SIEGFRIED is the first episode of Fritz Lang's monumental two-part silent epic DIE NIBELUNGEN, based on the mythic 13th-century German poem which also inspired Wagner's "Ring" operas, although Lang's films are more faithful to the original folk tales about the legendary hero Siegfried, who
slew a dragon with his magic sword and bathed in its blood in a bid for immortality.
Siegfried (Paul Richter), the son of King Siegmund the Wise of the Netherlands, is sent to apprentice with Mime the swordsmith (Georg John) in the forest. After forging a magic sword, Siegfried embarks on a quest to marry Lady Kriemhild (Margarete Schon), the sister of King Gunther (Theodor Loos)
of Burgundy. While riding through Woden Woods, Siegfried encounters a giant, fire-breathing dragon and slays it, then bathes in its blood so as to become immortal. However, without knowing it, a lime leaf lands on Siegfried's shoulder while he's bathing which makes him vulnerable in that spot.
Siegfried then captures a dwarf wizard who gives him a great treasure and a magic cap that confers invisibility.
When Siegfried arrives at the palace and asks King Gunther for permission to marry Kriemhild, Hagen Tronje (Hans Adalbert von Schlettow), the King's advisor and uncle, tells Siegfried that he first must help Gunther win the hand of Queen Brunhilde (Hanna Ralph) of Iceland. Siegfried agrees and
goes with Gunther to Iceland where he makes himself invisible and helps Gunther defeat Brunhilde in three feats of strength. Brunhilde reluctantly marries Gunther while Siegfried marries Kriemhild. Siegfried once again makes himself invisible to help Gunther force Brunhilde into the King's bed on
her wedding night. But when Brunhilde discovers the deceit by which Gunther defeated her, she orders him to have Siegfried killed. On Gunther's order, Hagen kills Siegfried by spearing him in his one vulnerable spot, his shoulder. Brunhilde, who was secretly in love with Siegfried, goes mad and
kills herself while kneeling next to his bier, and the heartbroken Kriemhilde swears vengeance upon his murderers.
Fritz Lang's DIE NIBELUNGEN is, in a word, staggering. In every sense--visually, technically, thematically, and emotionally--it is an overwhelming spectacle and arguably the supreme achievement of the German silent cinema in terms of sheer scope and size, Lang's own METROPOLIS (1926)
notwithstanding. The entire two-part epic took some two years to make and it was the most expensive film produced by UFA studios up to that time. Amazingly, every scene was shot inside the studio, and the superb art direction encompasses several gigantic outdoor sets, including a forest that was
400-feet long, 200-feet wide, and 100-feet high, with an earth floor and dozens of artificial trees. In later years, Alfred Hitchcock would tell of having visited the vast set as a novice filmmaker and having been profoundly influenced by its beauty and stylization. The fire-breathing dragon that
Siegfried slays is a marvel of mechanical design which was 70-feet long and controlled by 17 technicians who operated the giant beast from inside of it. Even today, the creature is genuinely scary and puts to shame the current "state-of-the-art" animatronics and CGI effects.
Aside from its technical virtuosity, the film is distinguished by Lang's stunning mise-en-scene, with its geometrically balanced compositions in which each element--actors, costumes, and decor--are perfectly integrated to achieve a symmetrical and organic design of color and rhythm. In SIEGFRIED,
this effect is particularly impressive, as the characters are often seen in extreme long shots as they stand frozen like so many puppets, dwarfed by the immensity of the magnificent sets. The artistry and precise beauty of the direction and cinematography is a testament to Lang's training as a
painter, from the very first shot depicting a glowing rainbow over a mountain. The entire film is composed of one magnificent image after another--light streaming through chapel windows, the dragon fight, the dwarf wizard's secret cave filled with jewels and a giant crown, the dwarf slaves turning
to stone, Kriemhild's premonition of Siegfried's doom, showing a blossoming tree dissolving into a charred death's-head--each shot is more awesome then the last. SIEGFRIED has often been described as being "architectural" in nature, which is generally true, but not to the detriment of the story,
and in the sequel, KRIEMHILD'S REVENGE, Lang employs a more restrained and less formal style, which results in an altogether different feel, although no less spectacular. (Violence.)
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- Review: SIEGFRIED is the first episode of Fritz Lang's monumental two-part silent epic DIE NIBELUNGEN, based on the mythic 13th-century German poem which also inspired Wagner's "Ring" operas, although Lang's films are more faithful to the original folk tales about… (more)