Fritz Lang's Die Nibelungen
February 3, 2013 5:39 AM   Subscribe

At a time when the Lord of the Rings didn't exist as a film or a book trilogy, Fritz Lang created the 5-hour-long film Die Nibelungen (The Nibelungs, 1924), based on the 13th-century poem Die Nibelungenlied (The Song of the Nibelungs). A short clip of Siegfried slaying the dragon was used as a trailer for the restored edition of the film.

The film was a massive technical achievement: the dragon puppet was operated by 17 people and there were long battle scenes. The first part, Siegfried, is steeped in the mythical age whereas the second part, Kriemhild's Revenge, is mostly bereft of fantastic elements and is about the bloody revenge of Kriemhild for Sigfried's death. The film takes a while to find its pace, but not many battle scenes start with the decapitation of Attila's son.

This analysis is a good place to start engaging with the film.
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 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.
The second part.
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.

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.
History and the film
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.

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.”
Synopsis of the Film
1. Siegfrieds Tod / Siegfried's Death

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.
Five 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?'
posted by ersatz (27 comments total) 59 users marked this as a favorite
My face right now:
is all O_O

Downloading to watch tomorrow night.
This is all kinds of awesome.
And I didn't even know it existed.

you can watch 'What's Opera, Doc? '

posted by Mezentian at 5:45 AM on February 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think you about covered it Mez; I rewatch Metropolis every time they find another minute of footage, and bombastic german opera is the only opera - as far as I'm concerned.

Two great tastes that, I can only assume, would go great together.
posted by LD Feral at 6:01 AM on February 3, 2013

I saw Siegfried at the PFA in Berkeley a couple of years back (though at a non-PFA event, so this comment is relying on my somewhat hazy memory). Mostly I remember the Tarnkappe being not at all how we imagined it (though it'd be pretty hard to do on film in the 1920s--it's basically like the invisibility cloak in Harry Potter.) However, I saw a weird cut of the film, as apparently it was recut by the Nazis (who liked both the Niebelunglied and Lang) and was asked to stay to make propaganda films). There was a convoluted story about this cut that I'm not going to do a great job of retelling. It had been presumed lost and then it randomly turned up in the Berkeley library (I may be misremembering and it was in some other university library), having been sitting unnoticed with a slightly weird catalog entry for however many years, until someone noticed the composer in the catalog entry was weird. The film had been re-scored and that person's name had made it into the catalog entry, but nothing else marked it as different than the usual cut.
posted by hoyland at 6:16 AM on February 3, 2013

At least the dragons back then had the decency to breath real fire, and not that digital stuff they spew nowadays.
posted by sneebler at 6:34 AM on February 3, 2013 [4 favorites]

I used to have a dog with a dietary condition that meant I had to take his food bowl away after he'd eaten for a minute, then keep it away for five or so more before giving it back. The look on his face when I took away a perfectly good MAGIC BOWL OF FOOD THAT WAS STILL WORKING was identical to that on the dragon's when Siegfried began hitting it with the sword.
posted by cromagnon at 7:00 AM on February 3, 2013 [9 favorites]

was anyone else rooting for the poor dragon?

also odd to hear wagnerian music that isn't wagner.
posted by ecourbanist at 7:01 AM on February 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


Amazing, thank you!! The guy playing Siegfried looks like a drawing, wow.

But who could stand to slay such an adorable puppy-eyed dragon?
posted by Erasmouse at 7:03 AM on February 3, 2013 [3 favorites]

OK, now I want to play an MMO where all the mobs are just like that dragging, all stilted puppets and such.

Also, what a fucking asshole that St George was. Seriously.

posted by symbioid at 7:17 AM on February 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

was anyone else rooting for the poor dragon?

Fucking heroes. Where does a dragon have to go to get a drink these days without getting stabbed in the goddamn eye!?! Assholes.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:36 AM on February 3, 2013 [5 favorites]

That's a really leaky dragon.
posted by Fists O'Fury at 9:27 AM on February 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

That was like watching a sword-wielding psychopath butcher Oliver J. Dragon (from Kukla, Fran and Ollie). Now I has a sad.
posted by sourcequench at 9:46 AM on February 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Great post, thanks.

The making of Die Nibelungen plays an important part in my novel Kino, and there's a crucial scene set during the filming of the fight with the dragon. There's an excerpt you may enjoy at Guernica.

Just this Friday, I did an event at the F.W. Murnau Foundation in Wiesbaden, which is responsible for the restoration--the YouTube version is ok, but if you're really going to take the time to watch the entire movie, I'd very much recommended getting the restored version. To begin with, it's tinted in a way that's much easier on the eyes. Seeing it in a theater with live music was one my movie highlights of 2012.

Also, I keep a tumblr related to my book and the Weimar film industry, and a lot of Lang/Nibelungen material keeps popping up.
posted by muckster at 9:54 AM on February 3, 2013 [9 favorites]

The best part comes in Part II when Attila the Hun suddenly realizes that his new wife is WAY more stone-cold ruthless than he is.
posted by kyrademon at 10:17 AM on February 3, 2013

Kriemhild's Revenge is amazing, with a climax similar to the ending of Akira Kurosawa's Ran, except made over 50 years earlier. If Kurosawa wasn't taking notes, he should have been.
posted by jonp72 at 10:19 AM on February 3, 2013

That dragon even wagged her tail!!! I mean, c'mon!
posted by Ardiril at 10:44 AM on February 3, 2013

Can't help it, here's a bit from my book. The rest of the scene is at Guernica:
Siegfried’s fight with the Lindwurm was a marvel. The contraption was heavy as a tank and took ten men to move. For endless, claustrophobic days, I had to kick my stump, which was attached to the lever that manipulated the dragon’s crocodile tail. We moved the creature’s eyes, mouth, legs, and tail, we made it breathe fire and smoke, we pumped the blood that gushed from the wound where Paul Richter, the foppish son-of-a-bitch who played Siegfried, pierced the rubber skin with his sword. We damn near suffocated on the fumes. It was the most grueling work I have done in my life. The only way to bear this wretched work was to stay perpetually high, and every morning, I doled out a generous allotment of cocaine for every man inside the monster.
posted by muckster at 10:52 AM on February 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

Heh, I misread Lang as Lieber and was all WHAAAA

posted by mwhybark at 11:47 AM on February 3, 2013

BTW, both of Lang's noir classics Scarlet Street and The Woman in the Window are on Netflix Instant; both also star Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, and Dan Duryea, and have some commonality of theme.
posted by dhartung at 11:52 AM on February 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

One of the many delights of the internet is that the amazing, old movie special effects sequences that I could only read about in books when I was a wee geek are now easily viewable on Youtube. It's freaky to finally see this sequence in motion, after looking at still photos of it so many times when I was a kid. Inevitably, it doesn't quite live up to the battle from my young imagination... But it's still an epic bit of theatricality.

And oh my god, that poor dragon! Not having seen the full film myself, I don't know what to think about the reading that it was a deconstruction of the old stories, and Siegfried is really a bloodthirsty monster. (The quote from Lang himself seems to suggest that he meant for it to be more of a heroic tale.) If Siegfried is indeed supposed to across as a cruel, savage sort, this clip does a good job of bringing that across. The sleepy, Labrador-like dragon barely fights back, it just kind of thrashes its tail around, belches some fire skyward, and then bleeds out.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 1:23 PM on February 3, 2013

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.

Since it didn't come up in the Django Unchained thread, did anyone else think there was some intentional irony or deeper meaning to the German hero seeing Django's quest in terms of a myth that would be appropriated by the Nazis?
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 1:52 PM on February 3, 2013

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.

Hit his weak spot for massive damage!
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 1:54 PM on February 3, 2013

We saw the first of the two in a theater here in Austin a few years ago with a live score by the Calm Blue Sea. Supposedly they're going to do the second one at some point; I'm still very hopeful. (The score is fantastic and I recommend it if you're into post-rock.)
posted by immlass at 2:00 PM on February 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

The films are fun to watch while reading the Saga of the Volsungs. When you read the material it is dark, cruel, primal and the films try to convey that sensation of a very different world. It is a window to a very alien way of thinking. The cruelties and logic can be hard to reconcile with modern sensibilities. I felt you saw some of this when reading Tolkien especially, the histories of Middle-Earth where there seemed something more stark missing, but that could have been due to my familiarity with source texts.
posted by jadepearl at 5:21 PM on February 3, 2013

So apparently according to YouTube- 'featuring the original 1924 orchestral score newly recorded'.
Great, any more information?! Anybody know who composed it?
posted by BobsterLobster at 6:12 PM on February 3, 2013

So apparently according to YouTube- 'featuring the original 1924 orchestral score newly recorded'.
Great, any more information?! Anybody know who composed it?

Wiki says Gottfried Huppertz, who apparently did the score for Metropolis as well.
posted by hoyland at 6:40 PM on February 3, 2013

Great post - thanks!

Psst.. but it's das Lied, not die Lied.
posted by aqsakal at 1:24 PM on February 4, 2013

So it is. I'll just hand in my 'Das Lied von der Erde' card.
posted by ersatz at 3:38 PM on February 4, 2013

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