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In watching Conqueror of Shamballa, one might wonder about the film the Bradley-doppelganger Fritz Lang was making when Edward visited him at Ufa studios. Believe it or not, this was an actual movie. Siegfried, Part 1 of his Die Nibelungen epic. This saga indeed exists as one of classics of silent German cinema. Here is Patrick McGilligan's account of the film's making and its influences from his book Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast- a Biography. (St. Martin Press; New York 1997): pp. 93-104: (my personal notes will be italicized).
…instability and unrest wracked Germany. Even the motion picture industry was affected. Liquidations, bankruptcies, and a flurry of mergers took place among producers attempting to consolidate their resources. The number of film releases dropped off. Hollywood companies made further inroads into the German-language market.
To celebrate his citizenship and to bolster Germany's sagging pride, the newly naturalized director proposed to film Das Nibelungenlied, a time-honored epic poem in four-line stanzas dating back to the twelfth or thirteenth century, whose many stage and literary interpretations had proved its enduring appeal to national patriotism.
Erich Pommer [producer in Ufa, the German film studio] accepted his proposal, and Thea von Harbou [Lang's wife] went to work on a script that would draw on the original epic while borrowing and blending ideas from other versions, notably Richard Wagner's famous opera and Friedrich Hebbel's mid-nineteenth-century play, Die Nibelungen. Von Harbou knew the Hebbel text well, having appeared on stage in that version; she had in fact performed the role of the Burgundian beauty Kriemhild, who enters into an ill-destined wedding contract with the hero of the tale, the noble Siegfried. The couple set out to mount a new version that would combine the epic poem, Wagner, Hebbel, and other influences in such a way as to 'fit with our modern feeling," as von Harbou explained in a prepared publicity statement.
According to the sage (partly derived from Scandanavian legends), Siegfried is a pure-hearted warrior who journeys through an accursed mistland to woo the proud, aloof Kriemhild, sister of King Gunther of Burgundy. Siegfried vanquishes a dragon and slays a dwarf-king, taking the dwarf's cloak of invisibility and shape-shifting, along with his treasure of gold and jewels. Bathing in the dragon's blood makes Siegfried invincible, except for a patch of vulnerability on his shoulder where a lime leaf falls and covers his flesh.
Arriving in Burgundy, Siegfried is greeted warily by the court, especially by Lord Hagen, uncle and loyal vassal of King Gunther. Siegfried vows to help the king woo the warrior-woman Brunhild, Queen of Iceland, in exchange for Kriemhild's hand in marriage. Brunhild is won over in contests of strength with help of Siegfried's invisibility magic. However, on their wedding night, Brunhild shuns Gunther, and it is Siegfried, disguised as Gunther, who must break Brunhild's iron resistance in bed.
When Brunhild learns the truth from a jealous Kriemhild, she angrily denounces Siegfried to the weak-willed Gunther (whose idea the charade was in the first place). A trusting Kriemhild reveals Siegfried's vulnerability to Lord Hagen, who conspires against Siegfried's murder during a festive hunt. Hagen spears him in the shoulder, and Siegfried dies. Stricken with guilt, Brunhild kills herself on his bier, and a grief-crazed Kiemhild vows to exact revenge.
In the second half of the story, Lord Hagen steals Siegfried's treasure, and Kriemhild makes a marriage alliance with King Etzel (Atilla) of the Huns, in order to facilitate her vengeance. When the Nibelung family is invited to celebrate the birth of her first born, Kriemhild's scheming is exposed, and Hagen slays her infant son. The Nibelungs barricade themselves inside Etzel's castle. An all-out Gotterdammerung ensues, a bloodbath that leaves only a handful- including Hagen, the murderer- alive.
"For a long time the mistress Kriemhild stood unmoved," von Harbou wrote at the end of her novelized adaptation of Das Nibelungenlied. "She stood all by herself, buried in her robe. She glowed like a female in the late evening light. She let her eyes wander across th courts and over the large, terrifying royal hall, the walls of which were covered with traces of blood. It looked at once like a temple and a cruel god. Crushed bodies lay at her feet. The sand around it was moist from hot blood. Bodies lay horribly silent in the sun, their faces buried in the sand or grinning toward the sky. Human bodies hung from the balcony's parapet like rugs during festivities. And those swallowed by the hall could not be counted. That it was, silent and malicious, with pitiless gates. And the Whitsuntide sun rested like a helmet on the roof."
Von Harbou's script divided the epic into two films: Siegfried and Kriemhilds Rache (Kriemhild's Revenge). The writing was finished…by the autumn of 1922. Then came several months of production planning. This would be Lang's most lavish film to date, making demands on his team and indeed on Ufa's company resources.
Daily meetings convened at the Lang-von Harbou apartment…The meetings usually did not begin until about 4 PM, often ended well after midnight, and sometimes dragged on til 3 AM. With only one dinner break at about 8 PM, the members of the group had better learn to grab a snack at a nearby café beforehand to tide themselves over.
The team consisted mostly of veterans of previous Fritz Lang films. They were studio personnel foremost, assembled by Pommer as much as Lang, and used, in shifting constellations, on many classic German silent films. Usually present, beside the director and his wife, were the cameramen Carl Hoffmann and Gunther Rittau, who complemented each other by encouraging different facets of Lang. Hoffman, Lang once said, "knows the secret of how to photograph a woman. He can capture her face in such a way that not only the woman herself but all the physical content of a scene is revealed- thanks to a glint in the corner of her eye, a shadow that passes over her forehead, or a highlight of her temple." Rittau, on the other hand, was the happy experimentalist. "He Rittau attacks the Plastique of the film through mathematics. Every third sentence he uttered began, 'What will happen if…?'"
A third cameraman introduced to the operation was Walter Ruttmann, who would photograph Siegfried's famous animated "Dream of the Falcon" sequence. A fourth was Eugen Schufftan, who had started out as a painter, sculptor, and architect studying under Bauhaus architect (and art director for theater and film) Hans Poelzig. As much inventor as cameraman, Schufftan was beginning to develop his reputation in realistic miniatures and blended animation.
Other participants included art directors Otto Hunte, Karl Vollbrecht, and Erich Kettelhut, makeup artist Otto Genath, and composer Gttfried Huppertz. Paul Gerd Guderian, in charge of costume design, was excused periodically because ehe suffered from tuberculosis. The museum curator Heinrich Umlauff made the trip from the Ethnographical Museum in Hamburg to consult on the armor, costumes, and weapons of the barbaric Huns.
"Every set and detail, every position in every one of the actor's movements, was discussed in detail and the pros and cons of every opinion thoroughly analyzed," recalled Kettelhut. "Lang didn't give the okay to carry out the designs and the technical drawings until nobody had any objections." After sketches had been executed, everyone met again. "Then they checked and assessed by all present and finally Lang either accepted, changed, or rejected them. In the latter case, the whole procedure started all over again. Otherwise it was time to start nitpicking about the next set in the same way. No wonder the production meetings took almost three months…"…
Now, for Die Nibelungen, Lang transformed a series of celebrated paintings into cinematic imagery. Kriemhild would be costumed and made up to suggest the work of Wilhelm von Kaulbach (a painter noted for his grandly heroic murals) and Frank von Stuck (an allegorical artist of sensuous nudes); in close-up, she looked not unlike a glittery Klimt subject. Siegfried would resemble one of the folk characters of Hans Thoma. Siegfried's homeland was partly inspired by the works of Caspar David Friedrich, one of Germany's masters of the allegorical landscape, known for woodland scenes almost religious in their romantic quality. In places, Lang strove to evoke Arnold Bocklin's haunting Island of the Dead and, specifically for Siegfried's journey through the misty forest, The Silence of the Forest. The Jugendstil idylls of Heinrich Vogeler would figure in the staging of Siegfried's death.
The Huns would be dressed in rags and fur and equipped with native African and Asiatic weapons…Aenne Wilkomm chose to incorporate "Medieval, folkloristic, and modern elements" in her design…
These influences and more- a mingling of German romanticism, symbolism, and Jugendstil- were brought to the table by the collective. Set designer Robert Herlth was reminded of "a medieval builders guild (Bauhutte)" when speaking of Ufa teamwork. Cameraman Karl Fruend, speaking of the camaraderie of Metropolis [Lang's 1926 sci-fi masterpiece], coined the term "geistiger Konzern" ("intellectual partnership") for the unusual team spirit. Lang operated at his best drawing on the imagination of others, absorbing and compiling ideas, with himself the absolute arbiter. This was an advantage in Germany that he never accrued in the United States: the continuity and loyalty of such a united team.
Casting went forward. Paul Richter, Edgar Hull in Doctor Mabuse: Die Gambler [Lang's two-part crime drama], would play Siegfried. Margarethe Schon would play Kriemhild. Theodor Loos was King Gunther. Hanna Ralph would play Brunnhild. Hand Adalbert von Schlettow would make an intimidating Hagen Tronje. Georg John had multiple roles…Rudolf Klien-Rogge, who was still working with Fritz Lang despite ceding his wife to him, had another part as Etzel, King of the Huns. [Rudolf Klien-Rogge portrayed Dr. Mabuse and the mad scientist Rotwang in Metropolis]
Principal photography began in the late fall. The production schedule was extraordinary: Filming would consume nine months. The prolonged schedule, as Kettelhut recalled in his memoirs, allowed the design staff to take advantage of Mother Nature. Vollbretch planted seeds in the fall, so that in the spring, when they were scheduled to photograph the meadow scene in which Siegfried is pierced by Hagen's spear, real flowers would blanket the ground.
There were daily crises and chaos in the real world- empty bellies, crime waves, political protests, and strikes. "While demonstrations, riots, and looting were daily occurrences all over the country, while hunger and poverty were becoming alarmingly more frequent, while the police force was hardly bothering to deal with crime and theft anymore, we worked on in Babalsberg for the Ufa as if we were on an island," recollected Kettelhut.
The production had to scrounge essential goods from the black market, just like everyone else in Berlin. Nails especially were in short supply, and at one point, in order for set construction to continue, a ragtag army of elderly retirees and wounded war veterans was hired to roam the Neubabelsberg grounds with gunnysacks, collecting stray nails left over from abandoned sets.
It was characteristic of Lang- and of the entire silent-film period, before the consolidation of unions- to demand the utmost of everyone in his crew. There was no overtime in that era. Cast and crews worked ten-, twelve-, fourteen-hour days, sometimes without break. People were forced to work such long hours during the shooting that they couldn't always get to the stores in time to purchase their daily bread, which in any case was a scarcity among the general population. Food prices kept climbing, so the studio took it upon itself to buy groceries at the beginning of every week and sell them to employees, on payday, at beginning-of-the-week prices.
Realizing that desperate conditions were mounting, von Harbou offered to prepare regular hearty meals for everybody. She had a curious habit of choosing a favorite dress for each production, and wearing it throughout filming; the outfit she donned for Die Nibel was an elegant light-purple-gray dress with a alce neckline, which she displayed now, even while supervising all the cooking for cast and crew.
Von Harbou set up a makeshift sled next o the canteen with two huge cauldrons, a washing-up basin, and a big table. The canteen staff was organized to prepare food for the actors, employees, and extras with the help of additional women she hired. "She was even able to talk the Ufa into carrying the costs so the crew could get their meals for free," Kettlehut said. "I admired Frau von Harbou for that. She stood there on the rough floor of that drafty shed for hours and didn't mind peeling potatoes or cleaning vegetables with the other women." Such was the spirit of sacrifice.
Much of the photography took place after midnight in the studio- to ensure an evenness of light in artificially illuminated scenes. (Even so, strips of the film had to be retouched later by hand to accent the tones) Siegfried's journey through the magical stone forest was filmed partly on a soundstage. Stagehands cast wagonloads of salt over the studio floor to create the impression of a vast frozen forest; the tree trunks were straight plaster coated with cement, real soil and moss plied about their roots.
Many of the marvelous effects were obtained by deviously simple means. The dense mist in the sequence where Alberich, made invisible by the Tarnkappe (cloak of invisibility), tries to strange the hero, was produced by the spray of fire extinguishers. A sword so sharp it could split a feather was illustrated, in reality, by two feathers dropped and photographed in reverse. The rainbow in the film-one of Gunther Rittau's inspirations- was "a superimposition of the mountain, made in the studio, and a curved arc made with chalk on a black piece of cardboard," in the director's words. [This set would be seen in Shamballa, towering above Edward and Lang's conversation]
Many regarded one particular effect, the petrification of the dwarfs holding a giant platter of treasure in Alberich's cave, as cameraman Rittau's highest accomplishment. The dwarfs slowly turn to stone, their faces gradually becoming immobilized, as the spell completes its grip. The resourceful Rittau accomplished this by step-by-step superimposition. "All, it must be remembered," reminded Esiner, "done directly inside the camera by a footage and frame count."
Lang and Karl Vollbrecht had endless difficulty with the crucial scene in which Siegfried slays the dragon. The dummy dragon was about seventy feet long anf "inconceivably heavy," in the words of Frederick Wynne Jones, the managing director of Ufa's interests in America. Its skin was plaster covered with vulcanized hard rubber. The breathing effect was obtained with bellows, and a powerful water pump spewed out "blood" when the dragon was finally slain by Siegfried's sword. "Ten men were concealed in the body while several more were placed in a pit under the dragon to give it a forward crawling motion," explained Jones in publicity remarks. "Some of these men received their instructions by telephone so as to get simultaneous action."
Under Lang's prodding, the dragon men practiced walking, crawling, and dying for weeks. When photographing the dragon fight, the "consentious and obsessed" director, in Kettelhut's words, asked for repeated takes. The flicking tail of the beast moved amazingly fast, and at one point "either the men working the tail-lever had gotten overenthusiastic, or Paul Richter, who was very tired, didn't jump at the right time or high enough," according to Kettelhut. "The hard end of the tail hit him full force on his upper leg. Fortunately the doctor, who was called immediately, didn't diagnose a broken bone but a very severe contusion, yet the invulnerable Siegfried was put out of action for a while."
The dragon had to be rebuilt, the sequence re-filmed. It is one scene that is really dated; invariably the dragon-slaying- a highlight in 1924- provokes laughter from contemporary audiences accustomed to more sophisticated action.
Lang wished the actors, too, had buttons and dials and mechanical parts. He went to extreme lengths to dictate their slightest nuances of movement and gesture, demonstrating himself what they should do in every instance. Some directors, like Lubitsch, got away with that; unlike Lubitsch, thought was no role model as a n actor. He tried to compensate with elaborate script annotations for camera placement, and equally detailed instructions for actors to follow. These were methods the director would refine and alter from film to film as his career progressed.
Erich Kettelhit recalled Lang's directive to the Die Nibelungen cast members. "It sounded like this: 'Listen, on one-two-three you bend your upper body slightly forward- turn your head toward me; four-five-six-seven, you raise your left arm slowly. You open your clenched fist, hold it as high as your head. An astounded expression comes over your face, your mouth opens slightly; ten, you fling your arms forward and spread out your fingers, you fling your body backward, you scream.'
"The numbers could go up to fifty, depending on the scene and how varied the movements were," explained Kettelhut. "Several actors could be given different movements for the same numbers. Also, sometimes whole groups, sometimes all of the extras, had to move according to the series of numbers."
The sometimes arrogant and overly precise manner in which Lang dictated their behavior often inhibited actors; trying to follow his guidance as closely as possible, the inevitably stiffened up on screen. The humanity of the characters suffered, one of the reasons why some critics were led to accuse his films of "coldness."
Lang would even stay at work after everyone had long gone home, pacing the set, making his little diagrams and specifications. During the making of Die Nibelungen, he spent hours every morning before first call marking with colored chalk the movements and positions for his actors on the floor of the studio stage. These techniques amounted to a rehearsal in his mind, but right up to the final take there was always the possibility that he might switch gears, and pursue a sudden inspiration. "These were no fixed dates for shooting time and order of shooting [in those days]," recalled Kettelhut. "Improvisation was in fashion. Many people seriously believed that wrking according to fixed plans would not leave enough space for artistic intuition."
Pommer was on the set as often as possible, eyeing the budget and trying to nudge ahead the schedule without stepping on Lang's toes. Everyone knew that when the producer was in a bad or nervous mood his cigarette dangled loosely. Filming dragged on, with costs elevating, and Pommer's cigarette dangled a lot.
The Producer got cold feet shortly before the shooting of the scene involving the Huns sitting in bare branches, spying out the arrival of Kriemhild, and then riding off on their horses on a wild chase. The location was Rehbergen, an uninhabited area of wooded hills. Lang had asked for several hundred extras and horses. Pommer questioned whether the added expense was really essential, and the two argued furiously.
The next day, Lang was conciliatory. "I think that we do not need the scene," the director told Pommer. "Thea and I will cook up something else." The producer's response was characteristic; after thinking it over, he surrendered to Lang's vision. "I've done some thinking too," said Pommer, "I think we should shoot the scene as it was originally planned." The extras stayed in.
"I remember the Huns, led by Etzel, galloping down a wooded draw," said John Pommer, who visited his father's sets as a young boy. "I remember a camera set up in the middle of the draw, with horses galloping to its left and to its right. The Huns did not ride in formation; only one or two horses were on each side of the camera at the same time. Based on a lifetime of experience, I could make that scene look very exciting with less than a hundred extras. The same applies to the shots of the Huns sitting in the branches. I judge that Lang had no more than a hundred extras, one hundred fifty at most. 'Several hundred' seems a Lang exaggeration, but he was wont to exaggerate."
Lang, himself on horseback and wearing jodhpurs, directed the outdoor scenes with a megaphone. Lang's cousin Friedrich Steinbach was passing through Berlin on his first European Wanderjahr. He recalled visiting the director at the Rehgbergen location, and glimpsing Lang astride a splendid white horse, supervising crowds of extras. How proud the director seemed, how ebullient! But the wild bareback rides caused several accidents, and a tent hospital had to be set up to care for the casualties.
The director planned, for the final scene an apocalyptic inferno…This was the attack on the Burgundians, barricaded inside Etzel's great hall, which culminates in the Huns' setting fire to the place. An abandoned factory site in Spandau was renovated at considerable expense, just so it could be reduced to rubble in a scene that would be photographed simultaneously by some sixteen cameras. Of course Lang chose to ignite the final explosion himself.
"It was starting to get light in the east," wrote Erich Kettelhut. "The wind conditions were especially good- a light wind was blowing from west to east, so the smoke wouldn't blow over to the cameras trained on Etzel's palace. There was a quiet air of expectancy among the many people who were involved and the guests.
"Fritz Lang, standing off camera, drew his bow and let loose an arrow with magnesium powder on its head. It flew right in a high arc over one corner of the roof. The flames spread like the ripples from a stone thrown into water. A huge fire flamed incredibly quickly over the building. The mushroom of smoke grew higher and higher, and spread into the sky. The roof collapsed. It became hotter and hotter. The outer walls of the Etzel building, soaked in water beforehand to prevent them from catching fire, started to smoke. Lang signaled that the shot was over. The whole thing had taken about ten minutes. The people standing around had been completely quiet, deeply touched."
Every scene, every highlight, was documented behind the scenes by Horst von Harbou, the director's brother-in-law. Lurking perpetually in the background with his heavy camera, tripod, and accessories, he vividly documented the production for posterity.
Pommer was in an upbeat mood, his cigarette once again juttling horizontally from his lips during the last days of filming in January of 1924. The producer sidled up to Erich Kettelhut and told the set builder to count on working on Fritz Lang's next production too.
A few days before the Die Nibelungen premiere on February 24, 1924, Lang decided to take the editing apart and start over again. He was working around the clock, but "nearer the deadline got, the harder time he had editing," recalled Kettelhut.
Come noon of the opening day, Lang still wasn't finished. It became apparent that the film wouldn't be ready for the much-publicized premiere, whose audiences included scores of prominent guests and dignitaries. In fact, the finished reels had to be driven from the editing room in Neubabelsberg to Ufa-Palaast am Zoo in Berlin, a forty-minute drive away, in sections. Lang as nervous a a new daddy, could hardly be persuaded to let the reels go out into the world. Cars were spaced along the road to the theater in case one broke down.
Finally, the moment arrived. The cream of Berlin society, including journalists, government officials, stage and opera stars, and motion picture personalities, sat expectantly in the audience. Those in the know watched in "mortal fear of the dreaded sign' technical breakdown' lighting up at any moment- it would interrupt the flow of the film," in Kettelhut's words.
Fears of a breakdown materialized as the first sign went up. The film was stopped for a few minutes, then resumed after a brief interruption. Then the sign lit up again, and this time the film didn't resume quite so quickly. The audience became restless. The houselights went up. The director of the Ufa-Palast got up on stage and explained that they were trying to solve the problem. The Hungarian-American music director with Ufa, Erno Rapee, was conducting for the occasion a sixty-piece symphonic orchestra, which did its best to distract the audience with impromptu entertainment.
Future director Edgar G. Ulmer and editor Rudi Fehr were among those in the audience at the disastrous premier. "When the second reel was being shown, he [Lang] was cutting the third," recalled Ulmer, a Vienesse just entering the German industry. Rudi Fehr had tickets because his father was an official of Deutsche Bank, one of the Ufa directorate. A musician and aficionado, Fehr noticed right away that cues were off. The lights went on, again and again, as Erno Rapee's orchestra struggled to match the director's last-minute changes. Finally, the manager came out and announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, anybody who has paid can get their money back…"
"It was a long time before the lights went down again [for the last reel]," recalled Erich Kettelhut, "and the audience, which settled to find the whole thing quite amusing, slowly stopped chatting and settled down to watch the last reel. Of course after this they were not attentive as before, so there was not so much applause at the end."
The premiere, held hostage to the director's perfectionism, was one of Germany's all-time fiascos. "That's Fritz Lang for you," remembered Rudi Fehr. "He didn't give a damn. "If the picture wasn't right, he wanted to get it right."
Seventy years after it was made, Lang's 1924 film continues to be shown in revival and on video, provoking awe from viewers and lively discussion among critics.
The director said repeatedly in interviews that he had turned to Die Nibelungen after coming to a conscious decision to make a film to give Germany a lift after years of economic and political turmoil. Not everyone in his adopted country was convinced of the film's nationalistic spirit, however.
The New York Times took an unusual interest in Lang's new film, and Die Nibelungen became the first of the director's works to receive any genuine attention in the United States. The newspaper published an April 29, 1924, article about the Berlin premiere, in which correspondent T.R. Ybarra related how disgruntled some Germans were that Ufa advertisements of Die Nibelungen referred to characters of Lang's film as "a pack of false-hearted murderers and other highly uncomplimentary names, and in the final scene Kriemhild, of whom th epic makes a heroine, was shown committing murder under the most treacherous circumstances.' The advertisements caused "a howl of protest," according to the New York Times, and after early showings "the producers of the film rushed wildly into print with feverish explanations that the objectionable text of the advertisement was due to careless rearrangement of the text as originally written." The revised text was supplied, "showing that the ancient Germans of the Nibelung days, though occasionally violent and temperamental, were, after all, a splendid lot whose virtues all present-day Germans should emulate."
The uncompromising attitude toward Siegfried, Kriemhild, and the Burgundians disturbed certain German critics. A reviewer for the mainstream cultural journal Der Kunstwart said the ugly excess of the protagonists made him long for the innocence of Jackie Coogan films. Others griped about falsification of a "gem in the German cultural crown." The socialistic Kulturwille meanwhile noted that the film's jingoism was only partial, and "gave little opportunity for nationalistic demonstrations, unlike the truly German film Fridericus Rex."
When the Nazis came to rule, Lang's film seemed to rise up in patriotic esteem, even taking on a hint of dark political meaning. In 1929, the Nationalist Socialist paper Der Angriff praised Die Nibelungen as a "film of Germany loyalty." It is true that, as Lotte Eisner wrote, "this German film was the favorite viewing of Hitler and Goebbels, dark-complexioned men was saw themselves as blond heroes of a heroic race." In his speech of March 28, 1933, at the Kaiserhof, Goebbels would praise Fritz Lang's film; that same year, the Nazis would authorize a re-release of Siegfrieds Tod, with a voiceover by Theodor Loos, one of Lang's recurrent actors, who had played King Gunther.
Siegfried Kracauer, in his highly influential book From Caligari to Hitler- one of the first authoritative post-World War II cultural histories of Germany- went further. He branded Lang's film an incipient Nazi document which "somewhat anticipated the Goebbels propaganda" of the Third Reich. Hagen, Gunther's loyal vassal, obviously foreshadowed "a well-known type of Nazi leader," according to Kracauer. Lang's spatial compositions of massive edifices, and cliffs towering over human figures in the foreground reduced people "to accessories of primeval landscapes or vast buildings." Worse, according to Kracauer, Nazi propaganda pieces like Triumph of the Will drew their inspiration from Die Nibelungen. "In Nuremberg, the ornamental pattern of Nibelungen appeared on a gigantic scale: and ocean of flags and people artisitically arranged."
Lang's visual strategy was "the complete triumph of the ornamental over the human," Kracauer theorized. "Absolute authority asserts itself by arranging people under its domination in pleasing designs. This can also be seen with the Nazi regime, which manifested strong ornamental inclinations in organizing masses."
Kracauer was not the only one to point out the racial implications of certain characters. This was noticed by critics in 1924, when the film was first released. According to Frank Aschau in the widely read Berlin weekly Die Weltbuhne, "The evil dwarf Alberich, who represents obscure powers, is, and it can't be mistaken, portrayed as a Jew. Not as a handsome Jew, naturally, but as a vile Jew." Lotte Eisner, coming to the director's rescue, argued in her book that if anyone exaggerated the racial implications, it was not the fault of Lang or Rommer. She insisted that makeup artist Otto Genrth was "simply influenced" by the "grotesque character makeup" of the Russo-Jewish Habimah ensemble visiting Berlin at the time. Also in her book Eisner quoted Friedrich Engels, the socialist collaborator of Karl Marx, on the moving subject of the Siegfried legend. She extolled Lang's "realistic view" of the characters, which precluded any racism.
The fact is that Lang's Die Nibelungen was never universally popular in Germany. The first half was considered too long, and during the Nazi era the second part was not made available to the public, because its all-out nihilism conformed even less to Nazi ideology-though the first half, without the payoff, was essentially meaningless. Lang detested all the bastardized versions, especially the shortened one released in America with music by Richard Wagner's opera; he detested Wagner with even more passion than his usual dislike of classical music, and said he resisted suggestions to use the archetypal (and notoriously anti-semetic) Wagner as background orchestral music for the film's original release in Germany.
The inkling may have been there, but Lang the patriot was more an artist than a practical man, largely unaware of the nascent Nazi movement in 1923-24. He was still sleepwalking through history. How many in Germany were not? The accusations of Kracauer, whom he had befriended, haunted the director to the end of his days. In interview after interview, people brought up the film and its Nazi coloration, citing From Caligari to Hitler and other reputable sources. Though he tried quite hard, Lang could never quite dispel the doubts and speculation.
In what was billed as "Fritz Lang Gives His Last Interview" in New York City's Village Voice (August 16, 1976), published the month of his death, the director was still trying to explain away the implications. Questioned by Gene D. Phillips about Die Nibelungen, Lang patiently explained, "When I made my films, I always followed my imagination. By making the Siegfried legend into a film, I wanted to show that Germany was searching fo an ideal in her past, even during the horrible time after the First World War in which the picture was made. To counteract the pessimistic spirit of the time, I wanted to film the great legend of Siegfried so that Germany could draw inspiration from her epic past, and not, as Mr. Kracauer suggests, as a looking-forward to the rise of a political figure like Hitler or something stupid of that sort. I was dealing with Germany's legendary heritage- just as in Metropolis, I was looking at Germany in the future."