Sturm Warning: Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924) – Masters of Cinema Blu-ray review
Five hours. That’s how it takes to go from “bloody hell, this is hard going” to actually seeing a convincing portrait of ‘bloody hell’ on screen.
(Fritz Lang, 1924)
Richard Wagner’s famous opera, The Ring Of The Nibelung, lasts for around 15 hours, so it’s actually something of a mercy that Fritz Lang’s fantasy diptych – based on the same epic poem that inspired Wagner – runs at a mere five hours. It’s still a hard slog, but worth it: if the first film (Siegfried) is sometimes flawed and flabby, the second (Kriemhild’s Revenge) is as precise and lethal as an arrow.
There’s a lot of story, but Lang always has a lot of story. The difference here is that he hasn’t yet developed the pace that would see his later films, especially those in Hollywood, chew up and spit out narrative twists like it was Lang’s last meal. This is far more measured: an effect of being silent, no doubt, but also of prestige. This is Germany’s founding myth in the same way that, say, The Birth Of A Nation was for American cinema, and the length is a boast of fidelity to the size of the story. The influence of Die Nibelugen can be seen today in the likes of The Lord Of The Rings: the idea that everything must be filmed at length, often to the point of overkill.
And then it hits you. Some things haven’t changed. Lang was a hot property off the back of thriller Dr Mabuse, The Gambler (a mere four hours long) and given the chance to make the biggest film around. This was the 1920s equivalent of Christopher Nolan doing Batman Begins or – more pertinently, given the mythical creatures and tempestuous battles – Peter Jackson persuading the moneymen to make The Lord Of The Rings as a trilogy.
Obviously, some adjustment has to be factored in when looking at the effects, but it’s more instructive to realise what a technical marvel this must have been in 1924. In just twenty years, cinema has come a long way from Voyage To The Moon in the treatment of the unreal; while Lang uses as many double exposures, painted backdrops and animation as Melies, events are no longer filmed as if there’s a proscenium arch, but that we’re there. There’s an uncanny, spectral air to the best sequences that excuses the longeurs in Siegfried, while the bustling activity of the sequel is intensely claustrophobic.
With virtually no camera movement, the films risk being static but Lang contrives indelible compositions and vivid ways of linking them. The imagery is elemental, hewn from stone or forged in steel, befitting the subject (an effect heightened by the gold-gone-sepia tinting of the print, the most striking thing about Masters of Cinema’s excellent Blu-ray edition). Even when a largely immobile dragon prop is wheeled into shot, its size and scale neuters the sniggers, and its tactility is enviable in our CGI world. In those days, you had to show what people saw, and the old-school fearlessness remains thrilling. Lang’s ambition is fully realised in the final hour: a sustained battle sequence whose mounting tension and dread hasn’t dated.
Given Lang’s later career, the most interesting thing is that he wanted to film this story at all, classic of German culture or not. His hero, Siegfried is, to put it mildly, a dick: a glory-hunting narcissist who slaughters a creature while it’s chilling out and bathes in its blood to achieve (so he thinks) immortality, and who then assaults a woman under false pretences in order to ‘win’ his own bride. Said wife, Krienhild, turns out to be even more of a nutcase: a woman who sidles up to Atilla The Hun purely to engineer a vengeful bloodbath, and who spends most of the second film in love with a bag of soil.
It must have felt particularly medieval to the modernists of Weimar Germany… but then there were plenty of people around who quite fancied a bit of old-school nationalist pride. Die Nibelungen is just the kind of thing that might have appealed to the Nazis: after all, Siegfried and his bride are from good Aryan stock, while it’s not hard to see how Goebbels’ propaganda machine would paint the insane code of loyalty of the villainous Nibelungen as a bastion of nationalist pride and fervour. The fact that Lang doesn’t treat anybody’s martyrdom as tragic, but as the fruitless endgame of human fallibility, seems to have bypassed Hitler’s critical faculties, but it’s not as if this is the last time a fanboy would misinterpret a blockbuster.
The truth is, Lang really isn’t a man of the past. The lesson of Die Nibelungen would be to take the imagery of curses and prophecies, of bloodshed and revenge, and project them into the world he saw around him. That’s why it’s Kriemhild’s Revenge that stands up better than Siegfried: stripped entirely of fantasy elements, it’s a straight-down-the-line realpolitik thriller, in which the characters’ machinations descend into a horribly convincing slaughter. It’s a tighter, tougher affair, using the sheer weight of the first film to create its inexorable, fatalistic logic.
And it shows the difference between Lang and his modern heirs. Lang was realising how fast cinema could move: he’d never make a film quite as long as Die Nibelungen; by the time he reached Hollywood, he would pare his style down to a breathless compactness. Whereas Nolan and Jackson have got baggier, piling on the portentousness in the hope of finding greater profundity. In Lang’s vision, though, it’s not about how big you can get… but how hard you fall.