#3 in my ranking of Fritz Lang’s filmography.
The first half of this story was a grand fantasy adventure that ended sadly. The second half is…an amazingly great, morally complex, and incredibly involving tragedy. I mean…I loved the first part of this large epic film, but this second part is something else. It’s not the greatest of analogies, but it’s like going from Beowulf to Hamlet. I love Beowulf, but it’s Hamlet.
Kriemhild (Margarete Schon) mourns the murder of her husband Siegfried by the king’s advisor Hagen of Tronje (Hans Adalbert Schlettow). Even when she confronts King Gunther (Theodor Loos), her own brother, with the common knowledge that Tronje did the deed, no one will do anything to exact justice. She’s alone in her own home of Worms, and when the foreign king Atilla of the Huns (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) sends a messenger asking for her hand in marriage, she accepts when she gets a promise that Atilla will exact vengeance on those that have wronged her, and she’s off to a foreign land to take a husband she’s never met after her Germanic ideal of a husband has been murdered with the implicit consent of her king of a brother by his chief advisor.
I found it curious that the fantasy elements of the first half have been completely removed from the second half. There’s no dragon. There is no magic helmet that turns anyone invisible. The second part is more purely a historical epic, and the film takes its time to establish characters really firmly before things go south. Kriemhild wasn’t the most fleshed out character in the first part, but here she takes center stage and her thirst for vengeance drives her. When she shows up at Atilla’s foreign palace, a much earthier construction than the stone-built castle at Worms, the place is a mess of men. The large hall is filled with Atilla’s most trusted warriors with nary a woman’s touch present to clean up the puddles of water along the floor. Her steely beauty is obviously offended by the situation, and yet Atilla takes off his own robe to lay over the puddle. She’s willing to deal with a lot in order to get what she wants, and when Atilla promises to exact the vengeance she wants, she accepts her situation.
All that’s left is for them to seal their marriage with a child. She promptly delivers Atilla a son and has Atilla invite Gunther to Atilla’s court for a visit.
The second half of this second part is one concentrated event, Gunther’s visit, where Kriemhild’s vengeance is wrought. It is obvious that Kriemhild is not only justified in seeking vengeance but that Tronje deserves it. As the extended episode plays out with the arrival, the feast, the underhanded way Kriemhild gets Atilla’s men to attack Gunther’s men out of sight, and the eventual death of a key character, nothing feels too out of sorts with a woman seeking vengeance. She’s got bloodlust, but it hasn’t taken over. However, when Tronje ends up too strong and smart to get taken out quickly and easily, things spiral out of control, and Kriemhild will not let go. Atilla ends up on her side, and everything burns. Her vengeance ends up so complete and all-encompassing that there’s no longer any satisfaction in the act. It’s dirty and sullied. It is obsession taken to the extreme. This is the sort of thing that David Lean made movies about decades later.
And that descent into obsessive hatred is the source of the film’s moral complexity. Kriemhild’s vengeance is justified. Gunther’s standing by his loyal Tronje has justification as well. Kriemhild’s willingness to sacrifice everything, having been killed by Siegfried’s death (as she puts it), is understandable. Atilla’s grief feeding it all makes sense. This is a complex mashup of character motivations playing out until there is nothing but fire and death. It was so compelling that I loved it.
The physical production elements are just as impressive, though less showy, as in the first part. The large palace of Atilla the Hun gets used a lot in many different ways as the second half plays out with the battle between the Huns and the Burgundians evolving several different ways. There is an attack on the front door, an attack from above, and finally the use of fire. The burning of the palace ends up recalling Kurosawa’s much later burning of Lord Hidetora’s palace in Ran. It really looks like they burnt the full-scale set down for the cameras, and it’s impressive.
The centerpiece of the films’ acting is Margarete Schon as Kriemhild, and she is the movie’s cornerstone. Her face is stonelike, but her true emotions of rage are perceptible always just below the surface. Her steely beauty sells the obsessive acts that Kriemhild follows through on in the end extremely well. It’s one of the great silent film performances, I think, and it’s in one of the great silent films.
Lang’s silent career is dominated by Metropolis, a science fiction film of unquestionable influence, but I think it may be the second part of Die Nibelungen that is his greatest silent triumph. The physical production is impressive, and the emotional impact is strong. This is great.