This 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.
Fritz 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:
- An essay about Tolkien and the Nibelung Cycle.
- Stephan Grundy’s Rhinegold, a very good prose retelling of both Germanic and Norse versions.
- Arthur Rackham illustrations of Wagner’s Ring Cycle.
- The entire Nibelungenlied from a 13th century Middle High German manuscript and translated into English.