Fritz Lang's two-part epic, based on the Middle High German Nibelungenlied, will confuse anyone who knows the story only via Richard Wagner's Ring cycle: There are no Rhinemaidens or gods or Valkyries, nothing of Siegfried's parentage, and, since it lacks gods, consequently no Götterdämmerung. It consists of two films, Sigfried and Kriemhild's Revenge, that tell the story -- parts of which will be familiar from the final two operas in Wagner's cycle -- of how Siegfried (Paul Richter) slew the dragon and bathed in its blood, becoming invincible except for one spot on his back that the blood failed to touch, then killed the dwarf Alberich (Georg John) and took possession of a magic net that renders him invisible. He travels to Burgundy, where he wins the hand of the beautiful Kriemhild (Margarete Schön) by helping her brother, King Gunther (Theodor Loos), subdue the warrior maiden Brunnhild (Hanna Ralph). But Siegfried is killed after Gunther's advisor, Hagen (Hans Adalbert Schlettow), tricks Kriemhild into revealing his vulnerable spot. Brunnhild kills herself and Kriemhild vows revenge on the whole lot, which in the second film she accomplishes by marrying King Etzel (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), aka Attila, and provoking war between his Huns and the Burgundians. Lang tells the story with an eye-filling blend of tableaus, set-pieces, and scenes swarming with bloody action, concluding with a spectacular fire in which the Burgundians are trapped in Etzel's castle. The performances are pretty spectacular, too. Richter plays Siegfried as a muscular young goof ensnared by fate, Ralph is a formidable Brunnhild, and Schön modulates from naïve to terrifying as Kriemhild. But it's the production design by Otto Hunte and the costuming by Paul Gerd Guderian that lingers most in the memory. The production evokes late 19th- and early 20th-century book illustrators like Arthur Rackham and Walter Crane, but also the stark hieratic figures of Byzantine mosaics, especially Kriemhild, who becomes more powerfully static as the film progresses.
Margarete Schön as Kriemhild
Hanna Ralph as Brunnhild
Paul Richter as Siegfried
Hans Adalbert Schlettow as Hagen
Much has been written about the way the film fed into the heroic German myth that was co-opted by the Nazis, especially since the screenwriter, Thea von Harbou, Lang's wife at the time, later joined the party. (Lang, whose mother was Jewish, left Germany in 1934.) In fact, the Nazis sanctioned only the first half, Siegfried, after they came to power. Kriemhild's Revenge, with its depiction of the corruption of power and its nihilistic ending, didn't suit their purposes.