Die Nibelungen is a silent film, directed by Fritz Lang, most famous for his film about a serial murderer; M, starring Peter Lorre. An epic of its time, the film was released in Germany in 1924. Following the 13th century German/Norse Myth that it is taken from, the film is in two parts: Siegfried and Kriemhild’s Revenge, and is approximately five hours long. Yup, five hours of silent film (with music) and I enjoyed every strange, crazy minute of it.
To set you up with the plot–The film–the myth–follows the adventures of the great Teutonic Knight and handsome blond hero, Siegfried, as he performs supernatural tasks and mighty deeds and becomes the greatest warrior in the world. As befits the top male dog, he wins the hand (and not just the hand) of the top female dog in the world, the beautiful Kriemhild, sister of the King of Burgundy. They are a power-couple; big, strong, beautiful, noble, rich… If they lived now, you’d see their every move detailed in the tabloids. Siegfried and Kriemhild’s love and subsequent marriage is one for the ages.
About halfway through the first part of the epic, Siegfried uses his magic powers–and he has plenty of them–being favored by the Gods in all sorts of ways, to help the weak (and weak-willed) King of Burgundy win the hand of the great warrior queen Brunhilde, Queen of Iceland. Brunhilde is a stocky, dark-haired, armor-wearing Amazon and she routinely beats any man who challenges her, but she loses to Siegfried’s superior Germanic power.
Later, the whiny King of Burgundy finds that he cannot be tame–i.e., sexually dominate–Brunhilde. So, once again, Siegfried has to do the job. Well, naturally, when this (adulterous) deed is discovered later, it begins a fateful set of circumstances that puffs up the entire epic to a full-blown Teutonic tragedy.
Evil is also afoot in the person of Harken Kronje, who seems to be a sort of combination Leader-of-the-Joint-Chiefs-of-Staff and head of the Gestapo for Burgundy. He sees that Siegfried is becoming too beloved by the people of Burgundy and will surely supplant the King. And since Kronje’s loyalty to the King and the Kingdom is the highest duty of all, the vicious Kronje uses deception to kill Siegfried–literally stabbing him in the back.
The rest of the Film is taken up with Kriemhild’s (Siggy’s grieving widow) Revenge. She accepts a deal to become the wife of the great, ugly Attila the Hun. Kriemhild travels to Hun-land and, after conceiving Attila’s son, persuades Attila to invite the Burgundian court to visit.
The Burgundians show up with a pretty hefty guard of picked Teutonic Knights. They are leery of this set-up because the filthy, semi-human Huns are their traditional enemies.
During the course of a great banquet, everything goes very wrong. Mean old Burgundian, Herr General Kronje, winds up killing Attila?s baby son, and Kriemhild and Attila attack the Knights. And even though they are vastlt outnumbered by the despicable under-menschen, the ‘noble’ knights put up a noble fight.
Driven to heights of frenzy by the Vengeful Kriemhild, the Teutons are eventually burned alive in Attila’s castle–every last one of them expiring in blood and flames.
Does any of this sound familiar? Well, it should. This film, made only at the very beginning of Hitler’s and the Nazi’s rise to power in Bavaria is like an unconscious blue-print for every grandiose, flag-waving, psychotic Nazi nightmare that came later on.
Lang devoted Die Nibelungen ‘To The German People’. When asked in a 1967 BBC interview why he used this particular dedication, he said that he wanted to bring some hope to the then despairing Germans. At the time, the Germans, recently the big losers in World War 1, were forced to pay ruinous reparations to France and England. They were also in the grip of a relentless political civil war–not to mention a devastating depression.
But how did Lang intend his great film to bring hope? By reminding the Germans, Lang said, of their great Germanic and Norse Mythic heritage; i.e., The spectacle of indomitable militaristic Aryan heroes and conquerors; more pure, more noble, than all the other common scum that infested the earth. Presumably, by seeing all this, the German people could once again take hope for the future. What kind of future would that be? Well, the world didn’t have to wait to long after the film’s release to find out: Deutschland Uber Alles.
Fritz Lang came from a middle-class background and studied art. Among his favorites were the wonderful painters Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt–both considered ‘decadent’ painters. Not decadent in the boorish, politically defined way the Nazi’s used the term, but ‘decadent’ in that there was a great feeling of ruinous, obsessive sexuality and madness that pervaded the work of Schiele and Klimt.
Lang went into the new field of film and you can clearly see the influence of these artists, (and painting itself) in Lang’s costumes and settings. Whether filmed in nature or with real cathedrals and castles, or using fantastic man-made props, you can feel the great, brooding nightmares that seem to lurk in the German soul. There are massive shadows, stark contrasts of light and dark, shades of good and evil in almost every scene in the movie. In fact, Lang also studied Nietsche and Freud, so that the knowledge of the unconscious was something never too far from his sensibility. What you observe?what you feel?when you watch this morbidly fascinating epic, is a combination of crazy, fated Germanic romance and dark Freudian demons. What lurks in the Black Forest and towering castles of Lang’s film? Not just your regular dragons, demons and trolls, but also, sexuality and the lust for death. It’s an amazingly powerful combination–one that infuses a great deal of early German cinema.
But, whatever Lang’s artistic and/or moral intentions (if he ever had any moral intentions), the director certainly had one great fan, Adolph Hitler. Siegfried was said to move Hitler to tears, and he once told Joseph Goebbels, “This [Lang] is the man that will bring us the Nazi film!” In fact, in the late thirties Lang was summoned to see Goebbels. The Propaganda Minister told Lang how enamored Hitler was of his films and more or less offered Lang control of the entire German film industry–presumably to crank out great Nazi epics. Lang claims that he knew, right then and there, that he had to get out of Germany. He was gone in a month, ultimately finding his way–as many other German film directors and writers did–to Hollywood.
In the forties and fifties, Lang directed some Hollywood-type anti-Nazi movies, then moved on to direct some of the great black and white noir films from that period like The Big Heat.
Well, so much for the director–back to Siegfried, Kriemhild, Attila and the gang.
The film itself, no matter what the story or content, is a treat to watch, considering the director’s great talent and his powerful artistic influences.
You have to slow yourself down because the sensibility is slow and melodramatic, as you find in all silent films. People were used to Vaudeville and theater and it was a slower time in general. You have to abandon any yearning for color or speed, and the special effects are sometimes just plain silly. Yet, because there was no claymation, robotics or computer graphics, the director had to imagine scenes and settings and realize them only with materials at hand–natural settings, wood, cloth, paint and the like. The special effects of film were primitive so technique was subsidiary to pure imagination. The results range from the sublime to the ridiculous?
As for content, the film, as I said, is a perfect foreshadowing of the Nazi Era. The 12 year horror that the Germans inflicted on the world didn’t grow from nothing; and in Lang’s film the seeds and roots are all frighteningly visible.
The Huns in the film are clearly the great Slav nations; The Russians, The Poles, etc. All o
f them were lowly, un-German fodder, who were meant to be ruled by the ‘noble’ Teutons. Every horrible little troll, dwarf and gnome in the film looks almost exactly like the later Nazi propaganda posters of conniving, money-hungry Jews. Siegfried, with his Great Blonde Prowess, actually goes under the earth and, by virtue of his Teutonic superiority and supernatural powers granted the Norse Gods, he overwhelms, then steals the Gold of the Nibelungen (twisted little dwarfs that live in caves pile up wealth). This, also, is perfect, half-conscious fore-shadowing of the Nazi’s killing of and stealing the money and property of the Jews (and every other group they could steal from). Siegfried eventually turns the covetous little, hook-nosed gnomes into stone and takes their fortune. Well, later the noble Germans turned the Jews into ashes but that’s close enough.
In the end, the Teutons die in a blazing fortress which crumbles around them?exactly the way Hitler and his delusionary acolytes died in their bunker at the end of the war; overwhelmed, I might point out, by the Russian ‘hordes’ (the Huns).
It is chilling and clearly prophetic that the great message of this movie–which, again, is merely following the ancient Teutonic folk-tale–is that there is no nobler or higher duty than to Der Fuhrer. Throughout the movie, loyalty to either one’s comrades-in-arms and especially to The King. The Leader is clearly shown to be the highest state a German (man) can attain to. Love for women or children is part of the Knight’s code of course, but such mundane love is easily sacrificed in the face of any threat to King and Country. To the very end it goes; the Teutons all dying to defend the murderous brute Kronje and his weak, morally corrupt King. When you watch this film, you can easily picture the SS marching in robot formation, the Panzer tanks rolling, the mass murders, the Nazi banners flying. You can hear the gutteral strains of beerhall songs and Nazi anthems. You can see the world being consumed in blood and flame: Gotterdamerung!
Rent this film, on DVD if you can. It is a scary, bizzarre, great work of art. And it?s a time-travel machine that will take you back, and down, into the depths of the German soul. Just make sure you have a pint of ice cream to eat afterwards or somebody you love around to remind yourself that you are still a human being.
– Mike Feder (New York City – October 1, 2003)