Die Nibelungen Review

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Part I: The warrior hero and seemingly invincible Siegfried marries Kriemhild, the sister of the Burgundian king who is in pursuit of Icelandic warrior queen, Brunhild. However, Siegfried is undone by a combination of sexual duplicity and court intrigue. Part II: Siegfried's killer, steals his treasure. So, Kriemhild marries Etzel, King of the Hun in order to wreak vengeance on her treacherous uncle and his unscrupulous kinsmen.


Fritz Lang spent two years in pre-production and a further nine months filming this remarkable two-part epic. His new wife, Thea von Harbou, primarily based her screenplay on the fabled medieval verse saga, although she also drew on Wagner's Ring Cycle and Friedrich Hebbel's 19th-century play, Die Nibelungen, in which she had once starred.

But this was less a literary enterprise than a demonstration of German cinematic might. Keen to brandish its prowess after the merger with Decla-Bioscop made it the biggest film studio outside Hollywood, UFA encouraged Lang and set designers Otto Hunte, Karl Vollbrecht and Erich Kettelhut to indulge their imaginations and, inspired by artists like Wilhelm von Kaulbach, Caspar David Friedrich and Arnold Böcklin, they created an imposingly mythical neverland that epitomised the project's self-conscious grandeur.  

But while the art direction and the picture's sheer ambition were praised by many critics, others accused Lang of stressing the monumental over the human. Indeed, later scholars, including Siegfried Kracauer, suggested that the film's architecture had influenced Albert Speer's design of the Nuremburg Rallies and Leni Riefenstahl's notorious documentary, Triumph of the Will. However, many non-fascists espoused poetic patriotism and while Lang admitted that his intention had been to restore German pride after the Great War, he was not responsible for the Nazis championing Siegfried (rather than its sequel, which depicted Aryans succumbing to Asians) or the release of a propagandist sound version, complete with a Wagnerian score.  

 Ironically, Die Nibelungen disappointed at the domestic box-office, with audiences finding the complex narrative confusing and the pacing ponderous. The meticulously choreographed acting certainly tends to the grandiloquent. But Margarethe Schön persuasively passed from being lovesick to hate-fuelled in a display of duality than anticipated Maria and the Robot's in Metropolis. Moreover, the dragon slaying and the 45-minute battle with the Huns were impressive set-pieces, with the latter being handled with laudable formal and rhythmic precision. Consequently, this remains a silent landmark, whose technical ingenuity and fantastical scope finds echo in The Lord of the Rings  trilogy.

This silent classic is a technical wonder for the day.