Siegfried in slang

22 Apr 2024

A series of lectures explores how films about the Nibelungen saga have changed over time. We talked to German studies expert Christoph Petersen about an old story and new perspectives.

The Nibelungen saga

was filmed by Fritz Lang in 1924. The changing times since then can also be seen in the portrayal of the hero Siegfried. | © IMAGO / Bridgeman Images

Medieval Wild West heroes and a crime thriller actress playing Brunhild: A llecture series organized by LMU’s Department of German Philology discusses screen adaptations of the Nibelungen saga as a mirror of society. In the interview reproduced below, medieval Germanist Christoph Petersen – who initiated the lectures – explains how production and casting change the saga’s narrative.

How popular is the Nibelungenlied as the object of films?

Christoph Petersen: It is very popular! Fritz Lang put it on the big screen for the first time way back in 1924. In cooperation with the Munich Film Museum and the HFF University of Television and Film Munich, we thus decided to mark the 100th anniversary of this production with a series of lectures covering the best-known screen interpretations of the Nibelungen saga against the backdrop of changing societal values: from Lang’s silent film to the 1950s Italian movie Sigfrido, a two-part production by Harald Reinl in the 1960s and a version made for television by director Uli Edel in 2004.

What angle do the lectures take on these films?

Above all, they approach the films from the perspective of medieval studies. But they also view them through the lenses of contemporary German literature and of film and theater studies. I myself will be talking about Reinl’s Nibelungen film in the context of the Adenauer era and the spirit of adventure. Professor Andrea Sieber of the University of Passau will do a presentation on Nibelungen myths as filmed by directors such as Quentin Tarantino. And LMU Germanist Dr. Corinna Dörrich will discuss how the image of women has changed in Nibelungen productions over time. Essentially, the lecture series addresses issues around content, casting and cinematic production.

Siegfried riding through a vast expanse of countryside

What kind of things strike you in cinematic production, for example?

As Siegfried travels to Iceland, tasked with asking for the hand of Queen Brunhild as a wife for King Gunther, Reinl’s film shows Siegfried riding through a vast expanse of countryside, of hills, mountains and striking rock formations. Yet in the Nibelungenlied itself, descriptions of the landscape play only a minor role. This detailed movie scene, recorded as a long shot, kindles associations with open spaces, adventure and undreamed-of possibilities. For me personally, it evokes an American Western. These are pictures that appeal to a 20th-century audience, placing a story from the Middle Ages in a new context.

What part does casting play?

Karin Dor played Brunhild in the ’sixties film. Given the earlier roles she had played in Edgar Wallace and Karl May films, she was effectively typecast as the desirable woman who finds herself in danger and needs to be saved. But the Brunhild in the Nibelungenlied is the exact opposite: Beautiful, yes, but also an incredibly strong queen whom men have to defeat in battle before asking for her hand in marriage. The way the role is cast thus changes the character.

Another example is the 2004 production, in which the centuries-old trope of the invincible blond Germanic hero is cast aside. In his place, a laid-back Siegfried becomes a womanizer who uses slang and wears dark, shoulder-length hair.

The value of loyalty

How is societal change depicted in the content?

In the film from the 1960s, things are said that never occur in the saga itself and that cast doubt on Hagen’s unreserved loyalty toward his king. That was probably done in light of the still-recent Nazi rule.

It is important to know that medieval aristocratic society was heavily shaped by the value of loyalty, which guaranteed the cohesion of the in-group, for example, and which also influenced the Nibelungenlied. That said, the saga itself treats such loyalty as a problematic issue: It was clinging to this value that led to the Nibelungs’ downfall.

Amid the political alliances and conflicts of the early 20th century that led to the First World War, Nibelungentreue became a byword for ‘unswerving loyalty’ as a higher value that would defy even the worst of fates. Later, the National Socialists showcased the same concept to stylize Hitler’s relationship with the Germans as steadfast and unassailable – just as the kings of the Nibelungen were loyal to their vassals, and vice versa. However, this loyalty – a complicated concept in the Nibelungenlied – was misunderstood, simplified and used for political ends. In response to these historical events, the absolute loyalty enshrined in Nibelungentreue took on connotations of absurdity after the Second World War.

Old motives, new reasons

What other values shape the Nibelungen saga and films about it?

Especially in literature, social esteem was an important value for the medieval Germanic aristocracy – with regards to the king and queen themselves, but also to their family and wider retinue. Matters of the heart too tended to be shaped by this mindset: Gunther of Worms sought to woo Brunhild of Iceland, whom he had never met, because she was famous, coveted by others and would bring high esteem to Gunther and the kingdom of Burgundy.

In today’s films, it is rather emotions and/or other psychological considerations that play a part. We also see this in the fact that personal motives are often put forward as reasons for the many murders in the Nibelungen productions.

How does Hagen justify murdering Siegfried, for example?

In the Nibelungenlied, that is again a question of esteem and loyalty: Because Siegfried is partly to blame for affronting King Gunther, Hagen, as one of the king’s vassals, is effectively obliged to avenge this ignominy. The situation gives rise to a certain ambivalence: On the one hand, the murder is reprehensible. On the other hand, there is a reason that is plausible to the medieval audience: loyalty to the king and the need to uphold his esteem.

That is no longer plausible for a modern-day audience, which is why other motives are brought into play in the films: greed for treasure, for example, or personal jealousy. This lends transparency to the reasons – illicit as they may be – for the murder.

Scandals in the plot

What makes the Nibelungenlied so fascinating to this day?

The many scandals in the plot are undoubtedly one reason: the treacherous murder of Siegfried, brutal revenge, the deceitful ‘taming’ that makes a ‘submissive’ wife of the indomitable Queen Brunhild. And in the end, everyone perishes in a terrible massacre… The Nibelungenlied dares to let the problematic be problematic, pushing it to extremes without proffering a solution. The worlds of film, literature and theater have all rediscovered the Nibelungen saga over the past 20 or 25 years. And these days, they take account of the fact that they are telling a very intricate story.

Many aspects – relating to the issues of loyalty, for example – leave the modern reader, listener or spectator just as perplexed as medieval recipients probably were. Questions are left unanswered. There are areas of ambivalence that even we Germanists are still working on. Yet it is precisely these unresolved human and societal problems that make the Nibelungenlied so gripping to this day.

The Nibelungenlied

The Nibelungenlied is the most famous heroic narrative in Middle High German literature: an epic tale, in which the supposedly invulnerable dragon slayer Siegfried manages to get killed after all. This prompts Queen Kriemhild to swear vengeance and triggers the downfall of Burgundy, blending in content from various myths and sagas. The saga was put into writing around 1200 by an unknown author, possibly at the court of the Bishop of Passau. It ranks as an outstanding example of European heroic epics – on a par with the Greek legend of Troy.

Information about the lecture series:

The twelve-part lecture series „Nibelungen in Bewegung. Die Verfilmung der Heldensage im gesellschaftlichen Wandel“ (Nibelungen in motion. Films about the heroic epic as a mirror of societal change) will be held from 30 April to 16 July in lecture theater A 213 at Geschwister-Scholl-Platz 1. The lectures run from 6 to 8 p.m. on the Tuesday of each week.

(Exceptions to this rule: The lecture on Sigfrido by Professor Michaela Krützen will be delivered on 14 May at HFF Munich’s Audimax auditorium, Bernd-Eichinger-Platz 1. The film Die Nibelungen (The Nibelungen) by Fritz Lang will be shown (in German only) at 5 pm on 26 May at the Munich Film Museum, St.-Jakobs-Platz 1. Tickets to see the film cost 9 euros. There is no need to register in advance.)

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