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Die Nibelungen: Kriemhilds Rache (Kriemhild's Revenge)
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by Jay Seaver

"A bitter but bombastic revenge."
5 stars

The epic movie - and epic movie series - is by no means a modern invention. For a good portion of his German career, that's what director Fritz Lang specialized in - "Metropolis", "Spies", "Woman in the Moon", the five-hour "Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler" (for which he directed three sequels), and his epic two-part 1924 adaptation of "Die Nibelungen". This second part is a surprise, as it focuses on a perhaps the least interesting character from "Die Nibelungen: Siegfried", but creates an impressive spectacle regardless. (Note: This review will discuss the end of the first film, so go elsewhere if you don't want it revealed.)

In the months since Siegfried's murder, Castle Worms has become a troubled place. All know that one-eyed warrior Hagen Tronje (Hans Adalbert Schlettow) did it, but are honor-bound to protect him like a brother. King Gunther (Theodor Loos) looks worn down, and Siegfried's widow Kriemhild (Margarete Schön) is in a state of perpetual fury. When Rüdiger von Bechlarn (Rudolf Rittner), a nobleman from a neighboring kingdom, comes to enquire about betrothing Kriemhild to his king, Gunther warns him what he is in for, but it turns out that Kriemhild is ready to leave Burgandy behind her - but not in her heart. No, she makes Rüdiger and later King Etzel (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) of the Huns swear to avenge Siegfried, and a year later, when the Nibelung court is invited to the Huns' castle to celebrate the birth of Etzel's and Kriemhild's first son, you can be damn sure that her mind isn't on the place-settings.

Kriemhild was a fairly minor character in Siegfried, and Margarete Schön did not do a great deal to make her stand out from the crowd in that film, although one can see the beginnings of something at the end. Here, she has worked herself into a cold rage, and it's quite the sight to see. Schön always has someone fixed in a harsh, unblinking stare, and she doesn't go in for the wild gesticulations many silent actors will use to show strong emotion; her powerful feelings come through with economy and the way Lang and company frame her.

As with Siegfried, Kriemhilds Rache is an impressively photographed film. Though not quite so heavy on fancy compositions or elaborate effects as its predecessor, it's got a few moments worth noting; for example, I half-suspect Kriemhild leaves Worms in winter because the white snow at the bottom of the frame makes it look like she is literally stepping out of one world and into another with the negative space it forms. The siege and battle between the Huns and Nibelungs that takes up much of the last act is grand and bloody as well, the scale of it and Lang's cuts to the stern Kriemhild watching from above give us a sense of just how great and mythic Kriemhild's anger set loose is. And that's after the inciting incident happens off-camera.

And maybe not just because that sort of on-screen murder is more than most filmmakers like to show in 2010, much less 1924. Lang and wife/co-writer Thea von Harbou were not generally subtle people, but they do let the audience wonder whether Hagen Tronje is the culprit in this instance or whether Kriemhild will go that far to turn her new people against him. And while the finale certainly can and has often been read as nationalist jingoism - when Etzel doubts that the Nibelungs will fight to the last man and take many Huns with them to protect Tronje, one can imagine audiences during the film's initial release cheering when he's told he does not understand the German spirit - there's also a certain skepticism there: Yes, it's noble and glorious to die defending your comrades - but is it also foolhardy, when the man you're defending is a murderer or the man you're attacking is your daughter's new fiance, and you're being sucked in because of rigid codes of honor? It's as much as a commentary on World War I's lessons as a prelude to World War II.

It's not a perfect film; there are a lot of characters that get added in, especially toward the end, and as good as the final battle is, Lang sometimes has trouble showing the scale-model war of attrition that's going on: We see Huns dying, but not even enough Nibelungs to make the point that even if ten Huns die for every German, Gunther's men will eventually lose. Still, there are some great bits as well, especially Rudolf Klein-Rogge as Hun King Etzel. Covered in battle scars and wearing headwear to rival Hagen's (the Hun crown is something like four crowns stacked on each other), he's every inch a warrior even if he spends much of the movie getting sappy over his beautiful new wife and son. When he comments that he and Kriemhild were never united by love, but are now drawn together by hate, it's perfect enough that the audience may feel as if they heard it rather than just read the intertitles.

And while there's still a little more to play out after that moment, it makes for a fitting and tragic end to this saga. Though five hours for two silent films may not seem like the ideal fantasy epic to many, "Die Nibelungen" retains its grandeur even eighty-five years later; Lang's sense of scale and exaggeration a perfect fit for mythology.

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originally posted: 12/17/10 03:08:46
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User Comments

2/17/11 Narda expressionism and ancient german literature in a masterpiece signed by one of the greatest 5 stars
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  DVD: 19-Nov-2002



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