Reviews

Die Nibelungen: Siegfried (1924) and related work:

Die Nibelungen: Siegfried (1924) IMDb

Seen in 2019.

I saw the 2010 restoration.

The plot is awful. Iron-jawed maidens wrestle callous men in dresses in a way that makes me think of Shana Mlawski’s “Why Strong Female Characters Are Bad for Women” (Overthinking It, 2008). Specifically, there was an opportunity to adapt the legend’s Brünhild as a rounded and interesting character for the flapper age, but instead, she is only physically strong, and correspondingly stupid.

The plot hinges on Brünhild’s decision to await suitors inside a castle in a lake of fire. What does she eat in there, and what does she need a suitor for? We never learn. Dissatisfied with the man she calls her captor, she nonetheless abandons her home, following him to his castle, where she essentially demands to be raped. Nominally, this is so her captor can prove himself worthy of her. Having been raped, she’s proud of her new position in the Burgundian hierarchy until she finds out that the man who had sex with her was not actually the same one who overpowered her. It was rape by fraud rather than her preference, rape by force. Only when learning this, Brünhild is furious about being “betrayed” and lies to manipulate others to take her “revenge” for her, even though she herself is still the second strongest person in the known world, as far as we know. When she finally gets her way, she kills herself.

You could possibly explain, based on a proto-German medieval mentality, why some popular versions of the legend were written this way, but the adaptation does not manage to sell the drama with coherent style or characterization. Lang and von Harbou should have done better. There are several less ridiculous versions of the medieval legend where the same character does not demand to be taken by force and does not kill herself. On the other hand, there are sillier versions where the character definitely loses her power with her virginity, i.e. in which a woman’s physical power is a metaphor for her attractiveness within a monogamous Christian moral framework.

I like the huge scale of the production, the simple geometric patterns for the eye to trace, and the attempt to film the previous generation’s static visual adaptations of the mythology. The dwarves look like Arthur Rackham’s, their wood like John Bauer’s. The most lyrical imagery is the most successful: The sand animation of Kriemhild’s dream, and her more cheaply produced vision upon Siegfried’s death. The miniature castle shots are also nice, but the dragon leaves much to be desired: It’s a pretty good prop, but the pre-formalist cinematographer and editor didn’t know how to use it. Fast cuts and a mobile camera would have helped, instead of long, static, deep-focus shots of the poor thing just drooling and not hurting a soul. The tricks of nascent action cinema, as in “Sherlock Jr.” (1924), would also have been good for this blockbuster production.

References here: Hakujaden (1958), The Brothers Lionheart (1977), Fullmetal Alchemist the Movie: Conqueror of Shamballa (2005), Adventure Time (2010).

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Die Nibelungen: Kriemhild’s Revenge (1924) IMDb

Seen in 2019.

I saw the 2010 restoration.

This, the second part, is a good deal more interesting than the first. It is the larger spectacle, on the scale of Cabiria (1914). The crude folkloric-allegorical supernatural stuff is gone, but allegory is sustained in Attila’s degenerate horde. Their look is based on fluid medieval notions of the real Attila but the decor ranges even further afield, to loosely Mesoamerican motifs and amazing anthill designs: Anything alien to the German filmmakers. Rüdiger’s scale armour is similarly incorrect: It would be very nearly useless in combat, while Hagen is dressed in more practical mail from a later era.

Unlike Brünhild, Kriemhild is allowed to grow as a character, on the narrow path she chose at the end of the first half. The process of her revenge involves some impressive stunt work that looks genuinely dangerous. The particulars of the plot, however, are still not interesting: Only Kriemhild and Rüdiger are developed. Everyone else operates like a machine, following either some force of ancestral evil (Hagen), base interests (Attila) or an improbable idealization of feudal loyalty (“Treue”), presented in the mode of ancient Greek tragedies for the stage.

References here: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), Oldboy (2003).

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