“I think that the Otasringar are shaped by the ancient forest that surrounds the rock, just as those giant tree trunks made their mark on me when I guided my horse between them just a few years ago. There’s very little green in the city, and what trees and shrubs there are get snipped and pruned carefully. It’s as if the Otasringar fear the forest so much that they’ve hewn a culture from granite, with high walls and small windows, to keep it out. Yet with those looming, stark buildings and those winding streets, they ended up living in an echo of the very forest they sought to escape.”
We were looking for a setting for The Return of the Uncomplaining Child, the third story in The Red Man and Others, when we bought the Eureka! Masters of Cinema edition of Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924), wonderfully restored by the Murnau Stiftung. “That’s it,” we thought. So, Siegfried’s forest becomes the forest surrounding the rock of Otasfaust, and the castle of Worms becomes Otasring, but perched on the giant rock on which we find Brunhild’s fortress.
It was in Die Nibelungen that Hitler found the myth that would shape his Third Reich, though it seems that what had him on the edge of his seat are the elements that aged the least well. Siegfried (Paul Richter) doesn’t quite have the physique that you’d expect, not helped by the outsized fur diaper he’s wearing. The dragon is not the miracle of movie magic either, being more like Georges Méliès’ early century paper mache creatures than Willis O’Brien’s stop motion dinosaurs in The Lost World of a year later.
However, when Siegfried comes to the civilised world of the medieval city of Worms, what impresses most is the architecture and set design, which can best be described as ‘monumental’. The design of the costumes mostly works, with its emphasis on bold shapes and patterns. Only here and there they are undermined by the actors wearing them, like King Gunther (Theodor Loos), who looks like a chubby boy playing dress-up.
From a 21st century perspective, Siegfried comes across as a bit of a jerk at times, and the blonde folk of Worms are definitely not written as the good guys. It would be tempting to imagine the Nazis didn’t understand the movie, but it’s more likely that they interpreted the film and its themes as suited them, whatever its authors intended (writer Thea von Harbau went on to work for the Reich, while her husband Fritz Lang fled to America).
Die Niebelungen is not Siegfried’s film, really. He’s the gun on the wall in the first act that gets shot in the third. He’s the Macguffin, the engine of change. In reality, the film belongs to its women, Brunhild (Hannah Ralph) and Kriemhild (Margarete Schön). Whereas the men behave like boys, and are acted with big gestures, it’s the women who have real emotions. Brunhild is the strong woman who is wooed with chicanery, with an invisible Siegfried helping King Gunther win the challenges she sets him. Then, when Gunther is unable to perform in the marriage bed, Siegfried has to stand in again. Truth outs, though, and while the men, including Hagen (Hans Adalbert Schlettow) were dishonest, Brunhild comes right out with it in the open and demands the life of the man who robbed her of her virginity. Damn right; justice for Iceland queens!
So, what’s a king to do than stab his buddy in the back. That, of course really, really upsets Siegfried’s wife Kriemhild. As opposed to some other actors in the movie, who like their grand, operatic gestures, Schön emotes mostly with her face. Kriemhild’s looks reduce her brother and the other knights to a locker room of boys who have to bandy together to stand against one angry woman.
It is a prequel to what’s to come in the second part of Die Nibelungen: Kriemhild’s Revenge! I actually prefer this second part; it’s got less hokey bits, its scale is even bigger, and there’s an all-prevailing sense of doom hanging over the whole thing, with Kriemhild a killer queen whose revenge is terrifying but who never loses our sympathy (hello, Maleficent?). Meanwhile, the boys remain loyal to each other, no matter their misdeeds. Nibelungentreue still suit the modern day Tiki-torches brigades well.
The two Nibelungen movies are still worth watching; Siegried may be the best known, but for my money Kriemhild’s Rache is as strong if not stronger. As with all movies of the silent era, Die Nibelungen relies heavily on visuals to tell the story, so do yourself a favour: watch a good looking version, not some Xth generation copy off YouTube!