Erect the cathedral, watch it burn. The shift to Kriemhild (Margarete Schön) is swift and absolute, Fritz Lang keys his mise en scène to the widowed princess and covers the country with mournful snow. (Later, as her vengeful wrath forges ahead, the landscape melts into a jagged desert.) Wearing her sorrow like a lustrous cape, the exiled maiden turns scheming concubine and avails herself of Attila's (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) hordes—to slay Hagen Tronje (Hans Adalbert Schlettow) is her all-consuming goal, sworn "not on the cross, but on the sharp edge of the sword." The tale builds to an annihilating familial and national apocalypse, with codes of honor going up in flames while a devastated earth drinks up the spilled viscera. Not just a continuation, but a chain of contrasting rhythms and patterns: When the placid Rapunzel of the first film hardens into a fanatical Judith, the poem’s cantos become shrieks. King Gunther (Theodor Loos) and the Burgundian warriors arrive at Attila’s banquet, and their stately geometry is set against the pagan vitality of the underground barbarians as the magnificently sustained chaos erupts. In Lang’s frigid-blazing view, Teutonic pride is but another emotion deformed by obsession, the knightly gesture that inescapably ends as a maniacal cackle. Likewise, the conqueror’s boisterous joy for his newborn son is no match for his wife’s morbid exaltation as the pieces of her incendiary retribution fall into place. ("Never was my heart more filled with love," Kriemhild trembles before the gigantic pyre.) A work of bottomless intensity and influence—the nobility of Alexander Nevsky and the decay of Ivan the Terrible, Visconti’s Night of the Long Knives (The Damned) and Boorman’s gore-splattered armors (Excalibur), they all flow from here. That Lang would three decades later reincarnate his medieval heroine as an American moll with a half-burned visage speaks volumes about his belief in the continuum of humanity’s blood fables. Cinematography by Carl Hoffmann and Günther Rittau. With Gertrud Arnold, Hans Carl Mueller, Bernhard Goetzke, Erwin Biswanger, Hardy von Francois, Rudolf Rittner, and Georg John. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce