Saturday, September 25, 2010

Lang's Die Nibelungen: Silent Masterpiece

It's difficult for many of us "moderns" to imagine such an elaborate, elegant film could be made in cinema's infancy,and all the more remarakble to consider that just about everything one sees in it is manmade. I was stunned to learn that even the almost too real looking trees in Siegfried turn out to be manmade.

From what I've been able to gather over the years, Lang's take on the Nibelung legend tends to stick more to the "original" tale(s) where Wagner veers into situations and creations inspired by the legends and of his own devices. There's plenty of room at the table for more than one "version" of these legends, which this amazing film (or two films) easily prove. One thing remains true to both: Everybody hates Hagan (or should!)

One of the biggest challenges facing a first timer steeped in the Wagner tradition will be getting used to this tale's Brunhilde. Not so much the heroic daughter of Wotan here, but a fiery, vindictive man eating warrior princess. Her castle on a rocky mountain . . . in Iceland, no less, is protected interestingly: encircled by a sea of flames - the images Lang creates here are jaw dropping.

Brunnhilde (a very butch Hannah Ralph) can be won only if she is bested in three tests of extreme physical endurance - the loss of any one of which guarantees death for the suitor (sound like another ice princess we know?). Gunther "goes for the gold" (pun intended). Lang here adds some elements of humor to the contest that are most welcome - particularly if one takes the challenge of watching the entire epic in a single sitting (recommended).

Siegfried has what I'm guessing to be the first male nude scene in cinema (or in a major motion picture at least) and the story surrounding it is a bit of fun.

As Siegfried, Paul Richter is terrific, what with his bleached blonde chopped mop of hair and heroic stature turning in a rather amazing performance in the title role. He was, apparently however, difficult to work with; incredibly vain - boastful of his handsomeness and perfect physique, fighting constantly with Lang as how best to light him, what angles to shoot him, where he should be in the frame, and on and on. Things reached an absolute impasse when Richter refused to strip down for the scene where he is required to bathe nude in the blood of freshly slain dragon - an act which would render him invincible.

With no time to waste (and happy to take a dig at his difficult leading man), Lang called in Rudolf Klein-Rogge, his less than handsome Attila for the film, who, palm freshly greased, willingly stripped off and climbed into the bloody font without so much as the blink of an eye. Richter stood by watching the filming, infuriated. His vanity caused him to go so far to protest Lang's use of Klein-Rogge as audiences would see his co-star's naked and inferior physique and assume it was him!

The second film in Lang's Nibelung epic, "Kriemhilde's Revenge," is, in its way, even more impressive. The entire look of the thing is possessive of an exoticism that many "exotic" epic films today fail to rise to the level of, much less exceed.

As good as everyone is, the performance to take one's breath away comes from Margarete Schön - Kriemheld in both films. Docile and dutiful, in Siegfried she does an almost unrecognizable turnabout into a relentless, driven, Queen of the Huns, in "Kriemheld's Revenge" hooking up with Attila himself.

The style and feel of this epic is stunning, and as I said when first seeing it, I simply cannot imagine sets and costumes more stunning than these, particularly the robes with which Kriemheld dons - futuristic/deco patterns overlaid with almost primitive designs.

I challenge anyone thinking themself immune to the lure and magic of silent film to feel that way after watching Lang's masterpiece!

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