Classically pitting man
against nature, "mountain films" are as indigenous
to German cinema as Westerns are to American cinema.
The genre reached its peak in the 1920s when Dr.
Arnold Fanck braved treacherous conditions in the
Alps to capture their stunning beauty along with
breathtaking action, using experienced mountain
climbers and skiers. Fanck began his film career
shortly after the end of World War I and created
a number of popular genre films; however, his most
noteworthy project remains The Holy
Mountain (Der Heilige
Berg), due to its association with
iconoclastic Leni Riefenstahl.
Destined for infamy for
her association with Adolph Hitler and Nazism, the
future filmmaker was first inspired by Fanck's 1924
Mountain of Destiny; she immediately tracked down
Fanck in the Alps and convinced him to create a
film with her as the lead actress. Written in three
days and taking over a year to film, The
Holy Mountain is the result. The film's
historical value alone makes it worth seeing--especially
now after painstaking restoration and preservation
that is readily available through Kino Video's DVD
release. But the film has much more going for it
than history. Despite its routine melodramatic narrative
about a love triangle, Fanck's 1926 silent film
mesmerizes with dazzling photography and artistry.
It all starts with Riefenstahl,
who debuts as a famous dancer named Diotima. During
opening prelude Riefenstahl choreographs her moves
to the pounding rhythms of breaking ocean waves
to establish her robust nature woman persona. Fanck
bookends the mountain film with the ocean, a visual
reminder of Nature's eternal power, relentlessness,
and indifference. As illustrated here, Man can never
overcome Nature but must strive to be in sync with
its natural laws and cycles—Diotima freely dances
with the surf while the men must invoke a long established
rigid code for mountain survival.
The male protagonists are
mountain climbing comrades, who both fall in love
with the beautiful dancer—the Friend (Luis Trenker)
and the younger Vigo (Ernst Petersen). Unfortunately,
the men follow the masculine ideals personified
by the silent, rugged mountains and hide their longings
from each other. After seeing Diotima perform, the
smitten Friend treks off in search of the region's
most beautiful mountain setting that would best
suit a marriage proposal. Meanwhile, Vigo seeks
Diotima's attentions by performing way beyond expectations
in alpine skiing.
When the Friend returns,
he sees young Vigo with Diotima and jealously expects
the worst. He then demands that the two climb the
north face of Santo Mountain in the dead of winter
to demonstrate their courage and sense of adventure.
Realizing the danger and craziness of his friend's
idea, Vigo protests but soon gives in—ideals of
loyalty pre-empt logic and safety. The mentality
illustrated makes for interesting speculation about
how Hitler was able to manipulate the German people
The plot proceeds predictably,
but that's not what makes Fanck's film so fascinating.
Considering that The Holy Mountain was filmed eighty
years ago, the location camera-work is simply amazing!
No Bruckheimer fireworks necessary, the action sequences
remain exhilarating—and we know that no camera trickery
or CGI work has gone into them. The ski jumps, cross-country
racing, and perilous mountain climbing/slipping/falling
are all the real deal. The actors, their stand-ins,
and the filmmakers are literally risking their lives
in a number of sequences.
Besides the variety of techniques
used to capture the action, the still black and
white photography is worth seeing—you may recognize
a few scenes inadvertently. Stills have been displayed
in art museums. Fanck and his crew of cinematographers
possess an impeccable sense for composition and
lighting; the Alps retain their majesty all the
better with Fanck's framing.
If Fanck's only claim to
fame was being mentor to Leni Riefenstahl, his place
in film history would remain secure (though a small
footnote). He has much in common with the controversial
filmmaker; he also chose to cooperate with Nazi
regime to continue his film work, only to find himself
out of work after WWII. He eventually received some
artistic recognition in his latter years but not
nearly what he deserves. Fanck's misfortune rests
within the alpine settings that he labored in; few
continue to clamor for German mountain films. Most
of Fanck's admirers will now come from film schools
and film history classes.