film and the various different manifestations and edits shown around the world, as well as examining methods used in the effort to secure the most complete version for the restoration. The film also looks at how the film has been interpreted and re-interpreted against the tumultuous political and social backdrop in its homeland, re-cut and re-scored with motifs from Wagner during a nazi-approved 1933 sound version, for instance. There’s also a lengthy and authoritative booklet filled with essays and excerpts from various sources, including a paragraph by Michael Powell from an article in Film Comment, in which the great British filmmaker reminisces on first seeing the film in a Bournemouth theatre. All in all this is an impressive, context-rich treatment of another classic of silent cinema and well worth seeking out, especially by fans of Fritz Lang, who will see another fine example of the extravagant exoticism of his Weimar era cinema given a superb restoration in this handsome release.