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 is a must see. And in the lead up to Eureka Entertainment’s Blu-ray release of Lang’s final feature, The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse on 11 May 2020, I thought it timely to revisit his silent fantasy adventure.
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.
With the horrors of World War One 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 inspiration for nearly every screen fantasy adventure from The Lord of the Rings to Game of Thrones, Die Nibelungen is an extraordinarily ambitious visual piece of cinema history that is must-see for all cinephiles.
Die Nibelungen is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment!, featuring a HD restoration of the film by Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung, with its original frame-rates and in its original aspect-ratio; newly translated optional English subtitles for the original German intertitles; a one-hour documentary on the film restoration, and collector’s booklet.
No man can resist evil! The bet is on!
Mephistopheles (Emil Jannings) bets an archangel (Werner Fuetterer) he can corrupt the soul of aging alchemist Faust (Gösta Ekman); and the stakes are the Earth itself. When a plague is unleashed and Faust is unable to find a cure, he rejects both God and science and invokes the aid of Satan. Mephisto appears and makes a pact with Faust: he will restore his youth in exchange for his soul. But its a pact the revitalized Faust wishes he never made after he falls for the innocent charms of Gretchen (Camilla Horn)…
FW Murnau’s silent gift…
1926’s Faust: A German Folktale (Faust, eine deutsche Volkssage) was FW Murnau’s last German film before heading to the US. Featuring stylised photography, set and art direction, and ground-breaking special effects, it came at the pinnacle of the silent era and alongside 1922’s Nosferatu was Murnau’s silent gift to German cinema’s rich heritage of horror.
With screenwriter Hans Kyser, Murnau fused Faust’s script from German folk legend, the works of Goethe and Marlowe and the Charles Gounod opera, to render a highly individual work. And from that much-filmed legend Murnau conjured cinema’s devil incarnate in the form of Emil Jannings’ Mephisto – resplendent in black cloak and sporting a widow’s peak that has been much copied and parodied. Behold him enveloping a whole town in the blackness of his giant cloak, restoring the wizened Faust’s youth in a fiery blaze, or flying over the intricate model town to a lavish wedding feast. It’s wondrous stuff, made all the more so by Timothy Brock’s operatic orchestral score.
Whilst the film was harshly met by critics of the day – calling it a vulgar sentimental love story (and it does lag somewhat during these scenes) – and derided Murnau’s decision in giving the tragedy a happy ending, the film’s compelling imagery is its enduring legacy. Murnau was fortunate in having two of the German film industry’s finest designers on board, Walter Röhrig, who created the iconic cubist sets for Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari, and Robert Herlth, as well as Fritz Lang’s favourite cameraman Carl Hoffmann, whose ‘dance of death’ sequence is a showcase for his artistry. Under Murnau’s fastidious eye, the team brought to the silver screen the director’s stylised vision as he wanted it, a battle of light and shadow that mirrors in celluloid the film’s metaphysical themes of good versus evil.
THE RESTORED PRINT
Although numerous editions of the film exist, there were only two original negatives from which all other versions issued. Using the nitrate duplicate negatives printed by UFA in 1926 and an array of international sources, Murnau’s favoured domestic German version has been reconstructed by Filmoteca Espanola from which this newly restored transfer is sourced. It makes this version the closest we will ever get to see the film as the director intended. The Masters of Cinema Series presents the Friedrich-Wilhelm- Murnau-Stiftung restoration for the first time on Blu-ray in the UK in a two-disc dual format release with the following features.
• Newly restored 1080p transfer of the domestic German print (1.33:1 aspect ratio), featuring different takes and much better resolution than the export print
• Original German intertitles and improved optional English subtitles
• Choice of viewing the film with Timothy Brock orchestral score, specially commissioned harp score by Stan Ambrose, or (on Blu-ray only) new piano score by Javier Pérez de Azpeitia
• Audio commentary by film critics David Ehrenstein and Bill Krohn
• Complete export version of the film
• The Language of Shadows, 53-min German featurette on the film (Blu-ray only)
• Tony Rayns on Faust – a 20-minute video piece recorded in 2006
• Booklet with essays of the film’s history by Peter Spooner and R Dixon Smith, excerpts from Éric Rohmer’s analysis of the film, and archive prints.