REVIEW – Die Nibelungen (1924)

FilmJuice have my review of Masters of Cinema’s re-release of Fritz Lang’s fantasy epic Die Nibelungen.

Originally released in two halves as Die Nibelungen: Siegfried and Die Nibelungen: Kriemhilde’s Rache, the film spend five hours exploring the tension between the passions that drive society onwards and the rules developed to govern that society’s violent impulses and channel them into more productive pursuits such as the construction of a modern state governed by enlightened individuals. The film begins with a great hero making his way to what he assumes to be a shining city on a hill… a beacon of medieval civilisation in an ocean of blackness and savagery.  Upon arriving at the legendary city of Burgundy, the hero falls in love with the king’s sister but in order to gain the permission to marry Kriemhild, Siegfried must trick the hero Brunhild into marrying cowardly king Gunther. Brunhild eventually discovers the ploy and demands that Gunther redeem herself by killing Siegfried. Weak and afraid, Gunther convinces his chief knight to murder Sigfried prompting his sister Kriemhild to present him with an ultimatum: Either Gunther betrays his chief knight and does justice to Kriemhild or he remains loyal to his knight and ignores the injustice that keeps him on the throne.

Die Nibelungen is essentially the story of an immoral oyster pearl.  Though Gunther is the king of a great country his desire for the hero Brunhild prompts him into doing something immoral. Trapped in a lie, Gunther then adds to his woes by first murdering his friend and then turning his back on his beautiful sister who promptly runs off and marries the lord of the Huns in an effort to force her brother to do her justice. The more Gunther denies wrong-doing, the greater the injustice grows and the greater the injustice grows, the more transparently immoral the world becomes:

It is easy to see why both Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebels claimed Die Nibelungen as one of their favourite films. Aside from the Germanic origins of the Nibelungen stories, Lang also draws heavily upon the idea that a group of blond-haired heroes might emerge from the common muck of humanity and, through sheer force of character, build a shining civilisation on a hill. Marinated in the same myths of national exceptionalism that informed the iconography of the Third Reich, Lang’s film presents the king of the Dwarves as a treacherous Jew and the emotional energies unleashed by Kriemhild at the end of the film as a tide of dark-skinned savages from the East. This is not just a film that is of its time, this is a film that perfectly captures a time when a society’s capacity to regulate its own behaviour can no longer cope with the violent forces at work in the culture at large. By refusing to constrain his feelings of lust for Brunhild, Gunther is forced to trick her into marriage, by refusing to discuss or atone for his dishonest seduction of Brunhild, Gunther is forced to murder his friend, by refusing to acknowledge that he had his friend murdered, Gunther is forced to go to war with his sister and by attempting to justify his actions through an appeal to loyalty, Gunther undermines the entire moral infrastructure of his society… there are no rules, there are no principles, there are no cities on the hill… there is only violence, lust, madness and death.

Lang’s Burgundian society reflects a German political culture that was finding it increasingly difficult to deal with intense feelings of anger and desire. Pickled in war resentment and drunk on a growing sense of historical self-importance, German culture burst its banks and drowned Europe in blood while German political elites either worked the crowd or went with the flow. Die Nibelungen‘s political elites use words like ‘honour’ and ‘loyalty’ but these words become increasingly meaningless as the film progresses.  Just as American political elites use words like ‘freedom’ and ‘patriotism’ to justify violence and repression, King Gunther uses the word ‘loyalty’ to justify the betrayal and murder of his brother-in-law. By distorting shared values in an effort to justify their own selfish desires, the royals of Die Nibelungen paint themselves into a political corner: fully aware that their war will lead to nothing but destruction, they can neither compromise nor make peace as the words required to broker a cease-fire have been rendered completely meaningless.