On Archive.org, the Lovecraft rave-fave movie Fritz Lang’s Siegfried (1924 Germany, 1925 USA), released in America in New York on 23rd August 1925.
Lovecraft wrote in a letter dated 12th September 1925 that he had seen this epic new movie and that it was for him…
“a stupendous spectacle [of] the scattered myths of the Nibelung ring from the early Volsung Saga to the Wagnerian […] it was an ecstasy & a delight to be remembered forever!”
Though far from being any great appreciator of the type of music involved, Lovecraft felt emotionally and creatively stirred by the bass, writing that…
“The musick, too, was of ineffable inspiration. […] Nothing had so inspired me in weeks, & I believe a masterful daemon-tale could be founded upon the sinister bass musick from “Reingold” (played when Siegfried overpowers the King of the Niebelungs & seizes their treasure) alone.”
According to the historians the main (perhaps only) New York cinema showing Siegfried had apparently specially equipped itself with advanced audio equipment, so as to project the fine subtleties of the music. Thus Lovecraft may have been physically as well as emotionally stirred by the bass notes.
Curiously, Siegfried does not appear to be mentioned in the Letters from New York volume during the letters for the fall/autumn of 1925. Nor is it in the index. Instead we only learn there that Lovecraft saw the new movie of The Phantom of the Opera during that month. This rather significant omission is interesting in itself, as it seems to confirm that Letters from New York is not to be understood to be the definitive autobiographical account from Lovecraft of his New York years.
The de Camp Lovecraft biography has it that… “Arthur Leeds treated Lovecraft to a showing of the silent German motion picture Siegfried”. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the impoverished Leeds was flush with cash at this point, as his long-standing movie industry connections (12 years before he had been Editor of Scripts at the major Edison studio, located in the Bronx) may have gained him free tickets in exchange for a trade press review. He was also a great appreciator of recorded music and had been a columnist on The Music Trades magazine in the early 1920s, and may have continued in this line into the mid 1920s.
Or perhaps Leeds had just cashed the payment from Farnsworth Wright for his story “Return of the Undead” (Weird Tales, November 1925). The letter writers of ‘The Eyrie’ later stated… “I nominate it as the weirdest of weird tales” and it was “closely pressed for first honors” [in that issue], so he might have been feeling quite pleased at his future prospects. Thus Leeds might have felt he was ‘in’ with Weird Tales, and that income might soon be flowing from there.
Thus, either way, the tickets. Lucky Lovecraft.
de Camp also offers a quote from Lovecraft’s 12th September 1925 letter on Siegfried, in which Lovecraft does seem to imply that Wagner’s music gave him some genuine inkling of the emotional texture of the ancient Northern spirit…
“It was the very inmost soul of the immortal & unconquerable blond Nordic, embodied in the shining warrior of light, great Siegfried, slayer of monsters and enslaver of kings…. The musick, too, was of ineffable inspiration. Insensible as I am to musick in general, I cannot escape the magic of Wagner, whose genius caught the deepest spirit of those ancestral yellow-bearded gods of war & dominion before whom my own soul bows as before no others — Wooden, Thor, Freyr, & the vast Alfadur — frosty blue-eyed giants worthy of the adoration of a conquering people!”
Piecing together fragments of movie history available on Google Books, one can determine that the 1925 USA version of the movie was “shortened for export” at “about 9,000 feet” from 10,500 feet.. Which might equate to perhaps 12 to 15 minutes of cuts, assuming a highly professional New York hand-cranking projectionist who didn’t just ‘crank it through’ at 1.5x speed. One assumes the requirements of the music speed restrained his hand from fast-cranking. Some “scenes unflattering to the hero” were apparently cut. There’s no mention that the German inter-titles were translated to English for the USA version, or that some sort of voice-over or live stage speaker read out the inter-titles in English.
There were two movies, the first being Siegfried. The later one doesn’t seem to have had any substantial release in the USA in the 1920s or 30s. It had one gala screening in New York, it seems, and then it went onto what the history books vaguely call the ‘Art House’ circuit for a limited run. Lovecraft was back in Providence at that point, and so far as I know there was no ‘Art House’ cinema in Providence in the 1930s. Perhaps there was one in rarefied Boston? Or possibly he might have seen it on one of his summer travels to other cities, but at that time he most likely lacked the cash to see such a long and niche movie. And if he had seen ‘part two’, then he would surely have mentioned it in a letter.
An HD restoration of Siegfried was released as Die Nibelungen on Blu-ray and DVD in 2012, presumably with the footage missing from the American release that Lovecraft saw. It has the first and second movie and also includes a 70 minute “The Legacy of Die Nibelungen” documentary on the restoration work, and English subtitles for the German inter-titles. I don’t like the digitally-applied heavy gold tinting throughout, and you may want to use a video player that can apply a greyscale or partial-desaturation filter in real-time.
Siegfried is also of interest because J.R.R. Tolkien is somewhat likely to have seen it. While his imagination was already well infused with such Northern materials in their most potent linguistic forms, in the early years of his professional career he might have taken the time to travel from Leeds to view a major work such as Siegfried. Perhaps even taken his students to see it. It appears to have played the UK in the spring and summer of 1924.
1. [↑] A possible inspiration ‘seed’ for the penetrating dream-sonics in the first part of “The Call of Cthulhu”? Although Lovecraft had written out the basic plot for “The Call of Cthulhu” a month earlier (“a new story plot — perhaps a short novel”). But we don’t know when the idea of the dream-sonics arose, which in the published story appear in passages such as… “from some undetermined point below had come a voice that was not a voice; a chaotic sensation which only fancy could transmute into sound … a subterrene voice or intelligence shouting monotonously in enigmatical sense-impacts”. That reads kind of like what opera sounds like, to me.
2. [↑] A Companion to Fritz Lang.
3. [↑] Distributing Silent Film Serials: Local Practices, Changing Forms.