- Richard Wagner, Fritz Lang, and the Nibelungen: The Dramaturgy of Disavowal
Within the German tradition, few bodies of literary material have experienced as fraught a history of interpretation as the Nibelungen myth. This history has persistently accompanied adaptations of the myth into a contentious present, as recent controversies over stagings and venues of Der Ring clearly attest. David Levin’s book opens by briefly sketching the difficult, doubled response to such overdetermined material exemplified in two recent Berlin stagings of Die Nibelungen, Friedrich Hebbel’s two-part mid-nineteenth-century drama. Frank Castorf’s 1995 staging at the Volksbühne was expressly concerned with the material’s ideological entwinements, “its cultural, historical, and political saturation,” staging the text itself as “unreadable” (4). By contrast Thomas Langhoff’s contemporaneous production of part two of the same play at the Deutsches Theater, insistent on a textual readability and interpretability, hoped to “reinflect the work by critically reinflecting its text” (4).
This dramaturgical polemic, with its opposing priorities and protocols, has a critical counterpart. There is a well-established mode of criticism, generally in dialogue with the Benjaminian-Brechtian critique of the aestheticization of politics, concerned with the ideologies of national representation expressed in the Nibelungen material. This approach investigates the history of the political appropriations and exploitations of the myth, the effort to establish Germany’s national legitimacy in cultural terms, and the function of anti-Semitism in constructing a cultural and national identity. Such criticism typically suspends any interest in the formal parameters of the works discussed, posing its questions primarily according to content, intent, and biography. This is what Levin sets himself off from; his effort is to examine this material “on the level of aesthetics” (4), as “questions of form” (10). This study is therefore less interested in what happens to the tale in the reiterations of the Nibelungen myth than in “what happens to the telling in its retelling” (18). Levin directs this shifted critical perspective at two of its central adaptations, Wagner’s tetraology Der Ring for the operatic stage and Fritz Lang’s two-part film Die Nibelungen for the silent screen, which premiered [End Page 689] within approximately half a century of one another and during a period of concentrated cultural interest in the Nibelungen material.
The appeal of Levin’s approach for literary and film studies is that, without ignoring or minimizing defining aspects of the reception of the Nibelung myth (the aggression it articulates, its plasticity as a reservoir for anti-Semitic and nationalist sentiment), he analyzes a specifically literary, viz. filmic, object. Drawing on a narratological and psychoanalytic vocabulary, Levin’s analysis uncovers the particular literary and dramaturgical motivations of these works. This moves the study beyond a mere thematic unity—which the title at first glance might imply—to a conceptual cohesiveness. What prompts this transformation of the usual terms of analysis from content to form is the concern these works themselves exhibit with their own readability. Both Der Ring and Die Nibelungen reveal concerns with representation and articulate these concerns with specific reference to their respective media, as problems of dramatic and visual presentation. Levin thus proposes to read both works “allegorically” (7). It is the self-reflexive aspect of the works under discussion which organizes this study.
Levin identifies the self-reflexivity of Der Ring and Die Nibelungen as an operation of disavowal. The model referred to (whose explication is strangely reserved for a brief postscript when it might have been more profitably cast into the first chapter) is that of Freudian Verleugnung. In the scenario of disavowal proposed by Freud, the traumatic recognition of lack is relieved by recourse to figuration. Defined against the exclusionary practices of denial and repression, disavowal is an inclusive response to negation and absence, a compensatory or redeeming structure. In the work of Wagner and Lang this compensatory figuration is of a specific kind and content: “[T]he disavowal in the Ring and in Lang’s Die Nibelungen is not simply interesting for taking aesthetic form, but...