Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Die Nibelungen. 1. Teil: Siegfried (FWMS restoration in colour 2010)

DIE NIBELUNGEN. 1. TEIL: SIEGFRIED (La canzone dei Nibelunghi: Sigfrido / Siegfried) (Decla-Bioscop AG - DE 1924) D: Fritz Lang; P: Erich Pommer; SC: Thea von Harbou; ED: Paul Falkenberg; DP: Carl Hoffmann, Günther Rittau; AD: Otto Hunte, Erich Kettelhut, Karl Vollbrecht; AN: Walther Ruttmann; M: Gottfried Huppertz (1924); C: Paul Richter (Siegfried), Margarethe Schön (Kriemhild), Hanna Ralph (Brunhild), Theodor Loos (King Gunther), Hans Adalbert Schlettow (Hagen Tronje), Bernhard Goetzke (Volker von Alzey), Erwin Biswanger (Giselher), Georg John (il fabbro/blacksmith Mime; Nibelung Alberich), Gertrud Arnold (Queen Ute), Hans Carl Müller (Gerenot), Hardy von François (Dankwart), Frida Richard (serva runica/the maiden of runes), Georg Jurowski (sacerdote/Priest), Iris Roberts (armigero/squire), Rudolf Rittner (margravio / Margrave Rüdiger von Bechlarn); filmed: 1922-11.1923 (Ufa-Freigelände Neubabelsberg); première: 14.2.1924, Ufa-Palast am Zoo (Berlin); 35 mm, 3388 m, 147' (20 fps); titles: GER; print source: Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Stiftung, Wiesbaden. Restoration: 2010.
    With e-subtitles in English and Italian, live music by: Maud Nelissen (piano) with Frank Bockius (percussions), Romano Todesco (contrabbasso, fisarmonica), Elizabeth-Jane Baldry (harp), at Teatro Verdi (Le Giornate del Cinema Muto), Pordenone, 8 Oct 2014

Nicholas Baer (GCM catalog and website): "In an article published shortly before the premiere of Siegfried, Part One of Die Nibelungen (1924), Fritz Lang celebrated the medium of film for its independence from categories of space and time. For Lang, this flexibility allowed film not only to overcome national boundaries and linguistic barriers, but also to transcend its immediate historical context. Much as the German philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey had invoked “the substratum of a general human nature” as a common ground for historical understanding, Lang contended that certain emotions and themes – “love and hate, loyalty and betrayal, friendship and revenge” – remain constant over time, changing in manifest form rather than in principle. Directing Die Nibelungen, according to Lang, thus involved the reanimation of people from a bygone era through adherence to inviolable stylistic laws. By evincing eternally valid dramatic elements, his work would revive the 13th-century epic poem through film, “the liveliest art form of our time”."

"Lang’s artistic pretense to timelessness had its own historical determinants, of course, and his emphasis on mankind’s fundamental constancy came into tension with his critical diagnosis of the present age. In a likely allusion to the world war, sociopolitical upheavals, and hyperinflation of recent years, Lang asked: “Who, in the chaos of our time, has the leisure and calmness (Nervenruhe) to read the Nibelungenlied?” Attributing a pedagogical function to cinema, Lang
identified the objective of his work as that of presenting a “new form of the old epic” to working masses. As Lang wrote in the program distributed at Siegfried’s premiere, his adaptation of the
medieval saga was intended to reinvigorate “the world of myth” for the 20th century, rendering it “vivid and, at the same time, believable.” Through the technical possibilities of film, Lang would
enable modern audiences to see – to “visually experience” (sehend miterleben) – the legendary actions of an epic from which they had ostensibly become alienated."

"While Lang hailed the pure internationalism of filmic language, his work emerged from a more dialectical interaction of global and national forces, issuing a challenge to the hegemony of Hollywood cinema through a distinctly German cultural source. Indeed, the Nibelungenlied had served as a central point of identification in the formation of a German national identity beginning in the early 19th century, and Lang’s film continued this tradition through both textual and extra-filmic strategies. Dedicated “to the German people as their own” (like Franz Keim’s 1909 retelling of the epic and, as of 1916, the Reichstag building), Lang’s work – two years in the making and the costliest European film to date – garnered national political attention upon its two-part release in 1924. At a gala following the premiere of Siegfried at Berlin’s Ufa-Palast am Zoo on 14 February, Foreign Minister Gustav Stresemann underscored the “quintessentially German” (so grunddeutschen) subject matter of Lang’s monumental work."

"In its avowed devotion to a national community, Lang’s film followed the aesthetic ideal of Richard Wagner, who had imagined “the artwork of the future” as one that would fulfill the “common and collective need” (gemeinschaftliche Noth) of a unified Volk. Similar to Wagner, who composed his four-opera Ring cycle between 1848 and 1874, Lang and screenwriter Thea von Harbou reworked the Nibelungen saga in the disillusioning aftermath of a failed revolution, seeking to provide an integrating myth for a fragmented modern society. Wagner’s heirs in fact denied Ufa the rights to the composer’s music, and the studio hence commissioned Gottfried Huppertz to write an original score, performed by a 60-piece orchestra at the film’s premiere. While Lang praised Huppertz for “transferring the Nibelungen idea into its own world, entirely remote from Wagner”, this means of distancing was futile in obscuring the influence exerted by Wagner’s musical techniques and aesthetic project on Lang’s “total work of art”."

"Due to its status as “the spiritual sanctuary of a nation”, according to Lang, Die Nibelungen demanded a visual style distinct from that of prevailing historical spectacles. Working with set designers Otto Hunte, Erich Kettelhut, and Karl Vollbrecht, as well as cinematographers Carl Hoffmann and Günther Rittau, the director conceived “four fully self¬-contained, almost mutually adverse worlds” at Ufa’s Neu-Babelsberg studios: the realm of young Siegfried, with its mythical forest, dusky meadows, and subterranean treasures; the Burgundian court in Worms, noted for its noble simplicity and stark spaces; Brunhild’s Iceland, typified by glassy countenances and harsh natural elements; and, finally, Etzel’s unmerciful empire in the Asian steppes. In tracing characters’ intersecting paths through these four worlds, Lang sought to lend their journeys a sense of fateful inexorability. The film’s mise-en-scène is thus extremely controlled and purposeful, reflecting a “will
to style” allegedly lacking from Hollywood pageantry. However discriminating in his set design, Lang drew generously from a broad repertoire of visual sources. The director studied architecture
and painting before commencing his film career in Weimar Germany, and – like the Ringstraße in his native Vienna – Die Nibelungen reveals a remarkable pluralism of architectural styles, from massive Gothic to art nouveau. The film’s compositions quote from a vast range of aesthetic traditions, extending from Greek statues, Byzantine mosaics, and medieval sculptures to the works of the Romantics (Caspar David Friedrich, Ludwig Richter, Moritz von Schwind), Symbolists (Arnold Böcklin, Fidus, Max Klinger), and Jugendstil artists (Carl Otto Czeschka, Franz Stuck, Heinrich Vogeler). This heterogeneity is also evident in the primitivist, medieval, and modernist elements of the film’s costumes (contributed by Paul Gerd Guderian, Heinrich Umlauff, and Änne Willkomm), which correspond in their designs with the film’s patterned textiles and ornamental décor."

"Running counter to the historical sweep of Lang’s film is an Expressionist drive towards total abstraction. As Wilhelm Worringer argued in Abstraktion und Einfühlung (1907), abstract art locates beauty not in a contingent natural world, but rather in “the lifedenying inorganic, in the crystalline or, in general terms, in all abstract lawfulness and necessity”. Such an abstract aesthetic manifests itself in Die Nibelungen through a wholly constructed, hermetically framed environment; fully coordinated designs and compositions; ossified figures and a slowness of action; and, finally, a symmetrical dramaturgy, geometrical order, and strict color scheme. In a sequence animated by Walther Ruttmann, the film’s “urge to abstraction” leads to a near rejection  of material reference altogether; Kriemhild’s “dream of a falcon” is envisioned through what Rudolf Kurtz, in Expressionismus und Film (1926), described as “very simple, pure forms” with “only a weak formal similarity” to the organic life-world."

"The film’s deliberate symmetry extends to its highly self-conscious narrative form. Lang’s work adopts the bipartite structure of the Nibelungenlied, its two parts likewise tracing Kriemhild’s marriage to Siegfried and her revenge of the hero’s death. Each half of the film is itself divided into seven “cantos” (Gesänge), which – like the âventiuren of the epic poem – are labelled according to the protagonists’ fortunes or deeds. The intertitles, written in an archaic script, also mimic the style of Middle High German poetry, and the film’s original subtitle, “A German Heroic Song” (Ein deutsches Heldenlied), evokes a bardic tradition represented in the story by Volker von Alzey of the
Burgundian court. Harbou’s screenplay, published in prose form as Das Nibelungenbuch (1923), drew from a plethora of sources and followed an extensive history of dramatizations – most famously, Friedrich Hebbel’s 1861 trilogy, which, alongside Wagner’s Ring cycle, was revived on German stages in 1924."

"Lang’s film was indeed one among many appropriations of the Nibelungen during the interwar years, the most notorious of which came from National Socialist ideologues. Writing for the Völkischer Beobachter in 1923, Adolf Hitler referenced the saga in conjunction with the “stab-in-the-back legend” (Dolchstoßlegende), which attributed the Armistice and German Revolution of November 1918 to current leaders of the Weimar Republic: “With the November Criminals behind us, every new outward struggle would immediately thrust the spear into the back of the German Siegfried once again.” A decade later, Joseph Goebbels noted the political resonances of Lang’s Die Nibelungen in particular, praising the film for being “so modern, so close to the times, so topical that it left even the militants of the National Socialist movement shaken inside”. An abridged version of Part One, retitled Siegfrieds Tod, was released on 29 May 1933, now accompanied by a recorded soundtrack incorporating excerpts from Wagner’s operas."

"Whereas critics including Béla Balázs and Herbert Ihering questioned some of Lang’s stylistic choices upon Die Nibelungen’s initial release, Siegfried Kracauer would later castigate the film in its entirety, describing its aesthetic patterns as precursors to Leni Riefenstahl’s ornamental masses. Lang’s work certainly betrays elements of the völkisch, blood-and-soil, and anti-Semitic ideologies propagated by the Nazi Party, but it also resists Kracauer’s analysis in many regards. However rigid or static the film’s dramaturgy may appear, it also reveals a remarkable dynamism of characterization, most explicitly in Kriemhild’s transformation from a pale, sympathetic naïf into a dark-clad, calculating anti-heroine. Furthermore, while the film seems to flee from the contingent plane of history into a realm of fateful myth, its narrative arguably tracks the destruction of metaphysical forces, and its eclectic array of aesthetic and historiographical models indicates the disintegration of a unified, cohesive worldview."

"From a contemporary vantage point, the very historical overdetermination of Die Nibelungen undermines Lang’s utopian claim to the filmic medium’s spatial and temporal autonomy. Nevertheless, if his work may be seen as anticipating Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935) or Olympia (1938), it might just as well be placed in an aesthetic trajectory that includes Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Ivan the Terrible (1944, 1958) or Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) and The Hobbit (2012-2014). The legacy of Lang’s film indeed remains open, and the work – with its manifold ambivalences and contradictions – is rich and ambiguous, able to stimulate a variety of distinct interpretations. A pioneering and influential effort to envision the world of myth through a modern medium, Die Nibelungen offers not only a multifaceted film-historical document, but also a complex view of history (Geschichtsbild) – one well worth rediscovering in the “chaos” of our own time." Nicholas Baer

AA: I saw for the first time this newest restoration of Die Nibelungen, by Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung from 2010, in colour.
    My first encounter with the classic epic was in the 1970s in a 16 mm print distributed by Goethe-Institute.
    The second encounter was in the 1980s in 35 mm in West Berlin. I'll never forget the frisson amongst the German audience at the sold-out screening at Cinema Arsenal, felt already at the dedication: "dem deutschen Volke zu eigen" - "dedicated to the German people", a frisson repeated towards the final conflagration, in Kriemhild's remark to Attila: "you don't know the German soul yet". Today I was also thinking about the film Der Untergang.
    The third Die Nibelungen revelation for me was experiencing the original Gottfried Huppertz score - the music was composed first, and the film made afterwards, as was the procedure in Metropolis. We collaborated with Goethe-Institut and the Helsinki Festival in bringing the film concert in the early 1990s to the Finlandia Hall with a symphony orchestra conducted by Berndt Heller.

This all-night screening was the fourth Die Nibelungen revelation for me - thanks to the good quality of the image, and thanks to the good taste in the decisions about the colour.

Fritz Lang and his team are in full command of their art in this film. The structure is assured, and there is always a strong sense of the general arch of the storytelling. At the same time, there is a fine touch in the meaningful detail (the linden leaf, the magic helmet, the snake bracelet, the sewn cross). And a sense of the irrational power of jealousy that drives Kriemhild to expose Siegfried's secret to Brunhilde which sets forth the entire destructive chain of events that leads to the demise of the Nibelungen.

More remarks in the entry on Kriemhilds Rache.

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