Pete’s Peek | Fritz Lang’s epic Die Nibelungen is The Lord of the Rings of the silent era

Drawn from German myth, and the basis for Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle of operas, Fritz Lang‘s expressionistic five-hour 1924 epic Die Nibelungen has been given a glorious HD restoration in this new release from The Masters of Cinema.

The story
In Part One, prince Siegfried (Germany’s answer to Arthur) acquires the power of invincibility after slaying a dragon and sets out to win the hand of the daughter of the king of Burgundy. But his marriage to Kriemhild is cut short when her brother Gunther conspires with a fierce warrior called Hagen to bring about his death. In Part Two, the grieving Kriemhild weds the mighty Attila the Hun in a bid to seek revenge against Hagen and the Burgundy knights, resulting in a terrifying apocalypse.

The lowdown
With the horrors of World War I still very much alive, Lang filmed the epic legend of Siegfried in a bid to bring a little pride back into a country suffering from pessimistic malaise. But this would be no re-staging of  Wagner’s popular 19th-century operas. Instead, the visionary director created a totally new universe. Using massive sets and breakthrough visual effects, nature and myth collided in a highly stylised world that, although kitsch but today’s standards, was a revelation in its day.

Why the Nazis loved it?
The two films, which took nine months to make, were met with huge success in both Germany and wider Europe, and became hugely influential on filmmakers of the period, like Sergei Eisenstein, who drew on the film’s scale and look for 1938’s Aleksandr Nevsky.
The film’s images and the epic poem it was based on were also ripe for another kind of appropriation. The rising National Socialists (the film was greatly admired by Hitler and Goebbels) would late re-cut Lang’s film, adding in new titles, dialogue and music by Wagner (also Hitler’s favourite) to give voice to the Nazi race-elimination doctrine.

The upshot
The inspiration for nearly every screen fantasy adventure from The Lord of the Rings to A Game of Thrones, Die Nibelungen is an extraordinarily ambitious visual piece of cinema history that is must-see for all cinephiles.

On DVD and Blu-ray, from The Masters of Cinema