Saturday, February 18, 2012

The White Hell of Pitz Palü, Sturdy Pre-Hitler Leni Riefenstahl and the Strange and Fascinating Allure of the German Mountain Film

Before Adolph Hitler and his National Socialist party came to terrible power.  Before the Nuremburg Laws were heinously put into effect. Before the Third Reich's invasion of Poland and Czechoslovakia and the inevitable advent of World War II.  Before the horrors of the Holocaust.  Before the Berlin Wall split the nation in two.  Before the likes of Lang and Wilder and Sirk and Lubitsch escaped to Hollywood and (relative) artistic freedom.  Before there was ever a Fassbinder or a Herzog or Wim Wenders.  Before any of this there was the natural beauty and simple, pure pleasure of the German Mountain Film.  And the greatest of this forgotten genre was Arnold Fanck and G.W. Pabst's two and a half hour silent masterpiece, The White Hell of Pitz Palü.

This sweeping and quite harrowing film (especially harrowing for this admitted acrophobic) is used as an important and quite intriguing talking point in Quentin Tarantino's own alt-history WWII masterpiece Inglourious Basterds as poor Archie Hickox tries to get around his bad German accent by using this film and a story of growing up in the setting's valley as an excuse (it doesn't work).   Tarantino, the ever consummate cinephile plays highly with the Weimar era German cinema in his film, but given the circumstances, he only scratches the proverbial surface.   Thought of with a sense of national pride, the German mountain film, as opposed to the contemporaneous  Expressionist cinema and its own inherent avant-gardism, tried bringing the ideal of the human form, in both its physicality and spirituality, to the forefront of the film industry.  Though, again as opposed to the aforementioned German Expressionism (aka, Murnau, Lang, Weine etc), the mountain film is pretty much forgotten in this day and age.  Well, forgotten except for perhaps QT, myself and a few German film scholars.

Palü, along with films such as The Holy Mountain and The Great Leap (also directed by Fanck), could never be accused of being overly creative in their storytelling techniques - men go up a mountain, some do not come back - nor would I say they were generally greater than many of the Expresionist pieces of the day, but the sheer visual beauty of the mountains themselves (the Bernina range in the Alps) and the way Fanck filmed them (Pabst, a great director of the urban underworld of 1920's Berlin, put his directorial input in with the indoor and mountain'less' portions of the film) are something to never be forgotten.  The swift, thundering avalanches, the devastating wind swooping off the mountaintops, the monstrous vehicle that is nature, coming down upon the specks of bravado-laden humanity that dare brave these near peerless peaks.  The White Hell of Pitz Palü is a dangerous motion picture in both its epic destruction of man's hope and the redemptive nature of his resolve.  Beautiful and dangerous indeed, but there is something else in these films that make them even more beautiful, and ultimately one might say, even more dangerous.  That something is the lithe yet sturdy frame of the most famous actress in 1920's German cinema, and eventually the most despised woman in all of film history, miss Leni Riefenstahl.

Riefenstahl, who would go on to become a director herself (1932's The Blue Light, one of the last mountain films, was her debut behind the camera) and later one of the most infamous people in the world as Hitler's favourite filmmaker (and some refuted sources, his lover) and the woman behind the supposedly propagandist Triumph of the Will and Olympia, was merely a girl who wanted to climb mountains with the man she loved.  Strangely attractive, Riefenstahl was the standard bearer of the female form in both pre-Hitler and post-Hitler Germany.  Shapely and athletic, she was a true nature girl.  Her eyes were set ever so slightly too close to one another, but this just gave her a sort of otherwordly beauty.  Her brown hair and broad yet feminine shoulders, her muscular legs and strangely pristine feet (she would climb mountains, the non-iced ones, barefoot!?), her narrow European nose, her wide exuberant smile, her inset eyes that could work wonders on a young man's soul, her seemingly endless energy.

These are the qualities that made the young Riefenstahl such the perfect figure to play these mountain-climbing heroines of yore.  These are also the qualities that would eventually bring the sexy budding director to the notice of one Adolph Hitler, and hitherto, the most hated woman in film history.  Whether this infamous moniker is deserved or not really depends on one's thoughts on whether an artist is responsible for how their art is used.  I am not really going to get into such a debate here and now, for this is the story of Riefenstahl as an actor and not the director she would become, other than to say that her work is some of the most vibrant and most visually groundbreaking in cinematic history and she should be held accountable for the aesthetic value of such, and nothing that may have been out of her own hands.   Did she know the breadth of Hitler's plans?  His antisemitism?  His final solution?  Riefenstahl was just trying to make the best, the most beautiful film she could.   If nothing else, Riefenstahl was a director of perfection and thus showed that ideal through her camera.  Needless to say, Hitler and Goebbels (who incidentally was not fond of the uncontrollable director) also held to this ideal of perfection and therefore would use these films as propaganda.  But I digress.

Recently, Germany produced a new mountain film with 2008's North Face (directed by Philipp Stötzl), whose plot was rather similar to The Holy Mountain, and though its modern day style lacks something of the artistry of the silent era (or perhaps that is just my own sense of classic film snobbery) it does play out as a surprisingly well-honed homage.  When all is said and done it is the mostly forgotten mountain films of Weimar Era Germany that even within their rather restrictive storylines - again, men  (and women) go up a mountain, some do not come back down - when seen on a big screen, which I have been lucky enough to have seen just that way, are giant creatures of cinematic bravura that deserve more than a bit more recognition than what they normally receive.  The chilling agonies of those trapped on the mountain make our hearts race unlike any cheap action flick of today (there's that film snobbery again).  These are not studio films.  These are movies not only set in the mountains but also filmed there.  Riefenstahl laughed about how Fanck had brought down an avalanche upon her, only to do it a second take.  Harrowing is indeed the perfect word to describe such brilliantly naturalistic subversive films as these, and especially of that apex of them all, The White Hell of Pitz Palü.


2 comments:

Michaël Parent said...

Very interesting piece Kevyn! Having only seen The Triumph of the Will from Riefenstahl and Pabst's Pandora's Box I did not knew that they made those Mountian films. This is a sub-genre I'll have to check sometime soon!
I remembered that Tarantino added the name of G.W. Pabst in the card game played in Inglourious Basterds and I supposed that the film buff he is surely saw all of his films... It is another proof that QT is an encyclopeadia of Cinematic knowledge and talent. Thanks for bringing light into this obscure part of my cinematic knowledge!

Kevyn Knox said...

These are definitely a rather obscure pack of films (overlooked in the history of the period by the Expressionist films) but well worth the look.