Die Nibelungen

Tuesday, 25 July 2006

00000318.pngThis past week­end I watched Kino’s restora­tion of Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen, a five-hour silent film from 1924. I’ve al­ways been in­ter­est­ed in this Nordic/​Germanic epic and its adap­ta­tions and retellings; ini­tial­ly due to the in­ter­weav­ing of myth and hero-leg­end with his­tor­i­cal fact [Siegfried kills a drag­on, Attila’s in­va­sion, for ex­am­ple] but now my in­ter­est fo­cus­es on the elas­tic­i­ty of the sto­ry and its use­ful­ness as a foil for con­tem­po­rary events.

If you’re not fa­mil­iar with the Nibelungenlied [The Germanic vari­ant of the Nibelung leg­end] it con­cerns the hero­ic deeds of Siegfried, his mur­der and his wife’s vengeance. It al­so serves mar­velous­ly as an ex­am­ple of how folk­lore is used to tell a peo­ple about what it means to be that peo­ple. This us­age is so much stronger in the mod­ern world be­cause the Germanic ver­sion of the tale pro­vides its own em­pir­i­cal ev­i­dence about the Burgundians and Attila. This is ef­fec­tive, but not nec­es­sar­i­ly good, since the Nibelungenlied was re­framed as “proof” of the German mas­ter-race na­tion­al­ism that was so dev­as­tat­ing last cen­tu­ry. [cf. Wagner]

The orig­i­nal tale was prob­a­bly whol­ly fan­tas­ti­cal, with the Norse Pantheon piss­ing off some dwarves by killing an ot­ter, re­sult­ing in the cre­ation of a huge hoard of gold, a cursed ring, and the ever-present gra­tu­itous amounts of sex and vi­o­lence. The Burgundian and sub­se­quent Germanic fla­vor of the Nibelungenlied is like­ly the re­sult of Scandinavian di­as­po­ra. A com­par­i­son be­tween Siegfried and Achilles is al­most in­evitable, they are both great war­riors who are in­vul­ner­a­ble ex­cept in one small spot.

sigbath.jpgFritz Lang’s film has all of that build-up be­hind his film. Since I love pro­vid­ing con­text so much, here’s a bit for you. There is a huge par­al­lel be­tween the re­sults of Gavrilo Princip’s as­sas­si­na­tion of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the re­sults of Siegfried’s sim­i­lar as­sas­si­na­tion. Both events re­sult­ed in ac­tion on oaths and treaties that killed en­tire armies. While this par­al­lel is not ex­plic­it­ly ref­er­enced in Die Nibelungen it cer­tain­ly pro­vides strong echoes. Couple this with a smol­der­ing re­sent­ment over the War Guilt Clause of the Treaty of Versailles and the omi­nous de­ter­mi­na­tion that per­me­ates the film [ded­i­cat­ed to the German People] is a presage of the Third Reich. In terms of myth­ic reaf­fir­ma­tion, this is an ap­pro­pri­ate re­sponse; af­ter some­thing hap­pens that is trau­mat­ic to a na­tion­al psy­che this type of sto­ry­telling is a heal­ing mech­a­nism.

The pro­duc­tion val­ues are ex­cel­lent, and though I wish Kino had re­mas­tered their print, I had ab­solute­ly no com­plaints about the orig­i­nal 1924 score. The act­ing, set-pieces, spe­cial ef­fects and light­ing are trib­utes to the skill of Lang and the ca­pa­bil­i­ties of UFA. At 5 hours, the film on­ly drags briefly, at tricky points of plot ex­po­si­tion. I’d prob­a­bly be will­ing to buy it if the print were a bet­ter qual­i­ty. And now, some oth­er stuff: