There's an indicative action sequence that takes place early in the first film of Fritz Lang's two-part epic 'Die Nibelungen.' After mastering the art of sword-making, the title character Siegfried (Paul Richter), a muscular, god-like youth with lush blonde locks and a face of courage and innocence, sets out on a quest to the kingdom of Burgundy where he'll ask for the hand of Princess Kriemhild (Margarete Schön).
In his journey, he encounters a fire-breathing dragon and a battle soon ensues. After bravely slaying the monster, Siegfried understands the song of a nearby bird, advising him to bathe in the dragon's blood in order to become powerful and invincible. But while washing himself, a lime leaf lands on his back, leaving behind one vulnerable spot to an otherwise invulnerable warrior.
The sequence is a spectacular display of early special practical effects, which we can only imagine would have stunned moviegoers of the period. A few years before achieving worldwide success with his sci-fi masterpiece 'Metropolis,' Lang brilliantly directs this action-packed battle with thrilling energy and enchantment.
More importantly, the film was made during the Weimar Republic, the years between the two world wars when Germany was suffering a demoralizing Depression. In this respect, the importance and significance of the dragon-slaying sequence becomes emblematic of the will to overcome the most difficult obstacles. As a symbol of Germanic pride, Siegfried's success belongs also to the audience and inspiring a much-needed sense of optimism for the future, which is why the story's conclusion turns out to be so devastatingly tragic.
Based on the dearly-loved medieval epic poem Nibelungenlied, the tale follows the hero's journey to Burgundy where he inadvertently sets into motion the events which result in his and the kingdom's demise. It all starts with King Gunther (Theodor Loos) and his adviser Hagen von Tronje (Hans Adalbert Schlettow) asking Siegfried to help win the hand of Queen Brunhild (Hanna Ralph) for Gunther in exchange for Kriemhild. They do so by Siegfried using his power of invisibility and defeating the Queen in three feats of strength while pretending to be the King.
Suddenly, the fantasy adventure turns into a morality tale of deceit and false personation, where lies are stacked upon more lies and spite grows between all those involved. In order to hide their treachery, Gunther and Hagen discover Siegfried's Achilles heel, as it were, and devise a friendly hunt as the opportune time to kill the story's hero during, making his vulnerable spot on his back all the more symbolic. It's not really as much of spoiler as it sounds because the worse betrayals are about to come in the second part of this nearly five-hour epic tale.
Released to theaters three years later, Lang's follow-up picks soon after part one with Kriemhild mourning the death of her love and demanding Hagen be brought to justice. Unfortunately, her cries fall on deaf ears as Gunther stands by his promise to his adviser over the lamentations of his widowed sister.
The morality aspect of the original narrative poem continues in this sequel as Gunther's virtue — about keeping his word to Hagen — slowly transforms into selfishness and the worst kind of stubbornness, inspiring in his sister the sort of vengeance that blinds judgment and rationality. At first, Kriemhild is patient and plots her actions with foresight, but after some time, her feelings of retribution turn into an unquenchable rage that calls for blood at any cost.
She finds the opportunity to put her plans into motion when King Etzel (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), who rules the land of the Huns, sends his adviser Margrave Rudiger (Rudolf Rittner) to ask for Kriemhild's hand. Naturally, she declines because she's still grieving the death of Siegfried. After some consideration, however, she agrees to the marriage under the condition that Rudiger swear allegiance to her while also promising that Etzel will do likewise in satisfying her desires for vengeance. When the time came, of course.
It's quite the demand, but in another beautifully executed scene, of which there are numerous, Rudiger yields to her extraordinary requests. It's an emotionally ripe exchange where the warrior doesn't simply give in to Kriemhild. Rather, he hesitates and takes a moment to contemplate on the seriousness of her appeal, as if to think for a minute about the worse possible outcomes if he were to agree. And we see all this happening in the actor's facial expressions and body language.
The masterful director that he is, Lang wants his audience to know that the character doesn't arrive at his decision lightly, and it pays off handsomely when the time comes for the honorable soldier to live up to his promise. It happens so much later into the narrative that we, much like Rudiger, don't give it much of a thought. We're too mesmerized by incredibly extravagant scenes of battle as the Huns suddenly start attacking the Burgundians during a celebration feast. Kriemhild, on the other hand, never forgot and holds Rudiger to his word, leading to one of the film's most gut-wrenching scenes.
It's sequences like these, and the multiple battles that rage through the night, which make 'Die Nibelungen' such a marvel to watch, a piece of cinematic art that hypnotizes and absorbs, so grand in scale and imagination that we forget about the outside world. In his genius, Fritz Lang brilliantly orchestrates his scenes with patient deliberation and far-sightedness, carefully composing scenes that build anticipation until things escalate into complete mayhem. He lets the narrative unfold on its own terms and based on the emotional levels of the characters. And it all pays off with a spectacular climax of tragically epic proportions and leaving behind a dazzling fantasy adventure that continues to captivate and absorb nearly ninety years since its making.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Kino Lorber brings 'Die Nibelungen' to Blu-ray as a special two-disc package under the distributor's "Kino Classics" label. The epic film is spread across two Region A, BD50 discs, with the second disc containing supplements. Housed inside a blue, eco-cutout case on opposing panels and a sturdy slipcover, both go straight to the main menu at startup.
According to a disclaimer at the start, this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode was mastered from an incomplete camera negative. Best available dupes and distribution prints were used to fill in missing segments. The full restoration was done by the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation, and considering the film's age and extensive damage, the results are remarkable.
Scratches, tears, and dirt still make an appearance in several spots, but for the most part, the presentation is fairly clean and consistent. The picture has a warm golden-amber tint to it with a nice thin layer of grain throughout, giving it a welcomed cinematic quality. Contrast is well-balanced and bright though a few scenes are noticeably of lower resolution than others. Black levels are surprisingly rich and true with deep, dark shadows that allow for good visibility of the minor background details. Although the first movie is comparably stronger than the second, both films show excellent definition and clarity, giving modern audiences the opportunity to really appreciate the amazing that went into the set design. Close-ups, in particular, astound, as they sometimes reveal pores and the thick layers of make-up on the cast.
The Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra performs Gottfried Huppertz's original score for this Blu-ray release, and it's an absolutely marvelous, breathtaking rendition. Fans can enjoy the music in either DTS-HD Master Audio surround sound or in uncompressed PCM stereo, and in both cases, the results are magnificent. The string and brass sections fill the entire soundstage with extraordinary clarity and distinction. Each note and movement is crystal-clear and precise with sharp acoustical detailing. Bass is robust and hearty, providing a great deal of depth and complexity to the score. The music spreads evenly into the rear speakers without calling too much attention to their placement, generating a wonderfully immersive soundfield that keeps viewers thoroughly engaged.
From legendary filmmaker Fritz Lang, 'Die Nibelungen' is a masterpiece full of grandeur and splendor with magnificent production design and a tragic tale of love, honor, treachery and vengeance. Nearly ninety years since its creation, the nearly five-hour epic continues to mesmerize with its beauty and Lang's masterful skill behind the camera. Restored from the best available elements and featuring a new rendition of Gottfried Huppertz's original score by the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, this Blu-ray release arrives with a stunning picture quality and a demo-worthy audio presentation. Although pretty light on the supplements, they make excellent additions nonetheless to a worthwhile and recommended package.