Thursday, December 16, 2010

Die Nibelungen and a Fritz Lang fantasy

A few years ago, the Harvard Film Archive had a Fritz Lang-specific program which covered his entire career, which meant that unlike the current Weimar Germany series running there, it included a fair amount of his Hollywood work. It is, by and large, pretty good, but I wonder how constricting it must have seemed to Lang. In the 1920s, he was arguably the world's greatest genre filmmaker, and most ambitious - though his "Spider" film series was truncated halfway through its planned four films, he did The Weary Death, the five-hour (but thrilling!) Mr. Mabuse: The Gambler, this two-part feature, Metropolis, Spies, and The Woman in the Moon. After that? His first talkie, a little crime movie you may have heard of, M. After a pair of Mabuse sequels, he fled the Nazis to France and then Hollywood, where he would make a number of fine crime films, but a return to grand spectacle would have to wait until he returned to now-West Germany in the late 1950s, where he would remake a pair of his old scripts for a two-part adventure in India and resume the Dr. Mabuse series.

Spectacle often gets a bad rap, and when the talkies came, Lang's sort of spectacle soon seemed to die out. There was King Kong, the Universal Monsters, and The Wizard of Oz, but aside from that, the thirties and forties would become a quiet period for science fiction and fantasy, despite this often being considered the Golden Age of Science Fiction in print. There was a war coming and then a war on, and Lang's own works likely scared many producers away (Metropolis is just now being pieced together because it was torn to shreds as a bomb back during its initial release). It's as though the move to sound and color removed a level of abstraction that people needed to believe in these flights of fancy, the genres became the domain of pulps and comics exclusively, and the general enthusiasm wouldn't return until the space race.

It's fun to imagine an alternate Hollywood, though, where the studios hire Lang and give him the money to maybe not make an American remake of Metropolis, but maybe adapt that "Lensman" thing that E.E. Doc Smith was doing for Astounding, or those Conan stories that Robert Howard did for Weird Tales. Or maybe instead of doing a serial of that Batman character we just licensed from National Comics, you could do a feature...

That, of course, didn't happen - and while Lang more likely would have developed something original with wife Thea von Harbou, those properties are just to illustrate what sort of genre work was kicking around American popular culture at the time, had American studios opted to play to some of Lang's strengths and gamble on a new sort of blockbuster as opposed to putting Lang on a series of crime movies. These were often quite good, as might be expected - the guy did do M, after all. And for all I know, that sort of more realistic, contained story is what he wanted to do at that point in his life and career; I imagine being forced to flee your homeland can change your priorities.

But, seriously, watch Die Nibelungen and then imagine Fritz Lang getting the budget usually lavished on an MGM musical to direct, say, Dick Powell or Errol Flynn as Bruce Wayne (original inspiration Conrad Veidt could have played the Joker). Sure, Conan might have been a tough sell in Hayes Code-era Hollywood, but I suspect Lang on a science fiction movie would more likely have pushed effects work forward than looked silly. As a fan of Lang's ambitious silent fantasies, it's a shame it didn't turn out this way.

No review of silent movies would be complete without talking about the accompaniment. It's part of what makes seeing silents in the theater exciting and unusual; given how important the soundtrack is to a film, it makes these experiences individual, as much attending a concert as a movie. Last summer, I saw Metropolis twice within the space of a few weeks, and it wasn't just the facilities that changed, but hearing an original score versus the traditional, familiar one.

It's especially the case with something like the HFA's screenings of Die Nibelungen, where Donald Sosin was performing an improvised score. In some cases, the synthesizer made sounds that just wouldn't have been heard eighty-five years ago; in others, plans changed on the fly. In the introduction, Sosin talked about how he would be avoiding Wagner and instead working something a little more like German folk music; instead, the film carried him toward a more bombastic score.

That's why the music isn't mentioned in the reviews below; though there is an original score, I can't comment on it, and anybody who sees this film will hear a different soundtrack than I did. In a sense, they will be seeing a different movie than I did, as a certain part of their brain will be engaged in a different way than mine was.

That's also the case because, as with the previous weekend's Korean films, the prints had no English subtitles; instead, translations of the German intertitles were read to us. For the most part, our narrator didn't fall too far behind, but choose your seat carefully when you go to a screening like that - depending on where you sit, the music can drown out the narration. Sitting one or two rows closer to the front on Sunday than I did on Saturday seemed to make a real difference, forcing me to try and read German at some points.

Die Nibelungen: Siegfried

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 11 December 2010 at the Harvard Film Archive (Decadent Shadows: The Cinema of Weimar Germany)

Fritz Lang's Die Nibelungen films have a sometimes tricky reputation; many see them as tapping into the same sort of German nationalism that later would lead to the rise of Hitler. Lang denied this; he hated Wagner's ring cycle being used as a score and would later flee to Hollywood. Whatever his intended message was, it still opens with a handsome German prince forging a sword.

That prince is Siegfried (Paul Richter), son of Siegmund, and the limping master blacksmith looks at the sword and say she can teach him no more. Before returning home, though, Siegfried is inspired to travel to Castle Worms in Burgandy, on the other side of the Nibelung lands. There's a dragon to be slain along the way, and legend has it that bathing in a dragon's blood will make the slayer invulnerable. At the castle, he meets King Gunther (Theodor Loos) and his sister Kriemhild (Margarete Schön), whose hand he is promised if he helps Gunther woo Brunhild (Hanna Ralph), the queen of Iceland, a proud warrior women who can only be won by besting her in athletic feats that Siegfried can accomplish but Gunther cannot.

I'm not familiar enough with German mythology and folklore to say what liberties Lang and Thea von Harbou (his wife and co-writer) took when crafting this version of the tale, but it has the feeling of "mythology" as opposed to "fantasy". The film is divided into seven "songs", with the introductory intertitles describing the contents of the next act; though there's suspense, laying the events out there emphasizes the heroic or tragic nature of the protagonists. Their capabilities are mythic and superhuman - at one point, Siegfried extinguishes the fires blocking their path via pure awesomeness - as, of course, are their flaws.

Full review at EFC.

Die Nibelungen: Kriemhilds Rache (Kriemhild's Revenge)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 12 December 2010 at the Harvard Film Archive (Decadent Shadows: The Cinema of Weimar Germany)

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.)

Full review at EFC.

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