Eureka Entertainment // 1924 // 281 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Paul Pritchard (Retired) // October 10th, 2012
"My sister, what have you wrought?"
Fritz Lang's Die Nibelungen was a huge undertaking by Universum Film AG (UFA), the major German film studio of cinema's silent era. Following an extensive shooting schedule, Lang undertook an even more arduous editing process that saw the director completing his final cut only moments before the film's premiere on February 24th, 1924. Despite earning mixed reactions from critics at the time, the film went on to wow audiences worldwide -- and it's not hard to see why.
Based on the poem, "Nibelungenlied," written around 1200 AD, Lang's film is nothing less than the great-grandfather of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, a fantasy epic that set the benchmark for others to follow. Eureka's Die Nibelungen (Blu-ray) (Region B) release brings it to viewers' attention.
Upon hearing tales of the Kingdom of Worms, and the beautiful princess who resides there, Siegfried (Paul Richter), the son of King Siegmund of Xanten, announces his plans to travel to Worms and win princess Kriemhild's hand.
Having been tricked into taking a shortcut through the Woods of Woden, which is inhabited by magical creatures, Siegfried is confronted by a dragon, which he subsequently defeats in battle. Having slain the beast, Siegfried is instructed to bathe in the beast's blood by a bird, who goes on to tell him that doing so will grant him invincibility. Accepting the bird's words, Siegfried does as instructed, but unbeknownst to him a leaf falls on his back, leaving a small area of skin untouched by the blood, thus leaving Siegfried vulnerable.
News of Siegfried's victory over the dragon soon spreads, and when he gains control of the magical sword Balmung, following his besting of the dwarf Alberich -- who also provides Siegfried with a cloak that grants him invisibility -- he unknowingly earns the attention of Kriemhild.
Arriving at the Kingdom of Worms, Siegfried is greeted by King Gunther, who requests his help in winning the hand of the fierce warrior woman Brunhild of Iceland by defeating her in battle. Siegfried agrees. In return, he is granted the hand of Kriemhild. An act of deceit by Siegfried in the defeat of Brunhild proves to be his undoing, and sets off a chain of events that will lead to all-out war.
Visually, Die Nibelungen is nothing short of breathtaking. The special effects alone are worth the price of the Blu-ray, as Lang and his crew give life to a magical realm filled with knights, fair maidens, dwarves, and an honest-to-goodness fire-breathing dragon. Lacking the benefit of CGI, Eugen Schufftan, who also worked with Lang on Metropolis employs visual trickery that sets the picture apart from its peers. Some of the establishing shots beggar belief, as cinematographer's Carl Hoffmann, Gunther Rittau, and Walter Ruttman utilize majestic lighting to deliver compositions that once seen will forever be etched into ones memory. If you thought the shots of Barad-dur in Lord of the Rings looked good, just wait until you see the Kingdom of Worms for the first time, resplendently bathed in an otherworldly glow. The dragon, introduced in the film's opening act, is amongst the finest beasts to have graced the silver screen, with its battle with Siegfried a stunning achievement -- not least because when the dragon breathes fire, actor Paul Richter is in very real danger of being toasted.
When I say that Fritz Lang's Die Nibelungen is epic, I'm talking bladder-threateningly epic, with the film clocking in at just shy of five hours. Seemingly, Lang was aware of its extreme length; when it was originally released in 1924, Die Nibelungen was split into two films, with the first part Siegfried being quickly followed by the concluding chapter, Kriemhild's Revenge. Eureka's U.K. Blu-ray release preserves this format, with each film available on its own disc. My great fear upon being assigned this Blu-ray to review was that this combined length would result in an arduous undertaking, yet nothing could have been further from the truth. Even setting aside the film's length, there's also the fact that I'm no great lover of the silent era, nor am I an expert on German cinema, but none of this mattered as I found myself completely engrossed by Lang's vision. Were it not for other commitments (family, work, the need to sleep), I would have happily sat through the entirety of both films in one evening. The structure of the two films certainly points to Lang's intention to have them seen as one piece, with the opening film, Siegfried, featuring a good deal more exposition and running at a notably slower pace to the far more action-oriented Kriemhild's Revenge. The concluding hour to Kriemheld's Revenge is an almost nonstop series of battle scenes, all of which fully exploit Lang's huge cast of extras. This enormous cast really brings a sense of scale and awe to the story, and ensures the numerous action set pieces bring the story to a suitably grand finale.
Discussing the plot in any great detail, particularly the events of Kriemhild's Revenge, would risk letting slip one or two major spoilers. What I will say is that, unlike so many works that have followed in its wake, Die Nibelungen isn't content to make safe decisions. The opening film, Siegfried, closes out with a genuine shocker, while the nihilism that is only hinted at in the first film becomes fully apparent in the closing chapter.
Though not a word is spoken -- what little dialogue the film contains is relayed through the use of title cards -- Die Nibelungen does contain a musical score which was composed by Gottfried Huppertz specifically for it. Suitably bombastic during action scenes, and tender during quieter moments, Huppertz's score matches the tone of the film perfectly, even if it does become a little repetitive due to the film's length.
Eureka's Blu-ray release sports a 1080p transfer which, though not perfect, is only hampered by the age and damage of the numerous prints used for the film's HD mastering. Though listed as being black-and-white, the picture has more of a golden tint to it. The familiar flickering found in many old movies is present, and there are multiple instances of damage to the print. That said: the picture is sharp, with a surprisingly good amount of detail on show, and the unavoidable defects are never distracting. The viewer has the option of playing the film with either a stereo soundtrack or a 5.1 mix. Both offer Huppertz's score, as well as a few simple sound effects, clearly.
The sole special feature on Eureka's Blu-ray is an hour-long documentary, "The Heritage of Die Nibelungen," that offers an in-depth look at Lang's film, including details of its production. This German language documentary includes English subtitles. The Blu-ray also includes a lavish booklet including rare archival imagery and writings from Lang himself.
I'll readily admit that I knew absolutely nothing of Die Nibelungen prior to the screener arriving for review, but having now seen it I cannot think of a more ambitious, accomplished, or inspirational film to have come out of the silent era.
Though Metropolis is Lang's most celebrated work, I'd argue Die Nibelungen is the film that truly deserves that honor. This is nothing short of a masterpiece, a triumph that is perhaps even more remarkable today than it was all the way back in 1924.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Eureka Entertainment
* Full Frame (1080p)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Silent)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Silent)
Running Time: 281 Minutes
Release Year: 1924
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* IMDb: Siegfried
* IMDb: Kriemhild's Revenge