Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The Holy Mountain

Arnold Fanck, the director whose work defined the Bergfilm genre, was born in 1889 and first encountered mountains at Davos as a child while recovering from asthma. He became a professional geologist, but also found time to become a skier and amateur photographer. Fanck’s debut film was The Wonders of Skiing (1919) and subsequent films celebrated the mountains through a mixture of documentary and narrative elements. In 1924 Mountain of Destiny so impressed the young dancer Leni Riefenstahl that she got in touch with Fanck to ask if she could appear in his next film. The Holy Mountain (1926) was the first of six mountain films they made together.

The Holy Mountain’s full title was Der heilige Berg: Ein Heldenlied aus ragender Högbenwelt. ‘Heldenleid’ means ‘heroic song’ and the film features a Nietzschean hero (Luis Trenker) who climbs the Alps to find himself, and to escape the rabble below. These elements of the story are undoubtedly difficult to take in light of the subsequent careers of actors and director under the Nazis. Trenker’s tormented Romantic idealist contrasts with the light-hearted young skier Vigo (Ernst Peterson) who features in the joyous and visually beautiful footage of the winter sports. The uneasy blend of fiction and winter sports in the film mirror the divided characters of the two men, who both desire the dancer played by Riefenstahl. Whilst The Holy Mountain is marred overall by Romantic clichĂ© and a proto-Fascist aesthetic, there are certain scenes where the beauty and excitement of mountains is vividly captured.

Mountain landscapes in The Holy Mountain are filmed in dramatic black and white. There is a memorable long-shot of skiers descending a slope, carving patterns in virgin snow. In the opening scenes Riefenstahl is silhouetted against the sea, and in the climactic scene on the mountain, the two climbers are fragile dark figures making their way up, as wind-blown snow cascades down the slope. Riefenstahl developed a similar visual sense in the later films she directed. In Tiefland, filmed during the Second World War at a time when colour films had become the norm, she explicitly set out to show what could still be achieved by black and white photography. And back in 1926, in Fanck’s temporary absence, Riefenstahl had directed one of the best scenes in The Holy Mountain, in which night skiers glide along carrying flares, their moving images reflected in water.

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