Sunday 16 December 2012

Die Nibelungen (1924)

The terrifying dragon, Fafner

Sometimes I like to browse Amazon's recommendations page  - a curious set of things the site believes I ought to want, along the lines of "I see you've bought a bright green pancake pan from us, so you'll be wanting this Ken Dodd DVD" and other such eccentric and confusing links.  I'd almost lost faith in them when, once upon a time, the site happened to mention that ace German director Fritz Lang had made a five-hour silent film about the Nibelungs.  "Oh Amazon," I cried aloud, "you do know me!"

It's a movie in two films - which isn't to say it's an original and a sequel.  Rather, it was the fashion in the early twenties to make films with 22-hour intermissions, so go to the cinema, watch part one, go home, and come back the next day for part two.  The back of the box describes it as 'stately' and 'hypnotic', which in combination with the stated duration made it sound like it might be rather slow.  I was daunted, but cautiously optimistic.

If you're at all familiar with Wagner's four-opera 'Ring Cycle' (and I'll quite understand if you aren't - I only am because I like an epic, or feat of endurance, and perhaps because I like it be known that I like an epic), you might reasonably expect the plot of this double film to be familiar, for they both draw on the same source, concern Siegfried and Brunhild and the Nibelung gold.  But no!  Wotan and the rest of the Norse gods are out, Attila the Hun is in (with amazing makeup and performance that make him seem like some kind of space alien).  Brunhild is not a Valkyrie, just a brilliantly strong woman with a hat that looks like the offspring of a saucepan and a goose.

Brunhild's amazing hat

Fritz Lang certainly put in some effort to make the film he wanted to see.  Rather than going to a forest to shoot his forest scenes, he built the trees out of concrete.  If he wants to burn a building down and have it collapse he'll just burn it down, and if it falls on the actors it's all to the good so long as the cameras catch the moment.  Rather than waiting patiently for someone to invent CGI or stop-motion animation, he built a real live dragon and had it breathe real fire on his lead actor.  Indeed, this last thing is so extraordinary I feel I must compel you to see a clip of the terrifying dragon, inside which are many terrified technicians and puppeteers.

It's a big old story full of battle and flame grand vistas, but at its heart all about the knotty personal dramas of its key characters, with their extraordinary dancing movements, their strange silent faces acting out the intense drama of it all.  To my surprise and relief, the film sustained my attention and interest across its great duration.  I'd recommend it highly, if its combination of silence, length, ancientness and German-ness weren't sure to put y'all off.  Tell you what: watch Lang's Metropolis instead, and come to this as a long pudding, should you want more of the same.

Got a lot of time on your hands? Then why not buy the film on blu-ray or DVD and wonder at the crude beauties of 1920s film-making. Fear the dragon! Observe the magnificent hat! Feel the flames!

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