Let’s get this out of the way before it becomes a problem: Siegfried is, by all appearances, a boring character. Perfect people always are. He’s handsome, physically fit (nigh indestructible), able to overcome any challenge, and eager to do so with a smile. What exactly is going on here? Could Lang, the ironist behind M, really be so Romantic? In part, the answer is yes. You can find an element of pure, unironic Romanticism in certain Lang films, such as his early serial The Spiders and his late-career nostalgia trip The Tiger of Eschnapur, and his screenwriter/wife, Thea van Harbou, who wrote his most classic silent films, took all the business about German pride very seriously. But if you look closer, you may see that Die Nibelungen is also a deceptively complex take on a national mythos. Because where this tale, which at first is one of the most uncharacteristic in Lang’s filmography, becomes truly Langian is the way this perfect man brings out the worst in people around him. In time, he will inspire Kriemhild’s pride, Brunhild’s lust (it’s subtle, but it’s there), and Gunther’s jealousy. And it’s almost inevitable when at last the title card comes repeatedly blaring up on screen—“Kill Siegfried!”—and for a moment, you could swear the film had sound.
Die Nibelungen (1924) is based on an old German legend, perhaps most famously adapted by Wagner, but deeply ingrained in German culture. In fact, the phrase “Nibelungentreue”, which describes the unquestioning loyalty between the kings and vassals of the story, was used before World War I to describe the alliance between Germany and Austria-Hungary. You’ll see that the film begins with a dedication, “For the German People”, and there is some scholarly debate as to whether or not this is a “straight” telling of the legend (as filled with Nationalist pride as it seems), or if it’s a work of Lang the modernist. Part of the confusion stems from the ways the film is split—van Harbou was an ardent Nationalist, and Lang was not—and even the way it was released. When they Nazis came to power, they re-released part I, Siegfried, in which a hero becomes invincible by bathing in the blood of his enemy and the militaristic spirit of medieval Germany is evoked with awe and grandeur, as a inspiring film of great German loyalty. As for part II, Kriemhild’s Revenge, where the magic is gone and everyone dies in a grimy bloodbath, they withdrew it. Even so, themes of Aryan pride and lustful conquest are unmistakable and blunt, and Lang, much to his chagrin, was dogged by questions to the end of his days on whether or not his film supported the Nazi ideology.
But as for touches of modernism and irony, there are plenty to be found. For starters, there are the characterizations, which are surprisingly nuanced. Siegfried, on the surface, looks like a straightforward matinee idol, the sort of adventure hero that the German people could cheer on as he slays dragons and acquires dwarf treasure. But going through the film again, I’m surprised at how much Siegfried’s innocence is close to naiveté. After all, isn’t his path through the film a headlong plunge? He assumes he can use his power to get whatever he wants, and seems blissfully unaware that consequences may come back to hurt him.
And then there’s Attila, played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge (always a villain for Lang). He is on the surface barbaric and ugly, a fantasy of a non-Aryan. And yet, rather than cruel or villainous, the film’s treatment of him is surprisingly tender. Lang, of course, has a track record for finding sympathy in villains, and here, Attila scarcely deserves the title of “villain”. In fact, he seems far less cold and harsh than the Germanic heroes of the film, and I would argue that his reaction to the death of his son registers as the most relatable emotional response in the film. It’s like the Burgundian army are automatons, designed to go down fighting, where Attila not only feels, but feels for a very sympathetic reason. Watch his happiness when his son is brought to the banquet…
…and his sadness after his son is killed…
…and try to convince yourself that this barbarian isn’t one of the most expressively human individuals in the entire film.
Another element that critics like to point out is the film’s use of narration, the way stories within stories self-consciously address the idea of myths. For instance, Siegfried and Kriemhild fall in love before they even meet. Siegfried hears a tale of her beauty and vows to go to Worms, and Kriemhild hears about Siegfried’s daring feats. (In fact, the whole “Nibelung treasure” chapter of Siegfried is a story within a story, sung not only by Lang but by the bard in the court, so the reliability of it is in question). When Siegfried and Kriemhild first meet, they behave as if in a rapturous trance, approaching each other as one would approach a sacred object.
The question remains, then, do they even truly love each other, or are they just taken in by the myth? Do they ever even connect as human beings, or does she just see him as the hero while he sees her as the princess? So is Die Nibelungen simply a myth, or is it a movie about myths, and the power they have? It’s a reading that the film very much allows. And Lang, who loved to tell stories about himself that weren’t exactly true, certainly understood the power of mythology.
The debate, from what I’ve read, hasn’t been settled, and by this point probably never will be. Lang, for his part, said that he was just making a fantasy film to boost the spirit of his audience: “When I made my films, I always followed my imagination. By making the Siegfried legend into a film, I wanted to show that Germany was searching for an ideal in her past, even during the horrible time after the First World War in which the picture was made. To counteract the pessimistic spirit of the time, I wanted to film the great legend of Siegfried so that Germany could draw inspiration from her epic past.” Still, anyone who’s made it to the end of Kriemhild’s Revenge has to admit that if he wanted to boost the morale of his countrymen, he certainly picked an odd way to do it—or it could just be that Lang wanted to be a Romantic, but had other instincts.
At any rate, what’s undeniable is that Die Nibelungen is one of the great epics of the silent era, richly layered, an amazing achievement in scale and imagination, and one of the earliest examples of using production values to create a truly immersive imaginary world. You get the slaying of a (now adorable) dragon, an ocean of fire, the power of invisibility, a duel beneath the Northern Lights, and the “Hawk dream” (don’t you wish more genre films had avant-garde interludes?). In an interview late in life, Lang said that making films during the 20s gave him more freedom, and as an example, he pointed to the opening shot of Die Nibelungen: a simply shot of a rainbow cresting over an enchanted valley. They already had the valley, but felt a rainbow would be a nice touch. Of course, as a filmmaker, you can’t just wait for a rainbow to appear and hope it looks right. So he went to the studio and asked for resources to create the rainbow. Today, he said (and this was in the 60s), the studio would demand justification for taking time and money on an incidental effect that would only be on screen for a few seconds. But back then, the answer was yes, because film was new, and everyone wanted to see what could be done with this new medium. As with all of Lang’s stories, you can’t be sure just how true or valid the claim is. But that sentiment is nonetheless a key part of the spirit of the film: a desire to take the audience away and show them something that they had never seen before.
Excellent illustrated essay Cinesthesia. Siegfried and Kriemhild’s Revenge are extraordinary. UFA during the Weimar era was an amazing place.
Thea von Harbou is such an odd, problematic case. I wonder if any book on Lang has gone into the complex dynamics of their relationship in depth.
Nice, Cinesthesia. SIEGFRIED is an old favorite, along with KRIEMHILD’S REVENGE. Remarkable films by any standard.
Thanks, guys! And thank you for overlooking all my typos. : – )
Bumping this up…the match just started, and I’m curious to hear people’s thoughts on the film.
Christ, I need to see these.
i’ve watched siegfried so far and it was fantastic.
dying for it! pressure is on to fit it in
sets and costumes in this thing are just ridiculous. in the best possible way. beautiful transfer too.
second part is much darker thematically. it’s a yin/yang film
plans for mechanical dragon :)