Saturday, 21 March 2015

Mountains of the mind… The Holy Mountain (1926)


Arnold Fanck’s The Holy Mountain (Der Heilige Berg) premiered on 17th December 1926 and starred dancer-turned-actress, later director, propagandist, wildlife and anthropological documentary film maker, Leni Riefenstahl - one of the most loaded names in cinema history.

Its opening credits announce that all the outdoor shots were filmed on the mountains with the aid of local climbers whilst the film’s ski race was also filmed “live” using experts from Germany, Austria and Norway. It is described as “A Drama Poem with scenes from nature by Dr. Arnold Fanck…” and one which is “Dedicated to his late friend, mountaineer Dr. Hans Rhode with reverence…

Leni Riefenstahl
Clearly a lot of ice flowed under the bridge to make the story but that is as nothing in comparison with the avalanche that followed in the 1930s. Still it's surely all too easy to portray The Holy Mountain as a proto-Nazi film as some appear of have decided. This was made well before Hitler’s coming to power in 1933, when the NSDAP had seemingly peaked with just 14 seats in the Reichstag falling to 12 in 1928. Riefenstahl hadn't yet read Mein Kampf (published in 1925 and 1926 ) and her falling under its author's influence came after seeing him speak in 1932. Triumph of the Will followed in 1934.


There’s a theme of loyalty, self-sacrifice and team work – traits that apply equally as well to the British - but also respect for nature and one’s truth – can the restless “Sea” of Diotima the Dancer (Riefenstahl) ever be matched with the Rock of immovable masculinity that is “The Friend” (Louis Trenker)? The film worships the great outdoors, health and efficiency and as such is an extension of German kulturfilm as evidenced by Riefenstahl’s previous film, Ways to Strength and Beauty (1925).


The themes were part of contemporary cultural currency and whatever Leni and indeed Dr Fanck did later is a whole other story: their time of dark compromise was yet to come.

The Holy Mountain begins with an half hour section introducing the two protagonists and leading up to their eventual meeting and love at first sight. Diotima is seen dancing against the natural backgrounds of sea and sky and Fanck cannot get enough of her movement. 

Dancer on the shore
Riefenstahl was a highly-trained dancer whose professional career had been curtailed through injury forcing her interest in the less-demanding medium of film. Her energetic contemporary dance movement is perfectly attuned to the environments and she matches choreography with radiant smiles and a manic alertness.

We begin to get glimpses of The Ski Master/Karl climbing through the snow and heading towards what looks like the Matterhorn. Trenker has a craggy masculinity to match the mountains; he looks like a pro with snow-tanned skin and sure-footed confidence on slope and tone.


The Ski Master and his climbing partner/student Vigo (Ernst Petersen) go to see Diotima dance and both are entranced. Karl leaves early but Vigo remains and meets the dancer after placing a flower (Edelweiss?) in her car. Virgo is smitten but Diotima is merely charmed… giving him her scarf as a thank you.

Gradually the film moves the dancer and climber together as they work their ways around the mountain until finally meeting with an instant recognition of exactly who the other is. Their relationship is solidified very quickly. Soon they talk of getting married on the most beautiful mountain in the Alps and Karl spends as much time as possible in his search for a natural wonder to fit their human love.

Meeting on the Matterhorn
Meanwhile Diotima supports Vigo in the local Alpine sports cheering him on in a spectacular ski jumping competition – camera’s slowed down in the manner of Riefenstahl’s later work on the 1936 Olympics. He beats his rival Colli (Friedrich Schneider) on the last jump before the two renew their contest with the long distance race.  Here again the “nature photography of Dr Fanck and his Freiburg School is superb. Hans Schneeberger and  Sepp Allgeier were Fanck’s main cameramen for this exciting set piece which featured the aforementioned expert skiers.

Jumping in slow motion and off piste filming
The action is real enough with twists, turns and tumbles galore all ending in a dizzying victory for the young man. Diotima is delighted for him and the two wander drunk on the adrenalin to a small cottage where Vigo asks for a favour in return for his victory. He buries his head on Diotima’s lap in an action more familial than sexual: he is too immature to properly express his sexuality to the older woman and she does not regard him as anything other than a sweet child… and yet; that’s not quite how it looks… Descending from the peak, at just the wrong moment, Karl spots what looks like love-making and falls back out of view instantly shattered.


Later Vigo visits his friend’s mother (Frieda Richard) whom he confesses his love too not knowing that Diotima and his tutor are already planning to marry… or at least they were. Karl arrives and tells him that he must accompany him on the most dangerous climb in the territory: the North Face of Mount Santo. It’s getting dark, the weather is changing and this could be dangerous but he agrees all the same: they are friends with loyalty.

The climb begins
Diotima prepares for her evening performance and is completely unaware that her lover has got the wrong impression or indeed that she may have encouraged Vigo (probably… the Sea does pull up on a lot of different beaches after all…). The men begin their treacherous ascent and the narrative clicks from their struggle to the gradual realisation of friends and lover that they are missing.

Will envy twist Friend’s passion towards brutal revenge or will love triumph over all: friendship, loyalty and indomitable will… It’s Germanic all right but that doesn’t necessarily make it fascistic.


Inevitably the stunning scenery overpowers the performances and sometimes Riefenstahl is more of a dancer than a film actress when faced with the duty of trying to show elevated emotion in the midst of so much natural turmoil. Fanck paces his narrative very well and the closing section is as genuinely tense as the opening section is peacefully pastoral… In the end The Holy Mountain is a poem and not a docu-drama on outdoor pursuits with amazing cinematography worth the price of admission alone.


The original score was from Edmund Meisel but the version I watched featured a modern composition from Aljoscha Zimmermann for the 2002 restoration. It’s available on DVD from Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series from Amazon and includes Ray Müller's three hour documentary The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl - the clue is in the title...

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