Die Nibelungen: Masters of Cinema Review

The Nibelungenlied (The Song of the Nibelungs) is an epic poem in Medieval High German. Existing manuscripts date from the thirteenth century but there's no doubt that the legends told in this poem go back further than that. A variant is the Volsung Saga, which I first encountered as a child in a book of Norse mythology taken from the library. (No doubt the incest between Sigmund – Siegmund in the Germanic variation - and his sister Signy were taken out of that version.) The Volsung Saga has fascinated me ever since, and clearly that's been the case with many other people. The Nibelungenlied formed the basis of Richard Wagner's opera-cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (either a tetralogy or a trilogy with a shorter prologue, depending on how you define it). The saga in either version has been the basis of novels, either retelling the story straight or in other retellings (for example, Melvin Burgess's young-adult science-fictional take, Bloodsong and Bloodtide). In the cinema, in 2004 we had a television miniseries which was also released theatrically, known variously as Ring of the Nibelungs, Sword of Xanten and Dark Kingdom: The Dragon King. But the definitive screen version has to be Fritz Lang's version, made eighty years earlier in two parts: Siegfried and Kriemhilds Rache (Kriemhild's Revenge), released in February and April 1924.

Soon after films became feature-length, producers soon decided that epic scale (and epic length) would be a draw for audiences. The Italian Cabiria (1914) was widely influential, and in Hollywood D.W. Griffith delivered his The Birth of a Nation (1915, itself a forthcoming Masters of Cinema release) and Intolerance (1916). Given the centrality of the Nibelungenlied in German culture, it was a natural choice for large-scale – and expensive – treatment, and the task fell to Vienna-born Lang, by then a German citizen, who adapted the saga with his wife, Thea von Harbou. If you aren't familiar with the legends in any of its variants, be aware that plot spoilers will follow from this point in this review onwards – go to “The Discs” if you wish to avoid them.

Lang and von Harbou's adaptation removes the first third of the saga, dealing with the life and death of King Siegmund, and starts with Sigmund's son Siegfried (Paul Richter) learning to forge a sword at the smithy of Mime the Dwarf (Georg John). Siegfried hears of the Kings of Burgundy and their beautiful daughter Kriemhild (Margarete Schön) and he vows to win her hand in marriage. But first there is a dragon, Fafner, to slay – and a very impressive beast he is too, not a miniature but a sixty-foot creation built especially for the film, operated by seventeen men inside it. Siegfried kills the dragon, and bathing in its blood makes his body invulnerable...except for a spot between his shoulders where a leaf landed and kept the blood away. The storyline follows that of the saga, with Siegfried's friendship with King Gunther (Theodor Loos), Kriemhild's brother, and his use of magic to enable Gunther to win the hand of Brunhild (Hanna Ralph), the Queen of Iceland, who is not a Valkyrie as she is in the Volsung Saga and in Wagner's opera.

Kriemhild's Revenge takes up the story following Siegfried's betrayal and murder by Gunther's advisor Hagen (Hans Adalbert Schlettow), at the instigation of Brunhild, who later kills herself. Kriemhild swears revenge...

All this was done in studios, or the UFA backlot, and the two films took nine months to complete. The vast forest sets were erected outside, and real snow covers them in the winter scenes. For the final conflagration, Lang had his castle set alight. Die Nibelungen, four and three quarter hours over its two parts, is certainly a monumental work, an epic in every sense, and watching it is an overwhelming experience. It was too in its day: in a Germany that would within a decade see the rise of Nazism, it's not hard to see in Paul Richter's blond, musclebound Siegfried, an Aryan hero that suited the time and country that produced him. In fact, Die Nibelungen was a favourite film of both Hitler and Goebbels. Some commentators have sensed anti-Semitism in the portrayal of Alberich with his allegedly Jewish features. Thea von Harbou was to remain in Germany when Lang was to leave the country, and her subsequent history remains controversial as a result. Die Nibelungen is a film which troubles as it impresses, but impress it certainly does.

The Discs

Masters of Cinema's release of Die Nibelungen comprises two BD50 discs encoded for Region B. Siegfried (149:54) is on Disc One, while Kriemhild's Revenge (131:08) is on Disc Two. The above running times include opening captions (in German) describing the restoration. This is a review of the Blu-ray edition. There is also a two-DVD set, and affiliate links for that can be found here.

The transfers of both films are in the ratio of 1.33:1 and are presented in 1080p. The films have been restored by the F.W. Murnau-Stiftung and look very impressive. Shot in black and white, they are tinted orange almost throughout. Grain is certainly present, as it should be, and it looks natural and filmlike. Inevitably, given that these films are nearly ninety years old, some damage remains with minor scratches and the like, but surprisingly little to distract.

The soundtrack presents Gottfried Huppertz's orchestral score either in DTS-HD MA 5.1 and LPCM 2.0. Either way, it's a full-bodied track which presents a suitably operatic score very well. This silent film has intertitles in German with optional English subtitles translating them and also the opening captions referred to above.

The only on-disc extra is on Disc Two, Das Erbe der Nibelungen (The Heritage of Die Nibelungen, 71:25), a very thorough documentary produced by the F.W.Murnau-Stiftung, detailing the film's production, including contemporary newsreel and audio recordings of reminiscences by cast members, the variant versions (different negatives were produced for export versions, with slight differences of framing and performance) and the neglect that the film fell into over the years, and its restoration. It's an exemplary account of this film, and my only criticism is that it could have been subdivided into chapters for ease of reference. The documentary is in a ratio of 1.78:1 and is narrated in German with optional English subtitles.

However, the extras do not end there, but they continue with a 56-page booklet. This begins with an extract from Lotte H. Eisner's 1976 book Fritz Lang, detailing the film's production but also its later resonance with the Nazis. It is followed by “The Decay of Myth”, a 2000 piece excerpted from Tom Gunning's 2000 book The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Mortality. Then there is Lang himself, three brief pieces on the film, from 1965, 1970 and 1975, and a brief 1981 account by Michael Powell of his first viewing of the film in a cinema in Bournemouth, and a poem, “Ground Speech (after Fritz Lang)” by Geoffrey O'Brien, inspired by the film. Finally, Anke Wilkening discusses the whys and wherefores of the tinting of this film, and whether or not to follow the usual convention – which some prints of Die Niebelungen apparently followed – of using orange for daytime, blue for night and red for the fire scenes, or to to leave the film in black and white, or, as in the version on this Blu-ray, to tint the film almost entirely in orange. The booklet also includes film and disc credits and a large number of stills.

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