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Fritz Lang & Thea von Harbou's

Die Nibelungen

Ufa-Decla, Germany, 1924

Introduction

Fritz Lang's 2-part silent film of 1924, Die Nibelungen, is a masterpiece of German cinema from the 1920s. A landmark in the development of cinematography as an art, it displays a stunning use of light and shadow, and exquisite set design. The script is based on an ancient, 12th century, German and Norse epic poem Die Nibelungenlied (The Song of the Nibelungen), and was developed and adapted by Fritz Lang's wife, the author and former actress, Thea von Harbou. Her novelised version of the script was published during 1923-4 as an adjunct to the film.

Prior to the outbreak of World War I in 1914, von Harbou had performed on stage in Friedrich Hebbel's dramatised version of the saga dating from 1866. She was therefore well versed in the story's narrative elements when the time came to prepare a script. As a result, the film largely adheres to the traditional text, varying significantly from Richard Wagner's operatic adaptation (known as The Ring) which first appeared in 1876. Wagner's opera was compiled from a variety of sources, and differs markedly from the von Harbou / Lang silent film of 1924. Fritz Lang's Nibelungen should not be seen as a cinematic version of the musical, though upon the film's American release, and subsequently, a Wagnerian soundtrack was added, much to the director's ire.

Siegfried (Paul Richter) wielding a sword which he has just forged. This sword will be used to slay the dragon in the forest of Nibel, and his widow Kriemhild will later use it to avenge his death.

Lang's large-scale Decla-Ufa film commenced production in 1922 and was not completed until the early part of 1924. Part 1, Siegfrieds Tod [Siegfried's Death], premiered on 24 February 1924 at the Ufa Palast am Zoo, Berlin, in the presence of the Reich Chancellor Gustav Stresemann. Part 2, Kriemhilds Rache [Kriemhild's Revenge], appeared two months later, on 26 April, at which point both films were screened in unison. Together, they originally ran to almost five hours and were accompanied by a dramatic, classically-based musical score composed by Gottfried Huppertz. The length and complexity of the original saga called for such a detailed treatment on the part of Lang and his crew. Though slow-paced in parts and lengthy, the film was nevertheless rivetting to German and non-German audiences alike, due in part to the stunning camera work by Gunther Rittau and Carl Hoffman, and lush set design by Erich Kettelhut and Kurt Volbrecht.

Just as this film was set in times past, so Lang and von Harbou's next epic - Metropolis - would be set in the future. Both films have strong narrative linkages and shared visual motifs. For example, in Die Nibelungen the dwarfs who hold up the bowl containing the Nibelungen treasure are turned to stone when Siegfreid steals the cloak of invisibility from Albrecht; in Metropolis, the negro slaves who hold aloft the bowl upon which the evil Maria performs her seductive dance, are turned to stone copies of the 7 Deadly Sins during Freder's hallucinogenic dream.

Both of these silent 'blockbusters' were to influence filmmakers to come, and can be seen as the pinnacle of German cinematic production values during the 1920s. Reproduced below is a synopsis of the film, interspersed with images from a series of contemporary postcards issued in Germany during the 1920s and featuring black and white, and coloured, images from the film. Also listed below are production details of the film, a minor bibliography, and links to related web sites. A selection of original Nibelungen related posters is available at the following link: Nibelungen Posters.



Film Synopsis

1. Siegfrieds Tod / Siegfried's Death

Volker von Azley (Bernard Goetzke), a minstrel, sets down to tell the story of Siegfried, son of King Siegmund of the Nibelungen (Netherlands). Siegfried (Paul Richter) is apprenticed to Mime, a blacksmith, who helps him forge a special sword. Siegfried then sets off to the court of the Burgundian King Gunther (Theodor Loos), at Worms by the Rhine, seeking the hand of the beautiful young Princess Kriemhild (Margaret Shoen), sister to Gunther.

En route to Worms, Siegfried encounters and slays a dragon. He bathes in its blood in order to make his body impervious to swords and arrows. Unfortunately, a leaf lands on his upper back, stopping the dragon's blood reaching him there. This part of his body is therefore made vulnerable. Siegfried also encounters Alberich (Georg John), the dwarf Lord Treasurer to the Nibelungen dynasty. He captures the Nibelungen treasure and acquires a magic cloak which makes him invisible and provides him with the strength of many men.

Upon arrival at the castle of King Gunther, Siegfried is opposed by the warrior Hagan (Hands Adalbert von Schlettow), half-brother of Gunter. Hagan is jealous of the young and handsome Siegfried who seeks the hand of the beautiful Kriemhild. This maiden had previously vowed to marry no warrior. She subsequently foresees Siegfried's death in a dream during which a white dove is attacked by a pair of black hawks.

In order to obtain the hand of Kriemhild in marriage, Siegfried must assist Gunther in likewise obtaining the hand of Brunhild (Hanna Ralph), warrior queen of Iceland. Brunhild has pledged that she will only marry a warrior who can defeat her in a series of athletic games - these involve throwing a large spear, throwing a heavy rock, and leaping through the air. Upon arrival at Brunhild's castle, Siegfried assists Gunter in defeating Brunhild by donning the cloak of invisibility and utilising his special strength.

Upon the party's return to Worms, Brunhild weds Gunther, and Siegfried takes Kriemhild. However, during an encounter on the steps of Worms cathedral between the two women, Brunhild learns how Siegfried and Gunther had deceived her into giving up her kingdom. She calls on Siegfried to be killed in revenge. Gunther agrees and together with Hagan tricks Kriemhild into revealing Siegfried's vulnerable spot. Hagan then spears the young hero in the back and kills him. With the death of Siegfreid, Brunhild becomes remorseful and apparently commits suicide. Kriemhild seeks revenge on Gunter and Hagan.

2. Kriemhilds Rache / Kriemhild's Revenge

As part of her scheme of revenge, Kriemhild accepts the offer of Rudiger and travels to the land of the Huns (Hungary) to marry King Etzel of the Huns (Rudolf Klein-Rogge). Upon the birth of their son, she invites Gunther and Hagan to Etzel's court for a celebration. As Hagan holds the baby in his arms he hears that Huns have killed some of his comrades - Burgundians. Hagan then kills the baby (a boy), and in the following skirmish Kriemhild kills Hagan with Siegfried's sword. She is then killed by Hildebrand (Georg August Koch), but is finally at peace.





Film Details

Siegfrieds Tod - 12 reels, 10,551 feet / 3216 metres, 7 Acts. Running time: 176 minutes at 16 frames per second. Filming took 15 weeks.

Kriemhilds Rache - 13 reels, 11,732 feet / 3585 metres. Running time: 195 minutes at 16 frames per second. Filming took 16 weeks.

Production

Director - Fritz Lang
Script - Thea von Harbou
Camera - Carl Hoffmann, Günther Rittau, and Walter Ruttman for the animated 'Dream of the Falcon' sequence
Assistant Cameraman - Günther Anders
Set design and construction - Otto Hunte, Erich Kettelhut, Karl Vollbrecht
Production - Decla-Bioscop AG, Berlin
Production Assistants - Rudi George, Gustav Püttjer
Musik - Gottfried Huppertz, Konrad Elfers, Consort Franz Teuta
Design - Paul Falkenberg
Makeup - Otto Genath

Cast

Siegfried - Paul Richter
Kriemhild - Margarethe Schön
Brunhild - Hanna Ralph
König Gunther - Theodor Loos
Hagen Tronje - Hans Adalbert Schlettow
Volker von Alzey - Bernhard Goetzke
Giselher - Erwin Biswanger
Schmied Mime + Alberich der Nibelungen + Blaodel - Georg John
Königin Ute - Gertrud Arnold
Gerenot - Hans Carl Müller
Dankwart - Hardy von François
King Etzel - Rudolf Klein-Rogge
Hildebrand - Georg August Koch
The Priest - Georg Juwoski
The Page - Iris Roberts
Rudiger - Rudolf Rittner
Werbel - Hubert Heinrich
Dietrich von Bern - Fritz Alberti
A Hun - Grete Berger
Reader of the Runes - Frida Richards


Chronology

1922- Filming begins

1924

24 February - Siegfreids Tod premieres at Ufa Palast am Zoo, Berlin.

26 April - Kriemhilds Rache premieres in Berlin.

1925

US release of a 9,000 ft long version of Siegfried, with a Wagnerian score.

1928

UFA releases a 9,000 ft long verison of Kriemhild's Revenge.

1933

Siegfrieds Tod re-released by Ufa, cut to 7,400 ft (2258 metres) and simply titled Siegfried. It now includes spoken words and a Wagnerian soundtrack.


Bibliography

1866

Friedrich Hebbel, Die Nibelungen, [Stage play], 1866. Thea von Harbou performed in a production of this prior to 1914.

1876

Richard Wagner, Der Ring des Nibelungen, Operatic tetrology, 1876. Comprises three parts: 1. Das Rhinegold, 2. Die Walküre, 3. Siegfried, and 4. Götterdämmerung.

1923

Das Nibelungenlied, Trans. by Simrock, Ed. by Prof. Walter Freye, Deutsches Verlagshaus Bong & Co., Berlin & Leipzig, n.d., 342p.

Thea von Harbou, Das Nibelungenbuch, München, Drei Masken Verlag 1923, 8vo., 267p. Illustrated with 14 images from the film.

----, ibid., 2nd edition. Illustrated with 24 images from the film.

1924

Das Nibelungen, [Program], Berlin, January 1924.

Das Nibelungen, [Program], Berlin, March 1924, 4p.

Thea von Harbou, Das Nibelungenbuch, München, Drei Masken, 1924, 16-30,000th, 3rd edition, 368p. Illustrated with 24 images from the film.

----, ibid., 1924, 31-40,000th, 4th edition, 270p. Illustrated with 24 images from the film.

Fritz Lang (Regie) und Thea von Harbou (Drenbuch), Die Nibelingen. Ein deutsches Heldenlied, Ufa-Decla-Film. 1. Film: Siegfried. 2. Film: Kriemhilds Rache. (Bln. 1924). Kl.-8°. 24 S. Mit 10 Taf. in Kupfertiefdruck. OKt. mit Kordelheftung. - Letztes Bl. in der oberen Ecke leicht angeschmutzt. Original-Filmbuch zur legendären Fritz Lang-Verfilmung. Selten.

----, Das Nibelungen, [Program for Decla-Ufa Film], Film-Kurier, Vienna, 1924, 32p.

1925

Siegfried, A music-photo drama with Wagner's immortal score, produced by Universum-Film Aktiengesellschaft, directed by Fritz Lang, from the scenario by Thea von Harbou, photography by Carl Hoffman, sets by Otto Hunte, music score by Hugo Reisenfeld, P. McNerney & Co., M.R. Gray, Inc., New York, 1925, 18p.

1926

Thea von Harbou, Nibelungerne - Siegfried - Kriemhilds Haevn, Boghandel and Banner, Norregade and Kobenhaven, 1926. Text in Danish with 8 photographs from the film.

1976

The Nibelungenlied (Translated by A.T. Hatto), Penguin Classics, Middlesex, 1976, 403p.

1986

Fritz Lang: Die Nibelungen, Kulturreferates der Landeshauptstadt München, 1986, 48p. Diese Brochüre erschien zur Aufführung von Fritz Langs Die Niebelungen mit der Originalmusik von Gottfried Huppertz, 31.1. bis 5.2.1986 im Gasteig.

1994

Wie macht man einen Regenbogen? - Fritz Langs Nibelungenfilm: Fragen zur Bildhaftigkeit des Films und seiner Rezeption, Giessener Arbeiten zur neueren deutschen Literatur und Literaturwissesnchaft, P. Lang, Frankfurt am Main, 1994, 121p.

1998

David J. Levin, Richard Wagner, Fritz Lang, and the Nibelungen: The Dramaturgy of Disavowal, Princeton Studies in Opera, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1998, 207p. Available from PUP web site.

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Site last updated: 9 August 2006.
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