OK, so in my last post I scourged myself for past sins by watching the first part of 2004 Germany TV miniseries Sword of Xanten, alias Curse of the Ring, alias Dark Kingdom: the Dragon King, alias Fantasy-sounding Word: The Swordening. When you have this many titles, you know you’re in for some business.
When last we left, dimwitted but well-meaning hero Siegfried (Benno Furmann) had remembered that he was actually a king and was going to take all his hard-won gold back to his castle. Meanwhile, sleazy weasel Hagen (Julian Sands) and hairy weirdo Alberich (some guy) were planning to use a love potion to wed Siegfried to already-smitten princess Kriemhild (Alicia Witt) rather than to his One True Love, badass warrior queen Brunnhild (Kristanna Loken). Also present: nice but naive King Gunther (Samuel West), surrogate dad Eyvind (Max von Sydow) and doofus prince Giselher (Robert Pattinson). Clear so far? OK, let’s go!
Meanwhile, Eyvind, who was swording two fools at once earlier in this movie, is suddenly dying of old age. He and Benno reenact Yoda’s death scene. Eyvind bangs on about the gods and the old ways and stuff, and it’s all very moving because it’s Max von Sydow, but still. They do a boat-on-fire funeral, “the old way” despite no evidence this ever happened. We cut to Brunnhild monologuing to remind us that she still exists. Kriemhild, misled by her love for Siegfried, slips him Hagen’s mystical mickey and he gives her the goo-goo-googly eyes. Honestly, he spends about a third of this thing high as the moon. They get it on; Brunnhild’s raven sidekick is going to tell her, but Hagen shoots it down. Actually, that’s kind of a neat thing about the film: there’s a bird motif, so that Kriemhild is often accompanied by her hawk and Brunnhild by her raven.
Siegfried wants to marry Kriemhild, but first Gunther wants to get married. Oh snap! He wants to marry Brunnhild. So Siegfried has to fight Brunnhild wearing the Tarnhelm, which Hagen wants to steal. Again, we know how this goes. They set out for Iceland. Giselher stows away. Siegfried disguises himself as Gunther with the Tarnhelm. Giselher doesn’t know about the plan. Tragedy is a tricky thing; it can also just be boring, since everyone already knows how it’s going to end. There is an axe fight on some unconvincing ice-floe backdrop. Brunnhild agrees to marry Gunther. She is disappointed. Meanwhile, Kriemhild has the ri
ng and is a-coveting of the treasure. Brunnhild’s witch-lady suspects something is up. The guys go home and there is much rejoicing. Brunnhild is all heartbroken, but Kriemhild doesn’t know that the mysterious other woman is her brother’s new wife.
In some tragedies, events rush toward doom with the horrible inevitability of a raft going over the waterfall. In others, they just lumber toward a rote conclusion. This one feels like the latter, but maybe that’s because typing this is making my hands hurt.
For some reason, people in this show sometimes speak in what I guess is probably Middle High German. But presumably everyone would be speaking that, or Old High German, or Old Norse, or whatever. Beats me. Anyway, Siegfried puts on a set of white pyjamas and gets married to Kriemhild. Apparently he has converted to Christianity at some point. Everybody is getting married on the church steps for some reason. Then there’s a big Medieval Tymes party with lots of guys clanging swords together and tootly flute music and roast beast. Brunnhild challenges Siegfried to a fight. They both have magic meteoric iron weapons, but she whups him. Aaaaaaaawkward. But not as awkward as the chastity-belt scene that follows, in which Brunnhild discovers Gunther’s deception when she discovers he’s a weed.
Gunther, increasingly turning out to be an SOB, persuades Siegfried to go and impersonate him once again, stealing the belt. There have not been nearly enough blood-drinking episodes in this thing. It’s mostly just Wagner. Pfft. Anyway, Siegfried, disguised as Gunther, steals the belt in a scene that is just … we’re starting to get into The Conqueror territory here.
OK, pro tip for any intriguers, backstabbers, philanderers, deceivers and scoundrels out there: if you are carrying a piece of incriminating evidence, for the love of all that is holy, do not say “nothing important.” Kriemhild gets hold of the belt from Siegfried due to him being the worst liar in all of history, and then, motivated by a pissing contest over royal precedent, spills the beans to Brunnhild.
Oh Lord, I can see the end coming. Hagen poisons Gunther against Siegfried. Brunnhild wants everyone dead. TOOT TOOT! All aboard the murder train! Brunnhild realises it wasn’t Siegfried’s fault, but Hagen kills him before she can change her mind, and even if she had who knows, I mean that dude is Julian Sands. That’s not a guy to back when you don’t want evil shit to happen. Gunther and Hagen try to cover it up, but Geezer (as my wife calls him) and Kriemhild aren’t buying it. Hagen, who I forgot was Alberich’s son, stabs Gunther. Giselher goes after Hagen, who thumps him. The various retainers switch sides, but Brunnhild wades through them and then takes out Hagen. Then she kills herself, so we’re just left with Kriemhild and Goosey. Kriemhild quotes the Havamal, which I guess you can’t get away without doing.
OK, what have we learned from
just getting punched in the stomach over and over wait I mean watching Sword of Xanten?
- All of late antique / early medieval northern Europe is one big ambiguously Nordic cultural mass that you can just moonge together.
- When in doubt, but a bunch of swirly curlicues on things and then light them on fire.
- Pronouncing your ‘t’ sounds very firmly makes you sound more like a Viking (see also Vikings).
Now, in fairness, treating all of late antique/early medieval Northern Europe as a single canvas to smush together is the authentic saga way of doing it. The story of Gudrun, for instance, drags in Ermanaric and Attila the Hun of all people, who lived like a century apart and neither of them near the time the rest of the story is sort of nominally set.
So in a way I guess that this is just another entry in the genre of stories about Sigurd / Siegfried. It’s not like there’s a single canonical one that all the other ones are inferior copies of, like there would be if you were adapting a novel. There were clearly lots of stories about this guy floating around, and what’s one more or less? This is an imaginary story. Aren’t they all?
On the other hand, I do hate it when a modern remake is just a gutless reskinning of something that already exists. Like, I don’t know what I was supposed to take away from this that I didn’t already get from Wagner or Baby’s First Book of Vikings or something. And I do feel like they missed some opportunities in terms of dramatic moments. Here is my favourite excerpt from Adventure XXXVI of the Nibelungenlied:
Then Etzel’s wife gave the order to fire the hall. Fanned by the wind, the whole house was soon burning, and a new ordeal began for the knights inside. No troops can ever have been in more desperate straits …
And one of them said: “We shall all die. … This heat and this tormenting thirst will kill me. I can’t stand it any longer.”
Hagen of Tronege answered him: “You noble knights, if anyone is suffering from thirst, drink up some of this blood. In a heat like this, it’s better than wine. In any case, it’s the best we’ve got at the moment.”
And one of the knights went to a corpse, knelt down, took off his helmet, and drank the blood as it flowed from the wounds. It was hardly a drink he’d been used to, but it tasted good to him all the same. “God reward you, Lord Hagen,” said the weary man, “for showing me such a drink. I’ve seldom had better wine served out to me. If I live long enough, I’ll remember your kindness.” When the others heard him praising the drink, a lot more followed his example, and each of them was filled with new strength. Many fine ladies paid for this with their friends’ lives.”
There is not a second of Sword of Xanten that is on that level.