Thursday, August 15, 2013

Die Nibelungen (1924)

One of the early great giant monsters of the silent film era is the dragon in 1924's Die Nibelungen: Siegfried.  Die Nibelungen is a series of two epic, silent Austrian films, based on the epic poem The Nibelungenlied, which is generally translated to "The Song of the Nibelungs," or some similar variation.  Nibelungenlied is actually a fairly famous work.  Setting itself in the world of Norse and Germanic mythology, the story tells of the dragon-slayer Siegfried, how he was murdered, and of his wife Kriemhild's revenge. Old Norse parallels of the legend survive in the Völsunga saga, the Prose Edda, the Poetic Edda, the Legend of Norna-Gest, and the Þiðrekssaga; sources from which we derive all of our knowledge of Norse Mythology and the like, aside from folklore and oral tradition.  Famously, many elements from the story were taken and adapted by German composer Richard Wagner for his four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), from which such famous works of music as "The Ride of the Valkyries" derive from.  Many elements from it similarly appear within the works of J.R.R. Tolkien.

The dragons of lore are obviously not an entirely original concept.  Cultures the world over have all featured dragons in some form or another (leading many to suspect that perhaps prehistoric reptiles of some kind did linger into the days of human history that no longer exist).  European dragons are particularly popular as monsters, being large, generally evil, carnivorous, and gifted with all manner of supernatural abilities. While there are plenty of notable examples, such as St. George's dragon which terrorized a town until St. George slew it, the dragon featured in Die Nibelungen is particularly interesting due to its roots in ancient tradition. On the subject of European dragons, author and philologist J.R.R. Tolkien said in his essay defending the value of monsters and fantasy in Beowulf"And dragons, real dragons, essential both to the machinery and the ideas of a poem or tale, are actually rare. In northern literature there are only two that are significant. If we omit from consideration the vast and vague Encircler of the World, Miðgarðsormr, the doom of the great gods and no matter for heroes, we have but the dragon of the Völsungs, Fáfnir, and Beowulf's bane."

Fafnir, in the many versions of the story, is indeed the dragon which is eventually slain by the hero, Siegfried.  Though not entirely stated explicitly within the film, it's interesting that one of only a handful of "original" European dragons (and in fact the only dragons of which J.R.R. Tolkien saw any value in) as well as one of the oldest and truest giant monsters on film.

The 1924 film version is, as mentioned above, split into two parts.  The first part is subtitled Siegfried, and the other is subtitled Kriemhild's Revenge.  Together, the two films come in at a whopping four and a half hours in length, and tell a sweeping epic fantasy story that rivals any of the modern fantasy films of Peter Jackson, as well as serving as precedent for later famous films like Clash of the Titans, Jason and the Argonauts, and The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad.  For the purposes of this article however, we will focus our attention to the first film, and what is perhaps among the most famous sequences from it.

The title character, Siegfried, has mastered the skill of forging weapons, and seeks a far off kingdom in order to win the hand of a beautiful princess in marriage.  Due to some betrayal, his journey is led astray into a dark forest where he eventually comes across a dragon (who is often interpreted as the character Fafnir, from Norse Mythology) and sets off from his path in order to engage it in combat, and slay it.  The film depicts these events quite faithfully, realizing the dragon through use of some impressive practical effects in the form of what is essentially a life-sized puppet.  As always, there is some serious weight placed on the monster through use of having a tangible physical creature on set - something seen far too little of today.  It stomps, slithers, and drools as it weaves its head around boulders and over knolls, trying to kill Siegfried.  The reptilian eyes peer over its little territory, and comes across as fairly menacing.

Impressively, the film crew chose to go for something very grounded in reality.  One can easily get carried away with the idea of a dragon.  It can have wings, horns, run fast and chase heroes around.  This dragon is of a completely different sort of ilk.  Realizing the limits of their special effect and choosing not to delve into "eye rolling" territory, this dragon appears much more like a prehistoric belly-dragging reptile.  It drags itself along, moving slowly but purposefully.  One moment brings a particular point of reality to life as the dragon slithers over to a pool and begins to drink.  Akin to the scene in Jurassic Park when the Tyrannosaur's pupil constricts when they shine a flashlight in its eye, the moment where the dragon slinks over for a drink is the moment that really sells it as real, living, breathing (thirsty) character.  It registers to the audience that this is an actual creature, and not just some cheesy puppetry for us to laugh at.

The size of the beast is also something to behold.  To compare it to Jurassic Park again, any time that a giant puppet is given a fair amount of movement and put up against human actors, there's a weight on the screen that just can't be replicated with special visual effects or camera trickery.  That's not to say it's all realism though.  When Siegfried finally does engage the monster, it does breath fire in a manner of speaking.  It doesn't expel a stream of flames like a flamethrower, which I actually very much applaud.  Rather than taking the popular "flame thrower-esque" apprach, in Siegfried they maintain composure and choose to let the flames come from deeper in the dragons throat, as if its belching combustibles in bursts, not in order to kill its attacker, but as a form of defense.  Intimidation.  Indeed, it doesn't look like the dragon is using it as a weapon really at all, but just to keep the hero at a distance, similar to how most animals snarl and snap their jaws, or swell up to appear larger to predators.  It's a fantastic effect, but the hero isn't dissuaded. Siegfried stabs the dragon in the eye, which leaves a pretty cool wound for the remainder of the dragon's screen time, blackened and swollen.

Really, the only moment that dips into full-on corny territory is when the dragon is finally slain, but it's just so much fun that, as usual, it can be forgiven. Siegfried stabs the animals in the neck and blood just begins gushing out.  The implication is that a major artery was punctured, but it just flows out, being drawn by gravity's force, rather than anything internet.  While it looks a bit silly at first, especially since the bleeding is a tad delayed, it actually ends up proving an interesting visual as the slain creature finally lies still, with a steady stream of blood oozing out from the wound.  Siegfried, at the recommendation of a nearby bird, ends up tasting and bathing in the dragon's blood in order to gain invincibility - which doesn't keep.

Whereas past examples of life-sized puppetry from D. W. Griffith's Brute Force was extremely underused and pointless, the dragon from Die Nibelungen Siegfried is used to its fullest and serves as a completely captivating segment in a very long, nevertheless very good film.  The dragon fight is hands down the standout set piece, and completely steals the show.  And also unlike Brute Force, the scenes without monsters are still captivating and interesting, with dramatic human characters that keep the audience engaged.

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