This movie is stunning in its restored version, with symphonic score and rich colour tinting, so that one sees the legendary action as through golden afternoon light coming through a stained-glass window. Sharp detail and sparkling notes give the image depth, definition and brilliance. It makes one wonder why colour film was ever invented. And what costumes! Well done Herrs Guderian and Willkomm. Hagen (Hans Adalbert Schlettow) has black armour and an eagle-wing helmet; a kind of exploded and deconstructed version of elite-regiment Wilhelmine military uniforms. The super-civilised Burgundians and the nomadic Huns are given opposite costuming and gestural codes. The former, in geometric patterned clothes like Byzantine frescos, move slowly and in straight lines, and live in a modernistic Bauhaus styled square-towered castle. The skin-clad Huns favour scampering animalistically on all fours and build their huts and palaces of straw (warning - fire hazard!). The Burgundians' lofty bard Volker sings their heroic exploits to doubtless monotonously tasteful music, while the Huns also have their bards whose energetic folk songs cause everyone to dance joyously, and probably to better tunes too.
The values of these two groups do not easily fall into opposites. 'You don't understand the German Soul!', a Burgundian tells the Hun king Etzel. Me neither, mate! King Gunther (Theodor Loos) is weak and shifty, and it takes a lot of Hagen's ruthlessness and 'Nordic Guile' (lying to most of us) and Siegfried's over-cooked valour to shore him up. The German Soul in this version seems to consist of swearing blood oaths and then standing by them to the very death, even in extreme and morally ambiguous situations when most people would have stopped to rethink. Hence, Hagen in his death-glamour kit is protected to the very end by the deaths of far worthier men. He even gloats to Kreimhild that, while her innocent brothers and court have all fallen, so what, he has survived, and managed to protect to the end his weak-kneed and erratic king. I couldn't help but think of the recent war when 'national honour' was felt so important that at the end, young boys and old men were sent out to defend the military's self-image as magically undefeatable. Meanwhile the Huns, who one might expect to be barbarous, prove upon further acquaintance a reasonable and honest lot, lacking the ruthless Byzantine plotting and lofty honour codes which so fatally combine in the Burgundians. King Etzel (Klein-Rogge), to whom soap is clearly a stranger, could certainly do with a good cleaning-up (as could his court generally) yet he turns out to be both a loyal husband and doting dad. Compare him with Brunhild, who doesn't care who she destroys or even why. Yet she is the idealised bride whom Gunther yearns for and cheats to obtain, another of his fatal choices. It is one of the film's interesting complexities that the two most sympathetic characters (for my money) are the passionate and fundamentally decent King Etzel, who puts his emotions on show, and the ill-fated and rather likeable dragon who wasn't bothering anybody until Siegfried came along.
It being a Lang-von Harbou show, the women are equally strong and they propel the plot along, more so than the self-aggrandising quest of the hero Siegfried. Brunhild (Hanna Ralph) is the ice princess in her wonderful Arctic-lights castle (she shares with Hagen a taste in extravagant fetish headgear, which is a bit of an indication that they are both basically destructive). The principal character is statuesque Kriemhild (Margarete Schon) who creates a wonderful presence by just standing still and looking, her luminous eyes and subtle gestures suggesting the boiling passions and grief beneath. She too is one of the German-Soul absolutists. The final conflagration is magnificent, and the extra documentary features on the disc show this scene being filmed one dark night in the presence of the delighted locals.
What can one add about the brilliance of the visuals in a film where every frame is composed as a work of art. The moral? Don't blab out secrets, and be very careful about taking blood oaths. Either can bring the whole thing crashing down to catastrophe.