Siegfried fights the fearsome friendly dragon in Fritz Lang’s DIE NIBELUNGEN. The German effects crew were very fond of their life-sized mechanical fire-breathing dragon, operated not by pneumatics and remote control, but by a gang of sweltering Germans crowded in the belly of the beast. Not animatronics, so much as Germanimatronics.
But! Impressive as the contraption is, one can’t help but feel sympathy for the mighty mythic lizard, innocently lapping at a pool when Siegfried, pig-headedly intent on mayhem, comes gallumphing up and whacks the poor critter with his broadsword. And the reason we feel this way, I suggest, is the overall air of wounded innocence projected by the vast reptile, and this is all because of his eyes.
You see, unlike every reptile in the natural world, the monster has been outfitted with two eyes which face front, rather than to the side, giving him stereoscopic vision and making him appear more simian than reptilian as far as his facial alignment goes. While it’s never entirely certain how truly sympathetic Lang intends Siegfried to be (and it’s more than likely that matters of sympathy appeared quite irrelevant to the meister with this particular material), it does seem unfortunate that he’s allowed an inappropriate anthropomorphism to kind of de-fang his reptilian menace. Still, that’s not a mistake he would ever make again.
Oh dear. What IS it with Lang and these eyes-front serpentine puppets?
As with Pete’s Siegfried’s dragon, the snake is one of those things you initially might have to forgive in Lang’s Indian diptych (THE TIGER OF ESCHNAPUR & THE INDIAN TOMB), but really he’s part of the rich texture that makes things so enjoyable, visible wires and all. Lang’s penultimate project/s are not only, in all probability, the best thing ever if you’re a ten-year-old German schoolboy, but an apotheosis of pulp exotica that somehow reaches the level of poetry through a high-serious approach to material that is, on the face of it, the sheerest tripe.
I guess the feeling was that to make the snake look properly hypnotized by Debra Paget’s sexy dance (as who wouldn’t be?), it was necessary for it to face forward and seem to give her its undivided attention. But again, the effect is hilariously human.
Never at a loss for a theory, I’m going to suggest that Lang identified with these cold-blooded co-stars. He does have a certain serpentine quality himself, like a monocled adder with a cigarette in its gob. And so he wanted them to look as much like him as possible. The dragon is young Lang, fiery and virile. The snake is old Lang, attenuated and half-blind, only able to gaze awe-struck upon the gyrating humanoid before him.
In that sense, the story of Lang’s serpent is the story of us all.
Thanks to Masters of Cinema for these beauties, which you can, and should, now buy ~