Kino Lorber // 1924 // 280 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // November 7th, 2012
One of the greatest artistic and technical achievements of the German silent cinema.
As the twentieth century turned over into the twenty-first, Beowulf became the ancient epic du jour. With no less than three cinematic adaptations between 1999 and 2007 (from the low-budget Christopher Lambert vehicle to the blockbuster Beowulf with the likes of Angelina Jolie and Anthony Hopkins). There's nothing wrong with Beowulf, of course, but it's only recently been taken up as the example of the epic (due in part to its being championed by noted scholar J. R. R. Tolkien). Before its rise, the epic of choice for most consumers of culture (high and low) was the Nibelungenleid, or the Lay of the Nibelungs, a Norse epic that describes the adventures of dragon-slayer Siegfried and his wife Kriemhild. It's most famously the basis for Wagner's epic Ring Cycle, but it is also the basis for Fritz Lang's two-part Die Nibelungen, the silent epic he made before embarking on his more-famous masterpiece, Metropolis. Though time has not been kind to Die Nibelungen, this restoration released by Kino as Die Nibelungen Special Edition (Blu-ray) is a great way to see this famous epic.
Die Nibelungen is actually two films that together tell the story of the Nibelungenleid. The first is Siegfried, and it tells the story of Siegfried (Paul Richter, Dr Mabuse: The Gambler), who forges a sword, slays a dragon, and falls in love with the princess Kriemhild (Margarete Schön). Siegfried eventually falls victim to treachery, which leads to Kriemhild's Revenge, where the princess exacts her revenge against her husband's killer.
I'm not gonna lie: Die Nibelungen has not aged well. I just had occasion to re-watch The Complete Metropolis, and for all its weird silent-era quirks, the film holds up to contemporary viewership. With Die Nibelungen, not so much. Epics are difficult to accomplish as cinematic works in the first place (as the "success" of Beowulf no doubt demonstrated). Many of these older lays are essentially a series of adventures, small stories where cardboard heroes fight cardboard villains before being slain themselves and then revenged. Obviously they're tempting to film -- there's loads of cinematic potential in a dragon slaying or in the epic battles that conclude Kriemhild's Revenge -- but with nothing like what we consider modern storytelling, epics tend to fall flat. Characters don't grow or change as much as we're used to, and when that fact is combined with the 1924 special effects, I can't imagine many contemporary viewers really getting into Die Nibelungen as a cinematic experience (beyond its obvious and immense historical significance).
Still, thank goodness for the Frederick Wilhelm Murnau Stiftung (the group responsible for restoring Die Nibelungen from surviving elements). This film is essentially the largest canvas Lang would ever have to work with in his career. Though Metropolis may be more well-known (and, at least in this author's opinion, better) and M his most "cinematic" work (again, at least to this author), Die Nibelungen is almost five hours of silent Lang and as an historical artifact in both Lang's development as a director and the wider development of silent-era film it's a treasure. Released almost slap-dab in the middle of the Weimar Era that separates the first World War and the rise of the Nazis to power, Die Nibelungen shows the German commitment to excavating its culture even as new technologies and social mores popped up constantly. To see Die Nibelungen is to see an artist wrestle with some of his country's older culture and its newest technology.
Back to the Murnau Stiftung. They're a group dedicated to preserving films, and their restorations are serious business. Anyone who saw The Complete Metropolis can attest to both the beauty of their restoration work and their honesty about how and why the restorations look the way they do. In the case of Die Nibelungen, there are no surviving camera negatives, so all of the restoration work happened on duplicate prints. I won't go into all of the details, but I will say that Die Nibelungen looks good, if not as great as the Metropolis restoration. The elements used were not in the greatest condition, so we get a significant amount of print damage, much of it consisting of lines and scratches on the surface of the print. Particularly degraded intertitles have been digitally repaired (and now bear a discreet logo in the corner to indicate that they've been altered).
That said, I can't imagine Die Nibelungen looking any better, until we miraculously discover a pristine first-gen print abandoned in someone's basement. Despite the problems with the prints used, this 1.33:1/1080p transfer is excellent. The black-and-white negatives were chemically processed to add color (as the original prints would have been), and the look retains a wonderfully filmlike presentation. Grain is a little less prevalent than I would have imagined, but detail is strong enough to make me think that digital noise reduction hasn't been over-applied. Black levels are fairly consistent, and contrast is good. No serious compression artifacts mar the presentation, especially since each of the two films gets its own disc. The film's original score is presented in both DTS-HD 5.1 and 2.0 configurations, and the recordings sound as rich and as detailed as any contemporary orchestral arrangement can.
The extras for this set consist of a pair of featurettes. The first is a 68-minute documentary "The Legacy of Die Nibelungen," which gives a pretty solid overview of the making of the film and the effect it has had on subsequent film history. The other featurette is a vintage newsreel of Fritz Lang on the set of the film. A scholarly commentary might have made this the perfect Blu-ray edition, but the extras that are here really enhance the feature.
Die Nibelungen is a masterpiece of silent-era cinema. The effects work is marvelous, helping to create an alternate dimension of magical German culture. Though many contemporary viewers might have trouble looking past the static camera and print damage to see the beautiful world that Lang has created. For those well-versed in the charms of Die Nibelungen, this release is essential. An upgrade in every way, from the restoration to the high definition, Die Nibelungen Special Edition (Blu-ray) should be greeted with cheers from anyone who cares about Weimar cinema, Fritz Lang, or silent-era epics.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Kino Lorber
* Full Frame (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (Silent)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (Silent)
Running Time: 280 Minutes
Release Year: 1924
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* IMDb: Siegfried
* IMDb: Kriemhild's Revenge