- The Washington Times - Friday, March 26, 2004

The Academy Award triumph of Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” finale, “The Return of the King,” may arouse the curiosity of movie antiquarians about an illustrious predecessor, Fritz Lang’s “Die Nibelungen,” which recently became available in a two-disc edition from Kino Video.

Derived from the same medieval Scandinavian and German legends that inspired Richard Wagner’s operas, Mr. Lang’s epic began production in 1922 and was released in two parts, back-to-back, in 1924. The pair achieved international success that helped enlarge the prestige of the German film studio UFA, obviously capable of scenic ingenuity and amplitude that were equal to the challenges of sustained spectacle.

The project also culminated in the marriage of Mr. Lang and his screenwriter, Thea von Harbou. Professional collaborators for more than a decade, they were destined to separate after the advent of the Hitler regime in 1933. Mrs. Lang remained a fervent admirer of the Nazis, while her husband slipped away with some alacrity.

The director did not, as he was wont to claim, flee the country the morning after a portentous audience with Josef Goebbels. (In the meeting, the Nazi propaganda minister banned Mr. Lang’s allegorical crime thriller “The Testament of Dr. Mabuse” on one hand but offered him supervision of the film industry with the other.)

By the end of the year, Mr. Lang had resettled in France. He made his way to the United States a year later. His first Hollywood feature, the lynch-mob polemic “Fury,” was one of the sensations of 1936.

The stylistic contrasts between the “Nibelungen” features, “Siegfried” and “Kriemhild’s Revenge,” have always fascinated spectators and critics. The architectural emphasis in the first movie, which introduces Paul Richter’s Siegfried in a towering forest setting and transposes him to the high-vaulted chambers of a Burgundian castle at Worms, is regarded as a static preamble when compared to “Revenge,” which culminates in an extended slaughter, engineered by the hero’s widow, Kriemhild.

Turning in her grief and malice to a suitor from the East, Attila the Hun, she weds him to satisfy her bloodlust, aimed at the members of her own family and court who collaborated in the murder of Siegfried.

The first movie probably is more generous with scenic and special-effects marvels, although they don’t lack a violent dimension. Siegfried initially draws blood by slaying a dragon, a state-of-the-art monster prop that combines genuine size with exceptional mechanical flexibility for the period. Getting the dragon to work properly, circa 1923, was every bit as demanding as getting Bruce the shark to work properly for “Jaws” half a century later.

There are stunning compositional highlights throughout “Siegfried,” beginning with lofty evocations of a medieval forest and images of the hero emerging from a ground mist on horseback, with the mist and the horse sharing a spectral radiance. Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak is anticipated by Siegfried’s invisibility cap, which also was a cloak in some of the legends.

A great deal of the monumental look that Sergei Eisenstein crafted for his 1937 battle epic “Alexander Nevsky” is also anticipated in “Siegfried.” One sequence sustains a masterful blending of still and moving imagery: Silhouettes of tall warriors cover the foreground, shields lowered at their left sides and swords at their right, spaced to form “portals” as a royal procession strides across the background, from right to left in the frame.

Although the apocalyptic retribution is reserved for the second movie, it’s difficult to overlook its inevitability in the first, where Kriemhild’s brother, the seemingly impotent King Gunther, enlists Siegfried as an intermediary in his suit to woo the Icelandic Amazon Brunhilde, not really the marrying kind.

A cruel deception is perpetrated on Brunhilde to transport her back to Worms as an unwilling bride of King Gunther. Siegfried’s indispensable role in the deception promises nothing but trouble. Blundering men trigger the homicidal wrath of wronged women in both movies, a factor that allows “Die Nibelungen” to takes its place as prototypical “film noir” as well as an enduring model for mythological spectacle.

TITLE: “Die Nibelungen”

RATING: Released in 1924, decades before the advent of a rating system; pervasive ominous elements, including themes of romantic and dynastic treachery; occasional graphic violence in a mythic setting, consistent with standards of depiction in the 1920s

CREDITS: Directed in two parts, “Siegfried” and “Kriemhild’s Revenge,” by Fritz Lang. Screenplay by Thea von Harbau, based on Scandinavian and German heroic mythology. Cinematography by Carl Hoffmann and Gunther Rittau. Set designs by Otto Hunte, Erich Kettelhut and Karl Vollbrecht. Costume design by Paul Gerd Gudesian and Anne Willkomm. Make-up by Otto Genath. Animated sequence by Walther Ruttman. Music by Gottfried Huppertz.

RUNNING TIME: 143 minutes for “Siegfried,” 148 minutes for “Kriemhild’s Revenge”

DVD Edition: Kino Video, www.kino.com

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