“Fritz Lang’s cinema is the cinema of the nightmare, the fable, and the philosophical dissertation. His films take place in a closed world, but their formal brilliance and intellectual conception are incontestable.”
– Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema
Siegfried (Die Nibelungen: Siegfried, 1922-24) is the first part of Lang’s titanic Niebelungen (part two was The Vengeance of Kriemhild, 1924). Thea von Harbou’s script was not taken from Wagner’s Lay of the Nibelung, but from the original ancient myths and so differs vastly from the opera. Often compared to Destiny (1921), Siegfried’s stylized ritual was designed to stress, in the words of Thea von Harbou, “the inexorability with which the first guilt entails the last atonement.” The film was said to be the ultimate expression of the German national character, and, for this reason, its stunning effects were blatantly copied in Nazi propaganda films, vide Triumph of the Will (1935). Paul Rotha, citing Destiny and Siegfried as the supreme examples of the German art film, noted in particular that the “sheer pictorial beauty of structural architectured [of] Siegfried has seldom been equaled.”
The following comments on the film are those of Siegfried Kracauer (From Caligari to Hitler):
This Fate-conditioned story materializes through scenes which seem to be staged after decorative paintings of a bygone period. Lang new why, instead of resorting to Wagner’s picturesque opera style or to some kind of psychological pantomime, he relied upon the spell of such decorative compositions’ they symbolize Fate. The compulsion Fate exerts is aesthetically mirrored by the rigorous incorporation of all structural elements into a framework of lucid forms. To heighten the impression of pictorial unity, extensive use is made of simple, large and solemn architectural structures dominating the scene. As if the inherent ornamental characters of these compositions were not sufficient, primitive ornaments cover the walls, curtains, ceiling, and costumes. Frequently the players themselves form ornamental figures.★★★
[Siegfried] unfolds in lingering scenes that have all the qualities of stills. Their slow procession, which characterizes the mythic realm as a static one, is calculated to draw attention to the action proper. This intrinsic action does not coincide with the succession of treacheries and murders, but is to be found in the development of smoldering instincts and imperceptibly growing passions. It is an all but vegetative process through which Fate realizes itself.