“If head and heart are united, harmony can exist even in the midst of strife. Let them come into opposition, however, and chaos enters from which there is no escape and no conclusion possible except a tragic one.” — Francis G. Gentry. “Triuwe and Vriunt in the Nibelungenlied.” Amsterdam: Rodopi: 1975. p. 45.”Perception is everything. It turns villains into heroes and victims into collaborators.” — Hilary Mantel. “A Change of Climate.” New York: Henry Holt and Company: 1997. p. 317.
Released in 1924, Fritz Lang’s nearly five hour, two-part film, Die Nibelungen, isn’t new to home video, but with Kino Lorber’s recent Blu-ray release of the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Foundation’s 2010 restoration, it’s been granted a new life — and given us a chance to reevaluate Lang’s stunning achievement.
Premiering two years after Lang’s early masterwork Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler, Die Nibelungen swerved from the topical currency of the ’22 pulp thriller to leap with equal agility into the 13th-century chivalric medievalism of the film’s source, the epic poem Nibelungenlied. Composed around 1200, the poem, although coming down to us as text, was most likely meant to be recited. As live entertainment for a royal court, the Nibelungenlied told a very old story to a new audience. Its author, or poet — whether a knight, a cleric or a minstrel (all have been conjectured)1 — is unknown.
The poet created much of the Nibelungenlied by rounding up, expanding, and adapting mythic events and characters from shorter poems, or lays, that had simmered in a massive, wide-ranging folkloric zeitgeist since the 5th-century AD, when the Germanic region was still part of the Roman Empire and the tribes within it fought each other, the Empire’s legions, and the forces led by Attila the Hun. For example, it’s likely that a lay focusing on Siegfried’s death existed as early as the 6th or 7th century and that this could very well be the inspiration for the climax of the poem’s first half.2
Historical events and personages mix in, too. Attila and his hordes had made a forceful impression on the consciousness of 5th-century Germania, instigating a social trauma that survived, mythologized of course, all the way to the poet’s 13th century. As King Etzel, Attila himself appears in the poem’s second half, and the source for the story’s catastrophic climax appears to be a historic — and violent — event enacted by the Huns. A surviving Latin source (6th century or later) mentions the slaughter, in 437 AD, of a Burgundian host — led by their king Gundaharius — by an army of Huns, who were possibly in cahoots with a Roman general, Aetius.3
With its origins so obscure and so ancient, the poem’s tale is authentically strange, as many old stories are. Where it occasionally lacks coherence in its first half, its second half becomes a swift, propulsive tale of revenge. In a unique way, I think, Lang retained everything about the story that makes it old and strange and powerfully resonating at the same time, and he clearly relished the theme of revenge, as he would the rest of his career.
Like any skilled screenwriting team, Fritz Lang and his wife, Thea von Harbou, worked some changes on their source, and yet comparisons show how most often the alterations went to improving the dramatic effect of the story without disturbing its tragic essence.
Since Lang’s Die Nibelungen retains the narrative arc of the poem, the following synopsis is meant to encapsulate the plots of both film and poem (includes spoilers, as does the rest of this article):
Having gained physical invulnerability by slaying a dragon and bathing in its blood, then wealth by seizing the dwarf Alberich’s treasure, the famous hero Siegfried travels — with a retinue of 12 defeated kings — to the Burgundian city of Worms, confident he can win the hand of Kriemhild, the sister of King Gunther. Sealing a bond of friendship with Gunther, Siegfried agrees to a bargain proposed by the king’s chief retainer, Hagen: that, in order to gain the hand of Kriemhild, Siegfried must aid Gunther in the wooing of the Icelandic queen Brunhild, who has superhuman strength.
In Iceland, a magically invisible Siegfried enables Gunther to win the three contests of strength that the queen demands of a successful suitor. Back in Worms, a double wedding ensues, but Gunther finds he cannot consummate his nuptials with a bitter, uncooperative Brunhild. Once again, he seeks Siegfried’s help, and this time, via the magic of the Tarnhelm,4 Siegfried takes the form of Gunther and subdues Brunhild but without taking her maidenhead.
One morning on the cathedral steps, as Kriemhild and Brunnhild make their way to mass, the women quarrel over who should enter first. When Brunhild insists that Siegfried is nothing more than a vassal to Gunther and pulls rank, Kriemhild blurts out the truth of Brunhild’s wedding night with Gunther, revealing that it was Siegfried who subdued her. Gunther’s vassal, Hagen, views this humiliating exposure as a major affront to his lord’s honor and advises — along with Brunhild, who demands it — the murder of Siegfried.
During a contrived hunting party, Hagen slays Siegfried as he drinks at a spring, having wheedled from a naïve Kriemhild the location of his vulnerable spot where a linden leaf had blocked the flow of the dragon’s blood. Over her husband’s dead body, Kriemhild vows vengeance against Hagen, who stands defended and protected by her brothers. Hagen, realizing that her inherited wealth could be used to gather an army, submerges Siegfried’s Nibelungen treasure in the Rhine.
Powerless as an isolated woman, and now penniless, Kriemhild seriously considers an offer of marriage from King Etzel, as it is brokered by Lord Rüdiger. Traveling to the land of the Huns, Kriemhild agrees to the marriage, on the condition that King Etzel will defend her honor against anyone who wrongs it.
Once a son is born, Kriemhild engineers her revenge by inviting the Burgundian royalty to Etzel’s court, ostensibly to celebrate the birth; also present will be Etzel’s ad hoc vassal, Rüdiger, and the exiled king, Dietrich von Bern. Hagen knows Kriemhild’s ruse to be a trap but only seals his doom when, in response to the Hun’s beginning a slaughter of the Burgundian troops, he kills Etzel’s son in front of everyone in the banquet hall. Outraged by the act, the Huns, further spurred into action by Kriemhild, trap the Burgundians in the hall and set it on fire. As it collapses, Hagen and Gunther emerge from the inferno, the only survivors. With no hesitation, when Hagen refuses to yield the location of the Nibelungen treasure, Kriemhild orders her brother decapitated and, finally, executes Hagen herself. Hildebrand, Dietrich’s Master-at-Arms, emerges from the shadows and, crazed by the outrage he’s witnessed, runs Kriemhild through with his sword. Kriemhild dies.
The Nibelungenlied as a Source
For the modern English-speaking reader there are both verse and prose translations of the Middle High German original of the Nibelungenlied, and, if one wants some guidance to a literary work — and film — that sing of a vanished world, a bewildering mass of scholarship awaits.
I narrowed my exploration of the poem to a prose translation of its verse by A. T. Hatto (London, Penguin Classics, 2004, with introduction and notes by Hatto); a survey of the poem and its scholarship, The Nibelunglied, by Winder McConnell (Boston, MA, Twayne Publishers, 1984); and a concise, invaluable treatise on the poem’s overriding moral themes, Triuwe and Vriunt in the Nibelunglied, by Francis G. Gentry (Amsterdam, Rodopi, 1975).
Given the poem’s antiquity, the question arises: why attempt a film adaptation of this thing? The smallest bit of research brings the answer, which lies in the Nibelungenlied’s importance to German culture. Once this significance is grasped, the film’s patriotic title screen, “Dedicated to the German People,” becomes understandable, if still something of a puzzle.
The Nibelungenlied‘s elevation to Germany’s designated national epic is its own saga. While the poem, in its entirety, was lost in the centuries after its creation, the discovery of a surviving manuscript in the mid-18th century allowed it to be linked with Germanic nationalist fervor that erupted early in the 19th. Nation building began in the years following the Napoleonic conquests, and German patriots heralded the Nibelungenlied as the reigning national epic. Because the poem ends, not with a glorious victory for its peoples but with their annihilation, the honorific may seem curious to modern, non-German sensibilities, but experiencing the apocalyptic grandeur of the poem, you can see why it wedged itself securely into the German consciousness, which often seeks dark tales, with or without redemptive conclusions — as in the fables of the Brothers Grimm, or the music dramas of Richard Wagner.5
By the 1840s, the figure of Siegfried had attained the stature of a German Achilles, the national hero of a Teutonic Iliad.6 Midst all the excitement of German nationalism, Wagner, as had other composers such as Mendelssohn, thought of adapting the poem for an opera, but, as his politics and philosophic views evolved, realized that his ever-expanding concepts for the Ring cycle demanded far-ranging source material.
Many mistakenly believe Wagner adapted the Nibelungenlied for the whole of his massive cycle of four operas, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelungen), but the composer based only a portion of the last drama, Götterdämerung, on the events in the poem. For the rest he found inspiration in ancient Scandinavian sagas, such as the Volsunga saga and the Snorra Edda, which, in the pre-troubadour, folkloric soup of the early Middle Ages, shared some events and personages with those of the later Germanic epic, but often had just one constant, a hero named Siegfried.
Reading the poem, watching the film, a Wagnerite might feel as if he’s experiencing a bizarro version of the Ring. Why, instead of being Wotan’s Walküre, is Brunhild a princess from Iceland? There’s the dwarf Alberich, all right, but why doesn’t he share kinship with Hagen? Siegfried is a rich prince from the Netherlands — does this mean he’s not even German?7 And so on. Indeed, it might seem best to leave Richard Wagner out of this, but, as we shall see, that’s ultimately impossible.
Apart from Wagner and his Ring cycle, though, the Nibelungenlied remained popular with the German people straight through the 19th century, into the Weimar era, and although distorted by the Nazi cultural machine, through WWII. No doubt, in the minds of the German public, the imagery of Wagner’s massively influential Ring cycle had already cross-pollinated with that of the Nibelungenlied by the time the Nazis managed to blur them altogether as part of their propagandistic, Aryan kitsch.
But when, in the early 1920s, a decade before the political victory of National Socialism, Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou decided to turn it into a film, the Nibelungenlied was a staid, established cultural icon. Both Lang and his wife probably encountered the poem as schoolchildren, and, in the previous century, it had been adapted, more than once, for the legitimate theater. But unlike an ordinary adaptation of an epic tale for cinema, the film pushes past the confines of a cautious, storybook equivalent.
Instead, Lang remains rigorously true to the spirit of the Nibelungenlied, evoking — with peerless visual style and narrative clout — a feudal society that, by remaining rigidly faithful to the bonds of its ethos, marches straight into oblivion. Today, Die Nibelungen can resonate in an unusually authentic way. Why this happens has not only to do with Lang’s filmmaking prowess, but also with how he and von Harbou chose to adapt the poem.
Yet there are challenges for a modern viewer, even beyond the fact that it’s a silent film. Nowadays, the epic doom-laden happenstance of the film may seem peculiar, not to mention the weird magnificence of its Kriemhild, and it can present fundamental dramatic conundrums, especially if one expects the secure manichean dualities of good vs. evil that are prevalent in the vast fantasy saga genre, taken directly from or inspired by the works of J. R. R. Tolkien, that currently enjoys massive popularity in movie theaters, cable TV, and home video. If films today have been freed from the inevitable strictures of melodrama, Hollywood — as in Peter Jackson’s Tolkien franchise — most often still demands them.
Much of the source of Tolkien’s lengendarium derives, after all, from the same Nordic and Germanic mythological jumble as does the Nibelungenlied (and Wagner’s Ring cycle), so a current fan of Jackson’s Lord of the Ring series might wade into Fritz Lang’s silent film thinking it a forerunner of the current fantasy blockbusters. Die Nibelungen begins after all with an archetypal hero, conniving dwarves, and a dragon; having experienced these, our modern viewer will likely anticipate the film will contain forces of darkness and of light, and a climactic victory by the latter over the former.
But even those viewers dispassionate about Tolkien’s oeuvre — and especially about the Jackson entertainment juggernaut — might find themselves puzzled, not only by the film’s tragic ending, but by how one’s feelings and judgments concerning key characters seem to meander and waver throughout the work’s second part and at the very end of the first. Each of Lang’s two parts climax in tragic events, with our sympathies wanting instinctually to align with a character or set of characters against whom the actions of a character or set of characters are directed with apparently evil intent. While our antipathies and sympathies in part one are clear enough (except for Brunhild), they become multidirectional and unclear at the climax of part two.
Silent films were nearly always beholden to melodrama’s fundamental dynamic, the triumph of the good, but in both the poem and film of this tale, the dramatic cohesion lies elsewhere. While the tragedy has epic scale, the totality of its disaster results from the actions of human individuals caught in the moral, ethical web of their times. Thus the outcome is tragic both for individuals and the entire society.
By the time the Nibelungenlied was composed in the 13th century, the Germanic region was part of the Holy Roman Empire and feudalism was in full flower, as was a Germanic literary movement, called by scholars the Middle High German classical period.8 There are plenty of idealized, courtly elements in the poem that secure its place as literature among the romances of the period, such as Gottfried von Strassburg’s version of the ancient French tale of Tristan and Iseult.9 But the Nibelungenlied stands apart from the romances; beneath its concessions to the chivalric ideals of stout-hearted knighthood and chaste loves for ladies fair rumble coarser, more violent vestiges of the tale’s tribal wellsprings. Confusion in the poem can only result when the poet must soften pre-Christian attitudes and actions for the sake of his courtly medieval audience, whose tastes ran toward heroes, and consorts of heroes, acting within noble constraints.
However its poet yields to the gentler tastes of his audience, the Nibelungenlied‘s overriding drive to epic tragedy is consistent and unforgiving. The poem ends in blunt apocalyptic disaster. With its emphasis on societal tragedy resulting from moral conflicts among individuals, the Nibelungenlied could be considered a progressive, modern work for its time. If not to be taken as an outright condemnation of feudal mores, the poem may yet be a profound questioning of them. In his monograph on the work, Gentry summons these ethics in two middle-high German words: triuwe and vriunt. Both words occur in the poem a multitude of times, and, because they denote the highest feudal concepts of ethical behavior, both resist easy translation.
Simplistically, triuwe could be translated as loyalty, vriunt as a broad concept of friendship. Triuwe, however, must be defined hierarchically within both formal and personal realms, with actions emanated from loyalties in the formal stratum taking precedence over those in the personal. Formal triuwe here refers to the fealty a vassal owes his lord (and vice versa); personal triuwe refers to the bonds among family, relatives, and friends. Any individual, then, caught in conflict between his bond with his lord and those between family or friends, must honor loyalties to his lord (or loyalty of lord to vassal) at the expense of whatever his personal relations demand. Anyone breaking this fundamental feudal ethic would suffer a lifelong, unendurable loss of honor. Yet it is a strict allegiance to this code that leads to catastrophe in the poem, making the modern reader’s comprehension of its importance key to understanding the unfolding of the tragedy. This is no less true in grasping the dramatic arc of Lang’s film.
One of Kino’s discs contains the F. W. Murnau-Stiftung’s invaluable 68-minute documentary The Legacy of Die Nibelungen, which provides a survey of this film’s checkered past. The story gets very interesting when it deals with a ’30s reissue as it was approved by the Nazi propaganda machine. Fitted with a new musical score that inserted swaths of Wagner’s Ring cycle music into Huppertz’s,10 only part one, ending with Siegfried’s death, was released. Obviously, the Nazis saw part two, Kriemhild’s Revenge, as extraneous and confusing to their purposes. That is, the death of a hero fits the ideology, whereas his widow’s revenge does not.
The focus of the first of Lang’s two films, Siegfried, originally titled Siegfried’s Death, is the hero himself, who enters Burgundian society, performs a few duplicitous deeds for his new friend Gunther, wins the hand of the princess, Kriemhild, but then, at the film’s climax, is foully murdered. The film’s introduction of the hero, however, comes not from the 13th-century poem but from Wagner’s third installment in his Ring cycle, Siegfried.11 The Siegfried of the Nibelungenlied is the rich, pampered son of King Sigmund of the Netherlands, not Wagner’s titular hero, the orphaned son of Wotan’s incestuous offspring, Siegmund and Sieglinde. But it’s Wagner’s Siegfried that we see in Lang’s Canto 1, nude to the waist, his loins wrapped in animal skins, hammering out a sword at the anvil of Mime, the dwarf.
The buff, bare-chested Paul Richter, the Austrian actor playing Siegfried, appears the very image of the Aryan hero, although Richter, at around 36 during filming, was no teenager, as Siegfried should be in his apprenticeship to Mime. In 1923-24, it was too early in the day for the film to be pushing Nazi culturalism, although von Harbou, who would become a party member, might have wished for nationalist iconography at the forging scene. Wagner’s hero was nothing of a jingoistic symbol; the composer’s intentions for the character were much more complex than that. Seen in the context of the events of part two, the Siegfried of the film ultimately evades such symbolism as well.
When Richter’s Siegfried appears at the Burgundian court — having shed the animal skins for more princely garb — he’s heralded as the son of King Sigmund; but at Mime’s forge, he confusingly looks and acts like Wagner’s naïve, orphaned nature boy, raised with no knowledge of his dead parents by Mime, who might have just stepped out of one of Arthur Rackham’s illustrations for the Ring. The film yields no contextual background to its Mime, and, indeed, anyone familiar with the Ring might assume that Lang’s Siegfried is finishing up the rehabilitation of his dead father’s shattered sword, Nothung (Needful). But Siegfried’s exceptionally well-made sword in the film, the climax of his apprenticeship with Mime, has none of that backstory, and Siegfried abandons it a bit later when he finds an even better weapon lying atop Alberich’s treasure.
Yet it’s easy to see why von Harbou and Lang utilized Wagner’s hero for these opening scenes, rather than have the rich prince, endowed with 12 defeated kings as vassals, just ride into Worms. The UFA super production demands the enacting, in spectacular fashion, the two adventures that have turned the royally raised youth into an unbeatable superhero. Where the poem has none of the slumming at Mime’s anvil — and allows the adventures to be briefly narrated at the Burgundian court by Hagen — the film wants more of this fairy tale Siegfried, riding through dark forests and mist-strewn landscapes on a white horse to meet the treasure-hoarding dwarf and fire-breathing dragon.
Siegfried’s adventures are beautifully realized — visual feasts, actually, that we wouldn’t want cut — with the hero riding among massive trees and encountering Alberich’s treasure deep in a mysterious cavern, all of it accomplished within UFA’s gigantic Babelsberg lot and its soundstages, and glittered with musical fairy dust by Gottfried Huppertz’s score.12
But there are even better reasons for Lang to retain its Wagnerian hero, who in the film continues to have conversations with birds even after he’s married to Kriemhild. If the dragon and the elves are the shards of ancient lays that eventually regrouped as fairy tales (and then into certain 19th-century music dramas and a latter-day fantasy genre industry), so too is the film’s Siegfried, who, like many a fairy tale prince arrives as an integer — that is, an integer in the obsolete sense: a pure quantity that arrives whole, perfect and that cannot be broken into parts. This Siegfried is the mysterious stranger seemingly coming from nowhere — not a prince from a neighboring kingdom but a mystical child of the forest, a being of such amoral perfection that he’s easily led into deceit, and further to collaborate in it, because, fundamentally, he doesn’t get its concept.
For courtly tastes, the poem attempts, somewhat awkwardly, to update the ancient, mythic Siegfried, with his fantastical adventures, into a socially integrated medieval prince raised in pomp and comfort by a real kingdom’s king and queen, but Lang and von Harbou do their best to stick with a fairy tale Siegfried, who, like Wagner’s hero, becomes the unwitting agent of destruction by remaining morally simplistic and indivisible.
When King Gunther of Burgundy (Theodor Loos) welcomes Siegfried, they immediately cement a bond of friendship, and it’s here that the concept wrapped in the aforementioned Middle High German word triuwe comes into play. Bargaining for the hand of Kriemhild by agreeing to help Gunther woo the Icelandic princess, Brunhild (Hanna Ralph, below), Siegfried operates under the bond of friendship in the triuwe‘s personal realm, not under that of a vassal to his lord in its higher, more binding, legal stratum. Yet, by appearing in Iceland as nothing other than Gunther’s vassal, Siegfried creates a consequential confusion in the mind of Brunhild.
The poem implies Brunhild has had dealings, perhaps even carnal ones, with Siegfried before, so that when the two kings arrive at her court, she’s surprised to find the hero acting as liegeman to Gunther in his expedition to woo her. Lang streamlines this business by having the queen mistakenly assume that Siegfried is the wooer, thereby neatly presenting what more than one scholar of the poem has proposed, that Siegfried, with his strength and hero status, is uniquely qualified to win Brunhild as a bride. In this way the two can be seen as fated for each other, providing a further ironic layer to the tragedy not explicit in the poem but one the film takes to an elegant twist when, after having deceitfully led Gunther to agree with Hagen’s (Hans Adalbert Schlettow) plot to kill Siegfried, Brunhild quietly and unseen commits suicide.
After her husband’s murder, a grieving Kriemhild discovers the queen’s corpse, crumpled in front of Siegfried’s funeral bier, with a self-inflicted knife thrust to her heart. Unlike the poem, which has Gunther’s wife live on and merely drop from the subsequent action, the film plants a sudden seed of sympathy for the dark, frustrated queen, thus becoming the first mixing of gray into a character dynamic that we would expect to be black and white.
The earlier confrontation between the two women on the cathedral steps is the visual and dramatic high point of the first film, and rightly so. Filmed on a spectacular exterior set, featuring multitudinous steps leading to a massive cathedral façade of awesome physicality, it’s the catalytic event that sets the tragedy in motion, and Lang imbues the scene with a mythic breadth, partially by filming on such an imposing yet stark set, but also by his blocking of the two actors, who have the ability, via Lang’s direction, to project outsized emotions.
Remaining confused over Siegfried’s status at Gunther’s court, Brunhild has wondered, how can a king’s vassal marry a royal princess? Forcing the issue of royal rank by attempting to enter the cathedral before Brunhild, she learns the awful truth about her own nuptials from an incensed, loose-lipped Kriemhild. By flaunting on her forearm a bracelet Siegfried had recklessly retained when he subdued Gunther’s bride, she proves her claims and rips the lid off the wedding night shenanigans, humiliatingly and publicly exposing the king’s inability to consummate his marriage without the hero’s help.
The poet, however, has Siegfried abscond with Brunhild’s ring and a girdle, traditional, symbolic tokens of rape inherited from ancient lays. But forced to render the hero’s actions more in line with courtly tastes, the poet claims Siegfried merely subdues the queen, thereby negating her superhuman strength, without possessing her sexually. Rather feebly, the poet attempts to whitewash the event by lamely suggesting that Siegfried took the items merely out of high spirits. Likewise, the film’s Siegfried is innocent of taking Brunhild’s maidenhead, which also falls short of where we expected the action might go, but Lang cunningly makes use of the poem’s clumsy handling of the episode and ends up strengthening the adapted storyline.
In the film, when Gunther proves resistant to the assassination plot demanded by Hagen and Brunhild — he wants to sustain his bond of friendship with Siegfried in spite of his injured honor — his queen whispers that the hero actually did take her maidenhood on the wedding night. The queen’s lie, which will come back to haunt the king, breaks Gunther’s hesitation, and he submits to the combined will of Hagen and Brunhild, whereas in the poem, while Gunther merely dilly-dallys over the issue, Hagen acts more or less independently to get the job done.
At this junction, however, the first film gains a clearly defined trio of conspirators, with each of them suffering dire consequences for their betrayal of Siegfried’s friendship. But in these alterations to the poem, in making the story a good one for 20th-century mass entertainment, Lang has bested the dramatic impact of his source’s main theme: the tragic outcome of adhering to the hierarchy of feudal ties — vassal to lord, lord to vassal — over the personal ones of family and friends.13
Siegfried’s betrayal and death lead to Kriemhild’s transformation into Etzel’s avenging queen, a process that Lang’s actress, Margarete Schön, manages with terrifying aplomb. In the feudal hierarchy of bonds, Kriemhild’s marriage with Siegfried is another example of a tie in the personal realm that’s subordinate to the legal realm, which binds Hagen to Gunther and Gunther, along with his brothers, to Hagen — irreducible loyalties that exist at the expense of Kriemhild and her wish to see Hagen punished for his deed.
When, in the film, Kriemhild, knowing full well who the assassin is, cries out for justice over her husband’s corpse, Lang has Gunther and his brothers form a protective circle around Hagen, a forceful visual blocking that makes it clear the demand can never be met. Seeing all her male kinfolk siding with Hagen — even her younger brothers, who took no part in the murder and clearly idolized Siegfried — the widowed princess is outraged. Yet with a bit of succinct dialog from one of the brothers, the film makes it clear that it must be so: “Loyalty for loyalty. His deed [that is, Hagen’s] is ours.” Neatly compressed, the statement expresses the two-way bond between vassal and lord (triuwe).
Nevertheless, a modern audience is somewhat puzzled. With Hagen appearing to be an arch villain, why do her younger brothers instantly forsake Kriemhild, without first investigating the facts of the murder, and stubbornly protect him all the way to the second film’s disastrous finish? Even Gunther realizes in time that he’s been duped by Brunhild; couldn’t Hagen be seen as overreaching his duties as a retainer? Did Siegfried really have to die?
At this and several other junctions to come, Lang’s silent film refuses to explain itself, unlike, say, an epic sound film of our time, James Cameron’s Avatar (2009), which, featuring behavior arising from an alien ethos, feels compelled to background it sufficiently to make its characters actions intelligible. Lots of dialog in Avatar gets expended in explaining the rituals, customs, and pantheistic religion of Pandora’s native peoples, the Na’vi; after all, it’s laying the groundwork for at least one sequel.
In his film Lang merely presents, with little explanation or guidance, his own fleshed-out, densely imagined world and lets its characters, dictated by moral and ethical constructs somewhat alien to those of our 20th and 21st centuries, act as they must. Yet it’s an ethos not so alien that it can’t resonate for a modern audience. The film presents some mysterious behaviors, but, whatever unexplained societal forces are behind them, we can nevertheless recognize something familiar and timelessly human: people betraying their own humanity in the face of forces — that is, codes of conduct, submission to concepts of God and country — to which they have become hard-wired. An allegiance to a belief system that’s beyond an individual’s ability to deny or act against may lead to a betrayal of qualities that we cherish as nobly human: kindness, love, the brother/sisterhood of man, and so on. Belief systems can also cause lots of people to die.
In poem and film, Siegfried’s murder will be the first of an uncountable number of deaths. After blowing the cover off Gunther’s deceptions, Kriemhild should have seen what was imminent in her own household. However brutal Siegfried’s assassination, Hagen, in thereby protecting his lord’s honor, acts legally. After the murder, while Kriemhild mourns, Hagen, again overseeing his lord’s well-being, dumps Siegfried’s Nibelungen treasure into the Rhine. This action deprives Kriemhild of any power to act on her own; she is now penniless and alone. In spite of indulging in what seems like thoroughly dastardly behavior, Hagen once again, by judging how the treasure might be used against the Burgundians, acts legally in the interests of Gunther and his kingdom.
Siegfried had performed his deeds of deception — the winning and taming of Brunhild — in the name of his friendship with Gunther. Because the hero was free of guile, and had no understanding of the possible consequences of deceit, he performed these tarnished favors for his friend without misgivings or foresight. Furthermore, his innocent, indivisible worldview, which cannot split to accommodate ethical discretions, allowed him to make his greatest mistake: sharing the truth of his actions with his wife, who, by making this truth public, severely compromised her brother’s regency.
The hero’s continuing presence in the Burgundian court had thus become not only a serious public embarrassment, but a liability to the realm, yet, as he continues to reside in Worms, Siegfried’s only concerns, existing on an elevated personal level, are his bonds of friendship with Gunther and his marriage to Kriemhild. Unconcerned with Gunther’s saving of face and grip on power, Siegfried only sees, and worries about, his friend’s apparent unease in his presence. The hero frets over the friendship, not his own safety within a court that’s alienated from him. The legal, ethical realm, which for Gunther, his family and Hagen, holds sway over the personal, doesn’t exist for him.
Even when he practices deception, Siegfried does it for the good of his friend (and to win a princess for himself, whom, as courtly love dictates, he has loved before seeing her), but these devious actions arise only from his contact and absorption into feudal society, which uses the hero’s moral innocence when it needs to. His otherness dooms Siegfried, just as the Burgundians’ inevitable submission to the unyielding codes of feudal existence dooms them. By retaining the Scandinavian Siegfried of Wagner and thereby smoothing the bumpy inconsistencies of the poem’s treatment of the hero, Lang’s film drives this meaning home better than its source.
Eyebrows and Other Pictorial Effects
As the film unifies the conflicting, folk vs. courtly identity of the poem’s Siegfried, it goes on to create a divided, courtly vs. cruel Kriemhild out of the poem’s single-minded, demonized revenge-seeker.
The widow’s raging grief has turned Kriemhild into something quite distant from the demure, maiden princess from the beginning of the first film. As a vessel of chaste innocence, Margarete Schön was less than convincing. Draped in virginal white and sporting waist-length blond braids, she could nevertheless appear oddly masculine, like a man in drag, with a sturdy broad-shouldered body and a pair of painted eyebrows that would put the ’50s-era Joan Crawford to shame. To 21st-century eyes, Schön’s attempt at demure and virginal can seem ludicrous.
Then, late in the first film, we stop smirking. Once she is betrayed by Gunther, Hagen, and Brunhild, Schön’s performance begins to tower over everyone else’s. It could be called a one-note performance, but it’s a powerfully sustained note, right on pitch. Margarete Schön (right) is an obscure name today, but after her breakthrough film role as Kriemhild, she became a well-known figure in German filmdom and had a long career. Her startling impact in the second film is a combination of her strongly projected theatrical presence, intensely intimate silent film acting, and some remarkable applications of makeup.
After the murder, Kriemhild appears stiffened by grief and rage, and Schön’s movements become minimal; most often she wraps her richly decorated queenly cloaks tightly about her body, which then becomes columnar, a visual figuration expressive of self-protectiveness, a reining in of any open feeling, and an implacability in deadly resolve. Late in the film, in one long sustained image shot from below, Kriemhild’s isolated figure appears as a cylindrical continuation of the tall, looming tower from which she stands to watch the slaughter of the final battle. The exhausted combatants are rightfully awed by the sight. So are we.
As Kriemhild transforms into the avenging queen, we see Schön’s aforementioned eyebrows taking on a prominent role in her performance — and this no joke. Some of the oddity of the actress’s appearance as the maiden Kriemhild comes from her heavily enhanced eyebrows, which appear way darker on the blond nubile princess than one would expect.
We might think that Kriemhild’s anomalous appearance is due to the exigencies of silent film, in which makeup, before 1922 and somewhat thereafter, had to troubleshoot what orthochromatic film stock did to certain color values. But what looks today like an overdone use of cosmetics in early silent film is also a holdover from how it was used in the theater — to emphasize facial features seen by an audience from a distance — but I think this is only halfway to why Lang uses it in Die Nibelungen.
Lang’s biggest reason for the extreme makeup was the graphic, pictorial appearance of his film as a whole. The look and feel of the film’s medieval world was sourced extensively from a number of strands in the visual arts, especially painting and book illustration by the artists of the Viennese Secessionist movement. Interiors in Burgundy and in the land of the Huns are festooned with decorative motifs inspired by Vienna Secessionist arts and craft designs, plus folk art patterns from around the world. Paul Gerd Guderian’s costume designs found inspiration in Otto Czeschka’s illustrations for a 1909 edition of the Nibelungenlied. When he imagined the Burgundians’ castle, art director Otto Hunte seems to have been looking at the paintings of the Swiss symbolist painter Arnold Böcklin. Kriemhild’s solitary approach through the cathedral’s entrance to Siegfried’s funeral bier (below) shows Böcklin-influenced towers in the background, but the sky and lonely figure has the baleful grandeur of a painting by the 19th-century Romantic Casper David Friedrich.
To fit comfortably within costumes and an environment so thoroughly imagined and brought forth via the plastic arts, the actors’ faces needed designing, too. This is nowhere more apparent than in the face of Kriemhild, which must a make strong pictorial impression, even when the princess is young and innocent of dark forces. Then we might notice that, as her grief grows to fury, her face receives a significant change in eye makeup. Unlike the naturally arched, but darkened and enlarged, eyebrows of the maiden Kriemhild (screen capture below, left), the hate-filled Kriemhild (right capture) receives liner that begins below her brows, then arches above them, tapering at exaggerated length to end somewhere at her temple.
During the second film, in moments when her rage threatens to overtake her, Schön lifts high her left eyebrow, while under both brows, the diminished pupils in her light-colored eyes seem to emit laser beams of malicious intent. Margarete Schön was not the first or last actress to lift one eyebrow to dramatic effect (see Vivian Leigh, Gone With the Wind (1939)), but few, if any, have wielded the deadly force of Schön’s painted mechanism. When Kriemhild lifts the one brow, the effect is more like a saber raised to maim and kill than a slight gesture expressing distemper.
Where did Lang — or his makeup artist — get the idea for Kriemhild’s burgeoning, malevolent eyebrows? As suggested from a most unlikely source, a blog that concerns itself with women’s makeup,14 the answer may lie in Byzantine-era religious imagery, specifically paintings of sorrowful Madonnas, or mosaics like the one of the Empress Theodora in the Basilica San Vitale, Ravenna — a kind of stylization that was retained in works by early Italian Renaissance masters like Cimabue (right).
Silent film — already an accepted abstracted reality by being silent — could utilize theatrical artifice and not only get away with it, but also allow stylized gesture and visuals to heighten the drama.15
Kriemhild’s Vengeance: A Magnificent Obsession?
In the Nibelungenlied, Kriemhild’s outsized grief accomplishes what Lady Macbeth could only wish for: it unsexes her. At the same time, it’s because she’s a woman that Kriemhild has chosen a matter of the heart over the male matters of the mind like legal imperatives and politics. But in her drive for vengeance, Kriemhild, by assuming an extreme version of personal triuwe — that is, her vengeful loyalty to the honor and memory of her dead husband — behaves as no medieval female should. By the dictates of feudal society, her solitary mission to kill Hagen is rogue and illegal. A lone male seeking revenge would be one thing, but a woman bent on bloody justice, that’s a crossing of a line — in Kriemhild’s case, a deviant submission to the fierceness of her grief.
Watching Kriemhild’s remorseless path to murder — without the medieval audience’s shock at her disruption of gender propriety — a modern viewer can have conflicting reactions. Accompanied by a restatement of Huppertz’s rather saccharine love theme, the princess’s protracted mourning finds us sympathetic enough, and then outraged along with her at Hagen’s deep-sixing of the treasure. What’s the poor girl to do now? Why shouldn’t she be furious?
At this juncture Margrave Rüdiger (Rudolf Rittner) enters the picture. As a vassal to King Etzel (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), who claims himself Lord of the Earth, the Margrave visits Gunther’s court in Etzel’s name, to seek the hand of Kriemhild in marriage to his lord. Ruefully, the widowed Gunther, responds, “I fear King Etzel knows not who he woos.” Indeed, when Rüdiger lays the proposal at Kriemhild’s feet, she describes herself as a corpse. Kriemhild quickly gets the better of the situation, though, realizing that she could, by utilizing feudal law, regain power and meet her vengeful objectives not only by marrying Etzel, but by having him pledge to vindicate any betrayal of her honor, which in her mind has already occurred with the death of Siegfried and Hagen’s freedom from justice. On the spot, she agrees to meet the Hun, but only on condition that Etzel will pledge to her honor. While she’s at it, she binds Rüdiger to her via the same oath, an act of fealty the Margrave will come to deeply regret.
Here’s where a viewer’s sympathy for Kriemhild may begin to waver. As she takes advantage of the trusting, honorable Rüdiger, we’re watching her freeze shut as a human being. Kriemhild is well on her way to becoming an automaton willing to manipulate any situation, including sending people near and dear to their deaths, to achieve her goal.
When Kriemhild travels to the land of the Huns, the second film becomes a voluptuous, if not orgiastic, reimagining of the second half of the poem. As to the look and feel of Etzel’s kingdom, the poem is very slender on description; the kingdom of the Huns is treated, surprisingly, as an established society ordered along the same lines as the Burgundians’.16 Two Germanic lords willingly serve under Etzel: the Margrave Rüdiger, who, while a vassal of Etzel, rules his own fiefdom at Pöchlarn, and Dietrich von Bern,17 who lives in exile at the Hun’s court. Nothing of the Huns’ nomadic, Eastern origins is mentioned, nor are they depicted as marauders of the Roman Empire. Only their paganism sets them apart, but the Christian Burgundians appear to have assumed a live-and-let-live attitude toward this. The poem’s Rüdiger even suggests, half-jokingly, that Kriemhild, as Etzel’s bride, might lead the Hun to the faith.
In the film, though, Lang wants a maximum culture clash when Kriemhild arrives at Etzel’s palace to face her future husband. Siegfried’s widow has left civilization behind: Etzel and his Huns are the savage, oriental Other. Klein-Rogge’s elaborate makeup job far outdistances Schön’s; his Etzel is physically grotesque, with a massive, misshapen skull — bald but for a topknot — that looks the result of some brain-swelling disease. His subjects are a rowdy hoard that includes drunken buffoonish men and gap-toothed bare-breasted women who grin stupidly at the spectacle of the arriving white woman. Lang and von Harbou create a profound racial divide here, making Kriemhild’s crossing of it to marry Etzel an unsavory acceptance of miscegenation, and as such an indication of how far she’ll go to meet her goal.
As to how indefensible one must judge the film’s racism (a tough call for this writer), each viewer must make his own call — but there’s no denying the film has upped the dramatic ante on the poem and, additionally, created a well-judged irony. As Kriemhild takes it all in — the disorder, the partial nudity amongst the natives, Etzel’s monstrous head — the actress’s face registers a subtle mixture of alarm and disgust that the Lord of the Earth fails to read properly. Etzel appears to confuse Kriemhild’s nearly superhuman control over her emotions with the regal qualities of a queen. He’s instantly smitten. He falls over himself thanking Rüdiger for bringing to him “this woman.” Etzel has no idea what he’s gotten himself into, not until it’s too late.
After a son is born to the couple — one can only imagine what the sex was like — Kriemhild, with cold calculation, has Etzel invite Gunther, her other brothers, and implicitly their retinue including Hagen to the land of the Huns, ostensibly to celebrate the birth of her son, but in actuality to maneuver her kin into a situation in which their vassal, Hagen, might be killed. Kriemhild will ultimately get her way, not, as she has imagined, through a simple honoring of the formal loyalties forsworn to her by Etzel and Rüdiger, but by improvising a pressure cooker of violence and death that upon exploding exposes the inherent, tragic inadequacy of the Burgundians’ ethical codes.
Lang’s visuals of Etzel’s kingdom are undeniably a stunning contrast to those of Worms, where, in spite of the richly geometrically patterned costume designs, the architecture of Gunther’s palace is spare and of mostly right angles, with a carefully adjudged symmetry governing many shots. Etzel’s grand hall is vaguely Japanese in appearance, but the sleeping quarters for Gunther and his retinue is a structure of curved, organic forms, as if they’d contracted the Spanish architect Antoní Gaudi to design this one set. When the hoard of angry Huns eventually unite against the Burgundians, they skitter like ants through tight meandering channels in their mud/straw dwellings.
Arriving at Etzel’s kingdom, neither Hagen nor Gunther imagines Kriemhild has reconciled with them. Even as they settle in for the night, Kriemhild calls on Etzel to assassinate Hagen, who, she reminds him, has cruelly wronged her. But here Kriemhild encounters one of her husband’s own ethical imperatives, which trumps Etzel’s pre-nuptial pledge to his queen. Hagen is a guest, and true to a nomadic people’s treatment of guests, Hagen cannot be harmed as long as he remains as such. During the Burgundians’ stay, Etzel will only raise a sword to Hagen if the knight acts dishonorably now, as a guest. As Lotte Eisner points out in her monograph on Lang’s early films, the ethics and actions of the grotesque Hun unexpectedly turn out to be the most humane of the film’s characters.18
When they enter the great hall for the celebratory banquet, Gunther and his retinue sit at Etzel’s table fully armed, to the Hun’s displeasure. All of the guests and Etzel are unaware that a swarm of Huns, secretly incited to action by Kriemhild herself, are off slaughtering a legion of Burgundian soldiers in their quarters while the royals dine in the hall. When Kriemhild suggests the child be brought to the table, so that Gunther and her other brothers may see him, a question arises. Does Kriemhild purposefully bring the child to the hall to provoke Hagen into killing it? In an older lay that provided a source for the poem, she clearly does so, goading her son, who is older here, into taking some punches at the knight, who then summarily decapitates the boy. In the film, Hagen does the deed in response to hearing a dying messenger announce news of slaughtered troops.
Apparently Kriemhild wants all her bases covered; if all else fails, she knows Hagen will act impulsively, violently, and with no regard for innocence. If that will incite the Hun to action, why not put Etzel’s beloved son in his path? Certainly, the killing makes for an effective dramatic flashpoint, which additionally emphasizes the totality of Kriemhild’s transformation into a deviant female. In the film, after her son is slain, Kriemhild faces her husband and the tiny corpse and with cool sarcasm says, “Your guest did it, Etzel.” [my italics] The queen’s apparent indifference to her son’s murder speaks to how grossly unfeminine she’s become. Somehow, she’s overruled a mother’s most instinctual impulse, to protect her child.
As the bloodbath commences and the Burgundians, refusing to surrender Hagen to the queen, lock themselves in the great hall, Kriemhild’s disregard for human life becomes monolithic. With Etzel’s resistance to her will overcome, she now demands Rüdiger to honor his own oath to her; he must gather his troops and face the Burgundians in combat, an action he desperately wants to avoid. Since he knelt and pledged to Kriemhild’s honor, Rüdiger’s daughter has married the youngest of Gunther’s brothers, and the two kingdoms are bound in personal triuwe. But the Margrave knows that his formal loyalty to Kriemhild takes priority over his personal one with the Burgundians. There’s also the matter of the Margrave’s fealty to Etzel, which Lang — emphasizing Kriemhild’s grip on events — ignores. But the horrifying reality remains: the film’s Rüdiger must face his son-in-law in battle.
In the poem, Rüdiger’s tragic dilemma over conflicting loyalties is a major hinge to the overarching tragedy. The film’s treatment of this episode is brief, but nevertheless, Lang makes explicit the monstrous implications of Rüdiger’s pledge to Kriemhild, who views the Margrave not as a human being, but as a tool to engage when needed.
What are we to make of Kriemhild and her steadfast inhumanity? Their sister is now a female outlaw living in a foreign land, but her brothers understand the legalities of their own kingdom and operate astringently under them. Siegfried, as we’ve seen, was innocent of these realities and was thereby unable to divide himself in order to accommodate them. For all his ingenuousness, he got a spear in the back.
For her own reasons, the poem’s Kriemhild has proven just as indivisible, and for this, the poet and the Burgundians can’t forgive her. Where a good option for a grief-stricken widow of the Middle Ages was to enter a convent, Kriemhild isn’t about to split herself off from her ungainly emotions and disappear into the orders. Even more perversely for a female, she schemes, manipulating the same political hierarchy of triuwe that allows Hagen freedom from justice, to achieve her end, which is to end Hagen’s freedom by killing him. For the poet and his medieval audience, it is Kriemhild, not Hagen (so formerly reviled), who acts as a villain.
For the film’s audience, perceptions may not be so simple, nor is Lang’s Kriemhild portrayed as so inhumanly indivisible. In the poem, even the level-headed Dietrich condemns Kriemhild as a she-devil, but what makes Kriemhild a she-devil in 1200 AD can make her strangely compelling now, or even — in spite of her standout weirdness — admirable. After all, the gender divide has narrowed since the Middle Ages, so that a woman standing her ground in the face of male dominance is no longer an evil misdeed, but there’s still a gap in gender perceptions, which is all too obvious when, in the movies, we applaud women behaving differently than expected (Thelma and Louise, 1991) or when we become fascinated by a young girl, not a boy, being trained as an assassin (Hanna, 2011). Women can now be brave and resourceful in giving the patriarchy a hard time, but they’re still framed within it.
Like the Iliad singing of Achilles’ anger, the Nibelungenlied sings long of Kriemhild’s grief-forged wrath, but at the same time never grants her the heroic grandeur that Homer does his tragic figure, because she’s aberrant, evil — and female. It’s only the men, as warriors, who may receive this kind of treatment from the poet, beginning with the soulful Rüdiger in his fatal face-off with the Burgundians. Hagen, too, by sincerely mourning the need to kill such a splendid knight, gets to share the glory. Of course, we can’t expect heroic status to be granted to the avenging Kriemhild, but neither does the poem allow her much dramatic stature — she ignites the story’s fuse, murderously manipulates people and events, but then, at the moment of the tragedy’s final catharsis, falls to the side like a dead puppet.
Lang puts her in the center of the drama and gives us a far more majestic Kriemhild than the poet’s, even as her grandeur in the film is sheathed in the same black deeds. To match the wicked radiance of Lang’s Kriemhild you might have to go back to the Greeks and the Medea of Euripides. Attempting to disentangle how much of this is due to Lang’s astonishing visuals from Schön’s ability to telegraph a variety of imponderable emotions is like trying to explain why a massively destructive natural event like a tornado or a hurricane is nonetheless a magnificent sight.
Fully imagined women inhabited Lang’s films as early as Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, which held in its gaze the mysterious Countess Dusy Told, but Kriemhild — this now full-blown, newly imagined creature of myth — is in a class by herself. Lang transmogrifies the murderous avenger of the poem to heights of weird splendor, but expunges the character of absolute evil. Reaching further, the director seeks to somehow extend sympathy for the black-hearted Kriemhild throughout the second film by retaining her tragic status as Siegfried’s widow — a concept foreign to the poem.
This is a tall order, but to fill it, the script inserts elements of courtly romance in places where the poem has avoided them. The first of these insertions is a newly imagined episode at the beginning of the second film. Kriemhild, as she makes her way to the land of the Huns, stops off at the site of Siegfried’s murder. It’s winter, the birch trees surrounding the stream are bare, and Kriemhild stoops to clear the snow away from where Siegfried fell and bled. The soil she gathers here is a totem of her unbreakable bond with Siegfried, and she retains it — like a holy relic — throughout her marriage to Etzel. In the wintery birch grove, Huppertz’s love theme does its work, and for the rest of the film, Lang asks that pity soften Kriemhild’s impenetrable, death-devoted exoskeleton.
The Last Stand
When Kriemhild has the great hall set on fire, with its dwindling number of Burgundians trapped inside, a viewer might be surprised to find his sympathies moving, with some hesitation, to the side of Gunther, Hagen and their men. In the poem, the demonic Kriemhild gives the Burgundian men, especially Rüdiger, Hagen, and the minstrel-knight, Volker, the opportunity to be heroic warriors — a collective feudal valor the poet celebrates, even as this valor, founded on formal triuwe, dooms them. The film doesn’t short-change the Burgundians’ heroism. Hagen, the vassal you love to hate, is so valiant in protecting his liege lord from all harm that you realize his actions, both great and small, no matter how openly malicious, have been to protect and serve Gunther, who sadly seems to have been born without any spine whatsoever.
But then the script underlines this shift in sympathies, which it shares with the poem, with one of the more dissonant intertitles in the film. Amidst the worsening battle, Etzel expresses disbelief at the Burgundians’ unyielding resolve to not surrender Hagen to Kriemhild, and Dietrich responds, “You do not understand the soul of the German people.” This is possibly the only time in the film the Burgundians are labeled German, and, disregarding the fact that, in 1200 AD, there was no unified German state, the line appears to billboard a nationalist sentiment. My impulse is to take it as such and wince at its insertion.
Yet, given the intensity of the film’s battle scenes, and the quantity of death depicted in them, it’s possible to see, or at least want to see, a different meaning lurking in this line. In 1924, WWI, with all its horrors and deprivations, was still fresh in Germany’s hearts and minds, and the F. W. Murnau-Stiftung documentary suggests that, in Die Nibelungen, von Harbou and Lang stood to warn the German folk of its own nationalism, which, after sponsoring a monstrous calamity as recently as the Great War, had lost none of its propensity to do so again. It’s not the first time Lang has been retrospectively declared prescient. Early cineastes declared the character of Dr. Mabuse, from his ’22 film Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, a presentiment of Hitler. In his retirement, Lang himself disabused these eager theorists of the notion, but the film remains remarkable in its treatment of a confused society’s vulnerability to a propagandist mastermind like Hitler.
How wise to its times was Die Nibelungen? Are its references to the German people and the German soul to be taken as sardonic and foreboding? You would think von Harbou’s nationalistic bent would make her adverse to composing a screenplay that, somewhat subversively, suggests dark impulses lurking in Germany’s “soul,” but Lang, who was partly Jewish, couldn’t have been cheerful about the imminent rise of National Socialism; a decade later, in 1934, he was smart enough to flee Germany, after Joseph Goebbels offered him the position of head of the UFA studios. Commentators have found hints of anti-Nazi sentiment in his 1932 film The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. Hitler came to power the following year.
Ultimately there’s no way to nail down a pro- or anti-nationalist message in Die Nibelungen; without its dedication to the Deutsche Volk and mention of German soul, the film could be viewed solely as a surprisingly vivid and faithful adaptation of a dusty old poem. In a letter to film critic and friend Lotte Eisner dated October 3, 1968, Lang had these words to say about the Nibelungenlied and its status as beloved national monument:
“If you take a closer look at the Nibelungenlied you will see it is not at all a heroic poem of the German people; that’s what the Rightist imbeciles before and under Hitler made it; their prized possession was Mein Kampf … not to even mention the hero.
“Even Harbou, who is a thorn in your side as much as mine, realized this …
“I saw the Burgundian kings as a decadent social class which was already on the decline and determined to achieve its ends by any means … No, dearest Lotte, it is not a heroic poem of the German people. There is no mention of the people anywhere in the song of the Nibelungs!”19
If Lang felt the same way about the poem in 1924 as he did in 1968, why front the film, as if he meant it, with a dedication to the German people? Perhaps the aging director is doing some retrofitting here; the film can’t be portraying the Burgundians as a decadent society one minute, then apostrophizing their Germanic soul the next. Equally important in the letter is the hostile, dismissive mention of von Harbou, who co-wrote the screenplay with the director (note how he drops her aristocratic “von”).
Considering Lang’s assessment of the poem (in 1968, anyway), it’s possible to conjecture that the dedication and the German soul business were von Harbou’s doing and intended to be straightforward nationalist sentiment, a gesture that the director, being pragmatic, retained as a useful pandering to the German audience. It may solely be hindsight — our knowing that Hitler and WWII were coming — that would lead us today to read the film as a warning specifically of the dangers of German nationalism.
But keeping in mind the more direct relevance of Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler to the time in which it was made — Weimar Germany — it’s no stretch to consider Die Nibelungen as also being in dialogue with the socio-political climate of 1924 Germany. The faithfulness of the film’s adaptation captures the poem’s uneasy assessment of its own society, and that profound unease, translated so powerfully into visual terms, can’t help but vibrate meaningfully with the jittery instability of post-WWI, depression-era Germany. In 2013, Die Nibelungen speaks of and to us, as well, but in ways not embedded in message or polemic. The opening dedication to the German folk and the intertitle in praise of German soul are mere distractions from what the film does so well without explaining itself — or plastering a banner on its forehead.20
Fire, Doom, and Redemption
Lang’s finale rides upon a staged but massively authentic fire. Until its ignition, much of the film has relied, and effectively so, on stylized artifice: Siegfried rides his white horse through a forest of giant tree trunks made of carved cement; the distant exteriors of the Burgundian castle and Brunhild’s fortress are abstracted, backlit miniatures; the sky backing the contest between Gunther and Brunhild glimmers with a spooky Aurora Borealis created optically in the camera. These effects are inserted without any attempt, or perhaps technological ability, to render them fully, illusionistically real — CGI would have no place here, anyway — and it’s this manner of artful stylization that contributes to the aforementioned overall pictorial effect of the film. Even the faces need to be stylized.
But the fire alighting Etzel’s great hall is spectacularly real. The Murnau-Stiftung documentary tells us quite a bit about the filming of these final scenes. Etzel’s impressively solid hall was built in the round, outside, on the Babelsberg studio lot.21 With some help from accelerants, I assume, the Huns’ flaming arrows fly into the structure to get the blaze going, which eventually blossoms to an enormous pillar of flame and black smoke. With the press fully alerted, the city’s fire department was on hand to control the fire; after photography wrapped, it still took days to fully extinguish the blaze.
One assumes the interior shots of the remaining Burgundians struggling to survive the building’s rapid collapse were accomplished elsewhere than in the burning building, but these scenes, too, appear staged with little or no fakery. With massive flaming beams crashing down, seemingly within feet of them, the filming appears to have presented actual physical hazards to the actors. Hagen, carrying a semiconscious Gunther in his arms, narrowly avoids getting buried under a collapsing staircase. In the rear of the hall, the bodies of dead Burgundians pile up like cord wood. Lang’s energetically edited action feels quite convincingly like the mounting panic of an actual massacre.
Lang’s huge fire is a cinematic stunt on par with Griffith’s, in his Way Down East (1920), where he pushed Lilian Gish into an actual blizzard and then threw her onto an actual ice floe; but such a stunt is, in the hands of filmmaking masters like Lang and Griffith, an expressive tool that doesn’t hold much currency anymore: the shock of the real.
The great fire is also a symbolic crucible, consuming the last vestiges of the Burgundians’ stylized universe. Eisner has observed that the Burgundians, as they battle the Huns, lose “the cold stylization of their culture” and become more individualized.22 The conflagration completes the process. Its sole survivors, Hagen and Gunther, emerge from the hall without their armored signifiers; the former has lost his majestic winged helmet, while the latter’s bare head, wrapped in bandages, is like that of a wounded child.
Kriemhild, however, retains her cold stylization: the royal cloak, the crown, and the masklike face with its constantly mutating expressions of sorrow, fury, and exaltation. When she demands to know the site of the stolen treasure, the tousled, defeated Hagen laughs in her face, whereupon she shows no hesitation in ordering her brother Gunther to be decapitated and finally, wielding a broad sword, executing Hagen herself.
Curiously, the scene of Kriemhild’s own death, or rather how she meets it, has a variant reportedly not seen until the 2010 restoration, which recommits a brief but all-important snippet of footage that Lang had edited out for the 1924 premiere. Where the film had previously, in the aftermath of Hagen’s death, shown Kriemhild dying suddenly and mysteriously in a swoon, the outtake reveals Hildebrand (a member of Dietrich’s retinue) reacting to the execution, drawing his sword and running it through Kriemhild, who, as she dies, loosens a pouch containing the soil stained with the blood of Siegfried. Before swooning and collapsing, she pours the soil to the ground so that it might commingle with her own blood.23
In the film, Hildebrand’s impulsive act comes as a surprise out of the shadowy periphery of the action. Dramatically, it has the deft suddenness of a Shakespearean denouement. Blood for blood, certainly, but Kriemhild’s end comes not from a vassal in fealty to a king’s honor, nor a dying Hun seeking revenge, but from an aggrieved bystander, who acts in protest to what he’s seen. Because his point of view is one of an onlooker, Hildebrand’s act is in marked contrast to all previous violence in the film, resulting as it did from conflicting layers of loyalties, or, as in the case of Siegfried’s murder, political conniving.24
Hildebrand acts purely as an individual — while Etzel and Dietrich (Fritz Alberti) stand by looking helpless.25 In doing so, Hildebrand is way out of line for a medieval underling, especially as he’s just killed a queen with her king very much alive and standing a few feet away.
But no one, including Etzel, appears outraged at this murder, or rushes to take Hildebrand into custody. Instead, between Etzel and Dietrich comes an apparent acceptance that, after wreaking such societal and personal havoc, Kriemhild can’t be allowed to exist anymore. The hotheaded Hildebrand has simply accomplished the inevitable elimination. A surprisingly conciliatory Etzel closes the film by gently suggesting that Kriemhild’s corpse be taken back to Worms and buried with the hero; this woman, he acknowledges, never belonged to anyone other than Siegfried.
On its end, the poem gives us Hildebrand and his impulsive act, but goes silent about Kriemhild after her death, telling us only that her body was “hewn to pieces.”26 This terse observation yields plenty as to the poem’s attitude toward Kriemhild. Perverting every law of man and god, the queen doesn’t deserve a Christian burial; having her body chopped to bits (and thrown to the dogs?) is the just deserts of an inhuman she-devil. The poet closes briskly with, “Here the tale is at an end — that is the Nibelungs’ doom,”27 a bleak capper indeed. The medieval audience, weaned on courtly romances, must have been stunned into silence by the poem’s despairing conclusion, which lacks the kind of redemptive resolution they would have been hungry for.
The film stops short of leaping into the poem’s narrative abyss and gives its 20th-century audience the ending the 13th-century one might have been more comfortable with. Lang and von Harbou’s insertion of Kriemhild’s final act — the commingling of the blood — completes a piteous, fateful arc; indeed, her death resembles a liebestod. No angry hacking of the body here; instead of abusing the demonic remains, they’re treated with respect. Etzel’s words over her corpse carry similar sentiments to those of King Mark for the dead Tristan in Wagner’s music drama adapted from the courtly medieval romance Tristan and Iseult. It’s as if Siegfried and Kriemhild will now be united in death.
With Lang’s ending veering toward the redemptive, the film has finalized its Kriemhild as a dichotomy. Are we to pity and sympathize with Kriemhild because of her deathless love for Siegfried and, further, even admire her for taking on, then destroying, the male conglomerate that so wronged her? Considering that she’s just had her own brother decapitated in an attempt to checkmate Hagen — and cared more for a couple of ounces of blood-stained soil than she has for her own son — we could also view her implacability as out-and-out derangement.
In adapting this 13th-century poem — itself creating confusion by adjusting ancient material for its contemporary audience — Lang’s creation of a dichotomous Kriemhild is understandable: the film and its lead character cannot end with the poem’s thud of pure doom. More importantly, though, by giving its avenging virago a certain grandeur — and allowing a thread of courtly tragedy to soften her monstrousness — the film doesn’t forfeit the resonance it’s gained from the poem’s unconditionally blunt vision. One sings in verse, the other conjures with image, but both poem and film tell of the ongoing human drive to lock one another in the mind-forged manacles of belief or allegiance — an instinct that can tragically leave humane impulses stranded outside of it.
A vintage lobby card (above) showing the part of the final scene that the F. W. Murnau-Stiftung claims was cut before the premiere and not reinstated until its 2010 restoration. The caption reads (feel free to correct my Google translation): “Kriemhild has received the death blow.” Hildebrand, to the right of Kriemhild, observes the result of his sword thrust, while Etzel, middle on steps, and Dietrich, to his left, stand amazed. Hagen’s corpse lies between Kriemhild and Dietrich.
- The Nibelungenlied, translated by A. T. Hatto. London: Penguin Books, 2004. p. 354. [↩]
- Ibid. p. 390. [↩]
- Ibid. p. 371. [↩]
- A form of magical headgear, seized by Siegfried from the treasure overseen by Alberich, that allows the wearer to become invisible or to assume the form of another person. [↩]
- From the 13th-century poem, through Wagner’s Ring cycle, and into Lang’s adaptation of the Nibelungenlied and further into Lang’s follow-up, the futuristic epic Metropolis, there’s a Germanic predilection for tales of apocalyptic game-changes. What did the Nazis have in mind, I’ve always wanted to know, for the aftermath of the 3rd Reich when it reaches the end of its 1,000 years? [↩]
- McConnell, Winder. The Nibelungenlied. Boston: Twayne: 1984. p. 91. [↩]
- What the Romans called Germania was a huge area bordering east of the Rhine and north of the Danube; it stretched west as far as the eastern Netherlands, where Germanic (as well as Celtic) tribes may have lived in the 5th century BC. [↩]
- The Nibelungenlied. Oxford, Oxford University Press, c2010. Edwards, Cyril, translator. Introduction, p.xii. [↩]
- The chief source for Wagner’s 1865 music drama Tristan und Isolde. Gottfried von Strassburg, who died in 1210, was a contemporary of the poet of the Nibelungenlied. [↩]
- Gottfried Huppertz’s original score for Die Nibelungen has survived and been newly recorded for this video presentation. As a film composer, Huppertz is strictly post-romantic and not only doesn’t source Wagner’s scores, but also, down to the orchestration itself, doesn’t sound Wagnerian. The score is more Richard Straussian as filtered through the music of the young Erich Wolfgang Korngold, whose early, precocious operas were something of the rage in Weimar-era Germany. [↩]
- Or, though this seems unlikely, von Harbou and Lang may be accessing Wagner’s source for this scene, the Thidreks saga and the Eddas. [↩]
- For the dragon, Lang pushed his special effects team to the max, but the results have not aged well. An early attempt at animatronics, the dragon is life-sized and manned by some 15 men to make it move and breathe fire. Unfortunately, in long shot its long neck resembles a gigantic meandering sock puppet, and up close its rueful visage seems a distinct prefiguring of that of Ollie, the dufus dragon from the 1950s TV kiddie show Kukla, Fran and Ollie. [↩]
- Gentry, p. 87. [↩]
- Makeup by Anna. [↩]
- In the sound era, Sergei Eisenstein, who took many visual cues from Die Nibelungen in his historical medieval films, attempted a silent-era reliance on the pictorial, especially in the two-part Ivan the Terrible (1944, 1958), with the invaluable assistance of a great composer. However much Huppertz enhanced both Die Nibelungen and Metropolis, he was no Prokofiev. [↩]
- In the poem’s second half, the Burgundians take on on the name of the Nibelungs, a tribe Siegfried had defeated in his youth, seizing their treasure as spoils, which, once he’s married to Kriemhild, he moves to Worms. After his murder, Hagen sinks it in the Rhine. It appears they take the name after Hagen seizes the treasure, but I’ve never seen this development adequately explained. To avoid confusion, I call them the Burgundians throughout this article, in spite of the title of poem and film pointing to the name change. [↩]
- Scholars identify the character of Dietrich as based on a historical figure, Theodoric the Great (454-526), who ruled as king of the Ostrogoths before becoming regent of the Visigoths. [↩]
- Eisner, Lotte. Fritz Lang. London: Secker & Warburg: 1976. p. 80. [↩]
- Reprinted in Fritz Lang: His Life and Work — Photographs and Documents. Berlin: Jovis: 2000. p. 97. [↩]
- In Lang’s next film, Metropolis, he and von Harbou do exactly that by preceding the story with an epigram: “The Mediator Between Head and Hands Must Be the Heart.” [↩]
- Babelsberg is a neighborhood of the city of Potsdam, Germany. The film studio was founded there in 1912 by Bioscop but was eventually taken over by UFA when it merged with Decla-Bioscop in 1921. [↩]
- Eisner, p. 80. [↩]
- The documentary implies that the removal of the footage may have been von Harbou’s idea; it quotes her writing that Kriemhild didn’t need killing, as she was already figuratively dead. [↩]
- Unlike the tragically conflicted Rüdiger, Dietrich has no formal alliance with either side, which means that he and his forces (and thus Hildebrand) remain neutral throughout the conflict. [↩]
- In the poem, before Hildebrand dispatches Kriemhild, Etzel expresses dismay that a woman would kill “the very best warrior that ever entered a battle.” Etzel’s recognition of Hagen as a great warrior apparently trumps the fact that Hagen murdered his son and subsequently killed any number of Huns in battle. Additionally, his disgust — that a woman, his queen, would do such a thing — overrules any loyalty he may still feel for Kriemhild. Hildebrand seems to take Attlila’s dismay as a cue that he has permission, of sorts, to kill the queen. These subtleties, revealing the gigantic medieval gender divide and what seems an absurd overvaluing of Hagen’s battle skills — are justifiably dropped in the film. [↩]
- The Nibelungen. (Trans., Hatto) p. 375. [↩]
- Ibid. p. 375. Here the poet of course refers to the Burgundians, who have adopted the name of a defeated tribe. See footnote no.16, above. [↩]