Director: Fritz Lang
PART 1: SIEGFRIED
PART 2: KRIEMHILDS RACHE
Production: Decla-Bioscop-Ufa Studios (Decla-Bioscop and Ufa merged during production); black and white, 35mm; silent; Part I: Siegfried; length: 3216 meters originally; released 14 February 1924; Part II: Kriemhilds Rache (Kriemhild's Revenge); length: 3576 meters; released 26 April 1924. Both parts were combined in a shortened version of 2743 meters, with music from Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen as arranged by Hugo Reisenfeld, released in 1925. Part I released in 1933 in a 688-meter version under the title Siegfrieds Tod. Parts 1 and 2 filmed simultaneously between 1922–1924 in Decla-Bioscop-Ufa Studios in Berlin.
Screenplay: Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang, from the opera Das Nibelungenlied by Richard Wagner and from Norse sagas; photography: Carl Hoffman and Günther Rittau, with Walter Ruttman ("Dream of the Falcon" sequence); art directors: Otto Hunte, Erich Kettelhut, and Karl Vollbrecht; music: Gottfried Huppertz; costume designers: Paul Gerd Guderian (who died during production) and Anne Willkomm; armor and weapons: Heinrich Umlauff.
Cast: Paul Richter (Siegfried); Margarethe Schön (Kriemhild); Theodor Loos (King Gunther); Hanna Ralph (Brunhild); Georg John (Mime, the Smith, and Alberich); Gertrud Arnold (Queen Ute); Hans Carl Müller (Gerenot); Erwin Biswanger (Giselher); Bernhard Goetske (Volker von Alzey); Hans Adalbert Schlettow (Hagen Tronje); Rudolf Rittner (Markgraf Rüdiger von Bechlarn); Hardy von Francois (Dankwart); Fritz Alberti (Dietrich von Bern); Georg August Koch (Hildebrand); Rudolph Klein-Rogge (King Etzel); Hubert Heinrich (Werbel); Grete Berger (Hun); Frida Richard (Lecturer); Georg Jurowski (Priest); Iris Roberts (Page); Rose Lichtenstein.
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* * *
The filming of a national epic was a large undertaking even for Fritz Lang. Die Nibelungen emerged as a masterpiece of design based on a script by the talented Thea von Harbou, Lang's wife. It was an architectural concept from beginning to end (Lang himself had been an architect), and it was a triumph of studio craftsmanship at which the Germans excelled. The castles, the forests, the brooks and caverns were all studio-made.
The story fell naturally into two parts: the love of Siegfried and Kriemhild ending in his death and the vengeance of Kriemhild wreaking destruction on her husband's murderers; to this end she gives herself to the barbarian Attila and uses her power to destroy her brothers and the sinister Hagen Tronje. The essential drama of the film lies in the contrast between the stately formal beauty of the first part and the desolate and arid lovelessness of part two. The formal patterns, magnificent though they are, exclude dynamic development, and the progress of the film is slow and static. The Soviet critic Vladimir Nilsson faults the film on these grounds. In Part 2, however, the revenge of Kriemhild hastens the pace until the final holocaust.
The version of the saga used by Lang is very different from that used by Wagner. It is concerned less with Gods and more with human beings. In their symmetrical patterned costumes Lang's people are still human; the world of magic which he evokes does not diminish them. Without any tricks of editing or visual fireworks, Lang approaches his subject with sober observation. It is nevertheless a magic world. The tall stately trees of the forest, the flower-laden banks of streams, the great steps of the cathedral, the drawbridges high in the air, the armour of the knights are all part of a world designed by Lang and his architect, Kettelhut. Scene after scene is memorably beautiful: the fight with the dragon; the flaming fortress of Brunhilde; the great cathedral of Worms.
The acting is strong and firm with a finely contrasted performance by Margarethe Schön as Kriemhild, the gentle lover who becomes the half-demented fury. In the final catastrophe, as the crazed widow of Siegfried sways in front of the blazing hostel, one thinks of the fanatical woman outside the burning jail in Lang's first American film, Fury. The theme of the dual nature of woman is a recurring one with Lang to which he returns in Metropolis in which Maria and the Robot represent the forces of love and destructiveness.
It is interesting to compare this early film with John Boorman's Excalibur (1981), because they have so many elements in common. But the tautness of Lang's structure gains over the looser and more diffused film by Boorman. Die Nibelungen is a film without offspring, a beautiful pageant by a master, to be admired and enjoyed for its own sake.