You can you stick your Game Of Thrones up the perilous pit of Ungmar the Unameable, the real fans of high medieval fantasy know the real action is going down way back in Berlin’s UFA studios during the equidistant pre and post war year of 1925. The movie industry was a very different beast back then, when tyrannical movie directors would muster bloated, hugely expensive studio-bound epics which seemed to run for days rather than hours, where the cult of celebrity had establishing itself as the central marketing hook to spear the attention of the depression and austerity starved masses and give them a few hours respite from the economic terror of their day-to-day lives, of industrial technique and visual dazzle entrancing the senses at the sacrifice of emotional or political nuance, a cinema of sensation anxiously awaiting the new enrapture of an auditory sense which would become the industrial standard in just a few years – the coming of sound. So yes, the cinema of the 1920’s was completely different to current contemporary standards, and producers of all nationalities and geographic birth certainly didn’t have their avarice rich eyes on lucrative emerging markets beyond their borders as the Tinseltown executives are hypnotizing today. I offer this all as proof that the more things change the more they seem to stay the same, like developments and trends in any industry the market seems to ebb and flow in a cylindrical fashion, so although I am ostentatiously going to be looking at a German filmed and financed, silent five-hour epic from 1925 in this piece I’ll try to weave in some present day echoes, before we begin in earnest I have to say this review has been a long time coming, I purchased and first saw the film back in March of this year but the day job and new release priorities have interfered with this fitfully stuttering season. I must admit that the prospect of collecting my thoughts on a film of such density from a period I’m not exactly and expert within (despite studying German Expressionist cinema back in my Academic hey-day) I do think it’s good to set yourself challenges and goals, so once more into the breach dear friends…..
Over the years I have seen and even (briefly) academically studied some of Lang’s expansive, technologically paradigm busting and genre hopping optical oeuvre but this is the first time I’ve seen this particularly lengthy ‘lost’ classic, whilst many of his other films of the period such as the Mabuse series and Metropolis have received a wealth of attention and discourse, mostly related to the former’s eerie pre-shadowing of the Third Reich and the German slide into genocidal fascism and the latters long robotic shadow that is cast upon the then embryonic SF genre. At first glance Die Nibelungen can be filed away with many of the other expansive cinema epics of the same relative period, Griffith’s Intolerance, Abel Gance’s Napoleon and the early biblical epics of Cecil DeMille immediately spring to mind, as certain visionary riding crop wielding tyrants struggled to elevate the medium into what was then regarded as ‘art’. They all share common DNA in the studio-bound industrial production techniques which were at the apex of their time, this project being all the more mysteriously fascinating as it was not crafted on the glittering Western coast of America which was the pulsing global centre of film production of the era, whereas Germany was still a bruised and economically subdued empire looking internally to heal its wounds and embrace an uncertain and financially fractured future. Split over two disks and moving through two significant story arcs Die Nibelungen wails through various cantos rather than following a traditional scene juxtaposition, cleaving the heroic story of Siegfried (Paul Richter,) the son of King Siegmund of Xanten, enticed to the kingdom of Burgundy and entranced by her beautiful princess Kriemhild. Through guile and enemy subterfuge Seigried is despatched to traverse the eerie Wood of Woden, a trick that deflects him from reaching Burgundy and taking his beloved’s hand in marriage, trapping him in mortal combat with the magical creatures inhabiting the wood, including a powerful smoke belching dragon. This is just the first part of an odyssey which maps to the epic poem Nibelungenlied whose genealogy has been traced to around 1200 AD, a battle-cry charge into Götterdämmerung rather than Dungeons & Dragons;
The Tolkien allusions are as clear as a Nargothrond stream in a Melian weaved moonlight, and indeed John Ronald Reuel drew heavy inspiration from the poem as he did from other medieval texts such as Beowulf. Film-wise one assume this is one of the first fantasy movies in the vein of the LOTR saga, or The Beastmaster, Krull or Hawk The Slayer, it’s hearty companions being the Douglas Fairbanks derring-do of The Thief of Bagdad which was similarly born in the cradle of Méliès phantasmorophs, a cinema of heroic scale and mythical landscapes and creatures, rendered by technological innovation, prosthetic designs and camera tricky. Partitioned around title cards and animation asides the film constructs a fantastical infrastructure of abstraction, reminiscent of early Disney and specifically Fantasia,with a much more adult themed musing on sacrifice and slaughter, a melding of the mythic with the metaphoric.
One of the strengths and specific merits of silent cinema is the devotion to the image, to the fusions in time and space between edits which infer relation and drive a story forward, a tale as localised as a dog rescuing a child ballooning out to a legendary mythos of fantastical beasts and titanic deeds communicated to a diverse collection of individuals sitting and watching in the dark. When it comes to some of these venerable epics the sheer scope of the enterprise are genuinely majestic, of knowing that hundreds of extras were marshalled by furiously barking assistant directors through primitive communication techniques, that vertigo inducing edifices were precariously erected in the physical world and not in squeezed out of a computer, that one take was literally one take when all the complex components marshalled in one shot were subject to the forces of entropy and accidental destiny. Whilst Lang’s framing is rather static and theatrically toned (no different from his contemporaries, still haunted by the dimensions of the stage and its slow transition to screen with wide shots exposing all the action set back to where an approximate theatre goer would sit) he permits resources to enter into the frame from non-diagetic origin points, punctuating these staged-bound dimensions by plunging his camera into the space at key periods to build momentum and a sense of dramatic intensity. From a mere operative and technological perspective these effects were difficult to achieve back in the 1920’s, the camera rigs and lightning infrastructure being the equivalent of the boisterous industrial clanging of a Betamax player compared to the digital purr of a top-range Blu-Ray today, the technology of narrative method and mode moulded by the storytelling medium, a restriction that was only shattered by Lang and the likes of Murnau, Chaplin and Keaton at their innovative best.
This being Lang the attention to production design is crucial and key, even in these medieval trappings an angular attention to detail is anvil hammers home the visual cues of the characters internal psychology, in a period where spendthrift producers would have balked at the cost of constructing roofs in interiors which could be shot around to save money and still maintain the suspension to disbelief. By closing and framing characters in angular lines on a 2D canvas Lang (a draftsman and architect by trade) instinctively grasped the importance of these subtle details and flourishes, understanding that the human relationship to its environment can be a rich seam of metaphorical and subconscious persuasion. On a more general level the sequence of the burning of Etzel castle is bombastically impressive, with tangible and physical sets genuinely torched and destroyed, again a concrete immediacy adding to the films’ aged sense of awe and danger. Cinephiles can also wallow in the instructive primitive (or should that be lyrical?) forms of film grammar that were common for the period, most deliciously the iris valve instructing the audience what to contemplate in the frame before oscillating the image out to reveal the full panorama, a communication method which now seems to rest in the edit of the cut, breaking scenes and spaces into more digestible portions of information. When it comes to the auditory functions of the film a recent comment from the great film director and scholar Peter Bogdanovich rang a historical chord with me, his affirming that films were never ‘silent’ and were usually consumed with a rowdy, disruptive and raucous audience hurling commentary at the screen or engaging in rather excited discourse with their companions. As the art form evolved in-house and live performed musical accompaniment was added to the sensual mix, instructing the audience when to feel trepidation, to swoon with romance or yelp in excited glee, so although the screen itself was silent the cosseted environment of the theatre was anything but. Now of course we have Dolby 5.1 earfucking Supra-ATMOS throbbing in the multiplexes, chorused with the charming cacophonous din of patrons chatting, of repetitive cell phones pings and associated light pollution – the more things change…..
In a rather primitive form the film does remind one of Jackson, a big broad canvass and an affinity to legendary and mystical beasts, as you can’t help but think of Smaug when that German wyrm starts smoking and smouldering on-screen. Taken in context the scale and dimensions of the film are fairly impressive for its time, it’s also fairly violent with the mythic plucking of the eye of the beast provoking its discharge of acidic venom, it also in a curious non-denominational way brought Aronosky’s Noah to mind, if only for the grandiose pre-historic bombastic exuberance of the project. Lang loves his angular compositions, the foreground frame positioned carefully to juxtapose against various axis of arrangement, with carefully considered production design and lighting patterns embedded in the accruing fields, in that sense I’d argue he’s a pathfinder precursor to Ridley Scott and Chris Nolan who are amongst his most transparent heirs apparent, as their strengths also rest in a formulation of design and artistic technique rather than dialogue or finely honed screen performances. Some of the villains are somewhat problematic when viewed through the lens of history, any film, particular one made in Weimar Germany with hook nosed moneylenders will immediately read as archaic and disgusting (although it didn’t stop Mel did it?), so its worth noting that Lang was part-Jewish but his screenwriter wife at the time Thea Von Harbeau embraced the National Socialist movement as it emerged in the coming years, and remained as a central figure in Goebbels propaganda machine after Lang has fled for Europe. Whilst we’re on the subject it has always amused me (if that’s the right word) that history’s most notorious dictators are enormous movie fans, from Stalin to Hitler to Kim Dong Un they all revelled in private regular screenings as one of their primary entertainment activities after a hard day at the office executing dissidents, signing genocide decrees, constructing death camps and systematically starving their citizens. In cinemas defence one assumes that they’d be equally adoring of TV had they been born a generation later as a far more pervasive and insidious conduit of propaganda and (it lives in your house after all), and don’t get me started on the suppressive possibilities of the Internet…..
Films such as Die Nibelungin breathe animated life into Orson Welles’ famous assertion that a movie set is ‘the biggest electric train set any boy ever had’, with almost unlimited stage bound resources at their disposal the major directors of the day could indulge in every one of their most profligate whims – recruiting another thousand extras for a more densely populated wide-shot scene, conjuring up elemental typhoons and tsunami’s to prod the audience into gasp induced wonder, the most exotic wildlife displaced from remote continents to suggest a seething, primordial physicality that seems to sexually lurk in the pre-code star system and swwon inducing content of the period. It’s worth stressing that the vast majority of films were studio bound in Europe during this period and it was only Hollywood that actually had the vision ti investigate shooting on location, one of the numerous attractions and coalescing factions of California as the birth of Hollywood was its distance (both physical and legal) from the early copyright cartels of the East Coast. As the restless vagabonds stumbled across the serene orange groves and hills they discovered brush and plainland that could easily stand-in for the mythical frontier for early cinema genre champion the Western, one of those amazing conflagrations of space, location, weather and production styles which birthed the golden age of Hollywood. Where does this film slot into the auteur evidence of Lang’s debonair career? Well apart from the steely Teutonic rigour of the design and vastly ambitious visual scope (like I said you can trace him to Jackson, Scott and Nolan in numerous ways) there are the psychological attuned elements, a central protagonist directed by his desires and dreams as opposed to more corporeal conerns or sense of muscular morality, a flagrant flaunting of the rule of law and the social restraints of civilisation, men mesmerisied by ambition and moral absolution.
The film transfer is stunningly rich and textured and the boffins have done a fine job with scrubbing clean the usual glitches and frame damage you’d normally endure from films of this vintage, with the tarnished tinted sickly gold providing an apt visual metaphor for the damaging desire for wealth and prestige. As you’d expect from a label so dedicated to film connoisseur this is the fullest version of the film assembled since its debut almost a century ago, lovingly embroidered with extant scenes from the best surviving negatives across numerous foreign markets, so like the recently assembled Metropolis it’s something of a Frankenstein monster which provides the most faithful recreation of Lang’s original vision. Speaking of that SF landmark I did also acquire the new Blu-Ray but I’m going to kick my review of that into the long grass as it’s screening as part of the BFI’s interstellar SF season at the end of the year, I’d much prefer finally catching the full restoration on the big screen to fully inform my commentary. Until then there’s plenty to keep us distracted so I think we’ll jump forward a decade or so to another challenging picture to get my teeth into - M. Lang’s first sound film is widely regarded as the first sound masterpiece, its international impact provided his calling card to Hollywood as he fled the Nazi scourge in the late 1930’s, but until we get our ears around that here’s a final look at an early example of Fritz’s fascination with dreams, the submerged unconscious and its divining power over our waking lives, still present in the distant purlieus of medieval mysticism;