Posted October 18, 2012 by Jonathan McCalmont in Films
 
 

Die Nibelungen


Despite the presence of dwarves, dragons and magic swords, Fritz Lang’s epic silent fantasy Die Nibelungen

Despite the presence of dwarves, dragons and magic swords, Fritz Lang’s
epic silent fantasy Die Nibelungen
owes more to the sexual hysteria of
Greek tragedy than it does to the castrated Christianity of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Technically groundbreaking and beautiful to look
at, Lang’s epic is an eerily auspicious examination of what happens when a
culture’s ethical codes can no longer constrain the public mood.

The film begins in a forest where
the Aryan Siegfried (Paul Richte)
displays his metaphorical manliness through the creation of a sword so sharp
and powerful that it can cut a dragon’s throat. After defeating a sinister
Jewish Dwarf and acquiring enough treasure to subjugate twelve kingdoms, the
Hero goes in search of a queen whose beauty matches his Apollonian grace.
However, in order to marry Kriemhild (Margarete
Schon
), Siegfried must use his cunning to entrap the female hero Brunhild (Hanna Ralph) in a marriage to the
cowardly but astute King Gunther (Theodor
Loos
). This alliance works beautifully until Brunhild works out that it was
not Gunther but a disguised Siegfried who seduced her. Humiliated and filled
with homicidal rage, Brunhild demands that Gunther kill Siegfried prompting
Gunther to have his chief knight Hagen Tronje (Hans Adalbert Schlettow) murder his ally in cold blood. When
Kriemhild discovers the crime, her demand that Gunther now kill Hagen Tronje
presents King Gunther with an impossible moral dilemma: Either he yields to his
sister’s demand for justice by betraying his knight or he remains loyal to his
vassal and ignores the crime committed against his sister. When Gunther decides
to remain true to his ally, Kriemhild responds by marrying a savage warlord and
using his troops to unleash a bloody Dionysian vengeance upon the kingdom whose
grace and civility she once embodied.

It is easy to see why both Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebels claimed Die Nibelungen as one of their favourite
films. Aside from the Germanic origins of the Nibelungen stories, Lang also
draws heavily upon the idea that a group of blond-haired heroes might emerge
from the common muck of humanity and, through sheer force of character, build a
shining civilisation on a hill. Marinated in the same myths of national
exceptionalism that informed the iconography of the Third Reich, Lang’s film
presents the king of the Dwarves as a treacherous Jew and the emotional
energies unleashed by Kriemhild at the end of the film as a tide of
dark-skinned savages from the East. This is not just a film that is of its
time, this is a film that perfectly captures a time when a society’s capacity
to regulate its own behaviour can no longer cope with the violent forces at
work in the culture at large. By refusing to constrain his feelings of lust for
Brunhild, Gunther is forced to trick her into marriage, by refusing to discuss
or atone for his dishonest seduction of Brunhild, Gunther is forced to murder
his friend, by refusing to acknowledge that he had his friend murdered, Gunther
is forced to go to war with his sister and by attempting to justify his actions
through an appeal to loyalty, Gunther undermines the entire moral
infrastructure of his society… there are no rules, there are no principles,
there are no cities on the hill… there is only violence, lust, madness and
death.

Despite being over eighty years
old, Lang’s Die Nibelungen remains a visual feast. Shot entirely on a studio
lot using what was, at the time, a revolutionary capacity to shoot external
night scenes, the film’s sets, costumes and crowd scenes are as eye-catching
and powerful as those of any contemporary fantasy film. Poised between the
modernism of Lang’s Metropolis and
the psychology of Paolo
Pasolini’s
Oedipus Rex, the film
perfectly captures the deliberate sense of mythological distance from the
world. This sense of manic pseudo-realism even informs the acting as Richte’s
Siegfried and Schon’s Kriemhild glow like Apollonian suns while Schlettow’s dishonourable
chief knight looks like a hairy Dionysian mess done up in an overly-elaborate
helmet while Loos’ Gunther is a perfect picture of cowering dejection, a man
who is far too human for his role as mythological King.

Beautifully made and beautifully
restored, Masters of Cinema’s release of Die Nibelungen is a historically
fascinating and thematically powerful film from one of the greatest directors
to emerge during one of cinema’s greatest Golden Ages. The only problem is that, in an effort
to placate the historical purists, the film comes with ‘restored’ intertitles
meaning that the film’s dialogue comes in the form of large slabs of German
text. Rather than produce English-language equivalents of these textual
inserts, Master of Cinema opted instead to insert subtitles at the bottom of
the page. Frequently lacking the
poetry of their German equivalents, these truncated subtitles make for a
sub-optimal Nibelungen experience, which is a real shame given that this is
intended as a deluxe release of a historically important film. Thankfully, the
rest of the release is flawless including a fascinating hour-long German
documentary about the challenges involved in the making of the film.


Jonathan McCalmont