Masters Of Cinema #46 - Die Nibelungen - Blu-ray Review

'Lang has taken us down from the very top and now, here we are, in the grubby embers of cold revenge and murderous desperation.'

Based on an ancient German poem, previously the source for Wagner's Ring Cycle, there is more reason to call Fritz Lang's Die Nibelungen 'epic' than simply its running time of just shy of five hours. Lang's portrayal of famous myth and fable is vested in an exploration of heroic constructs, of inevitable tragedy and of worldly prevalent themes of revenge and power. Through grand motifs and set pieces, the German director orchestrates his creation through operatic movements of heroism, fragile alliance and death.

Ostensibly two back-to-back films, Siegfried and Kriemhild's Revenge, Lang goes from the creation of an invincible hero to the inevitable downfall of morals and common sense when that hero is destroyed. As such, the two halves of the whole play out incredibly differently, despite their close relation to one another.

Siegfried, concerned mainly with the building up of the titular hero (Paul Richter) and his ability to win alliances with the most difficult of men, feels much less of a resounding epic than its later counterpart. More time is given over to character building and an exploration of the scenery surrounding our hero than in the later film, where the world is already established. Lang floats ponderously through beautiful sun-dappled forests and pauses for huge stretches of time on individuals' faces, as they react to new propositions.

The main drama in the first half of Die Nibelungen arrives when Siegfried helps weakling Gunther (Theodor Loos) to overcome the female warrior Brunhild (Hanna Ralph), and thus claim her as his bride. Notable for Lang's mastery of super-imposition camera techniques, these scenes and the film's conclusion also allow Ralph to shine, in a film marked out by the powerful performances of its two female leads.

Kriemhild (Margarete Schön) has, of course, more to do in the second half of Lang's epic, where she is the subject, but here she too is pushed to the fore on occasion, notably during Siegfried's death, where Lang finally finds some emotional truth in a first half that is incalculably cold on too many occasions.

'In a disparaging end for human nature, Kriemhild is seen perched atop the madness, clearly lit in bright white, presiding over her troops like a stony-faced angel of death'

The second half of Die Nibelungen, Kriemhild's Revenge, perks noticeably from the first. The narrative, structured around Kriemhild's attempts to avenge her fallen lover and The Nibelungen's attempts to defend his killer, is more obviously fraught with drama and Lang manages to create momentum and pace, where previously there was little.

Gone are long languishings in forests, time spent on close-ups is also much reduced and an apparent increase in title cards add depth to the story. Kriemhild's dangerous play to accept the wedding proposal of Attila, King of The Huns (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), is the move of a desperate woman, but Lang and writing partner Thea von Harbou do well to keep the full extent of Kriemheld's punishing desperation to avenge hidden until right at the finale.

Everything, in fact, feels purposefully different in the second film. Compare and contrast the introduction of blond, bare-chested Siegfried, at the start of the first, with the introduction of Attila, at the beginning of the second. Slumped over his throne, the savage Attila looks every bit the opposite to the noble hero, first seen bending over the fires of a blacksmith's forge. Lang has taken us down from the very top and now, here we are, in the grubby embers of cold revenge and murderous desperation.

What comes in the final third of Kriemhild's Revenge is warned against by three characters during the middle section of the film; a priest, Kriemhild's brother and an outside observer (Rudiger played by Rudolf Rittner). We are left in little doubt that something is coming but when it does, the full wrath of Kriemhild still has the ability to catch us off guard, as does the dark lengths Lang is willing to allow the picture, and villain Hagen Tronje (Hans Adalbert Schlettow), to go.

In a disparaging end for human nature, which clearly influenced such subsequently momentous on-screen battles as Peter Jackson's skirmish at Helm's Deep, Kriemhild is seen perched atop the madness, clearly lit in bright white, presiding over her troops like a stony-faced angel of death. It might not be apparent that all of this is coming from the first two hours or so, but stick with Lang's Die Nibelungen. This is an epic for many reasons, all of them revealed come the tragedian finale.

Founded in 2004, The Masters of Cinema Series is an independent, carefully curated, UK-based Blu-ray and DVD label, now consisting of over 150 films. Films are presented in their original aspect ratio (OAR), in meticulous transfers created from recent restorations and / or the most pristine film elements available.

Die Nibelungen is released in the UK on Monday 29th October 2012


  1. I've only seen this on You Tube, where the uploader unfortunately stretched it to fit a wider aspect ratio. Nonetheless, it blew me away. I love that dragon you show atop, the geometrical visuals, the sense of impending doom and increasing intensity. Lang is not really one of my favorite directors, but this is definitely my favorite of his silent films and my favorite of his films overall.

    1. It's definitely worth searching out if you're a fan: if only for the fact that MoC present it correctly, on a really good restoration. I had a note down about the geometric visuals (they seem to increase as well, the 2nd half really has everything!) that then didn't make it into the piece above. The dragon is, indeed, brilliant!