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The influence of Fritz Lang’s 1924 silent classic Die Nibelungen can be seen in the style and design of many Sci Fi and Fantasy films of the 80s from The Empire Strikes Back to The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Whether unconscious borrowing or deliberate tribute, elements of this German classic helped make these films great.

The guide through the darkness

In Die Nibelungen, Alberich the dwarf leads our young hero Siegfried from a swampy setting into a dark cavern to the Nibelung treasure with a magic glowing globe to light their way. In The Empire Strikes Back, a character of dwarfish height finds Luke in a swampy setting, and, carrying a glowing object, leads Luke to Yoda – a Jedi master he seeks. Instead of a magic orb, Yoda holds Luke’s camp light.

To the primitive being Luke thinks Yoda is, the light seems a magical object. Like Siegfried, Luke is slightly reluctant to follow the short and hunched creature into the darkness. Fortunately for Luke, Yoda has no intention of hurting his guest, but In Die Nibelungen, Alberich tries twice to deceive Siegfried in an attempt to kill the young hero.

To further separate the tone of these two stories, the light serves a comedic purpose in The Empire Strikes Back, prompting Yoda’s classic toddler retort, “Mine! – or I will help you not!” It seems to almost parody the cliché of the guide holding a mysterious light because it isn’t magic at all – just a regular camp light. These references to Die Nibelungen are effective in Empire because the roles of the similar components are reversed. Fear is exchanged for humor and evil is replaced with good.

Though used for a different purpose, several identical elements of these two settings remain: the dwarf guide who appears out of nowhere, dark and swampy setting, glowing object to light the way,  and young hero who has already achieved a great thing – in Luke’s case, destroying the Death Star and in Siegfried’s case, having just slain a dragon – and requires something from his guide through the darkness to reach his next destination.

alberich leads siegfried

Alberich the dwarf leads Siegfried to the Nibelung treasure in Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924)

yoda leading luke to his hut

Yoda leads Luke to his hut with a camp light in The Empire Strikes Back (copyright 1980 Lucasfilm)

The “guide” carrying a glowing orb is also used in The Black Cauldron, a 1985 Disney film adaptation of Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain. In this film, the young princess Eilonwy leads our young hero Taran through the dark depths of a castle in which they are both being held prisoner. Alexander incorporates the element of a glowing magical orb lighting the way in dark underground tunnels but reverses the role of his character by making the guide friendly instead of menacing.

glowing orb

Alberich’s magical glowing orb in Die Nibelungen

eilonwys' globe

Eilonwy leads Taran with a magical glowing orb in The Black Cauldron (copyright 1985 Walt Disney Company)

In addition to the motif of the stunted, odd, and sometimes grumpy guide and the light he carries to lead the way, the contrast of the darkness of a rocky passageway and the light of a luminous cavern is used in Die Nibelungen to invoke sense of wonder and the excitement that is felt from the thought of discovering hidden treasure. The light/dark contrast from dark tunnel to bright open space is also used in Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal (1982) in a similar way as it is in Die Nibelungen. In The Dark Crystal, the cranky old hunched-over guide is Aughra. She first appears menacing, but seeing that she is good-natured, our young Gelfling hero Jen quickly trusts her. Aughra leads Jen through a dark passageway to a mysterious place. Once inside, a bright light suddenly fills the screen and the film score plays a theme that invokes wonder. It’s like entering another world – a peculiar world where science and magic seem to harmoniously meet in mechanical splendor. In Die Nibelungen, the light/dark contrast between the luminous cavern interior and the dark and swampy exterior is remarkable. To an audience in the silent film era, the sequence would have seemed as bright as the light cast upon Jen as he enters Aughra’s workshop in The Dark Crystal.

bright cavern

Alberich the dwarf leads Siegfried into a luminous cavern in Die Nibelungen

jen entering aughra's workshop

Jen is awed by Aughra’s workshop in The Dark Crystal (copyright 1982 Jim Henson Company)

Inside Aughra’s workshop there is a giant mechanized model of the heavens, a concept Jen has seen drawn in the sand many times by the mystics, but never represented with such heavy and detailed moving industry. The same thing occurs in Die Nibelungen when Alberich the dwarf leads Siegfried into the luminous cavern. The contrast between dark and light and reality and magic and mystery is just as pronounced in this shot as it is in The Dark Crystal. Just as Jen is shown scientific industry in Aughra’s workshop, Alberich shows Siegfried the magical industry of the secret cavern. A massive crown, for example is being made for an ice giant. When Siegfried tries to reach through the window to touch that “other world” it quickly turns back into the form of a rocky wall of the cavern. It is, in a way, like that for Jen as well. Jen doesn’t understand what the model does. In the way the “magic” of the model is beyond Jen’s understanding, the “magic” of the ice king’s crown is beyond Siegfried’s physical reach.

The intention behind the guides showing the young hero “magical” things in these respective stories are in sharp contrast with each other. Aughra is leading Jen to new knowledge to help him with his quest while Alberich is showing Siegfried the wondrous riches of the caverns only enough to distract his naive guest long enough to kill him. Though both Jen and Siegfried are naive, the mood in each story couldn’t be more different. In The Dark Crystal, it is wonder, and in Die Nibelungen, it is foreboding treachery. Though one creates suspense and the other does not, they both carry epic quality.

Similar shots and wardrobe

The sequence where the Nibelung treasure arrives at Gunther’s castle and is unloaded looks similar to when Baron Munchausen packs up the Sultan’s treasures and carries it away in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988). Again, the roles are reversed. The treasure is being packed instead of unpacked in Baron Munchausen while in Die Nibelungen it is being brought to the castle instead of being taken away. In Baron Munchausen, the reference is, of course, used for comedic purpose and any allusion to epic poetry only serves to further embellish the impossible quality of the Baron’s already inflated tales of his many exploits of highly questionable validity.

Also, notice the similar arched entrances of the castle in the two shots.

unloading of Nibelung treasure

The Nibelung treasure arrives at Gunther’s castle in Die Nibelungen

baron munchausen

The Sultan’s treasure departs from the Sultan’s Palace in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (copyright 1988 Columbia Pictures)

When Brunhild arrives at Gunther’s castle after Siegfried wins her for Gunther with trickery, the wide bright shot with steps and ceremonial guards looks strikingly similar to when the Atreides arrive on Arrakis in Dune (1984). By using this shot from Die Nibelungen, director David Lynch evokes something of the mood of the German story, alluding to the danger that awaits the House Atreides. Just as Brunhild walking into Gunther’s castle brings the demise of Siegfried and Burgundy, the audience watches the Atreides literally walking into the trap set for them by the Harkonnens. It is a beautiful shot and a tragic reminder that the family will soon be torn apart by betrayal.

priest coming down to meet brunhild and gunther

The priest comes down the steps to meet Brunhild in Die Nibelungen

dune

The Arteides arrive on Arrakis in David Lynch’s Dune (copyright 1984 Dino De Laurentiis)

dune 2

The Atreides arrive on Arrakis in David Lynch’s Dune (copyright 1984 Dino De Laurentiis)

The look of Brunhild’s battle garb was recreated in the 1981 film Dragonslayer. Galen, the unlikely dragonslayer, goes after the dragon Vermithrax Pejorative with a round shield and a spear, the same weapons Brunhild uses to test Gunther. Since Dragonslayer deals with the death of magic and its subsequent replacement by religion, the weaponry invokes the magic of the mythic world – and, more importantly, a mythic world with a dragon. The reference works, again, because the roles are reversed. Galen is the hero, while Brunhild is a villain.

By using the contrary sides of these borrowed elements, their usage is balanced, achieving a nearly unconscious invocation of the nearly timeless yet distinctive style, mood, and tone of epic.

brunhild with spear and shield

Brunhild prepares to challenge Gunther in a spear-throwing competition in Die Nibelungen

dragonslayer

Galen (played by Peter MacNicol) enters Vermithrax Pejorative’s lair in Dragonslayer (copyright 1981 Walt Disney Company)

Now, aside from the scenes described in the Nibelungenlied itself, what sort of design and imagery inspired Lang’s unique cinematic interpretation of the epic poem? As Journey to Perplexity points out, Lang seemed heavily inspired by the style of Klimt. In addition to design patterns, Lang also borrowed from other artists. This shot below of Gunther mourning the fading of Burgundy’s splendor in Die Nibelungen resembles both the composition and mood of Jean-Paul Lauren’s The Excommunication of Robert the Pious (1875).

gunther upset

Gunther mourns the fading of Burgundy’s splendor in Die Nibelungen

excommunication of robert the pious jean paul laurens

The Excommunication of Robert the Pious by Jean-Paul Laurens (1875) Musée d’Orsay

Ramona helps Scott defeat Roxy in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (image: copyright Universal Pictures 2010)

I watched Scott Pilgrim vs. the World this weekend on Ryan‘s recommendation. It is about a guy who meets the girl of his dreams, but to date her he must defeat her seven evil exes in a video game – for real. It was a silly movie, but one that my wife and I enjoyed.

The film borrows elements from many epic storytelling mediums. Sounds appear on the screen as handwritten words just as they do in comic panels. From the 8-bit charm of the Universal Pictures titles sequence to Scott’s “pee bar” that appears on the screen when he needs to urinate, there are little touches to remind us that we are in a video game as well. 

And, of course, Scott plays bass in a new garage rock outfit; the stories in their songs coolly convey their epic struggle to thrive in the music scene. 

Just as epic poetry points to social struggles, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World provides social commentary by addressing the ever uncomfortable and paradoxical popularity of hipster culture.

But a considerable amount of comical symbolism comes from far older sources, borrowed from epic storytelling and even a medieval text. One part in particular recalls a scene from Das Nibelungenlied (Song of the Nibelgungs). Das Nibelungenlied is a 13th century epic poem in Middle High German. In the poem, Sifried, a prince from the Netherlands, travels to Burgundy to court the woman of his dreams, Krimheld. 

While there, he helps the Burgundian King Gunter defeat the Saxons. King Gunter later decides that the only woman in the world suited to be his wife is Brunhild, an Icelandic queen. 

King Gunter asks Sifried to accompany him to Iceland to “court” Brunhild. Gunter believes that Brunhild is the woman of his dreams, so he attempts to win her hand in marriage. But to do this, he must compete with her in a dangerous game. If he wins the game, he will take Brunhild for his wife. If he loses the game — and no man had ever defeated Brunhild – he will die.

Sifried knows that Gunter cannot possibly win the game, so he quickly devises a plan to help his liege lord win:

They thought to themselves: “This journey    starts to seem like a bad mistake”
No one noticed that noble    Sifried had quietly walked
away from this noisy scene,   gone down to their unguarded ship
and gotten his threefold magic     cloak. Once it was slipped
lightly across his shoulders     he became completely invisible.

And then he hurried back,     joined the crowd of warriors
come to enjoy Brunhild’s    games, in the place she had ordered
made ready. Wrapped in his cloak    he could walk among them, unseen,
surrounded by men who never    suspected his presence, awaiting their queen.[1]

 As Brunhild prepares to throw her first blow, Gunter realizes that he is no match for her:

Quickly, she rolled her sleeves    up her clear white arms,
clasped one hand in her shield,     and then raised her great spear high
in the air. The games were about       to begin. In addition, the look in her eyes
worried Gunter and Sifried.    The king was facing deadly harm.[2]

Sifried comes to the rescue in the nick of time:

 And true enough, without    Sifried’s aid, plainly

Gunter would have been killed.         But Sifried gave the king’s
hand the lightest touch,  making Gunter shrink
away, completely confused. Brunhild was taking careful aim.

“What could have touched my hand?”    Gunter said to himself,
seeing nothing, nor anyone         standing beside him there.
“It’s me, Sifried,” he heard,     “your dearest friend. I’m here
to save you. Have no fear    of the queen, so long as you have my help.

“Quickly, let me have    your shield and let it stay
in my hands. Be careful, do    exactly what I say.
You go through all the motions,    but leave the work to me.”[3]

 When Brunhild’s spear hits the shield, Sifried is hurt, but quickly recovers to return the blow:

Blood came gushing from mighty      Sifried’s mouth. But then
he straightened, wrenched the spear     free of his shield, and threw it,
meant as it was for the king,     hurled it straight at the beautiful
girl with Sifried’s strength          behind it, and back to Brunhild it went.[4]

So, Sifried wins the life-or-death competition for Gunter by moving Gunter’s body and limbs for him. Since Sifried is invisible, no one in the audience can tell that when Gunter leaps, for example, it’s actually Sifried leaping with Gunter on his back. Likewise, when Gunter blocks a blow, it’s really Sifried moving him arms.

The same thing occurs in Scott Pilgrim, albeit played for comic effect — and minus the invisibility part.  One of the evil exes is too much for Scott to handle on several levels, Ramona grabs his fists from behind and helps him win the fight just like Sifried did for Gunter.

It is also an important moment in both stories. Each companion’s true loyalty is shown.

Gunter knew Sifried as a great warrior who fought for fame. He certainly didn’t expect him to fight loyally for him. And for his part, Scott Pilgrim, the hypermodern epic hero, realizes that though he must still fight the evil exes, he and Ramona are already “together.”

 


[1] Das Nibelungenlied, Trans. Burton Raffel (New Haven, 2006), verses 430-432, p.61

[2] Das Nibelungenlied, verse 451, p.64

[3] Das Nibelungenlied, verses 452-454, p.64

[4] Das Nibelungenlied, verse 458, p.65

Nothing quite gets the blood flowing, nay, gushing and splattering, like a medieval storyteller describing life (and especially death) on the battlefield. The best of them, so beautifully vivid and precise are always garnished with the right touch of hyperbole – were they wading in a river of blood up to their ankles or was it up to their knees?

Wink Barnes (played by Ned Eisenberg) is delighted by the gruesome traffic safety film “Blood Flows Red on the Highway” in the 1985 movie Moving Violations (image: copyright 1985 20th Century Fox / SLM Production Group)

Today’s medieval bloodfest comes from Burton Raffel’s translation/rendering of the Middle High German 13th century epic poem Das Nibelungenlied.

Sifried (or Sigurd from the Völsung Legends) left the Netherlands for Burgundy to court princess Krimhild. He hung around King Gunter’s hall for a while, spinning his wheels, when, sure enough, some excitement finally came along. The Danish king Ludegast, and the Saxon lord Ludiger joined forces and threatened to destroy the Burgundians unless they agreed to pay them an obscene amount of money. With everyone in the hall shaking in their boots, Sifried smiled at the chance to show his host (and his prospective bride-to-be – via accounts from messengers) his favorite hobby – hacking and slashing!

 

This passage describes Sifried meeting King Ludegast on the battlefield:

 

Sifried struck so hard     against his shining armor

that iron was broken through,      a blow that only brass

-if that-might have blocked,        and blood spattered the grass

and Ludegast was lost,     suffering sharp, deadly harm.[1]

 

This next one shows us exactly what frame of mind Sifried was in when he spotted the Saxon lord Ludiger:

 

None of the Rhineland men    were ever seen behind him.

rivers of red ran             from his blade in a bloody line,

for where his sword came down      helmets cracked with the blow.

And then he saw Ludiger,      marshaling men, row after row.[2]

 

And finally, here is a nice wide angle shot of Sifried convincing King Ludiger to surrender:

 

The two princes battled       on. Gashes sprung

on helmets everywhere,            shields showed gouges long

and wide, still held in heroes’          hands. And all along

the blood of many men’s bodies             came raining down on the thirsty ground.[3]

 


[1] Das Nibelungenlied, Trans. Burton Raffel (New Haven, 2006), verse 188, p.28

[2] Das Nibelungenlied, verse 205, p.31

[3] Das Nibelungenlied, verse 212, p.32

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