Tears of Envy clued me in to the 2012 Master of Cinema Blu-ray release of Die Nibelungen. It's gorgeous. Someone's uploaded the whole thing to youtube here but the full blu-ray is definitely worth it: buttery smooth, tinted for easy viewing, stabilized, and with a wonderful crisp score. This post will include way too many screenshots, with enough resolution to see all the details. I've included a jump after Part 1. You've been warned.
Following the links in this article (and, in particular, this essay) should give you the appropriate background. This isn't Wagner's tale. I've got nothing against Wagner, though I have to take short breaks while listening to his operas (from five minutes to six months or more). Lang wrote his own version of the story with his own morals and his own code.
Part 1: Meet Our HeroIsn't he gorgeous~. To quote Anna Russell, "And he's very young and he's very strong and he's very brave and he's very handsome and he's very stupid. Just look at those shots though. All from the first 10 minutes of the film. It's 1924. The camera can't move, so every shot needs to be framed, and nobody framed like Fritz. Just look at the shadows! The smoke!
Ride home to Xanten, Siegfried, King Siegmund's son. Even I cannot each you any more!"
Mime and the rest of the mountain-men all walk like they're wearing concrete shoes. Siegfried floats. They're all hanging out eating fat carp and sharing stories like a bunch of dads after a long weekend when Siegfried, the hero, pets his shining white horse. He's about to ride home to Xanten when one of the mountain-dads starts talking about Worms on the Rhine, and the Kings of Burgundy who dwell there.
Look at that shot! It's the antithesis of a Disney castle. Blunt. Bold. Impossible. It's a sort of Valhalla. This is mythic history, not Gregory of Tours history, as described by a mountain dad. Siegfried's never heard of the Burgundians but he's entranced.
And for the first time we see the geometric armour and cloth that will dominate this film. Mountain-men and barbarians are half-clad rags and fur; the civilized Burgundians are fully draped in Carl Otto Czeschka full Vienna-Succession-Style robes.
Mountain dad also describes the beautiful and pious Princess Kriemhild. As tradition demands, Siegfried falls instantly in love (see Anna Russel's comment above). Siegfried says he'll set out for Worms and win Kriemhild. The mountain men are... skeptical. Just look at that collection of facial features.
Siegfried flies into a rage and shakes the route to Worms out of them. "Show me the way to Worms or you shall lose your life!" What a guy.
This tension between Siegfried as a heroic figure and Siegfried as a violent bully runs through the entire film. Was this deliberate? Was the beautiful but brutish hero meant as criticism of interwar culture or could “only a Teuton with a Teuton’s failure of tact” see the character as purely noble and inspiring?
Siegfried gives his aged master a last hearty teutonic slap on the back and rides off.
Part 2: The Magic Dragon
This clip was used as the Masters of Cinema trailer. But this is 1924. It walks. Its eyes move. It breaths fire (real, proper gouts of flame that seem to singe the actor).
The score seems to emphasize creeping dread, yet the dragon doesn't creep. It's just sitting by a pool, drinking water and roaring. But here comes Siegfried, moving through the dream-like, enormous forest. He's not afraid.
There's a fight. Siegfried tries the traditional Dark Souls tactic of staying behind the dragon and whacking at the exposed bits but his courage gets the better of him and decides to fight the fire-breathing end. Gets the dragon right in the eye, then stabs it in the heart. Blood gushes forth.
Magic blood. Just a taste lets Siegfried hear the language of birds. A helpful magpie tells him, "If the dragon-slayer should bathe in dragon-blood, he'd then become invincible and invulnerable to chop or stab!" A really savvy player would have asked the bird about bludgeoning or fire damage, but Siegfried's... very handsome. He dives right in.
Speak with animals is sometimes seen as a boring spell. What does a bird know anyway? Apparently a hell of a lot. Birds can tell you how to become Pope. In fact, screw rumour tables and quest hooks. Want to learn some cool stuff? Talk to a local bird.
At the end of this section of the film, and the start of the next Canto, we learn that this whole story is being sung by Volker, a court troubadour, to Kriemhild and the rest of the Burgundian court. The music is quiet and sweet; Volker has full Beethoven hair.
Siegfried's legend has preceded him. The story so far has been a tale told to extol Sigfried's virtues (and mountain dad's story was a tale-within-a-tale). Did any of it really happen? Is someone else telling the story of Volker telling this story?
The Burgundian Court is a beautiful tableaux. Every character has a shot; every shot is framed like a painting.
Part 3: The Nibelungen
Volker sings of Siegfried's adventure in the realm of the Nibelungen. The forest of pillars is gone; the trees here are twisted and leafless and full of goblin-dwarves. Alberich sees Siegfried approach. With almost rapturous attention he puts on a magic... net. I thought it was a magic helmet, but it's a sort of hairnet here. It makes him invisible. You can see it on Alberich's belt.
Georg John, the same actor who played Mime the blacksmith. I had to look it up to be certain. His metal crown feels primordial in a visual-art sense. I know I've seen things like it in later films, but I can't place them. The Witch-king of Angmar? His unnaturally long uneven fingers and waddling crouch-walk are so creepy.
Anyway, Alberich uses his invisibility to ambush Siegfried. They briefly fight. Siegfried removes the hairnet. Alberich's despair is visceral.
Like Gollum, who he no doubt inspired, he clutches for his magic trinket. "Spare my life in exchange for the Tarnhelm, O hero! It turns its wearer invisible; allows him to take on any form. Spare my life and I will make you the richest king on earth!"
Bit of a Monty Haul myth, this one. One dragon and one goblin and our hero's invincible, can speak with animals, can change forms, and can turn invisible at will, and is about to get more gold than he knows what to do with.
Alberich leads Siegfried into a cave.
Look closely. The treasure-bowl is supported by a ring of chained Nibelungen. Who chained them and why? It's never explained.
Like a true PC, Siegfried only has eyes for the gold, but for some reason Alberich adds additional incentive. "No sword in the world compares with Balmung. The Nibelungen forged it in the fire of blood!" Siegfried drops everything and grabs the sword. Look at that last screenshot. That's the look of someone who's just realized there's a magic sword available. And while he's swinging it about, Alberich goes in for an ambush. His weapon? A carpet.
Alberich, your "hide in a tree and jump on people" plan was terrible. This one's even worse. Siegfried's no philosopher but even he could come up with a better strategy.
And with his dying breath, Alberich curses Siegfried.
Remember the dragon and the leaf? Starting to see a pattern?
When Alberich dies, all the Nibelungen turn to stone. Siegfried doesn't really care. He's got a magic sword.
Look at the big galoot. Happy as a clam.
Volker sings, "Thus did Siegfried the dragon-slayer take refuge among the lords of the Nibelungen. Twelve kingdoms did the mighty topple. Twelve kings became his vassals."
We must be using a different definition of "take refuge".
Part 4: Siegfried Arrives
Siegfried and twelve warriors arrive at Worms for an audience with King Gunther. Siegfried and his warriors (who appear to be full-sized humans) are all wearing civilized geometric designs now.
Siegfried has come to ask King Gunther for his sister Kriemhild's hand in marriage. Not one for small talk, our hero. King Gunther also has plans for marriage. For some reason, he's got his heart set on a "mighty, and bold, maiden"... or so says his advisor Hagen, who's clearly playing Crusader Kings II and trying for some epic bloodline traits.
This is Brunhild, Queen of Isenland. "Flames blazing around its perimeter, her castle loftily projects itself, invincible, amid the Northland Lights." While Kriemhild drifts solemnly, Brunhild moves with quick little darts of ferocious energy.
To win her hand, a suitor must best her in three feats of strength. No offense to King Gunther, but he doesn't look like a feats-of-strength kind of guy. Feats of finance and law code reform, maybe. But he's not built to chuck boulders. Luckily, he's just met a guy who's practically made of feats of strength.
Kriemhild. All the boys put their swords away.
Note the shadow on the wall in the 3rd image. It glides across the scene, passes over Kriemhild, and rests behind her back. It almost looks like someone with a spear sticking out of them. Hrm. Food for thought.
Anyway, Siegfried and Kriemhild are absolutely smitten with each other. Siegfried agrees to help King Gunther.
Part 5: Feats of Strength
In Isenland, an old wise seer casts sticks and says, "The Dragonship is carrying strange heroes to your shores! The foreigners draw ever close to the flaming lake."
The score for this section is simply magnifienct. Little rills of piano, deep horns, and a sense of growing foreboding.
"If the mightiest approaches, the flames will be extinguished," the seer says. Not the best defense strategy then.
Siegfried, Gunther, and co. make their way across the extinguished lake.
Brunhild recognizes that Siegfried is the hero here and speaks to him directly. Gunther, needless to say, looks very unhappy, thought that might just be his helmet. Siegfried points out King Gunther. Brunhild laughs in his face. She's got some sort of Dragonball Z power-level sense. "Before evening falls, King Gunther, your shattered weapons shall adorn my hall!"
Prince George: I say, Blackadder, what a ghastly squit! He’s not going to win, is he?
Edmund Blackadder: No, sir, because, firstly, we shall fight this campaign on issues, not personalities. Secondly, we shall be the only fresh thing on the menu. And thirdly, of course, we’ll cheat.
Siegfried turns invisible and helps. The whole time, Gunter looks like he's regretting his life choices. The three challenges are the stone hurl, the distance jump, and the spear throw. Shot put, long jump, and javelin. Good thing Siegfried did all that gymnastic training.
To skip ahead, with the aid of the Invisible Goof, Gunter bests Brunhild in all three challenges. There's an amazing shot where Brunhild leaps straight at the camera, but it only works in motion.
Part 6: Mawwiage
Brunhild is not a happy bride-to-be. Every time Gunther gets close she wrestles him to the ground and ties him up. "Are you truly the man who defeated me thrice?" she asks. "I am your captive! But I shall never be your wife!" Gunther is afraid of her. Cheaters never prosper. He should probably stop wearing grandma's old clothes.
Even walking across a bridge made out of shields doesn't cheer her up.
"If Kriemhild gives her consent, O hero, today we shall celebrate a double wedding," King Gunther says. Should probably check your bride's consent first, Gunther. Not sure how much clearer she can say "no" without breaking your neck. King Gunther also makes Siegfried his blood brother, so that's nice.
The elaborate, geometric double wedding goes off without a hitch. That night though, King Gunther is in trouble. His wife, the wily old Hagen assumes, will beat him senseless. Why not have the shape-changing Siegfried take the king's place, subdue Brunhild, then change places with the king?
To his credit, Siegfried refuses, possibly because the plan has more than one step and he can't cope. But Hagen brings him round. They fight. Siegfried steals Brunhild's arm-band, presumably out of habit. Never pass up a chance to loot.
Despite his unusual choice in socks, Siegfried and Kriemhild are getting along famously.
Part 7: Hagen DaysI haven't really talked about Hagen yet. He's the one-eyed wild-bearded violent teutonic knight and vassal of King Gunther. You've seen him before... in Star Trek. Usually talking about honour or decloaking or firing photon torpedoes at Federation warships.
Hagen's a crafty old bastard who clearly puts his country ahead of anyone's personal happiness. He's got a beard designed for stroking and a very "infants spitted upon pikes" attitude to statecraft. He says to the brooding and unhappy King Gunther, "Burgundy's glory is waning, O king!"
Any suggestion that follows, "Our nation's glory is waning, O easily lead ruler!" is likely to be a bad one. Hagen follows with, "It is crucial that we obtain the Nibelungen treasure."
Speaking of treasure, Kriemhild's maid finds Brunhild's arm-band in a chest. Our boy Siegfried got careless. She doesn't recognize it but decides to wear it anyway. She shows it to Siegfried. He reacts with horror and tells her it "guards an ugly secret" (bad move). Then he tells her how he "won" the armlet (worse move).
Apparently Siegfried is moving into Worms and he's brought the Nibelungen treasure with him. Like any good PC in a gold-for-XP system, he's chucking armloads of it into the crowd, no doubt with catastrophic effects on the local economy. It's having an effect on Hagen and King Gunther too. The king isn't willing to send Siegfried home to Xanten yet, but he's starting to look even more worried.
Meanwhile, Brunhild is having a mental breakdown. She decides to go to the cathedral in the regalia of the Queen of Burgundy.
On the stairs of the cathedral, she challenges Kriemhild with, "The wife of a vassal may not precede the Queen of Burgundy." She's a fast learner. At her wedding she didn't know what a cross was. Now she's being snippy about order of precedence with her sister-in-law.
Problem is, Siegfried's not a vassal. And his wife, who up until now has been very demure, polite, and peaceable, clearly has picked up some of her husband's traits. She challenges Kriemhild. They fight (with posing and words).
Brunhild (looking remarkably like Kenneth Williams here) laughs in Kriemhild's face. Kriemheld gets properly angry and shows her the armband.
Now there's going to be trouble. Kriemhild explains the whole story of how Siegfried decieved and defeated her. Everyone seems to know what the Tarnhelm is and what it can do. It never needs explanation, except to Siegfried the first time he encounters it.
Anyway, Brunhild goes absolutely wild. She's not mad at Gunther (what would be the point) or Hagen. She wants Siegfried dead. Hagen sums it up. "Your babbling, O hero, was worse than murder!"
Gunther tells Brunhild that Siegfried is invincible. Hagen, who pops out of nowhere, tells them both that Siegfried has a weak spot on his back. The vengeful bride has found an unlikely ally in the old knight. And she knows just how to provoke King Gunther. "He who took the armlet from me also made me his wife."
Well that tears it. Gunther's out for blood.
Part 8: Why Why Why DelilahHagen convinces Kriemhild to sew a cross onto the back of Siegfried's tunic so he can better protect her husband. Brunhild vows not to eat or drink until her disgrace is avenged.
All the lads go hunting. Siegfried falls for the old "let's have a race to yonder stream, I'll put down all my weapons, ready set STAB" trick. Despite being impaled through the chest he makes it about 300', all the way back to King Gunther and Hagen, before collapsing and dying. With a screech of music the chapter ends. The hunt is over.
Part 9: In Which Kriemhild Swears Revenge And Boy Howdy What A RevengeKriemhild waks up and wanders the deserted castle. The hunting party, carrying Siegfried's boy, returns by torchlight. Worms is now a tomb.
She looks at the audience as if to say, "who has done this?"
A memory of Siegfried next to a blooming tree; the tree withers into a skull.
King Gunther tells Brunhild her shame is avenged; Sigfried is dead. Exultant, she tells him she lied, then goes properly mad.
When Hagen enters the room Sigfried's mortal wound begins to bleed again; indisuputable proof that Hagen is the murderer. Kriemhild stares at him with glowing eyes and accuses him. To her horror, King Gunther protects his vassal and advisor.
Gunther seems legitimately shocked that his sister, who (aside from one incident he didn't witness), has been very meek, turned out to have a core of white-hot flame. But the King stands by Hagen and his brothers stand by the King. "Loyalty for loyalty, Kriemhild!" one prince says, "His deed is our own! His fate is our own!"
"Alright," her eyes seem to say, "if you insist".
Have you ever been so angry your eyebrow makeup changed? Kriemhild was willing to make it personal. Now it's impersonal. The whole bloody lot has got to go.
"Whether you hide behind my clan, or God's altars, or the end of the world, - You shall not escape my vengeance, Hagen Tronje!"
Brunhilda stabs herself and dies next to Siegfried's corpse. Hagen's Burgundian bloodline plans implode.
Thus ends the myth of Siegfried.
"But what about Kriemhild's terrible revenge?" I hear you ask. "We were promised a terrible revenge."
That's the sequel. Die Nibelungen: Kriemhild’s Revenge. That'll have to be another post.
The instrument of her revenge? Atilla the Hun.
Final NotesThe story begins with dragons and goblins. It ends, two and a half hours later, with a cold-blooded murder over dynastic politics. Siegfried, perfectly at home in the wilderness hitting things and finding loot, was hopelessly outmanuvered by his courtly allies. Hagen's relentless pursuit of strength was ultimately self-defeating. Gunther never ruled; all his decisions were forced upon him one way or another. Kriemhild's trust was betrayed.
The second chapter of the story, Kriemhild's Revenge, drags the world even further from fairy tales and noble knights and into the real world of conflicting oaths, inflexible rules, and pitiless slaughter.
Everything in this film is textured. Hair, moss, chain, scales, flowers. Or, in the flat and almost brutal walls of Worms, paint, light, and geometry.
Sedately paced silent films are wonderful for practing your descriptive powers as a GM. Imagine you're describing what's on the screen to your group. Get your flow right. Find the evocative details and the perfect words. Paint a picture in their minds.