Die Nibelungen: Siegfried (1924)
Director: Fritz Lang
Cast: Paul Richter, Margarete Schön, Theodor Loos
Synopsis: After Siegfried, a nearly invulnerable warrior prince, hears of the beauty of Princess Kriemhild, he travels to Burgundy to meet her.
According to Fritz Lang, Die Nibelungen: Siegfried, together with Metropolis (1926), was one of the reasons he was offered a position as head of the Reich Cinema following Hitler’s rise to power in the early 1930s. On the strength of this film it’s easy to see why Hitler was impressed. It opens with a shot of a virile, bare-chested man, clean-cut, blonde-haired and square of jaw, forging a sword. This is Siegfried, the hero of the story, and in just one scene he manages to embody the imagery of Aryan purity, power and superiority with which Hitler intended to resurrect the broken spirit of the German people. The half-Jewish Lang’s story, disputed by some, has him leaving the meeting with Josef Goebbels at which he was offered the position to immediately flee the country. Whether Lang fabricated or embellished his story we shall probably never know — but there’s no denying the epic scale and memorable imagery of Die Nibelungen.
Siegfried is the son of a king, sent to serve his apprenticeship with Mime (Georg John), a blacksmith living in a vast forest. When Siegfried forges a sword fine enough to split in two a feather as it gently floats to the floor, Mime declares his apprenticeship complete. But instead of returning to his homeland, Siegfried decides to capture the heart of Princess Kriemhild (Margarete Schön) after hearing stories of her beauty. This is clearly a fearless prince of boundless energy, and is played by Paul Richter with that grinning, wide-eyed and unblinking look of steely determination that is supposed to signify unassailable inner strength, but which today makes him look like he’s on the point of doing something violently illegal after ingesting an illicit substance.
On his ventures, Siegfried encounters a giant dragon. It appears to be minding its own business as it quenches its thirst at a pool, but Siegfried takes it upon himself to slay the dragon nonetheless. It’s actually quite an impressive monster for the period, easily comparable to the mechanical King Kong who would arrive nearly a decade later. Unlike Kong, though, the filmmakers clearly had little control over movement, so much of Siegfried’s battle with it involves our hero nimbly avoiding its swishing tail, or jabbing his sword at its barely moving head. Eventually he slays the dragon by stabbing it in the heart and eye, and then bathes in its blood to become invincible. Unfortunately for Siegfried, however, a falling leaf from an overhanging lime tree lands on his back, leaving a crucially vulnerable patch of skin which will ultimately have fatal consequences.
Siegfried is later set upon by a malevolent dwarf made invisible by a magic helmet, but manages to overcome his assailant. Taking the helmet from the dwarf, Siegfried then kills it after it has led him to its vast treasure. Now wealthy and indestructible, and with the ability not only to become invisible but to change shape thanks to the dwarf’s helmet, Siegfried marches on to Worms, where Kriemhild and her brother King Gunther (Theodor Loos) abide. Upon arrival at Gunther’s palace with 12 kings as his vassals, Siegfried asks for the hand of Kriemhild, but Gunther’s advisor Hagen Tronje (Hans Adelbert Schlettow) suggests to the king that Siegfried be made to win the hand of the fearsome Icelandic Queen Brunhild (Hanna Ralph) if he wants to marry Kriemhild, which is no easy task as any suitor must beat her in three feats of strength, risking death as a punishment for coming second in any of them.
Some striking woman, this Brunhild, you might be forgiven for thinking, if she’s worth laying down your life for. Well, no, actually. Unless she has hidden depths not revealed to us, she’s certainly not worth risking your life over in my opinion. Anyway, Gunther is smitten, but he’s something of an insipid chap, certainly no match for the frightening Brunhild. So, wearing his helmet of invisibility, Siegfried performs the feats of strength on Gunther’s behalf, thus winning his everlasting gratitude when Brunhild eventually capitulates.
Mission accomplished, Siegfried wins the hand of Kriemhild — but what a mistake that turns out to be. Having sworn herself to secrecy over the whereabouts of a piece of jewellery that would expose Siegfried and Gunther’s deception to Brunhild, Kriemhild immediately blabs to the Icelandic maiden as soon as they have their first face off. And then, to compound her crime, she offers to sew a target on the back of Siegfried’s tunic for Hagen Tronje, little realising that he intends to assassinate her husband on a hunting trip…
Die Nibelungen: Siegfried still holds up pretty well for much of its running time. Its fantastical elements are quaint, in only the way that silent movies can be, and enhance the dreamlike qualities the film shares with most silent pictures. Like Mr. Hitler, many viewers will find the visual imagery pleasing to the eye – both the set and costume design are wildly ambitious for the time in which it was made. As referred to earlier, Lang seems to have identified, and tapped into, a defeated and economically depressed nation’s desire for a stronger leader, which he provides in the form of Siegfried. It’s ironic that this same desire would aid Adolf Hitler’s rise to power and bring about Lang’s hasty departure from Germany.
(Reviewed 3rd September 2012)