Looking at the earlier films of Fritz Lang, there weren’t really any indications of where he would go as a film maker. You could see some progression of story and technique between his early films, but I don’t think that anyone could have guessed from watching those films, that just a mere three years later, he would be producing a two film, nearly five hour epic with the full backing of Universum Films (UFA), called Die Nibelungen.
The films are based on a Nordic legend. The first features a hero named Sigfried, who is the son of King Sigmund. When we first meet Sigfried, he’s living with what I guess are supposed to be trolls, though they look more like advanced cavemen. He’s learning from their master blacksmith how to forge the finest blades, and he’s just perfected the art. As he’s about to leave their tutelage, he overhears a few of them talking about the incredibly beautiful sister of King Gunther of Worms. Her name is Kriemhild, and she’s supposed to be just amazingly beautiful. The journey to Worms however is very treacherous, and they don’t believe he can make it alive. Still, he forces them to tell him how to get there, and sets off immediately.
Along the way, he meets up with a dragon, and defeats it. Then he hears a bird telling him that if he bathes in the dragon’s blood, he will become impervious to all weapons. So he does this, but unfortunately, while he’s showering in the flow of blood coming out of the beast, a lime leaf falls on his back, leaving him with one vulernable spot.
He goes on from there to defeat the leader of the Nibelungen, at which point he not only claims their vast hordes of treasure, but also a sword, that was superior to even that which was forged by his own hand. By the time he makes it to Worms, suddenly he has twelve kings with him as vassals. He wants to marry the king’s sister, but the king will only agree to it if he helps the king to secure his own bride, a shrew of a woman named Brunhild, who will only marry a man who can defeat her in three contests of strength and abilities. Sigfried helps the king to win her by using a crown of invisibility that he won from the Nibelungen leader in battle, and eventually becomes blood brothers with the king, as all four are wed. Brunhild is full of bile and bitterness however, and eventually comes to find out after a confrontation with Kriemhild that it was really Sigfried that defeated her. Needless to say, she goes berzerk and insists that the king have his best friend and blood brother murdered. The king’s general, Hagen Tronje, tricks Kriemhild into telling him where Sigfried’s vulnerable spot is, on the pretense that he has to know where it is so that he can protect him. In truth, he used that information to kill Sigfried, thus incuring the wrath and vengeance of Kriemhild, but her brother and the rest of the court are all protecting Hagen Tronje, and she is denied her justice, which leads us into the second film, Kriemhild’s Revenge.
In the second film, Kriemhild is married off to Atilla the Hun and becomes the Queen of his people, but only after making him and the lord who came to secure her hand in marriage that they would avenge her sorrows. They agree, and the entire second film is about how Kriemhild takes her revenge upon her family and the general who killed her one true love.
I’m sorry about the long description of the story, but it was necessary to explain what this five hour epic was about, and even what I wrote is lacking in much of the detail of what really happens in these films, and how the first leads in to the second.
These films are the kinds of epics that Fritz Lang became famous for. Penned by he and his wife, Thea von Harbou, and with the full weight of the UFA studios behind him, he crafted what many believe to be an incredible masterpiece, and what oddly enough, would turn out to be the favorite films of Adolph Hitler. There’s far more to talk about than I could ever get into this review in a reasonable amount of time, so I think I’ll just cover the high and low points of each film.
The most striking thing about Sigfried are sets. This is something I’ve long been astonished at in silent films, is the use of really large and amazing sets that, at the time, must have cost a fortune to build and taken a considerable amount of manpower. Not only the sets themselves, but the way the cameras are used on the sets to create the perfect mood or to capture just the right light and shadowing. The Nibelungen lair was particularly amazing, as it had a large number of dwarves in chains holding up the Nibelungen treasure on this huge dish, and then after the defeat of the Nibelungen leader at the hands of Sigfried, they all turn to stone. It was a wonderful visual achievement and very intense to watch. The Dragon though, stole the show. The dragon that Sigfried encounters is actually a 60 ft. model that is manipulated by a team of men inside. It moves, it drinks, it breaths fire and tries to fight back against Sigfried. Naturally it’s movements in battle were somewhat limited, but the whole thing looked amazing, and must have taken an incredible amount of thought, talent and work to pull it off.
The not so good:
This film is slow, and I mean, really slow at times. It’s two and a half hours long, but the amount of story, if they had cut out much of the people standing around looking all dramatic, and other unnecessary scenes, it could have probably all been squeezed into an hour and a half, to an hour and forty-five minutes with better pacing and a more concise story.
As for the acting, it was mostly terrible. Sigfried looks like he’s on crack half the time. The king is spends most of his time looking like an autistic suffering from depression, his general, Hagen Tronje, mostly stands around staring at people, trying to look imposing, Brunhild is just the definition of a man hating shrew, and Krimehild, well, here’s what I have to say about Krimehild. People say that Buster Keaton was stone faced, but he had nothing on this girl. She makes Kristen Stewart look positively giddy. She really has two main looks. Stone faced and bored, or eyes wide with rage, but without the facial expression that goes along with the emotion. She spends the entirety of both films walking around in this drape that makes her look more like a chess piece than a woman, and generally there’s just nothing appealing about her look or her personality, so Sigfried really sort of wasted a trip. Then again, I guess she could have looked like Brunhild, so in comparison, she wasn’t that bad.
The costumes were something else that was generally pretty horrible. Sigfried, the trolls and the Nibelungen all dressed like cavemen. It wasn’t until later on when Sigfried got to Worms that we actually saw real costumes and armor. The armor was decent looking, but the regular costumes tended to be these big, baggy, shapeless drapes of cloth, sometimes tied with a belt at the middle. Hagen Tronje’s helmet had these giant black wings sticking out of it, so he looked like a big bird. Speaking of birds, Brunhild’s helmet was ridiculous. It looked like a pheasant swallowed a big soup pot and then they killed it and she stuck the soup pot on her head, with the wings and head still sticking out like some crazy cartoon. The sad part is, the rest of her armor looked really nice. It was just the helmet that was ridiculous.
Finally, and this was the stupid thing for me. Everyone and their cousin seemed to know that Sigfried had a vulnerable spot, but only Krimehild knew where it was on his back. It was the spot the leaf covered while he was bathing in the dragon’s blood. So how did even he know he had a vulnerable spot, and if he did, why didn’t he remove the leaf if he knew it was there, so he didn’t end up with one? Seriously, if you know, you peel off the leaf and fix the spot. If you don’t, then no one else would know either unless you happened to get wounded in that one little spot. So the whole thing of even Sigfried knowing about the spot didn’t make a lot of sense, but it made even less sense that Krimehild would know, and know exactly where it was, and even less sense than that that the general would have known about it to ask her its location in the first place.
Now, for Kriemhild’s Revenge…
Again, the sets are the stars of the show. In this film, we spend a lot of time with Atilla and the Huns, so the land looks desolate. They live and act like primitives, and the sets reflect the darker mood and the characters in the film perfectly. This film is in fact very dark in mood, which in and of itself is not so much because of the Huns, but really it’s more of an embodiment of Kriemhild’s rage and desire for revenge. The look of the sets are almost a visual representation of her mindset after the loss of her beloved Sigfried.
Atilla himself was truly ghastly to look at. He literally looked like some kind of a mutant, with a weird shaped head. He was like a caveman trying to act civilized in Kriemhild’s presence. The thing is, he truly did love her, even though he knew she would never be able to return that love, because the only man she would ever love was Sigfried. Still his desire to fulfill her wish to avenge Sigfried, caused him to follow a plan that not only results in the death of their young son that pushes Atilla to an almost catatonic state of shock, but it also cost the lives of countless people, including Kriemhild’s own family, and a ridiculous number of Huns, of which there seemed to be an endlessly teaming amount.
This film is far less slow than the first film as well. There’s a lot more going on and the whole thing flows better because of it. That’s not to say it doesn’t get bogged down in slow parts from time to time, but in general, it doesn’t suffer from the long periods of slowness that Sigfried did.
The Not So Good:
Kriemhild’s lack of emotion and the ability to show unbridled rage and hatred with just the look in her eyes really worked well in this film. Unfortunately, there were other times, as with the first film, where she just sat there, staring out blankly at nothing, looking like a chess piece waiting to be moved.
Atilla the hun was this conqueror who was incredibly feared, but in this film, he came off more like a lovesick mutant who just wanted to be loved and to be a good father. Once Kriemhild became pregnant (which was a rather disgusting thought to be honest), he lost intrest in conquest and spent most of his time sleeping, which caused some of his men to become disgruntled. Still, they followed him nonetheless. This was not the Atilla of legend however. This one seemed bent to the will of a woman, and to be honest, he seemed like a pretty decent guy as well, capable of love and kindness and a desire to please and take care of his family. This worked well within the confines of the story, because it allowed Kriemhild to be the main focus of hatred and rage, but within the confines of realism, it just didn’t seem right.
Finally, this film was once again really quite long. It’s not as long as the first one, but it’s still over two hours. There are bits of it that I think could have been compressed down to some degree, but I didn’t feel the overwhelming sense of slowness I felt with the first film. This one felt like it had more going on, and had it going on more consistently than the first film, and if my memory serves me, I believe this one had more dialog as well, in the form of the intertitles, which really helped to avoid some of the slowness of the first film.
Taken together, these films are a nearly five hour epic that was a monumental achievement when you consider when it was made. With huge sets, a massive cast and a story straight out of legend, these films are really a spectacular accomplishment, and well worth your time to watch. Yes they’re slow at times, but somehow, they get past that and actually make you want to keep watching to see what’s going to happen next rather than leaving you bored and looking for the eject button. While it’s not the spectacle that Metropolis would eventually be, it still creates an amazingly dark world that will suck you in and hold you from start to finish.
The films themselves look spectacular thanks to the restoration. You’ll be amazed at how good they look when you consider that as of 2013, they turn 89 years old.
For special features, this release includes:
A new restoration of both films by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung.
The original 1924 score by Gotfried Huppertz, presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0 stereo.
A 68 minute documentary on the making and restoration of the film called "The Legacy of Die Nibelung", produced by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung in cooperation with Filmmuseum Potsdam. A film by Guido Altendorf and Anke Wilkening.
Newsreel footage of Fritz Lang on the set of Die Nibelungen.
If you’d like to find out more about this release, you can check out its page on the Kino Lorber website here, and if you’d like to pick up a copy for yourself, you can get the DVD or blu-ray releases from Amazon, or from any of the other usual outlets.