Die Nibelungen begins in a steel forge hidden deep inside of a cave with our hero, Siegfried, forging a sword with which he aims to go out and conquer kingdoms. Standing nearby is the blacksmith that owns the forge with a look of terror on his face. The skill that Siegfried commands as he brings the hammer down on the steel is terrifying. When Siegfried leaves he hears three men discussing a far away kingdom called Worm where the beautiful princess Kriemhild lives. Siegfried immediately decides that he will have the princess as his wife, mounts his horse, and heads away into the woods.
The blacksmith has agreed to lead Siegfried partially through the woods in order to show him the direction he should go. But the blacksmith leads Siegfried on a dangerous path. Either out of envy of his skills at the forge, or just pure cold-hearted malice, the blacksmith has pointed Siegfried toward the lair of a dragon.
The dragon lives near a small pool of water, and as Siegfried approaches on his horse he hears the noise of the dragon drinking. He dismounts his horse, draws his sword, and makes his attack. The battle with the dragon might seem stiff by today’s standards of special effects, but I feel confident in saying that in 1924 no one had seen anything quite like it.
Siegfried leaps around the dragon, stabbing at it with his blade as the beast shoots flames from its nostrils and mouth and bats it tail around hoping to hit the warrior. Finally Siegfried lunges at the beast and stabs it in the eye, causing it such a great pain that it rears up on his hind legs and Siegfried delivers the final blow: a thrust into its belly where we can only assume there is something resembling a heart.
The dragon falls over dead and blood rushes out of its chest and down into the pool of water. Nearby there is a bird singing a song, it seems to be telling Siegfried to bathe in the water as the blood of dragons will make a mortal invulnerable to death by any sort of blade. So Siegfried climbs down into the pool and lets the dragon’s blood pour over him. But as he does a single leaf falls from a tree and lands on his back. Significant?
Later on we move into the castle of the King of Worms, where a bard is singing the tale of Siegfried to the princess Kriemhild and her brother, King Gunther. Kriemhild seems taken in by the story. Then the unthinkable happens: a messenger rushes into the throne room to tell the king that Siegfried himself has marched on the castle and is requesting entrance. King Gunther allows him to enter and we discover that Siegfried has conquered kingdoms and made their kings his vassals and servants, and yet he has still come to seek Kriemhild’s hand in marriage. There’s a catch though, but there’s always a catch in such things.
Fritz Lang’s film Die Nibelungen is a film of such magnitude and careful construction, one wonders at how it was made. Many of the sets appear to be gigantic; ranging from Castles, to great forests, to islands and distant shores. The costuming is sheer perfection, with every article of clothing and armor having different patterns on them. I don’t know what rich people wore in Germany during this period of history, but the clothing in this film looks pretty good to my eye — but what do I know, eh?
There are multiple set-pieces throughout meant to add action into the film, and each succeeds at just that, although it is difficult to top the fight with the dragon which happens during the first thirty minutes of the film. Most of the set-pieces are fights (one fight early on is between Siegfried and a Dwarf), but later on there is a test of skill King Gunther must go through with Siegfried’s assistance.
The film’s story is poetic and mythic, and manages to be brisk even if it is a tad on the long side (approx. 150 minutes). The set design is wonderful as is the costuming. The acting is surprisingly understated for a film of this period, and the cinematography is stellar.
If you’re a fan of Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis or silent film in general then I would recommend checking this one out, and if you’re a fan of high-fantasy or Norse/German mythology then all the better. However, if you’re new to the realm of silent film then steer clear of this one for a while. It’s a pretty hefty film to get through and Lang makes no concessions in regards to how he wishes to pace the film’s story. Thankfully the film is broken into chapters which gives it a very episodic feel and keeps the story moving at all times. It seems to me that a new chapter begins every fifteen or so minutes.
I watched the film on the new blu-ray from The Masters of Cinema in Europe, but the film is getting released on blu-ray stateside by Kino home video.
There is no trailer for this film, so instead I’m going to include the scene of Siegfried slaying the dragon. Given the limited technology there was at the time it’s an impressive scene, and dangit if that isn’t a really big puppet.
My review of “Die Nibelungen – Part II : Kriemhild’s Revenge” should be posted in a few days, so keep an eye out for it!