Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Review – Die Nibelungen

December 16, 2008

Die Nibelungen – Germany, 1924

To fully enjoy Fritz Lang’s epic film Die Nibelungen, it is best to accept some peculiar things as facts. Here are just a few of the realities in Die Nibelungen that it’s best not to question: One can fall in love with someone simply by hearing about them in a story, a prince’s natural reaction to stumbling upon a dragon is to attempt to kill it instead of tiptoeing quietly past it, bathing in a dragon’s blood makes one practically invincible, a dwarf would elect to save a fortune in gold and jewels just in case he needed to barter it for his life later on, and a shy king would fall in love with the warlike, contemptuous queen of a land surrounded by fire and apparently inhabited only by women who want nothing to do with the opposite sex. If you can accept these things without cracking up, you’re in for a treat.

Die Nibelungen begins by introducing us to Siegfried (played with innocence and valor by Paul Richter), one of the sons of King Siegmond. When we meet him, Siegfried is a blacksmith’s apprentice, forging a sword so sharp that it can cut a feather in two. So skilled is he that his teacher tells him that there is nothing more he can teach him. Hearing this, Siegfried calls for his horse, but before he leaves he happens to hear someone talking about the kings of Burgandy in a faraway land called Worms. Ordinarily, this probably wouldn’t be enough to interest him, but the man’s description of the king’s sister Kriemhild (powerfully played by Margaret Schon) is apparently so incredible that Siegfried immediately declares his intention to go there and win her as his bride. This announcement is unexpectedly met with roaring laughter. After some arm twisting (literally), Siegfried is shown the road to Worm, a journey that is so perilous as to make his teacher bid him farewell, as if it is truly good bye. On the path to Worm, Siegfried encounters a fire-breathing dragon and a very affluent dwarf who possesses a net that when placed on one’s head not only makes a person invisible but also enables him to look like other people.

Once he arrives in Worm, Siegfried is given an ultimatum: If he wants to marry Kriemhild, he has to help her brother, King Gunther (Theodor Loos), win for his bride Brunhild (Hanna Ralph), the Queen of Ice. Apparently the queen is a rather athletic woman, and she has set up three physical tasks that someone must beat her at in order to gain her hand in marriage. Surely this is a piece of cake for Siegfried; however, the king is not the athletic type, and therefore it is up to Siegfried to come up with a way for the king to be victorious. It’s times like these when a net of invisibility really comes in handy. Soon the Queen of Ice is on a ship bound for Worm, and yet she is suspicious. “Are you really the man who defeated me threefold?” she asks. The answer to that question will have terrible ramifications for King Gunther, his sister Kriemhild, and Siegfried.

Up until this point, Die Nibelungen has been fun but hardly something that can be taken too seriously. However, what transpires after the Queen’s arrival in Worm is tense and tragic, as truths are revealed, vengeance is sought, and awful plots are concocted. King Gunther proves to be one who is easily manipulated, and it could be Siegfried who pays the ultimate price for the king’s personal weaknesses and mistakes.

Die Nibelungen is told in two parts. The first is appropriately titled Siegfried. The second is called Kriemhild’s Revenge, a title that pretty much gives away the ending of the first part. The second part mainly deals with one issue: Kriemhild’s quest to avenge Siegfried’s murder. To accomplish this she must convince someone of great power to commit to her cause, a task that does not prove too difficult, especially if one is being courted by a man who calls himself the ruler of the earth. However, getting people to fulfill their promises to her is not as simple, for time after time her loss is deemed not as important as long-held customs relating to honor and camaraderie. The message here is simple. A widow’s pain is just not as important as a man’s word. Throughout the film, Margaret Schon’s performance is astonishing. In the first half, Kriemhild goes from being reserved to being joyful and alive. In the second, she is focused yet emotionally aloof. In many scenes, she does not even blink as she glares at those who disappoint her and at those whom she despises. The only emotion we clearly see is rage. It is exceptionally powerful. Another performance worthy of praise is that of Hanna Ralph. She manages to make Brunhild simultaneously despised and sympathetic.

Siegfried and Kriemhild’s Revenge have entirely different feels to them. Whereas Siegfried jumps from one adventure to another and is tremendously exciting, Kriemhild’s Revenge is much slower, devoting a great deal of time to Kriemhild’s pleas for revenge and to people explaining to her why it would be considered rude to exact revenge at this particular moment. When the timing is finally right – that is to say when someone else’s sorrow has become intertwined with Kriemhild’s – the film becomes a rather long series of attacks, counterattacks, and pleas for Kriemhild to have a heart. While this may work in prose, it rarely plays well on the silver screen. One need only look at recent films like Troy, The Matrix Revolutions, and to a lesser extend The Lord of the Rings trilogy to find examples of this. To me, the climactic battle in Kriemhild’s Revenge simply went on too long, and I admit to losing interest a bit. However, I was fascinated by the commitment and loyalty that the Worm kings and soldiers had for each other. To them, honoring and protecting one of their own is more important that any wrong he may have committed. Simultaneously, on Kriemhild’s part, revenge is more important than any amount of grief its pursuit causes. Perhaps the message of Die Nibelungen is that war – especially one fought by foes such as these - has no victors. There are no cheers at the end of Lang’s film, just the eerie acknowledgement that spiritual and emotional death had come long before the physical one. (on DVD from Kino)

Siegfried: 4 and a half stars
Kriemhild’s Revenge: 3 stars

No comments: