Die Nibelungen

Germany (1924) Dir. Fritz Lang

The word “epic” is used all too often to describe a film of immense length or a story that takes the reader or listener on a journey beyond the simple linear scope of A to B. In the modern era, a film of two hours plus is an epic; in 1924, Fritz Lang would just be getting started at that point. I present to you Exhibit A – Die Nibelungen.

Based on the legendary German poem written sometime around 1200, which also served as the basis for Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (aka Rings Cycle) opera, this tale of heroism, greed, betrayal, revenge, and tragedy that echoes Shakespeare (despite predating him by over three hundred years), is an epic in every sense of the word, as is Fritz Lang’s ambitious adaptation of it.

Split into two films, running 149 minutes and 131 minutes (a combined four hours and forty minutes in old money), this is still a wonder to behold almost 100 years after its premiere. Shot in just nine months and no doubt costing a fortune, this is not just a landmark entry in Lang’s silent movie canon but also a portent of things to come in terms of the scale of his creativity and vision of his ensuing works.

Condensing the story into a couple of paragraphs is not easy, but I shall try my best so here goes: the first film Siegfried centres around the titular protagonist, (Paul Richter) the bare chested, blonde haired son of King Siegmund of Xanten. Having learned the art of forging a sword from blacksmith Mime (Georg John), Siegfried hears talk about the kingdom of Burgundy, and the princess Kriemhild (Margarete Schön). Declaring to win her hand, Siegfried sets off to Burgundy.

Along the way, he slays a giant dragon and showers in its blood to make him invincible – except a leaf lands on his shoulder blade, leaving him with one weak spot. Siegfried arrives in Burgundy, marries Kriemhild, and helps his new brother-in-law King Gunther (Theodor Loos) win the hand of Queen Brunhild of Iceland (Hanna Ralph). However, Brunhild is annoyed to learn she wed under false pretences and demands her husband kill Siegfried, spinning a lie about him taking her maidenhood.

With the second film baring the spoilerific title Kriemhild’s Revenge, you can guess how the first one ends. As her brothers stand firmly behind the culprit, Hagen Tronje (Hans Adalbert Schlettow), Kriemhild agrees to marry Atilla of the Huns (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), has his baby, and then makes him swear an oath to exact revenge on her behalf. As you might suspect, things get a bit messy hereto after.

Once the gut wrenching climax arrives after nearly five hours, it is hard to imagine how we arrived to this conclusion when the starting point was a topless chap making a sword. Credit to the anonymous author of the original text, adapted by Lang and his underrated collaborator and wife Thea von Harbou, for making such an inauspicious start lead to such a rich and sinuous tale of questionable fidelity and askewed morality.  

Love and loyalty are the two main factors that drive the motives of the characters, for better or worse, with greed and ego not far behind, though the former do eventually cancel out the latter. Calling Siegfried a hero is a little spurious, though this become his official title among the folk of Burgundy for his mighty exploits. Portrayed as a bit of an arrogant twerp, we are hardly surprised when he doesn’t make it to the end of the first film.

Not that his death was necessarily justified, but these were simpler times and the moral of this story is to expose the folly of one minor sin causing a chain reaction of far greater ones, when a bit of honesty could have avoided hundreds of senseless deaths. As sides are chosen during Kriemhild’s campaign for vengeance, the lines of loyalty are muddied as her brothers stand by Hagen. This is quite frustrating though it might be they want peace and no more deaths, yet empathy for Kriemhild remains oddly lacking.

Regardless, it all plays out in spectacular fashion for 1924, and still looks impressive to this day Lang threw everything bar the kitchen sink into the production, from the entire film shot on soundstages (even external scenes), to ground breaking practical and visual effects. The dragon may look hokey compared to modern CGI or 1950s stop motion animation but as a full-scale mechanical construction operated by numerous men, it still comes across as lifelike in its movements.

Just as he did with other films, Lang laid the foundation for many other fantasy tales in the world building and aesthetic that remains in cinema today. I defy anyone not to look at the costumes and helmets worn and not see at least one film or TV show that was no doubt inspired by them. Similarly, the way a vengeful Kriemhild galvanised the Huns is arguably replicated by the human version of Maria in Metropolis three years later.

Given silent movie acting lends itself to exaggerated gestures to convey emotions in the absence of dialogue, Lang was also aware of how much can be said with just a look. To that end, Margarete Schön as Kriemhild is the stand out performer here. In the first film, she mostly blends into the background; in the second, she is remarkable. With a fixed stare, she seethes with anger, burns with hatred, yet crushed by grief and her brothers’ betrayal, delineated through the intensity of a deceptively inert performance.  

If you think five hours is a long time – and how much longer would it be with dialogue? – I can tell you it breezes by when watching Die Nibelungen and by the end of it, you feel like you have been on a truly emotional journey just as the characters have. An epic masterpiece, without which there would be no Metropolis.