I have been thinking about reviewing a silent film for some time. It is a part of film history that I have gradually been drawn into over the past five years or so, and the further I look into the maligned early days of cinema the more astounded and entranced I become.
Until relatively recently many people have disregarded the silent era as a simplistic early stage in the development of the new medium of film. This was probably due to our perception having been shaped by decades of poor quality prints used by TV stations to fill gaps in their schedules – scratchy, grainy, jumpy and flickering images of sped-up slap-stick comedy capers inevitably gave a less than favourable impression. It was not until relatively recently that the idea that silent films could offer anything other than simplistic and one-dimensional entertainment was thought possible. It has been through serious restoration projects that the era has gained wider acceptance (to the point of resurrection – think about The Artist for instance), and silent cinema is finally being seen as providing a rich vein of stories with real emotional and intellectual depth.
My own starting point, as it was for many others I’m sure, came from remembering the poor quality re-runs and compilations of Harold Lloyd and Laurel and Hardy films in the 80’s (unfortunately they are very rarely on terrestrial TV anymore). Having been into films since I was young and having seen a wide variety of movies from every decade in its history, except the 1920’s and earlier, I was convinced that there had to be more to cinema before the arrival of effective sound-on-film. So I decided to investigate further.
This investigation has led me to the latest release by Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series – Die Nibelungen, a two-part film by Fritz Lang released in 1924. Both parts are included on separate discs, which is understandable as they total just under five hours of viewing. So far I have only watched part one – Siegfried. It was too late in the evening to start the other film, which was fine because the first part completely blew me away and the images are still swirling round my imagination.
Die Nibelungen is based on the 13th century German poem Nibelungenlied (or The Lay of the Nibelungs), which itself has links to both historical fact and older Scandinavian myths. It was the same source material that formed the basis of Richard Wagner‘s Der Ring des Nibelungen (or The Ring Cycle of operas). Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou wanted to get away from the heavy, bearded imagery of Wagner and managed to create a visually modernist interpretation of an ancient myth, without losing the mysticism and heroic nature of the story.
Essentially it is a tale of honour, lies, physical strength, moral weakness, love and misplaced trust – classic ingredients for myths and legends all over the world. Interestingly, although the premier was a bit of a disaster, with Lang re-editing the film right up to the last-minute and rushing the reels to the cinema (which completely altered the visual ques for the orchestration) the film was actually a commercial success all over the world, even as far afield as Thailand! It has been called the grandfather of epic film serials and its stately nature is reminiscent of The Lord of The Rings – but where that film was a modern mythology (even though founded on the study of medieval texts), Siegfried has the feel of a proper myth, a purer story that had been handed down from ancient times.
From the moment the decrepit-looking master blacksmith blows a feather into the air and it parts over the edge of Siegfried’s sword you know that you are about to watch a very special kind of film. Within the first half hour Siegfried has battled a fire-breathing dragon and bathed in its blood to gain invincibility. He then overpowers a goblin, claiming an invisibility cloak and his golden hoard. He then journeys on to form an alliance with the royal house of Burgundy, the intention being to marry the Princess Kriemhield. He is betrayed through a false confidence on behalf of Kriemhield and is ultimately killed – this is a huge simplification of the story, but I don’t want to give it all away here – there is no substitute for seeing it the film itself.
The first thing that struck me was the orchestral score, it had been recorded specially for the re-release and sounds fantastic – I remember being similarly struck by the score when I first saw the recent restoration of Metropolis; both film scores were written by Gottfried Huppertz. The quality of the image on Die Nibelungen is also incredible, again on a par with the Masters of Cinema release of Metropolis – there are a few scratchy scenes (but none as damaged as the newly found scenes in Metropolis) and do not detract from the film at all.
The whole film is bathed in an orange tint throughout, which is unusual as apparently Lang did not particularly favour tinting, yet it somehow this seems to add to the mythic feel of the story. Although the camera is static, as was common until the mid to late 20’s, in terms of the staging every set on this film and every new scene, is stately and elegant. Each shot is perfectly composed and has an unreality about it (it was all filmed inside at the UFA studios) as though the story was being told on a moving tapestry. Needless to say I was quite overwhelmed and even if you only have a passing interest in silent film this film is well worth your time.
At some stage I hope to comment on the second part of Die Nibelungen, but at the moment I’m still enjoying the first…