#12 in my ranking of Fritz Lang’s filmography.
Fritz Lang dealt with Germany’s present in Dr. Mabuse, and now he turns his eyes to its past, its myth, and its legends. It’s also a rollicking good time of grand adventure, magic, and bravery. It’s a triumph of physical production combined with a wonderfully engaging mythic quest to hang it all on. This is the sort of movie I eat up.
Siegfried (Paul Richter), a prince, has been training with a troll blacksmith in the deep forests of the land to learn the craft of sword making. When he completes a perfect weapon, he is told that there’s nothing more he can learn. As he’s preparing to leave, he hears the tale of the most beautiful maiden in the land named Kriemhild (Margarete Schon) in the kingdom of Worms. He becomes dedicated to finding her and winning her hand. The first stage of his journey brings him to a dragon. Now, there’s something kind of odd about this opening adventure. I think it’s largely a limitation of the large prop Lang had built for the film in that it can’t move very much. It ends up looking really peaceful. And then Siegfried shows up and fights it. There’s an odd emotional effect to that. It doesn’t feel right. Still, Siegfried kills the dragon and then bathes in its blood to make him invincible save a single spot on his back that gets overed with a lime leave, akin to Achilles’ heel.
He encounters a dwarf king that tries to kill him. When Siegfried triumphs, he receives a helmet that turns him invisible or into another form and the treasure of the Nibelungen. He becomes so powerful that he makes twelve kings his vassals, and then he arrives at the bridge leading into Worms, ready to marry Kriemhild. The natural curves and hills of the natural world give way to the exacting architecture of the palace at Worms where Kriemhild’s brother Gunther (Theodor Loos), the king, is a weak ruler and his chief advisor Hagen of Tronje (Hans Adalbert Schlettow) tells him to use Siegfried to win the warrior princess Brunhild (Hanna Ralph) as Gunther’s bride in exchange for allowing the marriage between his sister and the new arrival.
Gunther must defeat Brunhild in three physical contests (stone throw, long jump, and a spear fight) that Siegfried, using his invisible helmet, aids Gunther in winning. However, Brunhild knows that something is wrong, especially when she is back and Worms and the man who supposedly defeated her is much meeker than expected. Siegfried is even sent into their bedroom, disguised as Gunther, to break Brunhild’s will on their wedding night, a moment where he accidentally takes one of her bracelets. Kriemhild finds the bracelet, and Siegfried must tell her the tale of what happened, promising her to keep the secret, a secret she can’t keep once Brunhild openly insults her in public. The angry captive princess and new queen pits Gunther against his blood-brother Siegfried with the help of Hagen, and Hagen uses deception to convince Kriemhild to tell him the exact location of Siegfried’s weak spot.
I’m so used to Hollywood formula that I didn’t expect the ending that we got, which is probably accurate to the original German poem that the script was based on. It has a surprising amount of emotion to it as Kriemhild is faced with the consequences of her mistakes, the giving up of the two secrets to Brunhild and Hagen. Silent film scores tend to be little more than window dressing to the film, written quickly and with a lot of repetition to fill the sound space from beginning to end. There’s a moment where Kriemhild is presented with a tragic moment, though, where the soundtrack by Gottfried Huppertz falls completely silent, allowing the tragedy to linger as the audience gets to feel the same thing that Kriemhild is feeling. It’s a surprisingly affecting moment.
Siegfried represents the Germanic ideal of a man and Kriemhild represents the Germanic ideal of a woman. They are unquestionably the good people in this maze of deceit that he walks into and she has grown up within. That he does not understand the puzzle is tragic, but that she cannot save him is even worse.
The combination of grand adventure with a strong eye towards intimate character detail and movement is really what makes the whole thing work. It’s classic formula that Hollywood was well on their own way to perfecting at the time as well. If this had been made in America, Douglas Fairbanks would have starred with Myrna Loy, and it would have fit in perfectly well with stuff like The Thief of Bagdad or The Three Musketeers.
It’s just…that poor dragon. He just wanted a drink.