On the first Friday of every month, this column by critic Joshua Polanski will feature a short review or essay on a film directed by Fritz Lang (1890-1976), the great Austrian “Master of Darkness.” Occasionally (but not too occasionally), Fritz on Fridays will also feature interviews and conversations with relevant critics, scholars and filmmakers about Lang’s influence and filmography.
At the absolute maximum, there are but a handful of filmmakers in the history of the seventh art who have left a greater mark on the medium than Fritz Lang. I’m even hesitant to identify a single filmmaker with a definitive case for being more influential over the course of film history than Lang. He’s the most important artist from the German Expressionism movement, he all but invented the film noir, and he left behind several of the greatest films ever made — including the 1924 fantasy-romantic epic Die Nibelungen: Siegfried.
The first of two parts in Die Nibelungen (“The Nibelungs”) — based on the Old German epic poem Nibelungenlied, which composer Richard Wagner famously adapted into The Ring of the Nibelung (1869–76) — Lang’s Siegfried is one of the great achievements of the silent era.
The unflinching and handsome Paul Richter plays the eponymous Siegfried, son of King Siegmund of Xanten, who departs his forest home for the Kingdom of Burgundy after mastering the art of blacksmithing and announcing his intent to marry Kriemhild (Margarete Schön), the princess of Burgundy. Along the way, Siegfried encounters a dragon, becomes “unwoundable” and finds a magic helmet. While the structure of fantasy epics long predates the film and even its centuries-older source material, the aesthetics of Die Nibelungen more or less defines the feel of the genre from George Lucas’s Star Wars to Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings.
Lang’s version takes a more grounded and contemporary approach to the source material than Wagner’s mythological epic. There are no magic rings, no Valhalla, no gods. The first image of Burgundy resembles modern cityscapes with futuristic geometries; foreboding and possibly phallic cuboids penetrate the forever yellow sky. I paused my screen in disbelief on my first watch: Is that a modern city in the middle of a fantasy set 700+ years ago? Subsequent images reveal a more medieval kingdom than the first urban tease, but for a brief second, Lang reaches into the present of modernity and frames the gist of his adaptation: “a story of our nation, the people we are today.”
The special effects rival anything that has ever been realized, including and beyond the digital revolution of the 1990s. The slayed dragon is a full-scale, 60-foot-long puppet that moves, slobbers and even breathes real fire. Most importantly, it’s imaginative and imposing, which has always struck me as the point of effects in the first place — to do something special, something impossible to accomplish with the mere replication of reality. The artistic goal looks beyond mere verisimilitude and to something more primordial and signifying — the deification of a man through the violent slaying of such a magnificent, ungodly lizard.
The indelible image of Siegfried piercing the sky with his sword just before conquering the beast perfectly illustrates Lang’s world-class composition skills, especially when collaborating with cinematographers Carl Hoffmann and Günther Rittau (the latter of whom would go on to make Nazi propaganda films). Lang was blinded in one eye during the First World War, but one would never know that about the visual-minded director when watching Die Nibelungen. The images, like those in Lang’s noirs, are masterclasses in high-contrast lighting and easily discernible images. Lang never allows the viewer, no matter the day and age in which they are viewing, to be lost in the beauty of his images. In an era with cinematography defined by a technically deeper depth of field, Lang uses strong contrast and cuts out large negative spaces to guide the eyes of his viewers.
As a critic with a vested interest in the cinema of Paul WS Anderson (Resident Evil: Retribution, Event Horizon), whose favorite filmmaker is Lang as some critics have claimed, I was impressed with both the kineticism and visual geography of Die Nibelungen: Siegfried, traits Anderson has served as a custodian of in the present. Lang and his cinematographers use establishing shots not just when entering a new geography at the beginning of a scene but also at the end of one, clarifying the direction of the action. There is a special priority given to the intelligibility of physical space that Lang acknowledges with his blocking and action, such as in the long-jump contest between Isenland’s Queen Brunhild (Hanna Ralph) and King Gunther (Theodor Loos), who is aided by Siegfried and his invisible cloak. The turning of the crowd heads, the shot-putting pointing of the arms of the thrower and the placement of the empty space through which the stone will fly all indicate direction and imply a real location, although the entire film didn’t make use of a single real-world locale. (Die Nibelungen was shot entirely on sets). Almost every visual choice Lang makes feels hypersensitive to the legibility of his images, a decisively populist choice for one of the great impressionists.
The most telling cinematographic decision involves the several scenes taking place within the church in Burgundy. In all three church sequences, the camera remains remarkably isolated from the action near the altar; the camera keeps such a distance that faces and bodies become interchangeable. There is only one close-up, as far as I can recall, in any of the church scenes: a suicide. The characters centered at the mass(es) are exclusively regal in association, and Christianity is wielded as just another part of the royal power play. After the double wedding of Siegfried to Kriemhild and King Gunther to Brunhild, the two men, in a demonstration of masculinity and an attempt to retain power, share in a paganistic blood ritual shot with a much friendlier (and closer) camera.
Kriemhild, in her final vow for vengeance against Gunther’s court advisor, Hagen of Tronje (Hans Adalbert Schlettow), verbalizes the suggestion behind this editing: “Whether you hide behind my clan, or God’s altar, or the end of the world, you shall not escape my vengeance.” And, as you will see in the coming months, this stance of defiance toward the definitive symbols and institutions of power will prove archetypal for the Austrian Master of Darkness.
Joshua Polanski is a freelance film and culture writer who writes regularly for the Boston Hassle and has contributed to the Bay Area Reporter, In Review Online, and Off Screen amongst other places. His interests include the technical elements of filmmaking & exhibition, slow & digital cinemas, and East Asian & Middle Eastern film. He is currently based in Akron, Ohio.