Bright Lights Film Journal

Kill Hagen! – Lang’s Kriemhild And Her Revenge

A 5-hour epic film in two parts about a bride who swears vengeance on the conspirators who killed her husband. That’s Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. It’s also an accurate description of Fritz Lang’s 1924 fantasy classic, Die Nibelungen, Part 1: Siegfrieds Tod (Siegfried’s Death), and Part 2: Kriemhilds Rache (Kriemhild’s Revenge).

Unlike Tarantino’s Bride, Lang’s Kriemhild (Margarete Schoen) doesn’t start out as a warrior woman. When we first meet her, she is the beautiful and demure, blonde-braided sister of the head “Nibelung,” King Gunther. Part 1 is dominated by the heroic Siegfried, slayer of dragons, to whom Kriemhild is betrothed. But the narrative arc that carries us through both parts of Lang’s epic is the evolution of Kriemhild from blushing bride to avenging goddess.

The Siegfried-centered Part 1, the epic’s “Yang” half, is lighter and more magical – more “fun” – than its second half. So much so that it’s difficult to watch Part 1, with its fantastic landscapes, its dragon, dwarves, and cloak of invisibility, without being reminded of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. Or Lucas’s Star Wars. Lang’s Nibelungen is the prototype for all subsequent fantasy epics.

In Part 1, we also meet the conspirators whose greed and envy leads to the murder of Siegfried. There is the aforementioned brother of Kriemhild, King Gunther,(whose wimpiness might remind you of Bill’s brother, Budd), the bearded warrior Hagen (whose eyepatch might remind you of Kill Bill’s Elle Driver), and the amazonian Queen Brunhild (above – think of Kill Bill‘s O-Ren and her warriors). Hateful Hagen is the one who actually throws the fatal spear through Siegfried, but he is protected from Kriemhild’s wrath by King Gunther and his cohorts.
Kriemhild’s Revenge, the film’s “Yin” half (above), is darker and more slowly paced than Part 1. There is no magic, only political intrigue punctuated by sporadic bursts of violence, closer to something like Anthony Mann’s El Cid. A shot of Eastern potentate Attila (Rudolph Klein-Rogge) surrounded by celebrating followers reminded me of a similar shot in Miller & Snyder’s 300. Part 2 essentially consists of the grimly charismatic Kriemhild trying to enlist others to carry out her vendetta against Hagen, et al. When even Attila and all of his Huns fail at the task, Kriemhild wields the sword herself.
The presence of so many powerful women in Lang’s silent films can be attributed to Lang’s wife, Thea Von Harbou. It was she who co-authored with Lang the screenplays for Die Nibelungen, Metropolis, Spies, and Woman on the Moon. However, even after Lang left Nazi Germany – and Von Harbou – strong women continued to appear in his work. Think of Marlene Dietrich in Rancho Notorious, Barbara Stanwyck in Clash by Night, Gloria Grahame in The Big Heat. As for Die Nibelungen‘s look, Lang’s distinctly architectural sense of design is visible in every shot.
A first person account by Rudolph Klein-Rogge, the actor who portrayed the original Dr. Mabuse, and who also appeared in Die Nibelungen, Metropolis, Spies, etc., helps to explain why Lang’s filmic fantasies have been so influential (thanks to Kathy Christon at the Rudolph Klein-Rogge Fanpage for the translation):
We believe! That is the root of the matter. But there is one who believes more than anyone else! You can see it in his face. You can see it in his sunken eyes that do not miss the minutest of details. But Fritz Lang does not only believe in his creation – that goes without saying. He believes in the power of “Nichtwirklichkeit” (fantasy), he believes in the power of that which has never taken place at any time or in any place, “was sich nie und nirgends hat begeben”, and which therefore remains eternally youthful.
There’s a bonus for those who watch the Kino restored version of Die Nibelungen; it is accompanied by Gottfried Huppertz’s original 1924 orchestral score. The music is perfectly synchronized to the visuals, lushly romantic in the German sense, but not too Wagnerian. In fact, Lang was known to protest when Wagner was used to accompany Die Nibelungen, a work which Lang considered to be uniquely his own.

[The preceding is Bright Lights After Dark’s belated contribution to last week’s Action Heroine Blog-a-Thon.]