Director: Arnold Fanck. UfA/Parufamet. (U)
Producer: Harry R. Sokal.
Writers: Arnold Fanck, Hans Schneeberger.
Camera: Sepp Allgeier, Helmer Lerski, Hans Schneeberger, Arnold Fanck.
Music: Edmund Meisel.
Sets: Leopold Blonder.
Leni Riefenstahl, Ernst Petersen, Luis Trenker, Frida Richard, Friedrich Schneider, Hannes Schneider.
Diotima (Riefenstahl) is an acclaimed dancer who lives in the Alps. She falls in love with Karl (Trenker), a reckless mountaineer and adventurer and the two become engaged. Karl’s best friend Vigo (Petersen), a young alpine sports competitor, develops a boyish crush on Diotima. Karl, on seeing them in a friendly embrace, mistakenly sees an affair and challenges his friend to a treacherous mountain climb. Vigo accepts and they head off into the dangerous weather conditions, Diotima chasing after them.
The extraordinary roller-coaster that was German cinema after the First World War and during the 1920’s encompassed the deranged, outward visual fantasies of Expressionism (The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, 1919), mammoth mythical epics from the Germanic past (Siegfried, 1924), slice of life realism ‘street movies’ (The Joyless Street, 1925) and movies such as this, the ‘Bergfilm’ (mountain film) which extolled the rugged, beauty of alpine nature and physical outdoor pursuits, a very German occupation.
The best of these were made by ‘Dr’ Fanck who made a series of these romantic dramas, most or all of which starred his repertory company of actors/stunt people such as Trenker, Petersen and Riefenstahl (more of whom later). The story is unabashedly simple, but narrative always took a back seat on the snow plough in Fanck’s films as the scenery, sports, heroics and comradeship were the focus.
He does create an interesting character in Diotima though. We need no titles to tell us that this woman is the embodiment of her surroundings. A raw and untamed sexuality, we first see her as a silouhette slowly appearing and almost merging with the landscape. Diotima is the land, air and water; her opening dance has her swirling on the coast, conjuring up a tempest as her movements become more energetic.
Fanck does not present his setting as some glittery, tinsle-strewn winter wonderland. The picture postcard beauty of the Alps is off-set by the violent nature of these environs, the increasing aggression of the weather clearly matching the heated emotions of the characters as the love triangle develops. There are swirling rivers , biting winds and deathly avalanches that not only shape the mountains, but also the lives of those who worship these hellish peaks. There are some lovingly filmed moments; Trenker imagining a mighty palace of ice as a home for him and Riefenstahl as he becomes delirious during a storm and the blue-tinted night time search party, lit by flares.
Fanck’s prologue explaining that there is no trick photography is no false claim, the daredevil skiing and mountaineering sequences were largely filmed on location and features the actual stars.
The performances are largely neglected, but Trenker makes a stout hero and Petersen’s throbs with the right sort of hormonally challenged enthusiasm. Riefenstahl was most certainly a better director than an actress and, given the fitful, epileptic dance she employs, a far greater actress than a hoofer.
Comfortably viewing with hindsight, this is a seductive but slightly dangerous film. One can pick out and analyse the calling cards of proto Nazism in the sweet symbolism. It is in fact difficult to divorce one’s thinking from going down that mountain path, particularly considering Riefenstahl’s later career as the most technically and artistically gifted film-maker employed during the Nazi regime, making a handful of documentaries that would propel and then destroy her career. But Fanck’s film still stays on the right side of the peaks, as an otherwise innocent fusing of the deep bond, respect and love between man and nature, a respect for our world that is mostly missing from modern cinema.