Had a great, apocalyptic time watching the Kino DVD of Fritz Lang and Thea Von Harbou’s DIE NIBELUNGEN lately, which I’d only ever seen on bad VHS, in cut form. Once we got over the difficulty of the preposterous Gothic script intertitles, we settled in to enjoying the films in a highly improper way — watching them episodically, in segments; doing all the voices (it was necessary for one or other of us to read each title card aloud to make sure we’d both understood it, so unclear was the lettering); re-enacting battle scenes with the cat.
It would be great to have a proper bigscreen encounter with Lang’s two-part, four-hour-plus masterpiece and treat it with the respect it deserves, but this was had more the qualities of an informal browse — no TV viewing is going to be adequate to this epic experience.
Still, apart from the high entertainment value, the experience brought many stimulating insights, so much so that I’m thinking of about three blog posts inspired by this movie / movies / way of life. DIE NIB seemed to function on a level of pure plot, augmented by powerful imagery, with little in the manner of characterisation to invest in. The characters are typed by their roles in the narrative, their various appearances, their relationships to each other, and nothing else. Harbou’s script and her partner’s direction give no clues as to how we should regard these figures. A story is being told, and that is all. Some characters, by their actions, might seem unsympathetic — particularly Hagen Tronje, who plays key roles in most of the disastrous decisions that lead his countrymen towards eventual destruction — but we are not encouraged to condemn anybody. Where some characters, particularly Attila the Hun, are presented as grotesque monsters, their actions are in fact relatively reasonable (by the standards of this storyline, anyway).
(Without any clear attitude to the dramatis personae, or none we can relate to, the film also lacks an explicit theme, although there’s plenty of ideas in there to latch onto if you’re so inclined, particularly that old Langian favourite, the power of destiny.)
A perfect example of this approach occurs right at the start of the tale, when nominal “hero” Siegfried — who is heroic only because he is strong and fearless, not because he’s a nice guy — encounters the dragon, which is drinking peacefully from a stream. The mighty saurian (constructed life-size and staffed by a crew of sweltering technicians who laboured to move its body parts about from within, while hoping to avoid being incinerated by its authentic fiery breath, not the last time Health & Safety Issues will arise in the modern viewer’s mind) looks about as hostile as Flounder from ANIMAL HOUSE, mainly because unlike most reptiles, he has his eyes front instead of at the sides, giving him a sympathetic, human gaze, just like Flounder from ANIMAL HOUSE.
Seized with Teutonic bloodlust at the sight of this mild cousin of the terrapin, whom I will from here on refer to as Flounder, Siegfried forgets the job in hand (sword delivery boy) and sets about Flounder with lethal force, culminating in the literal bloodbath that sets the story in motion. The supposed monster is perfectly nice, the supposed hero is a brute.
Shortly after the dragonslaying, Siegfried acquires a treasure and a curse, and now the film has a real force of destiny driving it, so that questions of psychology and motivation can be almost ignored. Whether or not Lang believed in fate (he expressed some resistance to the idea in later interviews) I suspect he greatly appreciated it as a plot device. Lang has a unique relationship to characterisation, and sometimes used the iconic qualities of movie stars and genre types in ways that bear some relation to the puppet-like figures moving about within DIE NIBELUNGEN’S plot.
(Lang’s exacting methods of directing – which here involved the numbering of each piece of micro-body-language, so that the actors simply perform their movements as Lang yells the numbers, which could go up to 50 — have been accused of stiffening the actors, but that’s certainly just the effect he’s after here. The cast strike poses while looking unhappy – hey, it’s a style.)
The third character type, apart from brutish heroes and tender-hearted monsters (I feel the wicked dwarf is in some obscure way a maligned fellow too), is the scheming woman, embodied by both Brunhild and Kriemhild. Both women are undoubtedly wronged, conned and betrayed and abused by the “noble” Nibelungen chaps, and both retaliate with underhanded femme fatale tricks which brilliantly manoeuvre their enemies into disastrous and fatal situations. They’re like Catherine Tramell in BASIC INSTINCT.
Hair colour, casting, and sheer velocity of performance (B is manic, K languid) is all that really distinguishes the two vixens from each other, and Fiona refused to accept that anybody could be called Kriemhild (that impenetrable font made it hard to convince her). The name derives from “Grimheld”, but as Lang types his heroines as brunette and blonde, it became impossible not to think of the names translating as Brownhead and Creamhead. Brownhead is amazingly vivacious and more fun than anybody else in part one, while Creamhead seems a bit of a platted yawn, until part two where she takes over the narrative driver’s seat and her constant rigid fury acquires a hypnotic magnetism.
So, as character psychology plays only the most limited role in this epic, we are left with the brute force of plot and the power of Lang and his cohorts’ extraordinary visuals. Meaning is left open, though there are many intriguing avenues there to explore. The dedication, “To the German people,” and Lang’s own comments that he wanted to give Germany an uplifting myth, suggest some heroic interpretation is required. But what kind of heroism is this? The only decision any of the Nibelungen take which is not motivated by pure self-interest comes right at the end, where they refuse to save their skins by hanging over the extraordinarily guilty Hagen Tronje. So loyalty must be a big deal. Also courage, however foolhardy, and the strength to implement it. You can see where the idea comes from that these films went over well in the Third Reich — but in fact, Part Two seems not to have been re-released under the Nazi regime. So presumably what was popular was the spectacle and action, which can certainly be related to the imagery of Nuremberg but which, just by themselves, don’t seem especially political. In fact, in its according of (some) dignity and moral values to the non-Aryan characters, the films appear less racist and fascistic than modern fantasy epics like Peter Jackson’s LORD OF THE RINGS or KING KONG.
In summary: a bit like a really expensive, well-designed FLASH GORDON movie serial, but without the moral compass. That good-versus-evil paradigm may be a big part of what makes fantasy fiction popular, but Lang and Von Harbou’s work here suggests it’s also what keeps such stories in the nursery.
Next up, some thoughts on Lang’s influence, and the Woody Woodpecker connection.