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Die Nibelungen

Die Nibelungen

Siegfried / Kriemhild’s Revenge

Fritz Lang

Germany, 1924


Review by David Carter

Posted on 13 March 2014

Source Kino Classics Blu Ray

Categories Silent Lang

The two chapters of Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen contain an endless succession of visually stunning and technically impressive scenes, yet the most important image in both works is their first. A post-credit intertitle states “Dem deutschen volke zu eigen” — “dedicated to the German people” or, using the literal translation, “a permanent gift to the German people.” Dem deutschen volke was, in early 1920s Germany, a politically evocative phrase; appearing in the architrave of the Reichstag, the Parliament building of the then recently reunified German states. As used on the Reichstag, dem deutschen volke had both democratic and nationalistic resonance; ideas Lang was intentionally trying to echo in his work. Lang’s “gift” to the German people was the unparalleled cinematic achievement that was Die Nibelungen, an epic retelling of the folktale often referred to as “the German Iliad” and one of utmost importance to the German national psyche. Viewed through the lens of history, Lang’s epic and his dedication appear less as gifts and take on a markedly different dimension — that of a prescient and deeply tragic unheeded warning.

The most famous version of the tale on which Die Nibelungen is based is Richard Wagner’s four opera cycle known collectively as Der Ring das Nibelungen. Wagner’s Ring was then as now considered to be a pinnacle of German artistic achievement and, as it premiered as a complete work shortly after the unification of Germany, was held in special esteem as being representative of the new German national character. Thus Lang, already an esteemed artist in his own right, was working in the significant shadow of Wagner while creating his Die Nibelungen. Certain concessions were made — primarily in regards to the score, which incorporates several of Der Ring’s leitmotifs — but Lang made an intentional break from Wagner’s narratives. Wagner’s Ring synthesized the shared traditions of Germany and Scandinavia to flesh out his story with gods, goddesses, and magical realms. Lang’s version departs from this dramatically, using only the German aspects of Nibelungen and utilizing as much realism as the material would allow.

Siegfried begins with the titular hero forging a powerful sword. Mime, his dwarven mentor, tells Siegfried that there is no more he can teach him and sends him out into the world. While preparing for his journey, the dwarves tell Siegfried of the kingdom of Burgundy, where lives the beautiful and kind princess Kriemhild. The dwarves warn Siegfried that the path to the Burgundians’ castle in Worms is treacherous but he embarks anyway, encountering and slaying a dragon soon after departing. A bird tells Siegfried that he will be made invincible by bathing in the dragon’s blood, but a leaf lands on him creating a small vulnerable spot on his back. Next, Siegfried meets Alberich, king of the dwarves, who trades his massive treasure, the Nibelungen, to the hero in exchange for his life, but Siegfried kills Alberich when the latter betrays him.

Siegfried is awed by Kriemhild upon his arrival in Burgundy, but her insipid brother, King Gunther, will not allow her to marry unless he too finds a wife. Gunther’s adviser, Hagen Tronje1, devises a clever plan to use Siegfried to win the hand of Brunhild, the Queen of Iceland. A powerful warrior, Brunhild will only acquiesce to marry a man who is able to defeat her in three challenges. Utilizing the magical helm he won from Alberich, Siegfried alternately turns invisible or transforms into Gunther to best Brunhild, who very begrudgingly returns to Burgundy and is married to Gunther alongside Siegfried and Kriemhild in a dual ceremony.

Wedded bliss is short-lived, however, as the haughty Brunhild resents her defeat and schemes to cause dissention in the Burgundian royal court. A confrontation with Kriemhild leads to the revelation to Brunhild that it was actually Siegfried, not Gunther, who was able to defeat her. A now-suicidal Brunhild is only pacified by a vow to kill Siegfried taken by Gunther and Hagen. Further embarrassment is brought to Burgundy with the arrival of the Nibelungen treasure, massively larger than their own holdings. Siegfried’s fate is sealed after the arrival of his vast fortune, and Hagen deceives Kriemhild into revealing her husband’s vulnerable spot. Hagen then murders Siegfried, claiming the Nibelungen treasure for Burgundy and earning a vow of vengeance from a mourning Kriemhild.

It is in Siegfried that we have the most encroachment of the magical into Lang’s Nibelungen. Lang’s Siegfried is cut from much the same cloth as Wagner’s, although the demi-god status attributed to him in the latter is omitted here. Rather than being born das übermensch, Lang’s Siegfried obtains greatness through his efforts. This concept would have been intensely empowering to German viewers who, in 1924, were just beginning to see positive progress in their republic after the dual humiliations of their defeat in World War I and the then-ongoing occupation of the Ruhr by France and Belgium. More so than at any previous time in their history, the story of Siegfried as presented by Lang would have been emboldening. Siegfried, the impoverished son of a dead king, rises to power and riches through sheer force of will and natural ability. Nature itself is on his side, as evidenced by how the bird advises him to bathe in the dragon’s blood. Siegfried and Kriemhild represent the German conception of their national character: strong, pure, and destined for greatness through a design of nature.

The Burgundians therefore represent the rest of the world. It is important that after overcoming other impossible challenges, Siegfried is ultimately undone by involving himself in the affairs of others despite having pure motives. The Burgundian betrayal of Siegfried has its antecedents in many folktales but contemporary German audiences would have doubtlessly made a connection to the perceived German “betrayal” through the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I. Siegfried is stabbed in the back by Hagen (the origin of the idiom) while Gunther, a man he considered his brother, does nothing to save him. Allusions to the death of Siegfried and the Treaty appeared in the German press almost immediately and this metaphor would only intensify in the years after Die Nibelungen. Furthermore, the lengthy sequence during which Hagen steals the Nibelungen would have been seen as alluding to the economically crippling reparations Germany was compelled to pay.

The ending of Siegfried may appear as anti-climactic to modern viewers but its potency would have been clearly understood by contemporary audiences. Germans would have seen themselves as both das übermensch Siegfried and his mournful bride Kriemhild; simultaneously victim and avenger. Much like Kriemhild, who has to remain in the castle at Worms with the very men who betrayed her, Germany was surrounded by enemies on all sides. Kriemhild’s vow of revenge is a powerful act of defiance in the face of overwhelming strength; a concept that was ever present in the post-WWI political rhetoric in Germany. The viewers who previously identified with the hero Siegfried now transferred that identification to the frail, powerless Kriemhild; echoing Germany’s fall from their pre-war empire to their post-war woes. Given that the audience would be aware of her eventual success, the importance of this scene as an empowering one and one with implications for the near future cannot be overestimated.

In light of the many intentional parallels between Siegfried and contemporary German politics, Kriemhild’s Revenge emerges as an incredibly subversive work by Lang. It is apparent that, as with Siegfried, Lang’s metaphors were readily understood in Germany, where the film was seldom seen after 1930 although Siegfried continued to be popular. Whereas Siegfried is a celebration of German history and character, Kriemhild’s Revenge could be interpreted as an indictment of the same; a reading that is made more evident with the passage of time. It too is “Dem deutschen volke zu eigen,” but it is a gift that Germany ultimately refused much to their peril and that of the rest of the world.

Kriemhild’s Revenge begins a short time after the death of Siegfried with Kriemhild, still in her mourning clothes, plotting to avenge the murder. Her opportunity to do so comes in a most unexpected way. Margrave, a vassal of Attila the Hun, arrives at the court of Burgundy to ask for Kriemhild’s hand in marriage for his king. Gunther and Hagen support the idea, eager to rid themselves of Kriemhild’s undisguised hatred for them, but she herself is reluctant. It is only after Margrave swears an oath to take revenge on those who’ve wronged Kriemhild — and ensures Attila will do the same — that she agrees to travel with him and become Queen of the Huns.

Though battle-scarred and ill-mannered, Kriemhild finds Attila to be an honorable man and a kind husband. His adoration for her only grows when she bears him a son, an act so important to him that he postpones his conquest of Rome to be at her side and vows to grant her any wish. Kriemhild is still in mourning for the slain Siegfried, and uses Attila’s kindness to put her plan of revenge in action. She asks that Attila invite the Burgundians — who now are called the Nibelungen after their stolen treasure — to celebrate the solstice with the Huns.

Though well aware of Kriemhild’s desires for revenge, Gunther, Hagen, and the Nibelungen are unable to refuse Attila’s request since the Huns have conquered most of the known world. Taking both their host and hostess’ reputations into account, the Nibelungen arrive in full armor but find the Huns ready for a feast, not a fight. Kriemhild takes Attila aside and begs him to honor his vow to her and kill Hagen where he stands but the Hun refuses, citing the fact that guests were considered sacred in his culture.2 An enraged Kriemhild appeals to the rabble for justice, offering all of her riches to any Hun that can bring her the head of Hagen Tronje.

Kriemhild’s offer to the Huns is the act that starts the war between the Huns and the Nibelungen. The Huns begin attacking their guests and Attila is finally spurred into action when Hagen kills his infant son during the distraction. Kriemhild commands the Hunnic legions while Attila grieves, but the better-armed Nibelungen drive them back, eventually securing the great hall of the Huns as a sanctuary. Kriemhild, crazed with revenge, orders the hall to be burned with Nibelungen inside. Attila’s vassals protest the decision as dishonorable, and one enters the burning hall to retrieve the survivors, Gunther and Hagen. Kriemhild has her revenge, striking down Hagen with the sword he stole from her murdered husband. As she does this, she too is struck down by one of Attila’s vassals, unable to allow such dishonorable conduct to go unpunished.

Much of Kriemhild’s Revenge concerns the cultural differences between the Burgundians/Nibelungen and the Huns. As in Siegfried, the Nibelungen represent Europe outside of Germany: superficially concerned with ceremony, tradition, religion, and honor but ultimately treacherous and immoral. The Huns, by way of contrast, are wild, uncivilized pagans but take concepts of honor and kindness more seriously. Lang’s depiction of the Huns in such a positive light likely has much to do with the fact that “Hun” was a popular slur against the Germans during the war years and post-war period, and this positive depiction is both an act of reclamation and redemption of the term. Furthermore, the Huns are shown to physically be a different race than the Nibelungen, invoking the then-common belief of the Germans as a separate race (as implied by the term volk/volke) from the rest of Europe.

A redeemed view of the Huns is the extent of Lang’s contribution to the pride of the Germans in Kriemhild’s Revenge, as the rest of the film serves as a dire warning against the prevailing political ideas of the day. Revenge is shown to be a destructive endeavor for those who pursue it, one in which they lose more than they gain. Kriemhild ultimately gets the vengeance she desired but only after losing her son, both of her brothers, most of the Huns’ people and buildings, and her own life. All other characters in the film — including the brutal Attila — are shown as being repulsed by Kriemhild’s revenge, implying that the idea is universally reviled.

A desire for revenge against the Allied Powers and even the German government was a popular idea in 1920s Germany, and is seen by many historians as a key factor in the rise of the Nazis. Die Nibelungen would have been in production during the Nazi’s failed Beer Hall Putsch in 1923. The Putsch itself was a minor event only made prominent in retrospect, but the ideas behind it were by no means unique. Adolf Hitler (still in prison from the Putsch when Die Nibelungen was released) and the Nazis did not create these sentiments in the German people; they merely harnessed and directed them.

It is difficult to know whether Lang at the time had knowledge of the Nazi party3, but it is undeniable that he would have been conscious of the growing desire for revenge in the German popular consciousness. Knowing now what would happen in the years after Die Nibelungen’s release, it is difficult to see the films as anything other than a desperate and tragically unheeded warning. Despite the nationalistic fervor tied to the character of Siegfried, Lang’s film takes great pains to depict the character as an innocent — not naive, but morally pure. Siegfried is a celebration of German racial superiority but it is also a declaration that with that superiority comes a moral obligation to hold one’s self above the intrigues and petty squabbles of the rest of the world. In Kriemhild’s Revenge, we see a society at the lowest social level, the Huns, who despite their lack of education, wealth, or political power still hold the concepts of honor sacred. However, they allow themselves to become contaminated by Kriemhild’s hatred and in the process lose the little they had. Lang’s Die Nibelungen is a filmic achievement on par with Griffith’s Intolerance or Gance’s Napoleon, yet real world events imbue Lang’s film with an emotional power that few works can ever equal.

  1. Lang’s Nibelungen omits the pantheon of gods that were the center of Wagner’s Ring, but it is important to make note of Hagen Tronje’s appearance in both films. Hagen is depicted as a tall man missing an eye, armed with a long spear, and wearing a helmet adorned with eagle’s wings. This conforms almost exactly to the traditional depictions of the German high-god Wotan and particularly the Wagnerian depictions of him in the Ring. This is a connection that would have been immediately recognizable to 1920s’ German audiences, and as such, it is important to consider Hagen’s actions in the films as having a dual purpose of representing both those of a man and potentially of a god. Hagen himself makes this connection, comparing himself to a god in his final words at the conclusion of Kriemhild’s Revenge.
  2. Attila and the Huns true heritage is unknown (perhaps Mongolian or Persian) and this incident is used primarily to reinforce the idea of the differences between their culture and that of Kriemhild.
  3. Ironically, Lang’s wife and Die Nibelungen collaborator, Thea von Harbou, went on to fully support and later join the Nazi party. Lang, a Roman Catholic of Jewish heritage, emigrated to France and later the United States.
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