A German Equivalent of American Westerns

A mountaineer turned amateur filmmaker who became a major figure in German silent cinema, Arnold Fanck (1889-1974) is remembered largely as the man who made the dancer and future Nazi documentarian Leni Riefenstahl a star — typically, she would claim, at her suggestion.

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J. Hoberman
, New York Times

A mountaineer turned amateur filmmaker who became a major figure in German silent cinema, Arnold Fanck (1889-1974) is remembered largely as the man who made the dancer and future Nazi documentarian Leni Riefenstahl a star — typically, she would claim, at her suggestion.

Dr. Fanck, as he was often billed (he had a doctorate in geology), maintained that he had only seen one movie in his life when he made his first film, “The Miracle of Skiing,” in 1919. Over the next few years, he took the lead in developing a genre: the Bergfilm, ormountain film. These tales of reckless young mountaineers shot under arduous conditions in spectacular Alpine locations, resonated so powerfully with pre-World War II German audiences that they have been compared, as a specific cultural expression, to American Westerns.

For a long time, Riefenstahl, who died in 2003 at 101, was said to have had the only surviving nitrate print of Fanck’s “The Holy Mountain: A Drama Poem With Scenes From Nature” (1926), her screen-acting debut. Evidently not. Recently released in a tinted 2K restoration from Kino and available for streaming from Kanopy, it can take its place as a minor classic of the German silent cinema.

The Bergfilm offered something new. German film historian Siegfried Kracauer called Fanck’s movies “extraordinary in that they captured the most grandiose aspects of nature at a time when the German screen in general offered nothing but studio-made scenery.” Still, Kracauer could not help but feel “irritated at the mixture of sparking ice-axes and inflated sentiments,” not to mention the genre’s irrational “idolatry of glaciers and rocks” and glorification of stern, pure supermen. (The landscapes were not the Bergfilm’s only documentary aspect; Fanck’s actors were required to perform their own stunts — broken bones were not unusual.)

“The sublime and the ridiculous are often so nearly related, that it is difficult to class them separately,” Tom Paine wrote in “The Age of Reason.” So it is with “The Holy Mountain,” which stars Riefenstahl, just 24 when the movie was released after several years in production, as a madcap child of nature whose flirtatious ways and “artistic” dances drive a pair of young mountaineers (one, Luis Trenker, who would be a major German star) to take impossible chances while scaling the sheer cliff of the peak’s “dreadful north face.”

Before the two men meet their icy doom, Fanck treats the spectator to feats of ski jumping and a prolonged race whose slow-motion and aerial perspectives provided Riefenstahl ideas for her documentary of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Fanck himself made one of the first Olympic films, recording the 1928 Winter Games in St. Moritz. (The movie is included in the Criterion box “100 Years of Olympic Films 1912-2012.”) Riefenstahl has a cameo, falling on her behind during a demonstration of horse-drawn skijoring. The fearsome mountain Pitz Palu looms in the background, offering a foretaste of Fanck’s next movie.

Nature is an anthropomorphized dramatic element in “The White Hell of Pitz Palu,” a silent film first released in 1929 that may be found in a restored print on YouTube. It also exists in an Americana version with an English-language voice-over regarded as superfluous by New York Times critic Mordaunt Hall when it opened here in 1930. “It is a strange tale,” he wrote, “Despite its surface simplicity there is a swift undercurrent of tenseness and anticipation that carries one along through the avalanches, up the precipitous and threatening mountainside and finally to the climax of the rescue.”

No less beautiful in its cloud formations and vaporous snow storms than “Holy Mountain,” “White Hell” is a sort of romantic triangle in which Riefenstahl and two men attempt an insane ascent of the very mountain where the older man lost his young bride some years before. “Holy Mountain” has one character freeze to death dangling in midair; “White Hell” is even more intense in dramatizing a physical ordeal.

Riefenstahl and her companions are stuck on a tiny ledge for three nights while skiers are trapped in an ice cave below. Meanwhile, a biplane flies over and around the mountain searching for signs of life. (Wartime aviator Ernst Udet’s stunt flying may be the equal of the stunt climbing.) That the movie seems the summit of Fanck’s art may be attributed to the producer’s engaging the great G.W. Pabst to direct the dramatic scenes — most famously when a wide-eyed Riefenstahl, shown largely in close-up, helps one of her companions in tying down the other who has gone mad from the cold. In her memoir, Riefenstahl takes credit for recruiting both Pabst and Udet.

In part because of its association with Riefenstahl as well as its glorification of individual will and natural superiority, the Bergfilm genre has been seen as proto-fascist cinema. The connection is not unfounded although in their day, Fanck’s films were admired for their athletic displays and sensational photography by left-wing as well as right-wing critics — the Communist Party paper Red Flame characterized “White Hell” as “undoubtedly one of the best German films ever.”

Fanck, who managed to avoid joining the Nazi Party until 1940, shortly after the war broke out, exemplified a strain of German Romanticism — the nature worship found in the paintings of 19th-century artist Caspar David Friedrich and certain films by Werner Herzog. Herzog once called himself a director of landscapes. The same could be equally said of Fanck, although it could also be said that the German political landscape ultimately directed him.


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