Die Nibelungen, pt.1 – Siegfried

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…

The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists!

This is a rare event for me – seeing two films at the cinema within a matter of weeks of each other, I don’t think I’ve ever noticed two films I actually wanted to experience theatrically within such a short space of time – but since seeing the trailer for this movie a month or so prior to its release I have been longing to see it.  It was obviously an Aardman production (no one does claymation quite like Aardman) but by the evidence of the trailer the style of this film was quite different from their previous outings.  The humour was a bit zippier and the main character had an irreverence and a dandy foppish-ness that was quite unlike the characters in their other films.  I admired them for this change of direction – it looked like they had ditched the twee English understatement and replaced it with a rollicking, devil-may-care attitude, driven along by a punky soundtrack.  I was so excited about this film, and as it was Aardman’s first foray into 3D, I paid extra to see it.  Not that 3D is particularly worth the extra money, I just thought that I would take advantage of seeing a few films in 3D on the ‘big’ screen while this latest fad lasted – incase I had to wait sixty years before it becomes a novelty again!

The story is essentially about a non-threatening, vain and unlucky, third-rate pirate captain wanting to win the annual Pirate of the Year Award, but who’s up against a couple of flashy, full-blooded, professional pirates that laugh at the very idea of it.  The plot also involves the Captain’s loyal crew, his parrot (which is in fact the last existing Dodo), a pirate-hating Queen Victoria, The Royal Society, Charles Darwin and his chimpanzee butler.

To say that I was disappointed would not be an overstatement – it wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy the film, I just felt I didn’t enjoy it as much as I should have.  I really wanted to like this film and I did to a certain extent, but nowhere near as much as I had hoped.  I wanted to snigger, laugh even – but I didn’t.  An old chap in the row behind me laughed, increasingly as the film progressed – but I didn’t.  Maybe I simply wasn’t prepared for this new direction, not quite tuned into the unfamiliar style – or maybe it just wasn’t that funny.  To be honest the studio made a fatal error, and one that really annoys the hell out of me – of putting all the best bits in the trailer.  Please, oh please, leave me something great in the movie that I haven’t already seen!  Yes there were stunning set-pieces – like Queen Victoria showing off her fighting skills and the sinking of the QV1 (Queen Victoria’s royal steamship) – but I didn’t want to sit there appreciating the effort that had gone into  making the film, I wanted to laugh, properly laugh, and I didn’t.  When the Pirate Captain was raiding other ships, a genuinely funny episode – the leper ship, the ghost ship and the ship on a geography field trip – I’d already laughed at the trailer.

I cannot fault the technically stunning use of plasticine, the unbelievably detailed sets and the abilities of all the voice actors (including Hugh Grant as the Pirate Captain) – if only the script was a notch or two higher in its humour quotient.  It was directed by Peter Lord, who had previously directed Chicken Run, but like Chicken Run it still hasn’t matched the first three Wallace and Gromit films for their originality, comedic content and ability to capture an audience.  The train track sequence in The Wrong Trousers was pure genius and possibly too high a mark for them to ever come close to again.

It is a brave and potentially fantastic new route for Aardman films to experiment with, but as yet, on the evidence of a first viewing (which can be notoriously inaccurate) they have not got the balance right – unfortunately I did not get that warm feeling I mentioned in my previous post.  Maybe seeing it again would improve my impression of this film, and maybe I am being a little too harsh, my expectations set too high – it is certainly not a bad film – it simply did not match its potential.  The humour was there, but as far as I was concerned it was far too thin, there was not enough of it and what was there was applied with too light a touch.  Who knows, when it comes round on TV in the holidays I’ll see it in a different light, gain more satisfaction and find that it was actually a better film than my current impression suggests – I certainly hope so.

The Woman In Black

Like many people, I do like going to the cinema – it can turn what is simply something to watch into an event, an occasion to be shared with friends or enjoyed purely on your own.  If only the cinematic experience was always like this, unfortunately there are a few aspects which put me off going to the cinema more often.  One is simply the price – it can cost as much as a Blu-ray disc (which I could watch over and over again whenever I wanted to).  In other words, I would go far more regularly if it simply cost less.  Another reason is the lack of the theatricality that used to be such a part of the whole experience – no plush carpets, no velvety sofas and no dramatic drawing back of the curtain to reveal the silver screen.  The now ubiquitous multiplex has no glamour – where once we had palaces of Arabian splendour, or the Jazzy lines of Art Deco to sweep us to our seats, they are now all alike – identical warehouses, shoe boxes with small screens, not much larger than those found in many living rooms.

Not that I remember the age of glamour of course, but I do at least remember a pause before the main feature and usherettes with trays selling ice-creams  (the last gesture towards movie going as an extravagance, a night out, something special) before the now anonymous production-line delivery of our entertainment.  Without wanting to put too much of a downer on the idea of a trip to the movies, the final reason for my reluctance to go more often is the serial disappointment I get during and after the event – the feeling that I should have simply held onto my money and put it towards a film on disc that I know I’d enjoy.

To contradict what I’ve just said, seeing a good film at the cinema can be an amazing experience, well worth the price of entry, and when it is an amazing experience, it goes a long way to negate those accumulated disappointments.  It has the power to excite you, move you, shock you or make you laugh – whatever the intended effect of the film, the viewing of it in a cinema is something quite different to watching it at home in your living room.  It offers a rare sense of shared experience, as though you as part of a group were there to witness something quite special and it can leave you with a warm feeling for days if not weeks afterwards.

I was a little wary about seeing The Woman in Black.  I had no preconceptions about the story, I had not read Susan Hill’s book, nor seen the previous TV film or hugely successful stage adaptation, yet there was a lot riding on this movie – would Daniel Radcliffe be any good in a grown up film, and as this was the first major release from the resurrected Hammer studios, would it do justice to the history of that studio?

The horror of this film is definitely in the gothic mode – it’s not the blood soaked gore of pointless torture, or the crazy men in masks running after stupid teenagers type of film (thank goodness!).  This is the horror of the desolate countryside, strange villagers fearing a curse and a decayed, haunted house – so far, so Hammer!  The mood from the beginning of this film is one of dark, cluttered rooms, wood panelling, rich buttoned up fabrics and the gloomier side of the Edwardian era.  This style of the supernatural depends completely on mood, the slow building up of expectation and tension, and that is what this film does extremely well.  The atmosphere is heavy and consistent, with the direction aided significantly by the quality of the production design, which is convincing throughout.

The story begins with Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) contemplating ending his life years after losing his wife during childbirth.  His continuing state of depression has been affecting his work and when his boss sends him to deal with the estate of a recently deceased woman it is obviously his last chance to retain his job.  It is the history of events surrounding the house of this woman that is the crux of this story.  Throughout there are images of frilly Edwardian childhood, mechanical toys, tea sets and dolls; and the innocent paraphernalia of the nursery is increasingly used to creepy effect and provides plenty of shocks (which did give me goose bumps on a number of occasions).  Of course all of this is part of the clichéd stock in trade of the traditional gothic movie, but when it is done well we remember just how effective such trappings can be.  This point, coincidently, raises my main problem with this type of film – when compared to the 2005 BBC adaptation of Bleak House, which had equally impressive production values, sense of place and script writing, should films in the style of The Woman In Black be left to television companies to produce; and wasn’t this partly why Hammer fell from film production into television in the first place?

The Woman in Black herself is largely seen through dirty windows and in the shadowy passages of the house, or in the distance wrapped in mist and foliage.  Unfortunately we do see her more closely later on in the film, which is a shame because her distance and half seen appearances are more effective than seeing the clear sight of her face, however briefly.  Daniel Radcliffe is quite convincing as as the desperate Mr Kipps, although he is still too boyish for this role and in a few more years would  suited the role better.  His precarious emotional situation is tested by the woman in black while he tries to hold his life together as the mystery of why the children of the village are dying and the implication for his own son, who is due to visit, start to overwhelm him.  The rocking chair (another old-style horror prop) is used to great effect but I found the dragging of the car out of the marsh, or more significantly, what was found there, to be the least convincing part of the film.  The end of The Woman In Black, which is apparently different to the ending in the original book, was extremely satisfying – but whether you will find it satisfying or not will depend on your frame of mind.

Apparently the British theatrical release of this film had a number of cuts made so that it could be issued with a 12A certificate, evidently to take advantage of the teenage market that Daniel Radcliff and his Harry Potter connection would bring.  Although it would be interesting to see the fuller version, I was satisfied with what I saw.  From early on the atmosphere was there and it really felt like a Hammer Production (minus the wobbly sets, of course) – the main fault was that some of the scenes dragged a little, with no more reason to them but to build the atmosphere.  This is the fifth offering from the new Hammer Films and by far the highest profile production to date (that said, Let Me In did quite well too) – if they can maintain this level of quality they could again claim this corner of the horror genre for themselves.

It has been well over a month since I saw the Woman In Black and that warm feeling, although not there now, has become a good memory – a sure indication of money well spent and good film seen.

Link:-  Hammer Films