Strange… there’s a human with a sword hiding behind that tree…
In 1924, when J.R.R. Tolkien was a harried young father who had yet to write The Lord of the Rings, Fritz Lang essayed his treatment of the Elder Edda legends with Die Nibelungen. Tolkien’s version of the same story, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, has just (as of May 5) been published. Your correspondent has yet to read it, but will be interested to see Tolkien’s take on the Big Germanic Legend. For those of you watching Lang’s and Thea Von Harbou’s version, here’s what you’ll get: Doom, doom, DOOM. And plenty of it.
That’s not all, of course. You get a dragon, and dwarves, and a magical bit of netting that confers invisibility, and a cursed treasure, and knights and castles. In its day this was as celebrated a film as the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings, and for largely the same reasons. It was an intelligent and reasonably faithful adaptation of a famous epic, with great special effects and camerawork. Like Jackson’s LOTR, there was too much story for one film, and so Die Nibelungen is a five-hour duology of two films, Siegfried (or Siegfried’s Death) and Kriemhild’s Revenge. The titles should clue you in: don’t expect a happy ending. Spoilers follow, but honestly, who hasn’t at least seen What’s Opera, Doc? Come on. Don’t be a whiner. You already know the story isn’t going to end well.
If you’re a fan of the Wagnerian Ring cycle, you may have a little trouble getting your head around the plot differences here. Wagner rewrote the epic and mixed in bits of other stories to create his four-opera megatragedy. Lang and Von Harbou’s version sticks closer to the original story, and is considerably shorter as a consequence. Brunhild is not a valkyrie demigoddess but an amazonian queen of Iceland. The Norse gods don’t put in an appearance at all. And, surprise! Attila the Hun is a major player in the second half of the game.
The other elephant in the room is the fact that this was one of Hitler’s favorite films. You may well be wary of being force-fed five hours of Nazi propaganda, and it’s a fact that in 1933 the German Ufa (having just fired all its Jewish employees) re-released the first film with a Wagnerian soundtrack.
Watching Die Nibelungen as it was originally shown, though, you realize this isn’t actually propaganda. It’s a poisoned chalice. Lang and Von Harbou had arguably begun to work at cross-purposes by this time, and the film carries a double message. Von Harbou’s dedication “To the German People” and the flourishes of racism in the depiction of other ethnicities prefigure her later enthusiastic embrace of Naziism. Lang’s subtext, however, is more objective, particularly in the grueling second half of the story. Romance and Wagnerian grandeur are stripped away; no more dragons, no more magic, simply the inevitable consequences of a life philosophy that really, really sucks. We’re talking Toxic.
Siegfried opens with all the trappings of a classic fairy tale. Here are little gnarled dwarves working at their forge in the roots under a tree, for all the world like a Brian Froud drawing. Here is the young hero Siegfried, working at forging the sharpest sword ever made, and the usual cognitive disconnect is in place: how come a strapping human-sized person is able to fit in the clearly lilliputian-sized smithy? It’s never explained and doesn’t matter. Siegfried overhears the dwarves discussing Kriemhild, the virgin sister of the King of the Burgundians. He demands details, and declares that he’s off to win her hand. He rides off on his white horse. The dwarves are clearly relieved to see him go, because he’s a bit rude really.
And here, basking by a forest pool, is the Dragon, and for 1924 this was a magnificent bit of special-effects wizardry. It was 60 feet long, operated by 17 techs, and moved like an honest-to-gosh living thing. The extras on the Kino release include a comparative sequence of dragonslaying from The Thief of Baghdad, released the same year, and it’s vastly inferior: a flopping hand puppet confronting Douglas Fairbanks’ rear-projected figure. Siegfried happens on the Dragon and does battle, of course. It’s a helluva sequence, with the Dragon breathing real fire and, when killed, bleeding out in arterial gushes. Tasting its blood, Siegfried gains the power of understanding the speech of birds, and a little bird tells him that bathing in the Dragon’s blood will make him invulnerable. He promptly strips down and bathes, but the Achilles thing happens when a linden-leaf sticks to his back.
Gleefully unaware, Siegfriend rides off to his next adventure. In a sequence evocative of Max Reinhardt’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, we see Alberich the Dwarf-King lurking in a tree trunk. He pulls a bit of magic netting over his head, goes invisible, and springs out on Siegfried as he rides by. Siegfried defeats him and Alberich pleads for his life, offering to make Siegfried rich. He leads him to a huge bowl filled with golden treasure and supported by chained dwarves. While Siegfried is gazing raptly on the loot, Alberich attacks him, but Siegfried is too fast for him, and as he dies Alberich curses the treasure. It’s all downhill from here.
Siegfried, now armed with the magic sword, the magic netting, and the cursed treasure, and having changed his caveman furs for medieval knight attire, appears at the court of Gunther the Nibelung, King of the Burgundians. This is a chilly place where people stand around looking like chess pieces and there isn’t a lot of furniture. All the men have blond pageboy bobs except for Hagen, the king’s right-hand man. Hagen is a thorough badass. Hagen has a black beard and an eyepatch, and wears his chainmail and raven-winged helmet everywhere, including the dinner table. Hagen never has a good word to say about anybody. The king’s minstrel sings of valiant Siegfried the Dragonslayer, and, while Kriemhild the king’s sister thinks Siegfried sounds just dreeeamy, Hagen disses him. Nonetheless, King Gunther welcomes Siegfried and his Twelve Royal Vassals and his gold treasure to his court.
Siegfried demands Kriemhild’s hand in marriage. Not so fast, says Hagen; first you have to help King Gunther in a personal matter. It transpires that Gunther is madly in love with Brunhild, Queen of Iceland, but Brunhild is a warrior queen who has demanded that any prospective suitor damn well better be able to defeat her in three challenges. Gunther is a spineless little cad and knows he can’t win Brunhild, but maybe Siegfriend can help him out? So off they go to Iceland. Forget visions of big-bosomed valkyries with blonde braids; Lang’s Brunhild looks sort of like Margaret Dumont with a watering can stuck on her head. Nonetheless, Gunther’s just gotta have her, so he and Siegfried between them use the magic netting to make it appear as though Gunther passes the three challenges. Downcast, Brunhild marries Gunther and Siegfried marries Kriemhild.
But wait! Gunther needs just one more little favor, before Siegfried can rush off to his own little blonde bride: Brunhild has to be, er, sternly talked to before she will submit to Gunther’s marriage bed. Like, er, wrestled with? To break her steely, er, spirit? Rolling his eyes at all the Freudian metaphors, Siegfried goes off to wrestle Brunhild, using his magic net to make himself resemble Gunther. In the struggle Brunhild’s serpent armlet comes off and somehow or other ends up in Siegfried’s possession.
Times passes. Siegfriend and Kriemhild are happy, happy, happy, though he has figured out about that linden-leaf-shaped patch on his back that aches when a low-pressure system rolls through Burgundy and, unwisely, he has entrusted Kriemhild with his secret. Gunther and Brunhild are unhappy, unhappy, unhappy, with Brunhild sitting around glowering at everyone and Gunther slinking like a whipped cur. Hagen is sarcastic and unhelpful. Kriemhild’s mother finds the serpent armlet at the bottom of a sock drawer and says “Gee, honey, why haven’t you ever worn this to church?”
Kriemhild takes it to Siegfried, who is horrified to find this little souvenir of Gunther’s wedding night still kicking around. He explains about it and cautions Kriemhild never to tell anyone else. “OK,” she says, innocently pushing it further up her arm where her veil hides it. But then she and Brunhild have a big catfight on the steps of the cathedral over who has the right to walk into church ahead of the other, and of course Kriemhild pulls out the armlet and waves it in Brunhild’s face. And of course Brunhild, seething for revenge, tells Gunther that Siegfried actually raped her during that marital intervention or whatever it was, and she won’t eat or drink until Siegfried is dead. And of course Gunther turns to Hagen to ask what to do, and Hagen goes off to wheedle the secret of Siegfried’s vulnerable spot out of Kriemhild, on the pretext that if he knows where it is he can better protect her dear husband in time of war. And of course Kriemhild tells him. Hell, she even marks Siegfried’s tunic with a helpful X to show where the spot is. And of course Hagen nails Siegfried in the back with a spear. Exit Siegfried.
“Ha, ha,” screams Brunhild, “Joke’s on you, Gunther! Siegfried was innocent!” So saying, she goes off and kills herself at Siegfried’s funeral, because apparently she’s been secretly in love with him all this time. Upstaged by her rival, poor Kriemhild rushes to demand justice, only to be confronted by the concept of German Loyalty, or Nibelungentreue: Hagen may have lied, Hagen may have treacherously killed Gunther’s blood brother Siegfried, but because he’s Gunther’s sworn companion, Gunther won’t punish him. Neither will Kriemhild’s other two brothers. Hagen gets a free pass. Kriemhild is left to steam. In her position, I would have loaded the cursed treasure into a cart and ridden off with it right then, cheerfully tossing a torch into the castle thatching as I went. But oh, no: this epic is five hours long, remember?
Kriemhild’s Revenge opens with Kriemhild brooding obsessively over Siegfried’s tomb. Her constant cries for justice are ignored. Hagen goes into the castle treasury, steals the cursed treasure and hides it in the Rhine, giving as his excuse that he’s afraid it will be used to buy WMDs that will threaten Burgundy. He also steals Siegfried’s sword. Kriemhild is outraged! But will Gunther do anything to punish the thief? Nope. Nibelungentreue is again invoked.
Kriemhild receives a marriage proposal from Attila the Hun. Compared with her current life at Chez Nibelung, the plains of Hungary sound pretty good, and Kriemhild accepts on one condition: that her future husband agree to avenge any insult she suffers. So off she goes, refusing to kiss her brothers goodbye.
On arriving in Hungary, she realizes she might have made a mistake. Attila rules a kingdom of hovels that look like they’ve been sculpted out of pig shit. Attila’s subjects are unwashed savages with wuzzy hair. Attila himself is no Nordic superman. In fact, he looks like a goblin. But he’s desperately in love at first sight with Kriemhild. He spreads out his cloak in order that she needn’t wade through the mud in his throne room. He treats her like the queen she is, conferring upon her a lot of Byzantine-looking crown jewels. He’s kind to her even when he realizes she doesn’t love him, and ecstatic when she bears him a little son. As he’s galloping to her side to celebrate, we see Kriemhild in a profoundly sad moment: climbing from her bed in her grubby nightgown she goes to stand beside the baby’s crib. She can’t even bring herself to touch her child; he’s just part of the price she’s paid for the chance of revenge.
But Attila is overjoyed with his son, embracing and dandling the baby. He offers Kriemhild anything she asks for. She asks for her brothers to be invited to the baby’s christening. Hmmm, he thinks, this might be awkward, but he agrees. The Nibelungs, accompanied of course by best buddy Hagen, saddle up and ride to Hungary, heavily armed. Not only do they not even stop at a Kmart to buy a gift packet of Onesies and a teething ring, they take an armed posse with them. Even to Attila, this seems uncouth, but he plays the gracious host and welcomes them in. Hagen is as nasty as ever to Kriemhild and, alone with Attila, she demands that he kill Hagen. “Are you nuts?” cries Attila. “He’s my guest!” Furious, Kriemhild goes out and persuades her Hun subjects that it would be a good thing to avenge her insult. They all adore her, so they enthusiastically plot a mid-banquet attack on Gunther’s knights.
Up in the throne room, the christening party is not going well. Attila, ever the loving father, has the baby brought in and shown off to his uncles. Hagen tactfully remarks that the boy looks sickly and probably won’t live long. News comes of the skirmish going on in the servant’s hall and Hagen’s response is to whip out his sword and kill the baby. Attila is crazed with grief, even Kriemhild has a spasm of maternal reaction, but how do her brothers react upon seeing their infant nephew murdered before their eyes? You guessed it: Nibelungentreue. Another free pass for good old Hagen.
The Nibelungs and their men hole up in the banquet hall, Kriemhild directs the Huns in besieging them there, and Attila, clutching the body of his child, retires to mourn him. Around a million Huns assail the hall, but the Nibelungs, being Aryan warriors, repel them with ease. Kriemhild says the Nibelungs can go free if they’ll deliver up the man who murdered her husband AND her baby as well as stole her bride-gift, but how do they respond? Nibelungentreue!
At last the Huns set fire to the hall and the roof falls in. Everyone inside is killed but Gunther and Hagen, who, like a pair of cockroaches, seem to be able to survive almost anything. They are marched out and Kriemhild demands to know what Hagen did with her treasure. He won’t talk. An overeager Hun beheads Gunther, and you can’t help applauding by this time. Attila, gentleman that he is, hands Kriemhild Siegfried’s sword and tells her to go crazy. Kriemhild beheads Hagen! Finally!! And then she dies too, killed by one of Attila’s other guests in the original story but in Lang’s version she just seems to expire of inhuman emotion. Attila orders that she be carried back to Siegfried’s tomb and buried beside him, since Siegfried was her true love.
Boy, what does it say of the values system in this story when Attila the freaking Hun is the voice of compassion and decency?
For all their blond pageboy haircuts and Teutonic Knight chainmail, it is impossible not to detest the Nibelungs, impossible not to cheer with the dirty, gleeful savages when they finally get their comeuppance. You have to wonder how far the Nibelungentreue concept drove a whole nation to act against every human impulse of morality in the name of idealized loyalty. You have to wonder whether Goebbels felt some satisfaction in comparing himself to the heroic Nibelungs, as he killed his children and set fire to his house. You have to wonder what bullshit bards Hitler imagined singing his story, as he crouched in his bunker at the end.