© 2012 William Ahearn
Fritz Lang’s “Die Nibelungen” premiered in Berlin on February 24, 1924 in what biographer Patrick McGilligan described as a “fiasco.” A few days before the premiere, Lang decided to re-edit the film. He was still working on it when show time rolled around and taxis were taking each reel as Lang finished the edit from the studio to the theatre — a 45-minute drive — to be rushed to the projection booth. The premiere didn’t go well and it might serve as an omen for the future of the film. (There are other accounts of the opening that differ from this one.)
Whatever the events of the premiere, “Die Nibelungen” was a major hit with international audiences, even playing to packed houses in Seoul, Korea in 1924. Variety gave a lukewarm review noting that the entire saga was filmed in a studio. After noting the differences in the story to the Wagner version, The New York Times wrote: “Nevertheless ‘Siegfried’ is a worthy effort, remarkable in many ways and an achievement one should not criticize with flippancy. The story, as taken from ‘Valkyrie,’ ‘Götterdämmerung’ and ‘Siegfried’ is a serious and enviable accomplishment.”
Of all of Fritz Lang’s films, “Die Nibelungen” is the most problematic as to content. There will be child killers, spies, criminal bosses and the like everywhere. The content of this film is specifically German and that has created grounds for interpretation that has skewed how this film has been viewed.
Thea von Harbou and, presumably, Fritz Lang based the screenplay on The Song of the Nibelungs, an epic poem written in the 1200s (or so it is estimated) that chronicles the adventures and death of Siegfried and the revenge extracted by Siegfried’s wife, Kriemhild. The saga is pre-Christian and there are parallels in other European cultures.
In From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film, author Siegfried Kracauer’s thesis is that the German films of the 1920s were filled with premonitions of Adolf Hitler and that Fritz Lang’s “Die Nibelungen” helped pave the way for the Nazi takeover. Kracauer’s book covers numerous films (and several other Lang films) although he draws a direct link between “Die Nibelungen” and Reni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will.”
“These patterns [of authority in “Die Nibelungen”] collaborate in deepening Fate’s irresistible power,” Kracauer wrote. “Certain specific human ornaments in the film also denote as well the omnipotence of dictatorship. [. . .] It is the complete triumph of the ornamental over the human. Absolute authority asserts itself by arranging people under its domination in pleasing designs. This can also be seen in the Nazi regime, which manifested strong ornamental inclinations in organizing masses. Whenever Hitler harangued the people, he surveyed not so much hundreds of thousands of listeners as an enormous ornament consisting of hundreds of thousands of particles. ‘Triumph of the Will,’ the official Nazi film of the Nuremberg Party Convention in 1934, proves that in shaping their mass-ornaments the Nazi decorators drew inspiration from ‘Die Nibelungen’.”
Adolf Hitler and Josef Goebbels were known fans of the film although their appreciation was limited to “Siegfried” as “Kriemhild’s Revenge” was too nihilistic, or so the story goes, as springtime for Germany never lasts long in a Fritz Lang film. Lang was bothered by the addition of parts of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen as accompaniment as was used in the 1924 US release, as well as the German version released by the Nazis.
In 1974, in an interview with Focus on Film, Lang said: “I would like to make a remark about [From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film]. In my opinion this book is wrong about a lot of things and it has done a lot of damage, I feel, particularly among young people. When I made my films I always followed my imagination. By making ‘Die Nibelungen’ I wanted to show that Germany was searching for an ideal in her past, even during the horrible time after World War I in which the film was made. At that time in Berlin I remember seeing a poster on the street, which pictured a woman dancing with a skeleton. The caption read: ‘Berlin, you are dancing with Death.’ To counteract this pessimistic spirit I wanted to film the epic legend of Siegfried so that Germany could draw inspiration from her past, and not, as Mr Kracauer suggests, as a looking forward to the rise of a political figure like Hitler or some such stupid thing as that.”
Robert A Armour made an interesting distinction in his book Fritz Lang when he noted, “Kracauer believes that the climate that produced Lang’s version of German myth in 1924 was the same climate that produced the Nazi movement soon afterwards. Perhaps, but the Nazis tended to use only the part of history they found to work to their advantage. [. . .] Both Lang and the Nazis were shaping the myth to their own versions, but the visions were different and so were the purposes.”
Not that the film lacked controversy at the time it was released. The Berlin weekly Die Weltbühne wrote: “The evil dwarf Alberich, who represents obscure powers, is, and it can’t be mistaken, depicted as a Jew. Not a handsome Jew, naturally, but as a vile Jew.” Lotte Eisner in Fritz Lang writes that: “Siegfried Kracauer alleged that Lang’s Alberich has markedly Jewish features, and he reads into this a deliberate gesture of anti-Semitism. In reality,” Eisner continues, “Lang and his make-up artist Otto Genath were simply influenced by the grotesque make-up used by the Russo-Jewish Habimah ensemble that was currently visiting in Berlin.” In addressing similar criticisms of how the Huns were depicted in the film, Eisner wrote in The Haunted Screen that “It should be obvious that Lang’s intentions was merely to vary his characters and their attitudes in the name of a novel and surprising dynamism. The racial implications were due to Thea von Harbou and UFA.”
Seigfried Kracauer and Lotte H Eisner have been – for decades – the initial introduction to a serious study – in English – of the films of the Weimar as well as the films of Fritz Lang. Their contributions are essential and yet each has an axe badly hidden behind their back. Kracauer believes that the German films of the 1920s and 1930s actually made the rise of the Nazis possible and he sees Goebbels under every director’s bed. Eisner refuses to see any fault in Fritz Lang whatsoever going so far as to make ridiculous excuses for serious criticisms and, if that fails, there’s always Thea von Harbou to kick around. Germany created some masterful and influential films during this era and it may be time to sift out the shortcomings of Kracauer and Eisner and take another look at the films of post-WWI Germany.
Whether the viewer is aware of Kracauer’s theory, or the original myth, or the paintings that may have inspired certain scenes in the film, or the picture book from Lang’s childhood, or all the other sundry bits of information critics offer to explain the film, doesn’t really matter. The story tells itself as all good tales do and unlike most fairy tales or cultural myths, the violent and nihilistic ending is still unsettling and disturbing. Once again, no character has any regrets or guilt about the path they chose and to the end each character plays their part on the road to destruction as if it were the only road open to them. Once the first killing goes down, the rest follow as a natural course of events. Kriemhild has, toward the end, a hand wringing moment. She isn’t considering the folly of her revenge, only the extent. When others falter, she takes the sword and continues.
The film remains stunning. As an epic revenge film from the silent era, it has few equals. The one effect that doesn’t translate to modern audiences is the dragon that took 17 people to manipulate. One reviewer at the time wrote: “No stage Dragon could really challenge fantasy, but merely as a technical achievement the Dragon is a marvel and will certainly remain the [showpiece] of the film to the popular taste. He really lives.” These days the dragon looks clunky although the film, as a whole, is a brilliant achievement.
Produced by Erich Pommer for Decla-Bioscop and UFA. Directed by Fritz Lang. Written by Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou. Cinematography by Carl Hoffmann, Günther Rittau, and Walter Ruttmann. Original Music by Gottfried Huppertz. Set Decoration by Erich Kettelhut and Karl Vollbrecht. 100 minutes.
Starring Gertrud Arnold, Margarete Schön, Hanna Ralph, Paul Richter, Theodor Loos, Hans Carl Mueller, Erwin Biswanger, and Bernhard Goetzke, among others.