Die Nibelungen: Siegfried (Fritz Lang / Germany, 1924):

Fritz Lang’s early films are premonitions done up like serials, here’s an ancient sacred text played as science-fiction. (Metropolis, by contrast, ponders futurism with a Babylonian eye.) Out of the cave and into the woods for the vorspiel, where Siegfried (Paul Richter) tests his new blade and bathes under a cataract of dragon blood. The road to Burgundy on the Rhine finds Alberich (Georg John) petrified along with his colossal treasure, Gunther (Theodor Loos) is the feeble king who needs a little help in his courtship of Brunhild the Valkyrie (Hanna Ralph). Kriemhild (Margarete Schön) and Hagen Tronje (Hans Adalbert Schlettow) watch from the palatial sidelines, she plagued by foreboding visions and he always ready to become a human hatchet for treacherous court intrigue. "Damned be the deed half-done," Lang the zeitgeist falcon pushes these national myths to their darkening limits and then dedicates the whole baleful spectacle "to the German people." Friedrich and Böcklin are the central visual modalities, with Grünewald for the fire-breathing creature. (The demise of this steam-powered salamander segues into the call of the robotic robin, as befits a fable about characters being faced with totemic mechanisms.) The possibilities of the primeval outdoors, with their giant cement sequoias, versus the suffocation of the kingdom’s crisscross patterns, a combination of Middle Ages tapestry and modernist chess set. The transformation from blossom tree to grimacing skull adduces a note from Poe, the challenges of Brunhild ("defeated but not cowed") anticipate the sinew of Riefenstahl’s Olympics, the telltale mark on Siegfried’s tunic points to the chalky sign on the child-killer's coat in M. "Babbling worse than murder," Kriemhild’s nightmare (a remarkable Walter Ruttmann short), an unshakable bedrock formation for Kurosawa (Throne of Blood, Kagemusha, Ran). All of Ufa Studio’s resources, the medium’s every cog and wheel, marshaled into a mammoth-production that nevertheless exudes a defiantly personal blend of fantasy and politics. A couple of lifeless demigods adorn the altar in the closing image, just the tip of the horror Lang has still ahead. Cinematography by Carl Hoffmann and Günther Rittau. With Gertrud Arnold, Hans Carl Mueller, Erwin Biswanger, and Bernhard Goetzke. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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