The first part of Lang’s work thus kicks off, rather than climaxes with, Siegfried’s greatest mythical hits and, in the total scheme of the films, moves through them at lightning speed. Lang’s film preserves the feudal flavour and fearsome, atavistic sensations of the poem, and yet is also a prototypical version of the same modern moral universe, inflated in scale and resonance but still recognisable, as that Lang explored through less distant prisms in subsequent films as diverse as M (1931), Fury (1936), Scarlet Street (1945), and The Big Heat (1953). Such was a universe where a daemonic quality in human nature wreaks havoc, and mankind on a social level is often disturbingly mindless and reactive. The nobility and ethical strength of the individual barely keeps afloat when such forces are unleashed, the heroes’ loving impulses often transmuting into a hard and unforgiving vengefulness, one that risks becoming monstrous and inhuman in the name of maintaining a human, moral shape to the universe. [...] Clearly, for Lang, Die Nibelungen was more than a national myth: it was his own.The second part.
The formalistic world of the Burgundian court sees the characters and architecture arrayed in geometric precision, revealing the increasing influence of modern art styles like Cubism infiltrating Lang’s visuals, whilst also channelling the simple precepts of medieval heraldic decoration: such motifs do not however merely look impressive, but communicate ancient assumptions of hierarchy and power, encoded in the very scenery of the drama. Individuals are dwarfed by the might of the church and the palace, and they move into place with precision in obedience to feudal hierarchy at the court.
At its brightest Die Nibelungen (and this goes for both Parts I and II) is a film of pure entertainment on a scale that is unmatched by nearly any other movie that I have ever seen. But at its darkest Die Nibelungen is a film which seems to peer into Heroic Myth and then deconstruct it piece by piece until all we are left with is death and destruction.History and the film
Essentially Parts I and II of Die Nibelungen aim to show us how myths are created and then take that, turn it on its head, and show us what actually stands behind the myth. In Part I of the film Siegfried is supposedly given magic abilities by bathing in the blood of a dragon. But what we must realize (and this did not dawn on me until I had finished Part II) is that we aren’t seeing these things happen to Siegfried, we are having them told to us by the Bard in the Castle at Worms. In other words, the film is using a framing device to tell us the myth surrounding the real Siegfried and his rise to power.
Adolf Hitler and Josef Goebbels were known fans of the film although their appreciation was limited to “Siegfried” as “Kriemhild’s Revenge” was too nihilistic, or so the story goes, as springtime for Germany never lasts long in a Fritz Lang film. Lang was bothered by the addition of parts of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen as accompaniment as was used in the 1924 US release, as well as the German version released by the Nazis.Synopsis of the Film
In 1974, in an interview with Focus on Film, Lang said: “I would like to make a remark about [From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film]. In my opinion this book is wrong about a lot of things and it has done a lot of damage, I feel, particularly among young people. When I made my films I always followed my imagination. By making ‘Die Nibelungen’ I wanted to show that Germany was searching for an ideal in her past, even during the horrible time after World War I in which the film was made. At that time in Berlin I remember seeing a poster on the street, which pictured a woman dancing with a skeleton. The caption read: ‘Berlin, you are dancing with Death.’ To counteract this pessimistic spirit I wanted to film the epic legend of Siegfried so that Germany could draw inspiration from her past, and not, as Mr Kracauer suggests, as a looking forward to the rise of a political figure like Hitler or some such stupid thing as that.”
Robert A Armour made an interesting distinction in his book Fritz Lang when he noted, “Kracauer believes that the climate that produced Lang’s version of German myth in 1924 was the same climate that produced the Nazi movement soon afterwards. Perhaps, but the Nazis tended to use only the part of history they found to work to their advantage. [. . .] Both Lang and the Nazis were shaping the myth to their own versions, but the visions were different and so were the purposes.”
1. Siegfrieds Tod / Siegfried's DeathFive hours might be a long time, but it's just a third of the running time of Wagner's Ring cycle (previously). You can read the Nibelungenlied online or you can watch 'What's Opera, Doc?'
Volker von Azley (Bernard Goetzke), a minstrel, sets down to tell the story of Siegfried, son of King Siegmund of the Nibelungen (Netherlands). Siegfried (Paul Richter) is apprenticed to Mime, a blacksmith, who helps him forge a special sword. Siegfried then sets off to the court of the Burgundian King Gunther (Theodor Loos), at Worms by the Rhine, seeking the hand of the beautiful young Princess Kriemhild (Margaret Shoen), sister to Gunther.
En route to Worms, Siegfried encounters and slays a dragon. He bathes in its blood in order to make his body impervious to swords and arrows. Unfortunately, a leaf lands on his upper back, stopping the dragon's blood reaching him there. This part of his body is therefore made vulnerable. Siegfried also encounters Alberich (Georg John), the dwarf Lord Treasurer to the Nibelungen dynasty. He captures the Nibelungen treasure and acquires a magic cloak which makes him invisible and provides him with the strength of many men.
Upon arrival at the castle of King Gunther, Siegfried is opposed by the warrior Hagen (Hands Adalbert von Schlettow), half-brother of Gunter. Hagen is jealous of the young and handsome Siegfried who seeks the hand of the beautiful Kriemhild. This maiden had previously vowed to marry no warrior. She subsequently foresees Siegfried's death in a dream during which a white dove is attacked by a pair of black hawks.
In order to obtain the hand of Kriemhild in marriage, Siegfried must assist Gunther in likewise obtaining the hand of Brunhild (Hanna Ralph), warrior queen of Iceland. Brunhild has pledged that she will only marry a warrior who can defeat her in a series of athletic games - these involve throwing a large spear, throwing a heavy rock, and leaping through the air. Upon arrival at Brunhild's castle, Siegfried assists Gunter in defeating Brunhild by donning the cloak of invisibility and utilising his special strength.
Upon the party's return to Worms, Brunhild weds Gunther, and Siegfried takes Kriemhild. However, during an encounter on the steps of Worms cathedral between the two women, Brunhild learns how Siegfried and Gunther had deceived her into giving up her kingdom. She calls on Siegfried to be killed in revenge. Gunther agrees and together with Hagen tricks Kriemhild into revealing Siegfried's vulnerable spot. Hagen then spears the young hero in the back and kills him. With the death of Siegfried, Brunhild becomes remorseful and apparently commits suicide. Kriemhild seeks revenge on Gunter and Hagan.
2. Kriemhilds Rache / Kriemhild's Revenge
As part of her scheme of revenge, Kriemhild accepts the offer of Rudiger and travels to the land of the Huns (Hungary) to marry King Etzel (Attila) of the Huns (Rudolf Klein-Rogge). Upon the birth of their son, she invites Gunther and Hagen to Etzel's court for a celebration. As Hagen holds the baby in his arms he hears that Huns have killed some of his comrades - Burgundians. Hagen then kills the baby (a boy), and in the following skirmish Kriemhild kills Hagan with Siegfried's sword. She is then killed by Hildebrand (Georg August Koch), but is finally at peace.
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