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Die Nibelungen: Siegfried
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by Jay Seaver

"The fine start of a fantasy epic will certainly have a familiar 'ring'."
4 stars

Fritz Lang's "Die Nibelungen" films have a sometimes tricky reputation; many see them as tapping into the same sort of German nationalism that later would lead to the rise of Hitler. Lang denied this; he hated Wagner's ring cycle being used as a score and would later flee to Hollywood. Whatever his intended message was, it still opens with a handsome German prince forging a sword.

That prince is Siegfried (Paul Richter), son of Siegmund, and the limping master blacksmith looks at the sword and says he can teach him no more. Before returning home, though, Siegfried is inspired to travel to Castle Worms in Burgandy, on the other side of the Nibelung lands. There's a dragon to be slain along the way, and legend has it that bathing in a dragon's blood will make the slayer invulnerable. At the castle, he meets King Gunther (Theodor Loos) and his sister Kriemhild (Margarete Schön), whose hand he is promised if he helps Gunther woo Brunhild (Hanna Ralph), the queen of Iceland, a proud warrior women who can only be won by besting her in athletic feats that Siegfried can accomplish but Gunther cannot.

I'm not familiar enough with German mythology and folklore to say what liberties Lang and Thea von Harbou (his wife and co-writer) took when crafting this version of the tale, but it has the feeling of "mythology" as opposed to "fantasy". The film is divided into seven "songs", with the introductory intertitles describing the contents of the next act; though there's suspense, laying the events out there emphasizes the heroic or tragic nature of the protagonists. Their capabilities are mythic and superhuman - at one point, Siegfried extinguishes the fires blocking their path via pure awesomeness - as, of course, are their flaws.

And, of course, their costumes - comparing the small, bullet-shaped helmet Gunther wears to the elaborate eagle shape that rises a couple feet over the head of one-eyed warrior Hagen Tronje (Hans Adalbert Schlettow) tells you exactly which one you don't want to meet in battle. As with many of Lang's silent German films, Siegfried is an outsized spectacle, with massive sets, beautiful mid-twenties design which makes great use of the film's monochrome palette without seeming out of place, and visual effects that are not bad at all for 1924. Compared to a modern digital creation, the dragon is primitive, but it's remarkably articulated and organic-looking for the period; it doesn't give the feel of a puppet. The cinematography is also somewhat amazing for how it anticipates the widescreen epics of later eras; while shot in the squarish proportions common at the time, Lang and company will frequently cast shadows or use the featureless ground to block out part of the frame to create wide vistas, or shoot through a doorway to emphasize a chamber's height.

Of course, some elements of both the story and the times can make the story hard to get into; as much as Siegfried is meant to be the hero of the piece, his great feats come off as more than a bit prick-ish: That dragon seems to be more or less just minding its own business when Siegfried engages it, and while helping your new buddy cheat his way into a woman's graces seems a fine act of brotherhood, there's no way it's a cool thing to do to her. Plus, Siegfried helping Gunther win Brunhild while he is smitten with Kriemhild is a bit strange beyond the way the hero frequently seems to fall for the second-cutest girl in the movie - with the bulky robed costumes, heavy make-up, and unisex hairstyles, it may take today's audience a bit of time to figure out which is the brother and which is the sister (FYI: Kriemheld is the one with the long braids).

Twenties costuming choices aside, the cast does a fine job of leaping in and helping to make this picture the grand epic it's meant to be. Paul Richter's matinee idol looks still hold up eighty-five years later; he's got all the right physicality and confidence to seem perfectly right leaping into battle, a genuine battling prince who looks no less manly confessing his love to Kriemhild. Theodor Loos goes the other direction as Gunther, almost feminine, a man raised to sit on a throne - a duty he takes seriously, of course; we see how it weighs on him. Hanna Ralph is a kick as Brunhild, selling us on her raw power when we first see her and also letting us know that it's not just physical; Ralph tears through her scenes like a woman on a mission, letting us see that Brunhild is not just a force to be reckoned with when she has a sword in her hand. Margarete Schön does not have much to do in this film (though that will be more than compensated for in the sequel), but she does quietly build her character over time, while Hans Schlettow creates danger just standing in the background of a scene.

The film does not end on a cliffhanger, but there's clearly unfinished business to attend to. The movie's not unsatisfying at all, though - it's an impressive two-hours-plus, satisfying enough to leave even a modern filmgoer glad there's more to come.

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originally posted: 12/16/10 11:13:58
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USA
  23-Aug-1925
  DVD: 19-Nov-2002

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