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Adapting the Nibelungenlied: Carl Otto Czeschka, Fritz Lang, and Ulrike Draesner

by Christopher Summers

In 1908, a children’s book version of the Nibelungenlied in a retelling by Franz Keim was published with illustrations by Carl Otto Czeschka. While the book has been largely forgotten, the striking visual language of Czeschka has proven to be of lasting influence. In the blog post, I am going to highlight some of the findings of my dissertation (BA Oxford 2022 – read the full version here) to show the debt that Fritz Lang’s that two-part epic picture Die Nibelungen (1924) and Ulrike Draesner’s Nibelungen: Heimsuchung (2016) owe to Carl Otto Czeschka’s illustrations, with the print images often re-created in the film with similar compositions in the frame, similar costuming, and similar geometrical pattern-work. Even when the illustrations are not acting as direct storyboards, they still clearly hold a large degree of influence of much of the visual language of the film.  

My analysis focuses on how each of the versions establish an interpretative vision of the world of the text. In each of these three texts, we are dealing with three main questions: how the worlds of the text relate to the real empirical world; how and where they function as fictional worlds; and, as all our texts are variations on the theme of the Nibelungenstoff how they relate to each other.

Liminal Space: Czeschka’s Illustrations for Keim

Czeschka’s drawings predate the text; he was prepared for the task as he had been asked in 1907 to draw plans for a production of Hebbel’s play Die Nibelungen (which later formed the outline for von Harbou’s screenplay) at the Raimundtheater in Vienna. Czeschka lived through the height of Jugendstil, was a member of the secession, and a founder of the Wiener Werkstätte, before moving to Hamburg. His illustrations of the Nibelungenlied constitute a sizeable break from the traditions of Nibelungenlied illustrations set by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Kaulbach, and others (see for Kaulbach see fig. 1). They also reject the visual language of Wagnerianism. They are radically two-dimensional , brilliantly ornamental, and vibrantly colourful (see figs. 2, 5, 7, & 9).
The book comprises 72 pages and includes eight double-page illustrations and 27 vignettes. Every page is decorated with a chequered border. The illustrations themselves are multi-layered line-block reproductions. Although they do not represent the only mixing of art-nouveau and the Nibelungenstoff (Joseph Sattler would be among the others) they have been, I think, particularly influential.
Partially their success comes from the ambiguity of their placing. With Czeschka’s Die Nibelungen we are in a liminal space, not fully in a timeless fairy-tale world of dragons and Gods as Wagner or Lang would have it, but nor are we fully in a world of recognisable earth-bound humans put in fantastical situations as Schnorr von Carolsfeld , Cornelius or Füssli present. There are no faux-Nordic winged helmets, nor is there a giant dragon to tell us we are in fantastical world unlike our own. The time markers of feathered hats and long dresses, and other markers of earlier artists’ contemporary worlds are removed, but likewise there are no Gods and Goddesses to make this a picture of Valhalla. Resultingly, we are in a liminal space of abstractions. Not quite on earth, not quite in heaven, but in a peculiar liminal space which has aspects of both.
This abstract feeling is only highlighted by the fact that the drawings are also very two dimensional, with a very flat depth of field typical art nouveau, which poses the question of whether we are in a world of humans at all. Perhaps this a two-dimensional world akin to Flatland and the characters move exclusively left and right. It is hard to look at the drawings, even the ones depicting battle and imagine any real movement or agency. We feel, as, Brackert, notes, that the figures are almost purely decorative. He says the characters act in the scene of the final destruction, “als gäbe es weder Wunden noch Blut und wäre es ihre besondere Aufgabe, schöne Waffen zur Schau zu stellen”. The fixity of the characters’ positions and their symmetry would be mirrored by Lang later and was the main thrust of Kracuauer’s strong rebuke of the film. Hesse also notes fixity and compares the characters to chess pieces in her writing for MOMA. With the lack of movement must come a lack of space. As there is no possibility of the characters moving beyond the edge of the frame, the very existence of the world beyond the frame is not certain. The lack of movement makes the world finite. The characters are bound to the positions in which they find themselves. As such we are unable to conceptualise their taking up other positions and resultingly, we cannot argue for space in the world, beyond or between the fixed positions. The world is like a film set, real up to the edge of the frame, but non-existent beyond it.
But despite this there are traces of the real world which force us back into liminality, features that hint at the physical and not purely decorative. The most important of these is the sea (see fig. 7), which reminds us that there is some semblance of the empirical world at play here. It is by no means realistic in its total blackness and its lack of depth. The waves are as close as we come to disorder in Czeschka’s world, but even their white pattern is noticeably crafted. Their structure is also clearly regular with shallow undulations and recurring gaps. This creates an alignment between the fixity and symmetry of Czeschka’s style and the natural world. By electing to show the waves as his only feature of the natural world, Czeschka shows a clear preference for order, regularity, and symmetry.
The city also acts as a reminder of civilisation, its flatness and its uniformity of colour seem a vague pastiche of a Moroccan ksar (this is another feature Lang borrows). The least convincing of the geographical features of this world is the ground, which is black and marked with white holes. Although strange, its existence does argue for some tenuous connection to the empirical world. This is not the world as we know it but there are enough hints at our world to discard the idea of Czeschka’s world as a pure fantasy, but equally not enough to put it in the realm of a replication of reality. It resides on a threshold, existing between pure imagination and earth-bound reality.
Whilst the content of Czeschka’s work leaves us in a liminal space, the style could hardly be more representative of a place and time and nor could the materiality of Keim’s book. It is impossible to miss the Viennese influences, primarily of course that of Klimt, in the work. The geometric patterns of the dresses in the illustrations and those worn later by Paul Richter, Margarete Schön and Theodor Loos in Lang’s film, are within touching distance of those in the Beethoven frieze or the Stoclet frieze and the Kiss (figs. 2 & 3). The Stoclet frieze is perhaps of particular importance because Czeschka designed windows and wall-reliefs for the Stoclet palace as part of the Wiener Werkstätte. The rectangular patterning on the male figure in The Kiss, is similar to the pattern on Brünhilt’s handmaidens in figure 2. The vine-like lines that adorn many of the vignettes recall in some detail the backgrounds of the Stoclet frieze and Beethoven frieze . We know that Carl Otto Czeschka was an acolyte of Klimt working in the age of Viennese Jugendstil. The turn of the century Viennese stylings of the artworks are only more apparent when considered with the text and the rest of the book design.
The book is opulently decorated, and all of this locates it within a Viennese idiom of Jugendstil. Each vignette, each vine-like border, each letter of the Eckmannschrift owes something to Vienna. The first thing one notices when reading the text today, is the series of small vignettes . This love of vignette is characteristic of Czeschka (presumably an inheritance from the influence of the Glasgow school in Austria). He had a vignette for his signature and another for his initials. The first vignette acts as the cover page, then on the second page a small acknowledgement of the publisher, then two gorgeous full-page vignettes with the dedication, as well as the Keim’s, Carl Otto Czeschka’s, and the publisher’s dedications. The text, itself a piece of pattern work, is wrapped in vine-like lines. These lines are a common feature of Carl Otto Czeschka’s jewellery and seem to act as Jugendstil bridge between the natural world and the designed world of objects. On the next page we have two more vignettes in a similar almost floral style and then on the following pages two more, this time picturing Siegfried and the title one last time. We then have the Falkentraum and one last vignette of a castle before the text starts. It is worth mentioning that here and in the other double-page illustrations Czeschka has included his signature in a vignette within the illustration. In this way he seems to treat the large illustrations like individual works to be displayed alone. Finally, text begins with a large initial and then descriptions of Kriemhilt and then Siegfried. Of the book’s 72 pages, 45 feature ornamentation or illustration. If I labour the point, I do so to show just how opulently designed the book is. To emphasise this, we can contrast Keim’s book with Draesner’s, which retains Czeschka’s gold leaf on its cover but has a simpler title page with no ornamentation beyond a couple of splashes of coloured text. Her text also opens with Kriemhilt , but with little fanfare –even in the chapter-heading Kriemhilt is not afforded a capital letter, let alone an initial.
All this alone makes the presence of Czeschka’s Jugendstil style unavoidable to any reader. But this is not the end. Beyond the pictures, the very text — through its typeface – is incontrovertibly Jugendstil. From beginning to end each word we are faced is an Eckmannschrift variation. The typeface was an attempt at the blending of Eckmann’s Japanese interests and the roman alphabet and was executed according to this fashion with a brush and not a pen. This gives the line a fluency and flexibility that traditional type lacks. The version in Die Nibelungen is slightly altered but is still recognisably Eckmannschrift and as such a product of the art nouveau.
This work is clearly of a time and place, and Keim’s book is one of a number of children’s retellings that were popular, not just in German speaking Europe but also in Victorian Britain . Hess describes the text as a populist re-telling, and stress both Czeschka and Keim’s links to German nationalism. Despite the clear rebuke of the Wagnerian in both the text and the images, this comment remains fair given that the book is dedicated (like Lang’s film) to the “deutschen Volke”.
It was published in Vienna by a reputable publishing house with a
base in the city aimed presumably at the children of bourgeois Vienna at the height of Emperor Franz Joseph’s rule. It was deemed unworthy as a piece of literature and has been overlooked in favour of the illustrations. This approach of separating the two, as if they were not designed to exist together has been popular. But the book is Gesamtkunstwerk, and having considered its illustrations and its design, we should consider what its literary content tells us.
In Rules for the Endgame, Müller describes the world of the Nibelungenlied as a series of islands. There are bastions of life and courtly civilisation which we see and spend time with, and these are aware of each other, but they exist in a sea of nothingness. The only evidence of the spaces in between are still towns, more frequently named as they come into the Austro-Bavarian area that those who brought together the versions A (Munich), B (St Gallen) and C (Donaueschingen) or their forebears would have known. No people are given, no buildings. The places in between exist only in a cartographic sense. Names of places are given, but no descriptions. Worms, Xanten and Etzels court exist as places, though we have little knowledge of their spatial specifics. (How big is the cathedral in Worms, how high the city walls, how many bedrooms in the palace?).
In Keim this vague approach of the medieval versions and the modern reconstructions is mirrored, but some of the details are elided for a simpler story. All we get of the journey from Worms to the Danube is one sentence: “Die Fahrt geht den Main hinauf durch Franken an die Donau”. (This is indeed similar to stanzas 1524-26 of the Nibelungenlied in the Hamburger Ausgabe). We actually have more description of the world through Kriemhilt’s trip to Etzel’s court, which mentions the Enns as well as Melk, Mautern, Zieselmauer and Tulin. This whistle-stop tour does cover ground quickly and only adds to the idea of the insular nature of civilisation in the Nibelungenlied.
As in the medieval versions distances are normally given in temporal measurements, rather than spatial ones, and the only non-human geographical features of our real world to make it into the story are rivers. Island still has the same unclear correspondence to Iceland. Xanten and Denmark and Saxony and the other places of Siegfried’s youth remain hazy recollections of Hagen’s, more than specific and grounded ideas of places in our world. The result is that Keim’s world resembles that of most modern standard editions closely. Not fully supernatural, nothing that stands out as entirely foreign, but also in no way a reproduction of our world.

Fantastical world: Lang’s film staging

Fritz Lang’s 1924 film Die Nibelungen was a large-scale production from Erich Pommer made with the intention of eliciting a feeling of national pride in a Germany suffering through hyper-inflation. This is shown in the film’s dedication: “Dem deutschen Volke zu eigen”. Despite its love of the physical features of our world, it was shot almost entirely in and around the UFA studio in Neubabelsberg over the course of two years. It was masterminded by Lang and his new wife von Harbou who finished the script shortly after their wedding day. The filmic techniques are notable largely for their practicality. Smoke was created using fire extinguishers, ice by the throwing salt on the floor. But there are still a couple of moments of trickery, in Ruttmann’s Falkentraum, and Rittau’s in-camera effects to create the rainbow in the opening shot and later to show the petrification of Alberich’s dwarves.
At times the film sees to borrow liberally from Czeschka in its mise-en-scene. Although the images are closely related, they are never truly identical. Lang often changes the framings, normally adding more space (as in fig. 8), he also does this with the sentries on the rooftops, or the queens’ argument. Of course, these framings would have also been shaped by the cinematographers Hoffman and Rittau. The legacy of Czeschka is also present in the rigid, Wes Anderson-esque, symmetry of the film, as well as its abundant geometrical ornamentation (see figs 5 & 8).
Despite these clear links most commentators on Lang (including Lang himself) have prioritised the works of others over Czeschka when considering the influences on Die Nibelungen. McGilligan mentions seven artists as influences on the visual language of the film, but entirely omits Carl Otto Czeschka. Lotte Eisner, Lang’s “old friend”, not only relegates Czechka to a footnote, but also cites his costume sketches for Tristan und Isolde as merely “anticipating” the costumes of Die Nibelungen. This greatly undersells the fact that Siegfried wears an almost exact replica of the Tristan costume in the film, which itself is a small oversight compared to the total blind-spot she and McGilligan share for Czeschka’s Nibelungen.
There is of course much that is different in Lang’s film. This world is a larger space and more three-dimensional than the world of the drawings of Czeschka. Lang enjoys all the conventionally portrayed moments, but they inevitably occupy a comparatively smaller part of his winding tale, than one illustration in a set of eight would. The result is his Nibelungen world feels far bigger, as characters spend time moving from place to place, filling in the spaces inbetween which the Keim and Czeschka version lacks. The best example of this is the time we spend with Siegfried on his horse at the beginning of the film. He is twice riding through the forest, centred in a wide shot that allows the trees to envelop him. After defeating Fafner, he is again in the centre of a wide framing, but the many trees have given way to just one. Density has been replaced by sparsity. Not only does this space increase the size of the world in the frame, but the different landscapes brought into focus by the parallel framings grow our world through their diversity.
The other key difference from the Keim and Draesner versions is that his world has a physicality and fantasticality to it that the others lack. Unlike the written word and its abstract projections which sprout only in the Kopfkino of its readers, live-action cinema is necessarily made of the real world. Features of the physical world are shown in Lang, in a way which they are not in the human-dominated worlds of the others. Lang, however, is interested in a physical world, but not necessarily the empirical world. We see the sea, which plays next to no part in the (non-) narratives of Keim and Draesner. Lang’s sea is at once both clearly recognisable as real, but at the same time its spatial implications are unclear. The sea journey is covered in a cut, and we have no idea how large the space covered is. All we know is that the world the characters left behind and the one they arrive in are radically different. The sea then could be a short channel, or it could be much more, a mythical body which transports us from a realm of woodland to a realm of fire and ice.
The forest too is important for Lang. It features consistently in the first thirty minutes of the film. When talking about the film at Yale Lang said:

I was interested in bringing to life a German saga in a manner different from a Wagnerian opera, without beards and so on. I tried to show in the Nibelungen four different worlds: the primeval forest, where lives the crippled Mime … Secondly, the flame-enveloped caste of the Amazon queen of Iceland, Brunhild.
Thirdly, the stylised, slightly degenerate over-cultured world of the kings of Burgundy, already about to disintegrate. And finally, the world of the wild Asiatic hordes of the Huns.

The first shot of the film is of a hilly forest, from which we go to Mime’s grove. Immediately, the audience is ensconced in the heart of the Urwald Lang describes. This is Siegfried’s nursery, clear bounded and safe. The massive trees offer a feeling of protection and comfort, but they are clearly too tall to be of our world. The trees rise out of the top of the long shot’s frame even before their lowest branch. This forest presents one of the clearest overlaps between the physical and fantastical spaces of the Nibelungenstoff. The opening shot is of a wooded hillside framed by a rainbow (figure 8). The dedication and the particular symbolism of the forest will naturally push us towards seeing this as Germany. But the fantastical elements (trees, Mime, the Dragon, Tarnhelm), mean it is not simply the Germany of our world. There is a hint of the Urwald of Wagner’s Siegfried. Another Wagnerian beginning springs to mind, that of the Rheingold, because the great hill and the faint outline of a river in the background hint at a Rhineland setting. This remains, despite Lang’s strong dislike and the generally anti-Wagnerian bent of his film. There are also suggestions of Caspar David Friedrich.
This is opening shot is on location in the real world, but the tempering of this reality is made clear through an artificial rainbow painted into the shot, which Gunning infers as the Norse Bifrost (fig. 10). The shot was created in a studio lot in Neubabelsberg but is pure fantasy. The world is physical but fantastical too.
We remain in the overlap of myth and fantasy when Siegfried ventures out and defeats the dragon and Alberich. The geography of the forest is interesting, as Mime sends Siegfried aimlessly into the never-ending trees, but somehow knows that he will confront the dragon. We also never see an edge to the forest as we cut back to Siegfried after a sojourn Worms, when he is out of the trees and in the misty glade where he meets Alberich. Like the sea before it we have no sense of its scale beyond knowing that it is huge. Whereas the spaces in between are almost non-existent in Keim, here they are near boundless. The forest then, is a marker of a physical world, one with the spaces in between that are written out of other versions.
The second of Lang’s four worlds is his most fantastical. Having travelled over the sea to Island, we are presented with flaming earth amongst the boulder fields. As if this did not show our divergence from the empirical world, we also have further fantasy elements. Brünhilt’s castle is perched impossibly on top of a mountain and has a permanent halo for good measure. Nothing about this resembles the Iceland of the real world. We are clearly in the land of myth and legend here.
The first two worlds of are worlds of myth and legend. Of dragons, magic, treasure, and superpowers. From then on, the film descends into a world that is far more human. Third and fourth worlds of the film eschew magic and the non-real landscapes, and instead prioritise cities, buildings, their rooms, and other human spaces. This is mirrored in the death of Siegfried, the representative of the supernatural, at the hands of the all-too-human Hagen and his unwitting accomplice Kriemhilt. After this the magic is gone. The Nibelungs’ treasure is thrown in the Danube. From Siegfried’s death to the end of the film the only wide shots of the outdoors are of the steppe. They impress, but lack the fantastical element of the Urwald, or the flaming sea. We see their expanse only for a second before it is filled with a throng of human riders on horseback. It is acts as a counterpoint to Siegfried riding along through the forest. Then he was at the mythical world’s mercy, but here the landscape is dominated by the people who have made it their home.
We might be tempted to think that this world of humans is then in some way a parallel to ours. This notion is easily discarded. From the first shot of the Gunther’s hall there is a rigid and oppressive stylisation. The people in the film do not move or act like people in our world. Kracauer, despised the film and his (in)famous review concludes: “It is the complete triumph of the ornamental over the human. Absolute authority asserts itself by arranging people under its domination in pleasing designs”. He is right as to the rigidity, the ornamentality and the totality of the design (much of which is Czeschka’s). Fittingly, there is not a single moment in this film which feels spontaneous, as it was Harbou’s stated aim the very first action seems to entail the very last. Spatially, we can see the triumph of design too, most of all in the eventual triumph of the order of buildings over the disorder of the outdoors. The buildings in Worms as incredibly blank, their walls without the slightest hint of decoration. This is presumably a practical as well as thematic decision, as the blank walls save production time, do not the distract the viewer, allow the costumes to stand out, and are easy to light. In the establishing shots their externality follows Czeschka’s ksar pastiche in their regularity and angularity. We see the bare exterior of Worms framed under a semi-circular entrance (itself a marker of ordered geometricity), against an equally bare and ordered sky. Their blank nature puts them forth as symbols of structure order and civilisation. It is no accident that when Worms is described to Siegfried (see fig.11) it is shown in his mind’s eye as composed of rising cuboid towers. Every line in the frame is straight, every joint a right-angle. This order is set atop a hill and drenched in gorgeous light, which itself falls in perfectly straight lines.
Resultingly, even the parts of Lang which are not fantasy on the surface are revealed to be fantasy with the slightest bit of digging. This is a bigger world than the others. It has more interest in its physicality and its geography than the others. It has the advantages of audio and video, and yet it feels more contrived, more designed, than the other works.

Internal vision: Draesner’s reframing of Czeschka’s illustrations

Draesner’s work is not a single narrative. Instead, she diverges from Keim and Lang, to give us a cycle of 17 poems. Having a doctorate in German literature she was well placed to attack the Nibelungenstoff. Resultingly, she was commissioned by Reclam to recontextualise Czeschka’s images with a personal take on the inner lives of the four principal characters. She makes some bold stylistic choices. Chief amongst these is the decision to mimic the conventions of the 19th century versions of Middle High German texts by eschewing capital letters, even for character names. She also elects to switch between Middle High German, Modern High German, English and other languages and dialects freely. It should also be mentioned that while there is much that is definitely poetical, large parts of the book are presented in the book as continuous prose and could well be read as such. An example of this would be the final part: “Immer wieder vergesse ich”.
To get into the geography of Nibelungen .: Heimsuchung , we need a slightly altered approach. Unlike the other texts this is only loosely a narrative. There is an arc which unfolds, but it is hardly comparable to the clear storylines of the other works. It also crucially diverges in its style, being written in a series of internal poetic monologues. If we were to read it as a pure narrative, the geography of the work would remain hidden. To understand the spaces of a text told from within the minds of its characters, we need to widen our interpretative net and look for more ways into the text. The idea behind this comes from Umberto Eco’s idea of the reader’s encyclopaedia. Fittingly for this essay, the example Eco uses to elucidate this concept is one of literary geography, revolving around the cartographic understanding of Paris in The Three Musketeers, but we can use it rather differently.
The basic contention sounds simple: every text comes with a set of created assumption of what the model reader knows and does not. The complexity arises from the symbiosis needed between the reader and the author to ascertain the nature of what is in bounds and what is not. Despite the suspension of disbelief, not everything dictated to us by texts and their authors gains the right to be considered true. Given our interest in geography this notion is an important one. We must be aware of our empirical knowledge of the real world and what parts of it are better brought to a text and what parts are interpretative hindrances and better left aside. In this we have to let ourselves be guided by the author. We are allowed to know that the Niederlanden has a rough correspondence with the Netherlands, but we can hardly complain that there are no windmills.
Draesner’s model reader possesses a good knowledge of the Nibelungenlied to unlocks its spaces, though she in no way demands every detail to be remembered. This is (at least in part) a commercial book, and if you go online to buy it from the author’s own website the first review is assuring potential buyers that: “Man muss nicht die verwirrenden Details des Nibelungen-Epos kennen, um von Draesners Evokationen der zentralen Motiven berührt und fasziniert zu werden” . Draesner is suggesting that the necessary encyclopaedia is not in fact as large as we might assume at the outset. Even so it would be hard to say that Draesner’s work is not better understood with a solid grasp of the story and characters of the Nibelungenlied. Only the illustrations are placed in such a manner as to give the outline of the narrative. Kriemhilt’s dream is a good example of how this works. The simple story of the falcon killed by two eagles is not told, but the combination of the textual and pictorial references to the falcon and the Siegfried vignette on the following page allows us to understand what is happening. Our best guess for place is only reached here through our knowledge of the original and inference from the illustration. We cannot be sure but given there is a female figure in bed dreaming we can suggest that Kriemhilt is in Worms, but this is not definite. There is a geographical level to mine here, but it is a tertiary concern, after psychology and narrative. As we can see it is fair to say that a rather extensive knowledge of the Nibelungenstoff is required of the model reader of Draesner’s text.
So too is a relatively extensive knowledge of its adaptations. Draesner’s work is aided by an understanding of what it is not. The geography of prior versions also helps us to understand the departure Draesner makes from the paths more travelled. Draesner is the only one of our authors writing after the spatial turn described by Foucault, Jameson, and Tally etc., and we can read this into her text. That is to say through a knowledge of the adaptations of the Nibelungenlied of the late 19th and early 20th century.
An interesting touch in this vein is the subject of brünhilt’s Nordic origin. In the other tellings, particularly in Lang’s fire-sea world, island is exoticized and seen as the deviation from the Burgundian norm. Draesner’s brünhilt challenges this narrative. Instead of island being presented as other for its female leadership and brünhilt’s superhuman strength, what Draesner stresses is the restriction she suffers in Worms. She has to learn to read and write, to live in a “civilised” manner as a subject when once she was queen and unrestricted. She is shown as insecure about her accent, her lack of friends and siblings. Her only friends are her rotting-fruit-fed crows, and she would rather speak English than expose her “nordischers th”. Her character is an immigrant with an immigrant’s story of assimilation and homesickness. She will no longer see “islands licht”, due to:

die graue genaue dämmerung genannt exil

The structure of this poem “kam davon?” is littered with separation between words and between people. All the easy inferences from this ring true, there is space between her and her old home, but equally space between her and her new home. The thought process too, is disjointed, unstable, unsure of itself and of its place in an unfamiliar space. All of this challenges the geography of the traditional Nibelungen world which has the men of Worms at its heart and the women of island on the very edge of the map.
This is not for a lack of spatial awareness, but rather is for a new and more interesting approach. As above, the places Draesner interests herself in are the non-Germanic spaces, after island we also have Xanten (which gets a whole poem). Xanten is portrayed very lovingly:

see seesand
das zaeumzeug
von gold düne gras
sieht als wären sie salz
unter ihnen ihre rosse
man gehen breit auf beiden
seiten hart, skulptur, vreislîch

This is one of the few descriptions of a place we get in the book. It raises some questions. Firstly, what is this a description of? It cannot be read as a replica of Xanten, a Westphalian town in our empirical world, which is nowhere near the sand-dunes or the coast. If we read it as an isolated creation of Draesner’s world we are also in something of cul-de-sac. We could be anywhere that has the sea (or perhaps a lake) and a beach with dunes. We are then left to confer from outside knowledge of the Nibelungenstoff, that Siegfried comes from the “niederlanden”, at which point it becomes clear that this a description of the North Sea coast. The word “niederlanden” does create another problem of the overlap of empirical and fictional geography. We cannot assume that this corresponds directly to the Netherlands as their borders exist in our world, but we do know the term would refer to much of what is the Netherlands as well as some parts of modern north Germany. So, the sivrît of Heimsuchung, is from the low countries.
The subjective and internal nature of Draesner’s text means that this deduction from our knowledge of the original Nibelungenlied and the real world of our existence is problematic. Were we to follow the coast by foot from Dunkirk to Bremerhaven, taking in Belgium, the Netherlands and Lower Saxony, we would obviously not find Xanten. The more interesting hypothetical is what a character from the book would find were they to do the same. My inclination would be to say they would not. Draesner’s book is composed of poetic internal monologues. The characters are at once set in moments (Kriemhilt’s dream, Siegfried’s death, Brünhilt’s nights with Günther), but are also omniscient. In the very first page Kriemhilt acknowledges Siegfried’s death at the hands of Hagen.
Siegfried’s Xanten poem is one of his last, before his figurative death and the passing on to brünhilt’s voice. His Xanten is hazy, but slightly nostalgic. It comes across clearly as a reminiscence, perhaps a dream, at least some form of internal projection. We have some textual and inter-textual ideas of this Xanten being where he came from, but we are conspicuously light on the objective details of his relationship to this place. We know that sivrît was there once, and there were horses amongst the sand-dunes. It is then a place of some intra-textual tangibility. Not physically existent in our world but it is in the world of the text. It is not a place defined by ideas, but equally not a place defined by a cartographic or geographic description. This place, and brünhilt’s island, are then projections; spaces that have been interpreted. They exist somewhere but we are only feeding off reported scraps of them.

Czeschka’s world is liminal, Lang’s fantastical, and Draesner’s internal. Keim (following the Middle High German versions) bases his story in human places, in castles with courts; Lang in a supernatural world of fantasy and unbending order; Draesner bases her telling in the psychological ether. We are brought into spaces as conceptualised by her character’s conscious and subconscious minds. Czeschka’s is clearly not the world as we know it but there are enough hints at our world to discard the idea of it as a pure fantasy. But equally there is not enough of the real to put it in the realm of earnest replication of reality. The stylisations of the large illustrations, the vignettes and the typefaces are all clearly products of the Viennese Jugendstil. They tie us to a certain place and time. They shape the geography of the work. They argue for a conception of the world as distinctly Viennese. With effort we can manage to imagine Lang’s film being made in Hollywood, or Draesner’s book written in England. But there is no taking Vienna out of Keim and Czeschka. There are glimmers of our world poking through in the drawings and the text, glimmers only reinforced by each little vignette and each large initial, which breaks the illusion and brings us back to the empirical world.
Lang with his genius for spectacle creates a world that is fantastical. Its spaces are all unreal. The physicality of the forest and sea is made fantastical by the refusal to give them any sense of boundary. The possibility of infinity is always left open somewhere in the off-screen space. This world of large objects in the frame, some of which could be larger yet out of it, is huge in comparison to the strictly bordered and contained Czeschka diptychs. Lang’s world remains huge in comparison to that of the Keim narrative and the medieval texts (or modern reconstructions) on which it was modelled. The places-in-between those versions lacked are taken incredibly seriously in Lang. There is a physical world of geographical features that is mined for visual and thematic content. Beyond the flaming earth and the ever-rising trees, it is the triumph of order, of rigidity, of straight lines and right angles, that assures us his world is not our own. Kracauer’s main contention holds: this is a world of ornament. We do not necessarily need to follow his teleological conclusions vis-à-vis the film’s relationship to fascism to concede this. This combination of hugeness, physicality, and governing ornamentality, create a world that has a geography that shares little with our own world.
Draesner works in the realms of internality and subjectivity. Hers is a more post-modern way of looking at the Nibelungenstoff. She re-imagines the spaces of the text as popularly understood. She focuses on the non-Germanic spaces. Draesner seems to studiously avoid making direct reference to Germany or Germanness, whereas Lang and Keim mention the nation in their dedications . Instead, it is Island and Xanten which take up her interest. In doing this she is also able to re-imagine the telling of the Nibelungenstoff. The internality given to Kriemhilt and Brünhilt stands clearly as a rebuke to the male-dominated adaptations prior. At every point she is playing with the reader’s knowledge (or lack thereof) of earlier texts and adaptation and trying to redress how the story was told and how its places were mapped. It is also entirely subjective. Its places are not places but feelings and concepts. In this it asks a fundamental question: what is a place but our feelings and our ideas about it?
If there is then an overarching trend to be tentatively drawn out of these conclcusions it would be that each new adaptation takes one step further away from the empirical world. We start with a work that despite its abstract drawing style, had clear markers of our world in its every letter and every brushstroke. The illusion was foiled too by the geographical elements of our earth, in its rivers and its towns. Lang takes us to a world of near total fantasy, of deepest myth. Nothing here is as in our world. It is dominated by ornamental design and populated by a people who lack all instinct. In its unrelenting order and beauty, it is a world unrecognisable as truly human. Draesner barely gives us a world at all. She gives us characters and from their recollections, their absent thoughts or their deepest memories, and the reader is to piece together what they can of where they lived. Hers is a world of a different Nibelungenlied, and one that is puts in the limelight what was previously on the fringes.

Christopher Summers finished his BA in German Literature at the University in Oxford in 2022 and spent a year at Vienna as part of his degree. He is interested in…


Görres, Guido. Der hürnen Siegfried und sein Kampf mit dem Drachen. Munich, 1843. digital version.
Keim, Franz. Die Nibelungen. Vienna/Leipzig: Gerlach & Wiedling, 1908. digital version.
Lang, Fritz, director. Die Nibelungen. 1924; Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau Stiftung 2018. 2hr 49 mins. DVD Disc.
Brackert, Helmut. Das Nibelungenlied : Mittelhochdeutscher Text Und Übertragung. Originalausgabe ed. Fischer Taschenbücher ; 6038, 6039. Frankfurt Am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1970.
Draesner, Ulrike. Nibelungen: Heimsuchung. Stuttgart: Reclam, 2016.

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  • Hess, Heather “Carl Otto Czeschka” German Expressionist Digital Archive Project. Monday 17th January 2022.
  • Hume, Kathryn. Fantasy and Mimesis : Responses to Reality in Western Literature. London: Methuen, 1984.
  • Giles, Steve. Theorizing Modernism [electronic Resource] : Essays in Critical Theory. Ebook Central. London ; New York: Routledge, 1993.
  • Grimm, Gunter. “Fritz Lang: Die Nibelungen.” Nibelungen Rezeption. Monday 17th January 2022.
  • Gunning, Tom. The Films of Fritz Lang : Allegories of Vision and Modernity. London: BFI Publishing, 2000
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  • Schulte-Wülwer, Ulrich. Das Nibelungenlied in dDer dDeutschen Kunst dDes 19. uUnd 20. Jahrhunderts. First ed. Kunstwissenschaftliche Untersuchungen Des Ulmer Vereins, Verband Für Kunst- Und Kulturwissenschaften; Band 9. Giessen, 1980.
  • Schulze, Ursula. Das Nibelungenlied. Literaturstudium (Stuttgart, Germany). Stuttgart, 1997.
  • Tally, Robert T. Spatiality. New Critical Idiom. Abingdon, Oxon ; New York: Routledge, 2013.
  • The Heroic Life and Exploits of Siegfried the Dragon Slayer; an Old German Story. With Illustrations Designed by Wilhelm Kaulbach. No Place, Unknown, or Undetermined: J. Cundall, 1848, 1848.
  • Varnedoe, Kirk. Vienna 1900 : Art, Architecture & Design. New York : Boston: Museum of Modern Art ; Distributed by New York Graphic Society Books/Little, Brown, 1986.
  • Victoria M. Stiles. “The Siegfried Legend and the Silent Screens…. Fritz Lang’s Interpretation of a Hero Saga.” Literature Film Quarterly 8, no. 4 (1980): 232-36.
  • The Vienna Secession. “Carl Otto Czeschka.” Monday 17th January, 2022.
  • Wilson, Jeffrey K.,. “Chapter one. National Landscape and National Memory” In The German Forest: Nature, Identity, and the Contestation of a National Symbol, 1871-1914, 16-48. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2019.
  • Winkler, MM. “Fritz Lang’s Mediaevalism: From “Die Nibelungen” to the American West.” Mosaic (Winnipeg) 36, no. 1 (2003): 135-46.
  • Winckelmann, J. J. Gedanken über die Nachahmung der Griechischen Werke in dDer Malerei uUnd Bildhauerkunst . 1. Ausg. 1755 Mit Oesers Vign. Reprint 2020 ed. Deutsche Literaturdenkmale Des 18. Und 19. Jahrhunderts in Neudr. ; 20. Berlin ; Boston, 2021.
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