Grade: BHoly Mountain, The (1926)

Director: Arnold Fanck

Stars: Leni Riefenstahl, Luis Trenker, Ernst Petersen

Release Company: Kino Video

MPAA Rating: NR

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Fanck: The Holy Mountain


A View of the Majestic Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps
A View of the Majestic Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps Photographic Print
Wiltsie, Gordon
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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 years later.

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.


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