by Allan Fish
(Germany 1924 291m) DVD1
Aka. The Nibelungen/Siegfried’s Tod & Kriemhild’s Rache
Lang slays the dragon
p Erich Pommer d Fritz Lang w Thea Von Harbou ph Carl Hoffman, Günther Rittau ed Fritz Lang m Gottfried Huppertz art Otto Hunte, Karl Vollbrecht, Erich Kettelhut cos Paul Gerd Guderian dream sequence Walter Ruttmann
Paul Richter (Siegfried), Margarete Schön (Kriemhild), Theodore Loos (Gunther), Hannah Ralph (Brunhilde), Rudolph Klein Rogge (Attila the Hun), Georg August Koch (Hildebrund), Bernhard Göetzke (Volker Von Alzey), Gertrud Arnold (Queen Ure), Frida Richard (Maiden of Runes), Hans Adalbart Schelettow (Hagen Tronje),
Fritz’s Lang’s epic two part adaptation of the same Germanic myths that influenced Wagner’s “Ring” cycle is undoubtedly one of the most epic pieces of cinema ever made, a true example of the cinema of wonder. Ever since its release eighty years ago critics have eulogised over its operatic treatment, its epic conception and design and its truly awe-inspiring visuals. If one wants to study where the cinematic journey to Jackson’s magisterial Tolkien trilogy began, it’s to Lang that you must look. Indeed, as David Thomson has pointed out, perhaps Jackson should get around to the Germanic legends some time as he’s the only director who could remotely do them justice.
Lang’s films, like Jackson’s, were a labour of love, and the communication of that passion to the audience is the greatest test of any film-maker undertaking such a gargantuan personal enterprise. Lang’s achievement all the richer when you compare it to the numerous attempts at Arthurian legend (also a source of Wagnerian epics), of which only Excalibur and Lancelot du Lac remain of interest. It’s certainly no wonder Hitler and Goebbels rated them so highly, as not only were they dedicated to the German nation and people, but contained a pure Aryan superman of a hero, doomed to be undone by his own Achilles heel like the original Greek at the walls of Troy. Certainly the northern Burgundians being shown to be the villains – all darkened hair and forbidding castles, treachery around every corner – would have been appreciated by the Nazis, as would portraying the vicious Atilla the Hun (of the eastern races) as a weakling to rival Sam Jaffe’s Tsar Peter in The Scarlet Empress, but that was more down to Von Harbou’s nationalist scenario input, not Lang’s. He was merely attempting to breathe fire into the dragon – literally in the early sequence where Siegfried slays the same mythical beast and bathes in its blood – and reinvent the legends for the seventh art. On that level alone it is a stupendous achievement, its linear halls and almost symmetrical mise-en-scène reeking of majesty and so many epic scenes that stay ingrained in the memory banks; the marriage of Siegfried and Kriemhild, the casting of the giant sword, the final massacre of the Burgundians, the human-shield gangway of the royal barge, not to mention Ruttmann’s abstract dream of the hawks.
Though one cannot underestimate the photography of Hoffman and Rittau and the amazing sets of Otto Hunte and his team (especially Worms cathedral, the hall of the Huns and the towering trees of the magical Gothic forest), it’s always Lang who’s at the helm. Between them they conjure up an epic fairy tale of treachery and despair, punctuated by the odd moment of heroism and romance, in which the cast are merely pawns in the director’s hand, contributing deliberately exaggerated turns perfectly suited to the treatment (especially Schön’s deliberately unfeminine Kriemhild and Schelletow’s treacherous Hagen). Influential to Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky and Ford’s Knights of the Teutonic Order, Lang’s film towers over nearly all silent films in scope, rivalling Wagner’s operatic cycle in majesty. Though perhaps surprising that no-one has ever released them accompanied by Wagner’s music, remember what Woody Allen said in Manhattan Murder Mystery; “I can’t listen to too much Wagner. I start getting the urge to invade Poland.”