(1924, Fritz Lang Dir., Stars: Paul Richter, Margarete Schön, Theodor Loos and Hanna Ralph.)
It happened 86 years ago, a tectonic shift in cinema that triggered a sink-or-swim period of upheaval impacting actors, directors and studio heads the world over. Today, we take the catalyst of that tumultuous time for granted. I’m not talking about color -- hand-painted "color" films have been around since the very dawn of film. I’m talking about synchronized sound in motion picture production and exhibition; in short, talkies killed the silent movie star.
There was genius of necessity that drove the silent movie era. Without sound, actors relied on their faces, and eyes in particular, to emote; and directors thought long and hard on how to convey a story visually. While there is a conservation movement afoot to preserve silent films and rescue “lost” ones languishing in libraries, archives, even closets around the world, only a fraction of the thousands made remain. One film that was never lost but was all but forgotten is Fritz Lang’s 1924 medieval epic, Siegfried.
The saga of Lang’s Siegfried closely follows the ancient Nordic legend of Sigurd, a hero prince of Nordic legend who quests with his sword of power, Gram, to win the hand of a maiden princess. Thea Von Harbou, Lang’s wife, penned this film’s script (she also wrote Lang’s most revered masterpiece, Metropolis) and framed this majestic legend within a series of seven cantos:
Canto 1: Siegfried forges his sword and is told of the fair Princess Kriemhild of Burgundy, he decides to journey there and win the lady’s hand. Siegfried’s passage is detoured by the deceitful blacksmith, Mime, so he soon crosses paths with a dragon he battles and ultimately slays. This victory gifts Siegfried an understanding of the language of birds, from whom he learns that bathing in the blood of the dragon will make his body invincible in battle. Unfortunately, Siegfried fails to notice a single leaf fallen upon his shoulder as he bathes in the dragon’s blood, leaving him an “Achilles’ Heel” spot of vulnerability.
Canto 2: Still en route to Burgundy, Siegfried encounters the dwarf King of the Nibelungen, Alberich. The battle against the diminutive despot is easily won despite Alberich’s Cap of Wonder (more accurately, a chainmail veil) which grants the wearer not only the power of invisibility, but allows them to take on the form of anything or anyone. Alberich begs Siegfried to spare his life, and in return turns over both the Treasure of the Nibelungen and his Cap of Wonder. Upon finally arriving in Burgundy, Siegfried asks the hand of Kriemhild from her brother, King Gunther. The King first requests of Siegfried his help in winning stout warrior queen, Brunhild, as his own bride.
Canto 3: Brunhild issues King Gunther’s three challenges she has set for any who seek her hand. Siegfried dons his Cap of Wonder to become invisible and help Gunther in these contests: stone throwing, long jumping and lastly, a competition of spears. Defeated, Brunhild returns with King Gunther and Siegfried to Burgundy.
Canto 4: In Burgundy, Brunhild rejects the effeminate King Gunther insisting that she is his captive, not his bride. Again, King Gunther turns to Siegfried for help. Using Alberich’s Cap of Wonder, Siegfried takes King Gunther’s form and subdues Brunhild’s wilds, impressing upon her that the Burgundy king is quite man enough for her. During this struggle, however, Brunhild’s snake armlet is taken by Siegfried, a token that would soon prove disastrously telling.
Canto 5: Months later, Kriemhild and her husband Siegfried remain in the castle at the request of Kriemhild’s Mother; this leads to routine quarreling between Brunhild and Kriemhild. When Kriemhild discovers Brunhild's snake armlet, Siegfried tells her how her brother won the queen. Later, as the two queens of the castle argue while attending mass, an offended Kriemhild tells Brunhild of the deception Siegfried and King Gunther played upon her.
Canto 6: Brunhild seeks revenge by lying to King Gunther that Siegfried stole her virginity. Incensed, King Gunther conspires with his royal right-hand man, Hagen Tronje, to use a boar hunt as an opportunity to kill Siegfried. First, though, Hagen Tronje cons from Kriemhild the location of a rumored vulnerable spot on Siegfried's body by telling her that Siegfried has asked him to be his bodyguard, and now must know which part of the hero’s body most needs guarding. Brunhild fasts, the men depart for the hunt. Hagen Tronje lures Siegfried to an isolated stream where he impales the hero prince through the shoulder, where the leaf had fallen during his dragon blood bath. Siegfried, son of King Siegmund of Xanten, dragon-slayer and hero – dies.
Canto 7: In the final denouement, Brunhild confesses her treachery to King Gunther, treachery that has caused him to kill his true friend. Brunhild dies of starvation; her fast, having taken its toll, also frees her from marriage to King Gunther. When Kriemhild learns of the lies that lead to the murder of Siegfried, she swears her own revenge on Hagen Tronje.
Visually, Lang’s Siegfried is grand in scope and intimate with its characters emotions. The castle sets are vast yet austere. In fact, these Teutonic recreations seem to have had at least some influence on the sets of Carl Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc (1928); they are simple, stark white edifices sparsely dressed with luxuriant yet rudimentary furnishings of the period. The facial expressions of the actors run the gamut from looks that could kill to moist-eyed love, confusion and regret. And Lang’s dream sequences are so powerfully evocative that I would readily hold them up with Salvador Dali’s work on Hitchcock’s Spellbound(1945) for their surrealism.
Fair to say, The Dragon in Canto 1 looked silly and well dated. Siegfried was made long before CGI, and Claymation was a skill being honed elsewhere in the world in 1928; still, I can’t help thinking Lang’s crew could have done better. All told, though, it is fun to think that this obviously phony dragon Siegfried killed was a 60-foot puppet it took three men to operate!
Gotfried Huppertz’s score accompanies Fritz Lang’s images perfectly. I’ve seen silent films where the music is monotone in its pacing, flat and boring; however Huppertz’s work for Siegfried kept me engaged and guided my emotional reactions to the scenes as any great score should for a silent film.
Movie fans not used to watching silents may not want to jump straight into Siegfried for a Sunday night screening. These pre-sound films can be brilliant, and Siegfried is an excellent example of that era’s art; but silent films are an acquired taste... And because there is no audible dialogue to move the story, the visual storytelling requires your complete and constant attention. If you’ve never watched silent films, start easy – check out Charlie Chaplin’s Mutual two-reelers or some shorter works by F.W. Murnau, Buster Keaton or Ernst Lubitsch. I guess a good analogy would be that one should learn to appreciate select arias before subjecting themselves to a five-act opera.
Fritz Lang originally filmed Siegfried together with its follow-up, Kriemhild’s Revenge, as a single five-hour epic. Such an extreme running time though proved too long even for German audiences in the 1920s, and so the full film – then known as Die Nibelungen – was broken into, and marketed as, its two component halves. While both films are available individually on DVD, Kino Video has in its’ Fritz Lang collection the master’s fully restored five-hour vision. This box set also includes the seminal Metropolis(1927), Spies(1928) and thrown in for good measure, Woman In The Moon(1929), the first film to show a countdown to the launching of a rocket. Kino’s Fritz Lang collection is a must-have for any Lang fan or aficionados of the silent cinema. (FTR - It has already been added to this reviewer’s Amazon Wish List.)
Modern cinema must remember its roots, just as any family or nation should. It helps one to see just how far they’ve come; to appreciate not only the present, but the genuine genius of those forefathers upon whose shoulders they happily stand. Silent films may be an acquired taste, but once that taste is attained, films like Siegfried open up a whole new dimension in a person’s appreciation of the art, and magic, of film. This film is not just an historical curiosity, but an engaging story and visually stunning grand opus. Watch Siegfried, and imagine wistfully what Fritz Lang might have achieved had he the technology now available to J.J. Abrams, or Peter Jackson.
[“Siegfried” is currently available through Netflix on DVD and in some regions as On Demand video. As mentioned, Kino Video has also released the fully restored ‘Die Nebelungen’ in a four-film box set of Fritz Lang’s works. This silent epic is also available at the time of this writing, in its’ entirety, on YouTube.]