Review: Die Nibelungen / Cert: PG / Director: Fritz Lang / Screenplay: Fritz Lang, Thea Von Harbou / Starring: Paul Richter, Margarete Schon, Theodor Loos / Release Date: October 29th
Metropolis (1927) is still widely regarded as one of the seminal s-f movies. But that film's director, Fritz Lang, was a crack hand at sword and sorcery too: witness Die Nibelungen (1924). Based on an ancient Germanic poem and consisting of two parts, Siegfried and Kriemhild's Revenge, this mammoth five hour saga laid the groundwork for fantasy flicks as we know them today. If you haven't seen it already, the release of this stunning 2-disc set is the perfect opportunity to catch up with one of cinema's neglected gems.
The early part of Siegfried deals with the eponymous hero's rise to fame and fortune. After slaying a dragon and uncovering a hoard of treasure, he falls in love with Kriemhild, sister to the King of Burgundy. The future looks bright, until Siegfried becomes embroiled in the wimpish King Gunter's domestic squabbles with the ultra-butch Queen Brunhild. Kriemhild's Revenge follows directly on and chronicles Kriemhild's attempts to avenge the wrongs done to her, to which end she marries the barbaric King Attila, who has an army of warlike huns at his command.
Both films give rise to some classic set-pieces. An early standout is Siegfried's battle with the dragon – a 60-foot-long, fire-breathing articulated puppet that makes Ray Harryhausen look like he wasn't even trying. But even better is his subterranean descent with Alberich, King of Dwarves – a creepy, shadowy scene that clearly provided visual cues for the Mines of Moria sequence in Peter Jackson's Rings trilogy. And the whole thing ends in a siege of such fiery intensity that you can almost smell the smoke and heaps of bodies.
As Siegfried, Richter, with his Michael Heseltine-ish mane of blond hair and his athletic physique, is nice eye candy for the girls (especially when he bathes naked in the dragon's blood to render himself invincible). And Schon really comes into her own in the second film, playing a woman strangely ennobled by the purity of her hate. But the most remarkable performance is Rudolf Klein-Hogge's as King Attila. With staring eyes and a heap of crowns balanced on his misshapen pate, he's one of the silent era's finest monsters (not to mention an obvious inspiration for Jackson's gaunt-faced trolls).
The real surprise, though, is how well Lang builds to the climactic moments (especially in the superb second film), showing the characters entangling themselves in webs of dark passion until they're incapable of getting free. It's thanks to these raw, adult themes (more akin to Game of Thrones than The Lord of the Rings) that Die Nibelungen can still compete for attention in an age of CGI blockbusters. For a movie that's nearly 90 years old, it shows a ferocious vitality.
Extras: An hour-long documentary: The Heritage of Die Nibelungen, Illustrated booklet featuring the words of Lang, rare archival imagery, Newly translated optional English subtitles for the original German intertitles, Original Film Frame Rate and Aspect Ratio, expert HD restoration by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung