Die Nibelungen (“The Nibelungens”) (1924) Director: Fritz Lang
Following the demoralizing end of World War I, the German nation was in a state of anxious frustration. The Germans had grown to despise the crushing war reparations and humiliation at the hands of the West, at the same time there was widespread economic inflation and they faced their own string of internal political chaos. Fritz Lang believed the time was ripe for a cinematic rebirth of the classic Germanic epic Die Nibelungen, a tale filled with medieval gallantry, Teutonic nostalgia, dragons, betrayals, and redemption –a brand of German nationalistic fervor on the silver screen which was sure to compete with the growing dominance of Hollywood. Lang would be blissfully unaware of what this reactionary brand of Germanic nationalism would soon unleash. Die Nibelungen was actually released as two separate films released two months apart, featuring both Part I “Siegfried” as well as Part II “Kriemhild’s Revenge” separately distributed. Fritz Lang co-wrote the screenplays for both films with his then-wife, and they based the stories on the the medieval epic poem of the same name, the same epic myth which gave rise to Richard Wagner’s operatic Ring cycle.
Die Nibelungen is an epic masterpiece from Fritz Lang, further cementing his reputation as the “master of darkness” and reminding us why he remains of the definitive directors of the silent era. In this film, we are offered a stylized view of imagined history –an ornamental history with rich, earthy landscapes and stylized medieval decor which give us a sense of an ancient Germanic Fatherland and a celebrated a sense of national pride to a downtrodden audience. It is almost as if watching a distant relic of a bygone heroic age. While portions of Die Nibelungen were used for Nazi propaganda, a closer look reveals a more nuanced message. Part I celebrates the tragic and betrayed hero (a theme which Nazis were quick to embrace) however Part II flips the narrative and examines whether vengeance is either cathartic or desirable.
The whole of the film is constructed as if modeled on a Romantic, Germanic fairy tale, with castles and forests and all manner of imagined Anglo-Saxon lore. It tells the story of prince Siegfried, a pastoral and Edenic figure, who ventures forth to win the princess Kriemhild’s hand in marriage, but first he is instructed to cross through a dangerous forest where he encounters a dragon which he slays and then bathes in its blood, thus making him invincible, save for one lone spot on his back where a leaf accidentally covered his shoulder from the dragon’s blood. As a result, Siegfried can now communicate with birds, as well. He battles with Alberich, the dwarf king of the mountain, who curses Siegfried as the dwarves are turned to stone and Siegfried gains their power of invisibility along with the vast Nibelungen treasure. He arrives in Burgundy (at Worms) and helps his brother Hagen wed his own princess Brunhild, and using his power of invisibility, persuades Brunhild to submit in the bedroom to Hagen. Siegfried is then granted his chance to win the princess Kriemhild’s hand in marriage. However, the first part ends in tragedy as Siegfried is betrayed and killed. His leaf-covered weak spot is revealed and the princess Brunhild, suspicious of foul-play regarding her maidenhood, calls for the death of Siegfried at the hands of his brother, Hagen. in sorrow, Brunhild commits suicide at the feet of Siegfried’s corpse and Kriemhild promises revenge. This tragic narrative of betrayal became a metaphor used by the Nazis for the German people’s own betrayal –being stabbed in the back by their brother countries and blamed for World War I.
The triumph of Fritz Lang’s ornamental aesthetic continues in Part II as Kriemhild is portrayed as a grim and wandering widow who thinks only of revenge after the death of Siegfried. She tries to bribe the German people to rise up against the rule of Hagen, but she soon turns elsewhere for help –from Attila the Hun. In the film, the Huns are starkly contrasted with the German court –they are portrayed as savage and animalistic. This blatantly outlandishly racist presentation is mirrored by the anti-semitic tropes of the dwarves in Part I, however Part II of this film series offers a grittier, darker landscape as we fall deeper into the maniacal mind of Kriemhild who is determined to destroy Hagen. She now becomes our mad protagonist, having been transformed from a chaste and virtuous lady in the first film, into a sinister vengeful warrior-widow in the second. In seeking to battle monsters, she becomes one herself. Gone are the simple idyllic pleasures of talking to birds, forest dragons, and mountain dwarves as in Part I. Instead, now we have entered an apocalyptic film of hellfire as Kriemhild burns down the German court, and Hagen is beheaded when he refuses to reveal the location of the Nibelugen treasure. All are destroyed –including Kriemhild. Perhaps this is why the German nationalists were more critical Fritz Lang’s second part of the film series, as there is no redemption found in vengeance.