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.

REVIEW: Giorgio Moroder Presents Metropolis (1984)

FilmJuice have my review of Giorgio Moroder’s eighties remix of Fritz Lang’s immortal Metropolis.

Lang’s Metropolis is a science fiction fairy tale dealing in class warfare, economic collapse and the power of compromise and understanding to deliver a world that is at the very least tolerable to all. Grounded in the cinematic techniques developed by German Expressionism to increase the bandwidth of silent film and unlock new depths of emotional complexity, the film is two and a half hours of directorial brilliance. However, though the original cut of the film has now been recovered, there were decades during which people believed it would never be seen again. Given that Metropolis is not only a beautiful but also an intensely important film, it was perhaps unavoidable that attempts to restore it would stir up strong feelings. In fact, the debate over what should be done with the Metropolis fragments rapidly coalesced into a bitter confrontation between those who wanted the original film left as it was and those who wanted the meddle with the footage in the hopes of recapturing some dim afterglow of Lang’s genius. Giorgio Moroder’s Metropolis is not only the best known and most interventionist of the alternate edits of Metropolis, it was also the most widely seen version of the film as the ‘hip’ scoring by eighties pop stars combined with the short running time ensured that copies of the film flew in and out of video rental stores throughout the eighties and nineties. Now that the original cut of the film has been recovered, it is tempting to simply consign Moroder’s edit to the bin and move on but this cut has historical merit on its own.

Moroder’s Metropolis is a short and punchy affair that feels very much like an extended trailer for original version of the film. Moroder solves the narrative problems of the various re-cuts by stripping out much of the dialogue and drama in order to focus upon the big cinematic set pieces and emotional moments. Somewhat unsurprisingly, this results in a film that bubbles with the same hysterical energy and visual spectacle as the Michael Bay Transformers movies. However, rather than leaving his characters to scream and flail about like Shia LaBoeuf, Moroder attempts to fill in the emotional gaps by scoring the film with a series of somewhat heavy-handed eighties power ballads performed by the likes of Bonnie Tyler, Freddy Mercury and Pat Benatar. Moroder also colourises the film in an attempt to convey changes of mood which, though obvious from the context of Lang’s longer film, struggle to emerge from the mangled cinematic vocabulary of the truncated versions.

Watching this film, I couldn’t help but wonder what other alternate edits of classic films are out there… the film is being re-released today by Masters of Cinema in a limited edition steel shell thingy. Release of the standard edition is coming later this year according to the Brazilian river place.

REVIEW – Secret Behind The Door (1947)

THE ZONE have my review of Fritz Lang’s classic psychological thriller Secret Behind the Door starring Joan Bennett and Michael Redgrave.

Based upon Charles Perrault’s fable Bluebeard, Secret Behind the Door explores the process through which a couple get to know each other.  After a whirlwind romance, Bennett’s character marries Redgrave’s secretive and intense architect.  After a rudely interrupted honeymoon, Bennett’s character arrives at the architect’s home and finds him sharing it with two other women and a son from a previous marriage. As in the fable, Bennett’s character begins poking around in her husband’s background until she discovers something sinister.

Bluebeard is perhaps better known in its native France than it is in the Anglo-Saxon world. One reason for this is that it is one of those stories that paints women as a race of incessant and toxic meddlers whose refusal to follow simple male instructions result in the destruction of everything.  Think of Else to Lohengrin. Think of Eve to Adam. Because of the story’s misogynistic roots, generations of feminist authors have been quick to reclaim the role of interfering spouse and cast it in a more positive and transformative light such as the one that bathes Jane Eyre in Charlotte Bronte’s novel. Neither misogynistic nor feminist, Lang’s adaptation of Silvia Richards’ screenplay presents Bennett’s character as a wonderfully ambiguous figure who ‘fixes’ her husband for reasons all of her own. However, while the characters are engaging and the plot is fascinating, what really grabbed me was Lang’s decision to use a voice over as the primary means of communicating inner states:

Watching Secret Beyond The Door and noticing Lang’s tendency to simply pause the action and linger on his actor’s faces while their voiceovers are delivered, I was struck by how little has changed in the way that directors communicate interiority. Indeed, while directors of Lang’s generation paused so that voiceovers can be delivered, contemporary directors simply pause and allow audiences to fill in their own voiceovers. Doubtless many art house films could be transformed by using these little pauses and gazings into the middle distance to deliver short voiceovers in which characters speak directly to the audience. Clearly the basic grammar of cinema has not evolved that much since the days of Lang, it is just that nowadays art house directors tend to outsource exposition to audience speculation.

Secret Behind the Door is a flawed gem and its arrival on region-free DVD is long overdue. This is a must for anyone who enjoys psychological thrillers and an absolute necessity for anyone who loves Fritz Lang’s film noirs.