In the opening moments of Kill, Panther, Kill! we see the daring escape, during a prison transfer, of master criminal Arthur Tracy (Franco Fantasia). Tracy has been in stir for four years after thieving a fortune in jewels worth three million dollars. Now his loyal henchmen, Anthony and Smokey, lie in wait beside a desolate hillside road that’s apparently intended to be overlooking Malibu — but is actually some anonymous European location — as the LAPD van baring Arthur approaches. After dispensing with Arthur’s guards in a hail of machinegun fire, the three pile into a getaway car, at which point Anthony (Siegfried Rauch) says he knows of an ideal place for them to hold up. “They’re holding a rodeo this week in Calgary,” he says. “Nobody will look for us there.” And truer words were never spoken. The only thing that I’d be looking for at a rodeo in Calgary would be a thorough ass-kicking.
Amazing, isn’t it, the kinds of ridiculous crap they used to play on broadcast television back in the days before cable? I saw Jess Franco’s lurid, sleazy, wholly indescribable The Girl from Rio on afternoon TV under its alternate title, Future Women. It was on WDRB-TV 41 in Louisville, a scrappy independent station that was, for at least part of its lifespan, actually run out of someone’s garage studio. At a time when there were only three broadcast channels plus PBS (which, back then, was actually watchable thanks to their affection for 60s and 70s British spy and science fiction shows), having WDRB pop up was a real treat, especially for a kid like me. WDRB was more than willing to broadcast all sorts of weird stuff the majors wouldn’t touch, and it was thanks to them that I first saw Godzilla, kungfu movies, and a whole pile of Eurosleaze horror cinema.
Mission Stardust is the only film to be based on the long running and voluminous series of German pulp novels featuring the science fiction hero Perry Rhodan. It is universally hated by Perry Rhodan fans for the very good reason that it is quite terrible — that is, if you’re definition of “terrible” can be stretched to encompass a film featuring amusingly smarmy, two-fisted astronaut heroes, a truly swankadelic soundtrack, some quite good looking women, pop art set design, and a climactic sequence that finds sexy nurses with machine guns doing battle with robots who shoot lasers out of their eyes. In other words, having never read any of the Perry Rhodan books, and thus being free from having to judge Mission Stardust in terms of its faithfulness to them, I found it to be flirting with perfection.
If you can roll with the first five minutes of Scorpions and Miniskirts, a movie that shows utter contempt for bothering to explain anything at all or connecting one series of actions to the next, then you are probably going to be able to walk away from the viewing experience with a mild sense of having been entertained while, at the same time, feeling like you didn’t quite get everything for which you’d hoped from a movie with a title as wonderful as Scorpions and Miniskirts. After all, Scorpions and Mini Skirts is a title that demands the benefit of the doubt, like Werewolf in a Girl’s Dormitory. Anyway, Scorpions and Miniskirts begins with an initial minute that seems like the movie might earn its more giallo sounding alternate title, Death on a Rainy Day. We open with a funeral, complete with all the bell-tolling gravitas of a continental Gothic horror film. If Peter Cushing stepped out wearing a pilgrimy black Puritan minister’s outfit, it would not have seemed out of place. Surrounded by weeping mourners, accompanied by glum James Bernard sounding music, a coffin is lowered into the ground. The eulogy begins, and as dirt is being shoveled onto the coffin, the lid suddenly creaks open…
In November of 1989, The Berlin Wall — perhaps the most potent symbol of the Cold War other than Ivan Drago — became a minor speed bump as the physical, social, and political barriers separating West and East Germany collapsed. As Germans began streaming back and forth across the once imposing border, the entirety of the Soviet-era Iron Curtain began to crumble as well, and before anyone knew what was happening, the world had changed. In the ensuing weeks and months, East and West German were reunited into a single country, the Berlin Wall was demolished, and the Soviet Union ceased to be while the satellites that had once comprised it became new countries. It was a heady mix of joy, terror, confusion, elation, and ambivalence that I remember well.
The imperative to put butts into theater seats is apparently one that has been shared by film industries throughout the world, regardless of what political system they operated under. And whether those butts were capitalist or communist seems to have made little difference. Thus it was, in 1966, that East Germany’s state run DEFA studio decided to try their hand at what had been widely considered an exclusively American genre, the Western, in an attempt to entice those audiences who had been staying away from their usual, more dryly ideological fare in droves with more thrilling, action-oriented entertainments.
Of course, DEFA had no intention of aping Hollywood’s approach to that genre, and would ultimately put their own, distinctive spin on it. Going a long way toward achieving that was their decision to tell their film’s story from the point of view of its Native American characters, with whites settlers serving as the villains, a conceit that would also provide a convenient platform for critiques of American imperialism and greed. But lest you think that choice was just a cynical appropriation of a suffering people’s history for crass political ends, let me point out that there was an abiding German fascination with Native Americans and their culture that had existed since long before the communist divide, the responsibility for which can pretty much be placed at the doorstep of one man.
It’s difficult to touch upon a figure like Karl May in passing, because the temptation is so great to simply reel off the strange and colorful details of his life at the expense of the subject at hand. But for the sake of brevity, let’s just say that, prior to becoming one of Germany’s most popular authors ever, Karl May had seen his share of hard times, and was no stranger to the inside of a prison cell. His tendency to be light-fingered had scuttled his teaching career early on, leaving him to fall back upon a well established habit of thievery and fraud that some today believe was the byproduct of a clinical personality disorder.
The years 1869 through 1870 saw May embark on a particularly impressive crime spree, during which he repeatedly employed a ruse in which he posed as a police lieutenant to confiscate “counterfeit” deutschmarks from various shopkeepers. After a run from the law that involved the employment of disguises and a number of narrow escapes, May was finally captured and sentenced to four years in the Waldheim penitentiary. It was during this stay that May, inspired by the works of James Fenimore Cooper and travel accounts of the American West, discovered and refined his gift as a teller of adventure stories. Soon after he was released, he began writing the first of a phenomenally popular series of novels, the most enduring of which would featuring a noble Apache chief named Winnetou and his white, German-born blood brother Old Shatterhand.
Of course, given that May had never once set foot on American soil at the time of writing them, the Winnetou stories were far from documentary in terms of their representations of frontier life, and of the lives of indigenous Americans in particular. They were in fact tainted by sentimentality and rife with “noble savage” clichés, to the point that he even had Winnetou renounce his Indian spirituality and convert to Christianity at one point. Still, they were unusual in their time for their sympathetic portrayal of Native Americans and their acknowledgement of the depredations perpetrated upon them by the white man. They were also imaginative enough in their telling to inspire many of the Germans who read them to take an interest in Native American culture beyond what was described in their pages. Some of those readers even went on to form “Indianerclubs” — a number of which still exist today — whose mostly white members would not only immerse themselves in that culture but also dedicate their holidays to trying to emulate it as best they could.
It was inevitable that the characters from May’s Western adventures would eventually make their way to the big screen, and, in 1962, West Germany’s Rialto Film Preben-Philipsen made it so, initiating a series of films that were to become wildly popular throughout Europe. The majority of these starred French actor Pierre Brice in the role of Winnetou and American actor — and former Tarzan — Lex Barker as Old Shatterhand, and used locations in Yugoslavia to sub for the American West. Eventually coming to comprise eleven entries in all, they came to be known as the Winnetou Films, and are generally considered to be the seed from which the Italian Spaghetti Western sprang, a connection driven home by the presence within them of such genre stalwarts as Klaus Kinski and Terence Hill.
DEFA saw their own first venture into the Western genre — or Indianerfilm — as a response to, rather than an emulation of, the Winnetou films, and were determined to outshine their West German counterparts in terms of the historical accuracy and authenticity of their product. To this end, they chose as their source material The Sons of Great Bear, a young person’s novel written by East German author and historian Liselotte Welskopf Henrich that was at the time considered to be scrupulous in its depiction of Native American life and customs. Veteran Czech director Josef Mach was invited to take the reins of the picture and, to star as its hero, the fearless and incorruptible Sioux warrior Tokei-Ihto, a chance was taken on an unknown young Yugoslavian actor named Gojko Mitic.
Yugoslavia was a popular — i.e. cheap and accessible — shooting location for foreign producers at the time, and when representatives of the British production Lancelot and Guinevere came to the Belgrade sports academy where he was training, looking for a stunt double for star Cornel Wilde, Mijic, an accomplished student athlete with the necessary riding skills, suddenly found himself in the film business. From there he went on to do stunt work and bit roles in a variety of films, including a number of Italian Peplums, before making his way into the Winnetou films. Mitic started out in small, uncredited parts in the Karl May Westerns, but worked his way up to the point where he had a substantial supporting role in 1964’s Frontier Hellcats (aka Unter Geiern), which is presumably where the producers of The Sons of Great Bear first caught sight of him.
The Sons of Great Bear‘s action takes place against the backdrop of the U.S. government’s forced relocation of the Dakota Sioux in the aftermath of the discovery of gold in the Black Hills. a territory that was considered hallowed ground by the Sioux, and which had formerly been protected by a treaty entered into in the days before it was thought to have any value by white settlers. Tokei-Ihto’s Bear Band is one of a number of groups of Sioux who are determined to resist the relocation by any means necessary, and as a result they become a target of, not only the U.S. Military, but also the scruffy and shifty-eyed bunch of frontiersmen charged with doing their dirty work. The most scruffy and shifty eyed of all of these is Clarke, aka The Red Fox, a rogue who seeks to weaken the tribe by tempting its members into alcoholism and vice, and who, in the film’s prologue, is shown to have murdered Tokei-Ihto’s father. Clarke is played by Czech actor Jiri Vrstala with a level of menace convincing enough that I was given considerable pause to learn that he had for years played a popular children’s character called Clown Ferdinand both on East German TV and in the movies. Based on his performance here, it’s easy to imagine that being made to watch Clown Ferdinand was, for East German children, just a more modern equivalent of being taken behind the woodshed.
After Tokei-Ihto leads a successful raid against a scouting party lead by the scheming Lieutenant Roach (Gerhard Rachold), he is betrayed by the Bear Band’s elders and delivered to Roach and his men under the pretext of negotiating a treaty. Roach has him imprisoned, then has his people driven by force from their land and moved to the barren, rock-strewn reservation that the government has assigned to them. Tokei-Ihto is eventually freed, thanks in part to the sympathetic efforts of conscientious frontiersman Adams (Horst Jonischkan), and becomes determined to lead his band across the Missouri River to make a better home. Such exodus, of course, does not conform to the plans of the white authorities, and so Clarke and his men set out to thwart it, leading to a final, violent confrontation between Tokei-Ihto and his father’s killer.
For a fledgling genre attempt by a company accustomed to producing output of a very different kind, The Sons of Great Bear is remarkably sure-footed, the only evidence of its status as a novice effort being a narrative rhythm that is at times a bit odd and halting. I think that’s in part a result of the filmmakers trying to deliver the required amount of kinetic thrills while at the same time providing the necessary historical background. It must be said, though, that there appears to have been an assumption on their part that the film’s audience would come to it with at least some knowledge of that background, because what information there is, is far from spoon-fed to us. The movie jumps right into its action without preface, and what historical context there is has to be gleaned from odd exchanges of dialogue that pop up between those scenes that move the story along. Of course, this does not prevent the producers from earning their government paychecks via some heavy handed political messages — including a couple of lines that could easily be interpreted as making analogies to Vietnam. But it’s fairly clear that those producers were at the same time fully cognizant of the fact that they would lose their audience if those messages were delivered at the expense of the expected amount of gun fights, Indian raids, and fancy riding by the movie’s athletic star.
While it may be that the creative team behind the film didn’t quite have a grasp on the classic Western’s vigorous pacing, it is clear that they had an understanding of it’s grandiose scale and mythic dimensions. Cinematographer Juroslav Tuzar’s lyrical widescreen compositions take the film’s Montenegro locations and imbue them with a sense of limitless expanse appropriate to the metaphorical American landscape they stand in for. The images are at times so captivating that the filmmakers themselves seem to have become entranced, resulting in a number of overly lingering shots that further contribute to the film’s odd ebb and flow. Soundtrack composer Wilhelm Neef matches this effort with a score that shows he can step up to the plate when majestic sweep is required, though he also manages to serves up some of the type of rinky-tink cheese that we’ve come to expect from the Germans during this era, including a weird little, ska-tinged tune that accompanies Tokei-Ihto’s raid on Lieutenant Roach’s scouting party.
But, handsome trappings aside, it is the performance of star Gojko Mitic upon which The Sons of Great Bear stands or falls. And Mitic, somewhat miraculously, comes through. Saddled with the burden of portraying a character who is more monument than man — essentially the spirit personified of his noble and long suffering people — Mitic shoulders an onus that would have toppled many more experienced actors and perseveres. Given that the stoic Tokei-Ihto is a classic man of few words, this involves on Mitic’s part the projection of an unnervingly steadfast soulful intensity — or, if you’re feeling less charitable, the employment of a fixed, blank stare that is given intensity by weight of Mitic’s undeniable natural charisma.
In any case, less of Tokei-Ihto’s communication is done through looks than action, and the latter proves to be a language to which Mitic is ideally suited. Despite being required to do what had to be a truly grueling amount of stunt work, Mitic accomplishes a dizzying assortment of perilous moves with all the grace and agility suited to the fearless, nearly superhuman warrior he’s charged with portraying, whether he be leaping down upon his prey from a perch high in the trees, or jumping from the saddle of one charging horse to another. It also doesn’t hurt that Mitic, sculpted from head to toe and half naked for much of the film, is an exquisite physical specimen, an ocular treat for anyone with an appreciation for the male form regardless of their gender or preference. Red blooded guys who fear that a film like this might leave them tainted by exposure to socialist propaganda can rest assured; Watching The Sons of Great Bear won’t make you a commie. However, it just might turn you gay.
While it’s true that Tokei-Ihto is more of an idealized archetype than a flawed human being, and his primary nemesis, Clarke, is a purely evil, melodramatic villain of the highest order, it cannot be said that, beyond that, The Sons of Great Bear presents its conflict in strictly black and white — or white and red — terms. Aside from sympathetic white characters like the aforementioned Adams and the American major’s daughter Cate Smith, both of whom give aid to Tokei-Ihto at various points, we are also shown traitorous Indians who work alongside the whites, as well as dissension and infighting within the tribe, such as that which leads to the elders betraying Tokei-Ihto. Neither can it be said that the conflict between the whites and the Indians is framed as simply one between the powerful and the weak, as the lot of Clarke and his fellow frontiersmen, facing encroaching irrelevance in the form of the coming railroad and the establishment of European-style “civilization”, is shown to be in some ways more miserable than that of the persecuted Indians, who at least have their rich culture and deep bonds of community to fall back upon. Of course, one doesn’t need to dig too far beneath this to find the underlying message that capital and its brute machinations are the real villains, but the filmmakers should be given credit for not sacrificing complexity in favor of creating characters that simply stand in for ideological talking points.
Of course, the major stumbling block to appreciating The Sons of Great Bear‘s many positives is the fact that all of its Native Americans are so obviously pasty white Europeans in redface and black wigs. But anyone who has been able to overlook that type of minstrelsy in American Westerns — which was usually in the service of a far less sensitive portrayal — shouldn’t have too much of a problem with it, even though I admit that it was hard getting used to hearing guttural German phonemes issuing from these Indians’ mouths. Aside from this probably unavoidable casting quirk, though, the film does a fairly good job of avoiding becoming little more than a camp artifact. True, a couple of Wilhelm Neef’s musical cues, as already mentioned, are a bit on the cheesy side, and there is a regrettable man-in-a-suit bear mauling scene, but overall the movie comes across as a well made and exciting adventure, with an interesting perspective, that has much more to offer than simple kitsch value.
By the time filming on The Sons of Great Bear was nearing its end, Gojko Mitic, who considered the film a one-off effort on his part, had had it. The actor would later admit to some churlish onset behavior brought on by homesickness and impatience. Given that, it was probably a “good news/bad news” situation for him when the film went on to meet with a success that was far beyond the expectations of anyone involved in it. Overnight, Mitic had become the most popular film star in East Germany, and the East German Indianerfilm DEFA’s most in-demand genre. Eleven more such films would follow, all starring Mitic in roles very similar to the one he portrayed in Great Bear, ending with 1983’s Der Scout. Despite the fact that he would eventually front a wide variety of films for DEFA — including Gottfried Kolditz‘s science fiction epic Signals: A Space Adventure — he would come to be commonly referred to as “The most famous Native American in Eastern Europe”, and would appear on German television as recently as 2006 in the role of Karl May’s Winnetou. Because of this, Mitic can count as part of his legacy the fact that, for a certain generation of Germans, he changed the rules of playing “Cowboys and Indians” forever.
Release Year: 1966 | Country: East Germany | Starring: Gojko Mitic, Jiri Vrstala, Rolf Romer, Hans Hardt-Hardtloff, Gerhard Rachold, Horst Jonischkan, Josef Majercik, Josef Adamovic, Milan Jablonsky, Hannjo Hasse, Helmut Schreiber, Jozo Lepetic, Rolf Ripperger, Brigitte Krause, Karin Beewen | Writer: Liselotte Welskopf-Henrich | Director: Josef Mach | Cinematographer: Jaroslav Tuzar | Music: Wilhelm Neef
You’d think that the isolation of Soviet-style communism would have at least shielded the citizens of East Germany from the worst excesses of seventies fashion, but the 1976 space opera In the Dust of the Stars tells us otherwise. Neither, apparently, did it prevent the creatives at the state-run DEFA studio from falling under the influence of such decadent western cultural products as Jess Franco movies and the swinging sci-fi TV series of Gerry Anderson. That this film never saw release on this side of the Iron Curtain is no surprise, given that the vision of a socialist utopia it presents — marked by free love, frequent casual nudity, and a distinctly lopsided female-to-male ratio — is one that many healthy young Western men could easily get behind. The resulting sudden spike in defections Eastward would have been truly crippling to national security.
Who’d have thought, back in the 1960s, that our nation’s youngsters were being fed communist propaganda by one of the most mercenary elements within the American film industry? Well, a lot of people, probably. It was a pretty paranoid time. Still, had they known, those people could have at least taken comfort in the fact that it was being done out of only the most purely capitalistic motives. After all, Eastern Bloc science fiction movies presented an irresistible lure to B movie producers like Roger Corman and his ilk. Being that they served as representations of the bright, technologically-advanced future achievable through socialism, these films were often the beneficiaries of relatively lavish government funding, and, as a result, boasted special effects and production design that were well beyond what makers of American sci-fi cheapies could afford. All that remained for these yanks to do, then, was to acquire these films and then strip them of everything that might identify them as being the product of a communist country — a process of Americanization that often resulted in the original films being disfigured almost beyond recognition.
This movie offers so many potential avenues from which I could approach it that I’m finding it almost as overwhelming as climbing the north face of the Eiger while an unknown assassin tries to kill me because he knows I’m trying to kill him. There’s the career of geologist-filmmaker Arnold Fanck, whose fascination with mountains and mountaineering resulting in a series of films possessed of breathtaking beauty and power. There’s the subject of mountaineering itself, and of the depiction of mountain climbing in film. There’s the subject of silent film, and more specifically, silent spectacle and action films, which were far more lavish and epic in scope than most people ever imagine. And perhaps the 900 pound gorilla in the room is the bizarre and difficult career of German actress turned Nazi propagandist and, until her death in 2003 at the age of 101, the world’s oldest living certified scuba diver, Leni Riefenstahl. Hers is a story of incredible talent, revolutionary film technique, terrifying loyalty to Adolf Hitler, arrest by a naval intelligence officer working with a John Ford film crew, war crimes, and after the dust settled, a career as an underwater nature photographer.
I’ll try to cover them all, but forgive me if I’m a bit scattershot in my style. Well, more scattershot than usual, which is really saying something. After all, it’s rather nice outside right now, and I’m thinking about going climbing instead of finishing this review.
So let’s begin at the beginning, a very good place to start. Oh man, this review is chocked with the potential for awful Alps-related film references. I prmise that, as far as I know, that is going to be the only one I make. Heidi. There. I said it, just to get it out there. Now we’re done.
But the beginning to which I’m referring is the beginning of modern feature filmmaking. When I was a young lad full of energy and vim, I did not have very much interest in silent film. I’d seen plenty of them, all the usual suspects a horror film fan sees early in his viewing career: Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Metropolis (including the one with the rockin’ 80s soundtrack). They were interesting, but I preferred movies with talking. Later in life, I grew to appreciate and adore silent films much more, but even now I don’t get excited about discussing any of the classic silent horror films from Germany — not because I don’t love them, but rather because such a tremendous amount of ink has already been spent on them by much smarter people than me, and there’s really not a lot I can add to the discussion of German expressionism, the Weimer Republic, or vergangenheits-bewaltigung that hasn’t been covered by someone who, unlike me, actually knows what the hell they’re talking about.
In high school, we had to watch The Birth of a Nation because it was a valuable lesson in the history of perceptions regarding the Civil War and race relations, and also because cinema pioneer D.W. Griffith was buried in the small Methodist church a couple minutes away — the very same church I attended as a youth and had my first and eventual ruinous run-ins with religious authority. It was a pretty typical looking small-town country church: whitewash wood, a steeple, no air conditioning, heavy wooden pews filled with sweating men and women in their Sunday finery, furiously fanning themselves with those cardboard fans attached to a Popsicle stick and featuring a painting of kindly Jesus waving at you or blessing you or possibly just fanning you because he grew up in the Middle East, and he understands what it means to be hot. Anyway, in the church cemetery were a variety of crumbling old graves, and right in the middle of them was the grave of D.W. Griffith.
Griffith, for those who may be unfamiliar with the early days of feature film making, was one of the fathers of the modern feature film. Along with a group of film makers in Europe, many of them Italian, and inspired by the Italian costumed spectacle Cabiria, Griffith was at the forefront of exploring what could be done with a motion picture camera and the ability to work on location rather than being bound to stages and sets like plays. Unfortunately, Griffith chose to explore these new possibilities in the form of a film called Birth of a Nation. The movie tells the story of the Antebellum South, when all the black slaves were suddenly free and immediately set about raping white women and dancing while getting drunk on cheap booze on the floor of the Senate. So basically, the slaves were all freed and acted like legally elected, white congressmen. The only thing standing between these unruly throngs of free, violent black folks (who, I should mention, were all happy and content as slaves,with gumdrop smiles and the freedom to hambone solo on the banks of rivers filled with chocolate and gold) and proud white America was the noble and chivalrous order of the Ku Klux Klan.
Yeah, so you pretty much get the picture, right? regardless, this was where it all began: the first American feature film. At the time of its release, Birth of a Nation was wildly popular — America wasn’t exactly racial paradise in 1915, and there were veterans of the Civil War still floating around. Civil rights groups protested the film, but that did precious little to diminish it int he eyes of a white America for which black freedom was still a relatively new thing. It seems that Griffith himself was ultimately horrified by the reaction many audiences had to the film, reactions that often involved race rioting and violence. His next film, Intolerance, was an attempt to undo some of what he’d wrought with Birth of a Nation, by showing the evils slavery has caused through time. The film was another lavish spectacle in the spirit of the great Italian spectacles like Cabiria, but it was a failure both politically and financially. Griffith’s career never recovered. Though he was one of the founding artists of United Artists, he wasn’t with the company for long, and the final years of his life were spent in relative seclusion. Despite all he may have contributed to the history of cinema, Griffith’s name was forever linked with that single movie, and it forever shadows — perhaps rightfully so — everything else he did.
Of course, I didn’t know any of this in 1977, darting around the cemetery at Mount Tabor and poking around his grave. The grave is still there, of course, though the quaint church building has been replaced by one of those generic, pre-fab deals Methodists seem oddly fond of. Still, that grave connects to the movie we’re actually here to discuss, as the career of German actress Leni Riefenstahl is very similar. Riefenstahl began her career in front of the camera, but it was behind it that she made her lasting contribution to cinema. Many of the techniques we now take for granted — moving the camera around, crane shots, dolly shots — can be traced back to Riefenstahl. Along with a host of other German filmmakers, she made cinema far more kinetic, far more dynamic, than it had been before. Unfortunately, she chose to showcase much of her incredible talent in Triumph of the Will, a film whose primary aim was to show how glorious Hitler and the Third Reich was. Like Griffith, pretty much anything you did before and after a film like that is going to be overshadowed. And among the things Riefenstahl did before Triumph of the Will was star in a series of sweeping mountaineering epics directed by geologist and outdoor sporting enthusiast Arnold Fanck.
The White Hell of Piz Palu represents the middle entry in a thematic trilogy that began with The Holy Mountain and ended with Storm Over Mont Blanc (SOS Iceberg is sort of a cousin), all three starring Riefenstahl, directed by Fanck, and concerning people who get in a lot of trouble up in the Alps. In the case of Piz Palu, the trouble begins straight away with a trio of climbers making an ascent up the titular mountain. Piz Palu was and remains notable for being covered in a lot of ice, and it is this ice, in combination with a warm wind, that causes such trouble for healthy young lovers Dr. Johannes and Maria Krafft (Gustaff Deissl and Mizzi Gotzel respectively) and guide Christian (Otto Spring). A snow slide catches them off guard, and poor Maria plunges into a crevasse, leaving Johannes kneeling helpless at the edge while Christian makes his way down the mountain in search of help, though both men know there’s precious little hope of it amounting to anything other than body recovery.
Skip ahead a bit, to the same mountain, where hearty newlyweds Hans (Ernst Peterson) and Maria (Leni Riefenstahl) have decided, apparently, to celebrate their marriage by hiking up into the Alps and staying in one of the many shelters that dot all the popular hiking and climbing routes. From time to time their friend Flieger (real life World War One flying ace Ernst Udet) buzzes them in his biplane and drops little bottles of champagne attached to wee parachutes. It’s all very healthy and fun and vigorous, so much so that Maria is more than happy to cavort happily in the snow while wearing a skirt and sleeveless blouse. Things turn dour, however, when Johannes shows up at the shelter. Maria does her best to befriend the haunted climber, who returns to Piz Palu every season in a vain search for his wife’s body. Hans, on the other hand, seems alternately fascinated by the gloomy man and irritated that he’s lurking around. I guess that’s what happens when you spend your honeymoon in a public cabin in the Alps. You’re just asking for a damned soul to show up and recount his haunted past to you.
Maria discovers that, while he was waiting for Christian to return with help from the town at the foot of the mountain, Johannes thought he could hear Maria (his Maria — that the two women have the same name is no accident, I’m sure) shouting for help. Both horrified and elated by the thought that his wife might still be alive, injured at the bottom of the crevasse, Johannes begins a reckless solo descent into the cavernous crack. But when he reaches the literal end of his rope, there is no one there and no sign of Maria. Since then, he has combed the mountain for her, but to no avail and with no ability to do it effectively without a support team. Well, obviously, he’s about to get one, and this trio’s ascent isn’t going to go any better than the first time Johannes attempted Piz Palu.
There’s a lot of stuff to admire in this film, but you’re really going to need to like mountaineering, because that’s the film’s obsession. Fanck was a naturalist, after all, and Piz Palu itself is the star of this film. I thought it was fascinating. Being a beginner climber myself, though one with no aspirations to go anywhere where the photo of me includes having an ice-encrusted beard (I’ll stick to boulders and mountains of a shorter stature than The Matterhorn), these movies serve as an incredible, documentary-like look at Alpine climbing in the early years of the 20th century. In fact, this movie could very well be regarded as a documentary about mountain climbing with some make believe drama injected. Fanck, working alongside co-directed G.W. Pabst, films much of the movie on location and with actual mountaineering going on. And given modern clothing and safety systems, watching it done old school — in heavy wool and with almost no equipment other than a rope, and ax, crampons, and that famous German/Swiss physical culture can-do vitality — is interesting. But make no mistake, given the choice between climbing in heavy wool and knee socks or performance fleece and ultra-5000 space age wicking material, I’m sticking with modern gear, regardless of how cool someone looks kitted out in the old style duds.
And the climbing in this film is truly breathtaking, especially when it concentrates on Johannes’ dangerous descent into the crevasse. Watching the way the climber wedges his way into small spaces, makes crazy leaps, dangles over nothing — there have been decades of mountain films made since this one, but few capture the activity with such raw energy. Fanck is a documentarian by nature, and he doesn’t rely on camera tricks and snazzy editing. He simply puts the camera in place — which itself must have been quite a feat of climbing and rappelling — and lets the action speak for itself. Most of the film’s drama stems from this approach, as one gets the feeling that the actors are in as much danger as the characters they are playing. A second descent into an icy network of caverns and crevasses, this one performed by a rescue team searching for the bodies of a university climbing team caught in an avalanche — succeeds in creating a completely alien, eerie universe. Shadowy men with flares move through the ice tunnels, casting reflections and smoke in all directions.
Secondary to the presence of the mountain and the act of climbing, then simply trying to survive, it, is the human drama. One of the things that sets this film apart from many of the silent era is that the acting is subdued and natural, never reverting to any of that extremely exaggerated pantomiming that has become synonymous with performances of the era. I love films of the silent era, but even I have to admit that many of the performances in even the best of films are so stylized and artificial that it becomes hard to relate to the characters. Not so in The White Hell of Piz Palu. Everyone looks and acts like a regular person, and as such, it becomes very easy to identify with them. It would have been easy for Gustaff Deissl to express his melancholy by doing the “crazy panic face” and “furtive glancing back and forth before burying head in hands.”
Instead, we get a deceptively powerful scene where he sits in stoic contemplation, listening to the dripping of a melting icicle that reminds of the melting icicles that surrounded him as he waited desperately at the edge of the cliff for Christian to return with help. But instead of doing the freak out or the over-sold “making an O with my mouth” face, he simply sits there, winces slightly, then quietly gets up, walks outside, and breaks off the icicle. It’s a perfect example of how complicated acting can be. There’s the hammy over the top way to go, and there’s the very accomplished and dramatic but still obviously acting way to go (the “win an Oscar” method). Deissl goes the third, less journeyed route, which is to act in a way that makes the audience forget you are acting. Simply put, I believe this guy.
The film hints at but never develops a romantic triangle. It’s obvious that Maria (the Riefenstahl one) is entranced by this dark, brooding, rugged man who climbs the most dangerous mountains in Europe by himself in a hopeless search for his dead wife. And it’s just as obvious that Hans develops an almost immediate inferiority complex, feeling that measured against Joannes, he himself is less of a man. But once again, the film plays the melodrama with subtlety, and never turns Hans into some cartoonish jealous lover. His insecurity around Johannes first manifests itself in a need to engage in a bout of manly firewood chopping, and later to accompanying Johannes on his quest, thus enabling Johannes to cover territory that can’t be covered solo. Finally, it culminates in Hans insisting on walking point for a while, and it’s then that the trouble really begins, even though it’s not entirely Hans’ fault.
An avalanche injures Hans, and the ensuing rescue attempt results in Johannes breaking a leg, leaving the trio stranded atop the mountain hoping that Christian will notice their entry into the mountain hut log and assemble some sort of rescue. Hans eventually succumbs to high altitude cerebral edema (altitude sickness to you and me), resulting in him becoming delirious and, at times, even suicidal. Needless to say, the romantic triangle that could have developed never trudges into such predictable territory as romantic triangles often do, and it is soon replaced by the simple tale of three people attempting to survive near impossible odds.
Riefenstahl impresses as an actress, and if you are able to forget for a moment that she would go on a few years later to turn Hitler into a godlike Wotan figure descending from the clouds to deliver rousing speeches to masses of Sieg Heiling Germans, she exudes an instant likability. She’s not exactly attractive — not in the way one could instantly accept the likes of Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, or Josephine Baker — but there’s such a natural air of vitality and energy about her that she endears herself. She’s sort of like the tomboy best friend, the cute one you don’t date but love to go hiking with. Of course, this best friend eventually turns out to be a Nazi propagandist, and that sort of sours the milk.
In 1933, after making her last film as an actress (SOS Iceberg, again with Fanck), Riefenstahl launched her career as a director. The Blue Light treads familiar territory, as it is set in the Alps and once again prominently features mountaineering. But where as Fanck strove for as much realism as possible, Riefenstahl’s film goes whole hog in on mysticism. It was while watching her in movies like these that Hitler became infatuated with Riefenstahl and began the process of bringing her into the Nazi party. Riefenstahl directed a series of pro-German, if not pro-Nazi, documentaries, all of which are considered landmark technical achievements. These included a documentary on the 1936 Berlin Olympics and 1933’s Victory of Faith, a propaganda piece that became something of an embarrassment when one of the chief subjects, Ernst Rohm, was executed during the Night of the Long Knives. Rohm was an open homosexual, as were several other prominent members of the paramilitary stormtrooper organization Sturmabteilung, of which Rohm was in command. Rohm was eventually caught up in the purge and charged by Himmler and Goring with plotting to overthrow Hitler. Hitler, however, still considered Rohm a friend, and did as much as he could to put off the man’s death. When Rohm refused to commit “honorable suicide” however, he was executed, with his homosexuality being the on-record reason.
Once the war was rolling, Riefenstahl’s career became even harder to sort out. She was active in filming a number of victory parades, such as Hitler’s triumphant parade through conquered Poland, and was on hand during the killing of a number of civilians in retaliation for resistance efforts. Pictures of Leni at the execution were used to both condemn and exonerate her. She was indeed present, but she is also noticeably upset. What’s the story? In her own words, she attempted to prevent the executions but was forced back a gunpoint by German soldiers. War being what it is, who knows? She continued her propaganda work, though, filming the aforementioned victory parade in 1939. She also began work on a feature film adaptation of Tiefland, a production that included in its crew a number of forced labor conscripts from German concentration camps.
Fate seems to have been committed to keeping the actress-director’s life as weird as possible. When the war in Europe ended, novelist-screenwriter Budd Schulberg, who was with the Navy at the time working on Allied propaganda films being directed by John Ford (some of which can be downloaded from archive.org and are really worth a look), wa tasked with arresting Riefenstahl. The Allies wanted her in Nuremberg for the War Crimes trials, so that she could identify various people in her films. Riefenstahl herself did not stand trial, but many were skeptical of her claims that she was just an innocent bystander who had no idea what concentration camps were or “what the Nazis were really up to” — especially when that statement was coupled with a statement that she made propaganda films because Goebbels threatened to send her to a concentration camp if she didn’t. History, of course, is a nasty knot to untangle, especially in times of conflict.
That was pretty much it for her career. She attempted to return to film making but found few people willing to finance her projects. Tiefland was finally released in 1954. Eventually, she turned to still photography and worked for a while in The Sudan. At the age of 72 — though she lied and said she was 52 in order to do it — she became a certified diver and began a career as an underwater photographer. Her contributions to the history of cinema are as great as they are terrible, and she remains a very divisive person to discuss. However, divorced of its political context and the frightening results it helped yield, her pioneering contributions to film making cannot be denied. In her films we find the birth of much of the modern language of cinema. Even as her subject matter repulses most, her technique is breathtaking. It’s hard, even knowing what we know, to watch something like Triumph of the Will or Olympia and not get swept up by how beautiful it is. It’s not unlike watching the work of D.W. Griffith, who was, in my opinion, nowhere near the league of Riefenstahl. But he still made sweeping films, and one can’t help but get caught up momentarily in the spectacle before the reality of what you’re watching sets in again.
Director Arnold Fanck apparently ran afoul of German propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels early on. After making such films as Storm Over Mont Blanc — a film featuring a French hero — Fanck found it increasingly difficult to work, until he finally capitulated and began working on projects for both the German and Japanese government. When the war ended, Fanck’s career was dead, and he faded into obscurity, his final days being spent working as a lumberjack. It wasn’t until more recently that Fanck’s adventure films were rediscovered and he collected groups of admirers who appreciated his much more natural approach to film making.
At the behest of Leni Riefenstahl, White Hell of Piz Palu was co-directed by G.W. Pabst. Pabst split his time between German and American projects, as well as between cinema and opera. It was in one of Pabst’s films, in fact, that Deissl had his first role. In the end, though, they are all of them the human subplot dominated by the Alps-sized shadow cast by the leading lady.
But even she is outsized by the mountain itself. Mountain adventure films have come and gone since then, and most of the movement has been toward the goofy and embarrassing. Arnold Fanck is really where this type of adventure begins, though, and even if his became a largely forgotten name, his adventure films still stand as some of the best ever made, and his combination of documentary and drama informs many modern films. His camera studies the mountain intently, dwells on the natural wonders such behemoths generate: the dance of cloud shadows over snow fields and rags, the glistening tunnels and pits of ice fields, the bizarre swirls of powder kicked up by winds cascading over the peaks. One gets a feel for every nook and cranny, every nub, jug, and crimpy little handhold. And that helps us understand the pain of the characters as they toil up the spine of this beast. Unencumbered by the modern thirst for special effects, madcap editing, and overblown theatrics, Fanck simply lets the mountain be a mountain, and the end result is both hypnotic and scary. It’s going to brutalize you, probably even kill you. But you can’t stop yourself from going anyway.
As exciting as White Hell of Piz Palu is in many places, it’s also unevenly paced. After the opening disaster, the film settles down for nearly forty minutes of drama that alternates between being effective and simply dragging on for too long and becoming tedious. Even though the acting is natural and there is much in the film that is subtle, it also has its moments of clunkiness, specifically in the overly long way it goes about telling us just how happy and delightful Hans and Maria are. And while it is punctuated by Johannes’ panicked descent into the crevasse — quite possibly my favorite part of the film — his time in the mountain hut consists of far too much pensive staring while symbolic snow melts. But then, Fanck goes and does something like the shot of Johannes outside, smoking a cigarette while sitting on an old wooden fence with the whole of the Alps spreading out behind him, and it pulls you right back in. Silent films trade in images, by necessity, and Fanck manages on many occasions to capture scenes of iconic beauty.
Still, despite these missteps, White Hell of Piz Palu emerges as a truly fascinating and exciting film from the dawn of action-adventure cinema. Once we’re on the mountain itself, the film is tense and well-executed, not to mention jaw-dropping in some of the stunts that aren’t even stunts as much as they are just examples of how dangerous mountaineering was (and is). If I had to compare it to any modern movie, it would be the docu-drama Touching the Void, or the slightly older documentary The Man Who Skied Down Everest. Both films, like White Hell of Piz Palu, capture both the menace and the beauty of such natural wonders and our enduring fascination with trying to climb them. When our trio suffers onscreen, it’s easy to feel their suffering. When they stand on the threshold of rescue only to have hope vanish, we feel it. And when Fanck shows us ice-encrusted Piz Palu towering over the landscape, we feel the oppressive weight of its menace as well as the stunning allure of its beauty.
The German-made animated feature Felidae has, at least at first glance, the slick commercial look of the type of Hollywood productions we’re used to seeing from the likes of Disney and Don Bluth. If you’re anything like me, that might prove to be a bit of a stumbling block, because, being that I’m no big fan of mainstream animation, that’s not the type of cinematic experience I tend to seek out. And indeed, during its first few minutes I had some serious doubts about whether I was going to enjoy Felidae. Then came the moment when the film’s protagonist, a feline detective by the name of Francis, stumbles across his first horribly mutilated kitty corpse, and I quickly realized that there were quite a few shades of difference between Felidae and Fievel Goes West.
Based on the first of a series of novels by author Akif Pirincci, Felidae starts out like an especially grue-spattered boys’ adventure (but with cats) and quickly turns into a bleak apocalyptic noir along the lines of Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (again, but with cats). In the service of this dark vision, the filmmakers pile on the extreme gore and nightmarish imagery, still managing all the while to deliver a complex and compelling mystery. Needless to say, this isn’t one to show the kids, and I would hesitate to recommend it to the more sensitive cat lovers out there. However, feline enthusiasts of a bit more two-fisted nature might find much to like, especially in the obvious respect and care that the filmmakers bring to the task of representing their titular creatures (“Felidae” being the name for the biological family to which cats belong).
Both Pirincci (who scripted) and the animators charged with bringing his words to life do a pretty good job of providing their furry cast with feelings and motivations recognizable to humans without simply turning them into humans in cat drag. While these cats speak to each other in complete sentences and have an awareness of human doings far beyond what one might expect, there is no doubt that theirs is a world entirely “other” from the one that their oblivious owners inhabit. There’s also been an effort not to sentimentalize the beasts; these tabbies, for all their anthropomorphic antics, are just as likely to casually display their buttholes, gulp down a passing fly, eat garbage and piss wherever they please as your own little Whiskers or Tigger. Oh, and they also screw — and, as in life, it’s no candlelight-and-Barry-White-on-the-stereo affair, but rather the same brutal spectacle of hissing, biting and forced penetration that plays out every day in suburban backyards from here to Munich and beyond.
Felidae begins with Francis, who is gifted with an inquisitive temperament beyond that of the typical house cat, moving into a new neighborhood where a feline serial killer appears to be on the loose. While his newfound friend, a battle-scarred and foul-mouthed tom by the name of Bluebeard, shares the belief of the other cats in the neighborhood that the bloody murders are the work of a human, Francis thinks that the evidence points to another cat, and sets out to sniff out the culprit. His search brings him in contact with a messianic cat cult who worship a perhaps mythical super-feline martyred at the hands of a sadistic human scientist (and who express their worship through a ritual of mass self-electrocution); and later leads him to discover that the very house he and his owner have moved into may have been the site of the fabled atrocities — which in reality go way beyond what anyone could previously have imagined.
Francis is guided in his search by a series of vivid dreams which make up some of Felidae‘s most memorable — and horrifying — moments. I challenge anyone who has seen this film to forget the mentally scarring spectacle of a gigantic Gregor Mendel rising up from a vast feline killing field to wield hundreds of mangled cat corpses as marionettes. Another indelibly disturbing image occurs when Francis and Bluebeard stumble upon an underground catacomb filled with decomposing and skeletal cat remains — at which point they realize that, contrary to what they thought, the killer they’ve been tracking is responsible for the murder of, not just several, but hundreds of their brothers and sisters.
Images of mass graves and genocide abound in Felidae, as do references to eugenics and racial purity, and it is one of its flaws that its approach to allegory is just a bit too on-the-nose. (And, seriously, all you Germans who are far too young to have had any direct involvement in the Holocaust? We forgive you. Honestly.) Another for me is that, for a noir protagonist, Francis comes off as just a bit too bland and innocent — bushy-tailed, if you will. An over-dependence on catnip might have been a nice touch in this regard, and in lieu of that, we might have at least got a better sense of the effect that Francis’ descent into darkness has had on him. He appears to be less cynical about humans than the other cats in his new neighborhood (he is at first unfamiliar with the local term “can opener”, which refers to humans in terms of what the cats see as their only useful function), and while he appears troubled by the human cruelty he witnesses, we don’t really get much of a sense of him wrestling with any dissonance between his old and new perceptions.
Still, these are all minor complaints in light of what Felidae accomplishes. Given both its concept and execution, its novelty value is guaranteed. But that it goes beyond that to deliver such a solid and involving mystery, rife with powerful moments and some nasty shocks, is something to be celebrated. One might think that having cartoon kitty-cats prancing across the screen would work against the consistent atmosphere of oppressive dread this story calls for (even if those kitty-cats are doing some pretty awful things), but the finished product proves otherwise. Furthermore, on a technical level, Felidae is — if a little slick at times for my taste — gorgeous. A glance at the various credits of the large, international crew of animators who worked on the film indicates that they were among the most accomplished professionals in the business at the time. In addition to the solid character design and studied believability of the movements, the backgrounds are beautiful without exception — rich with color and lush detail to an extent that they sometimes threaten to upstage the foreground action.
Given that high level of technical artistry, I’m glad that Felidae was made in 1994 — rather than today, when it would undoubtedly have been done with CGI. CGI is to me intrinsically post-modern, always seeming to be about nothing so much as itself — constantly, by way of its very resemblance to live action, calling attention to the trick that it’s pulling on the audience as it’s doing it. As such, it might be fine for films that are just an episodic series of gags, but in service of a sustained narrative — especially one that requires the attention to detail that Felidae‘s does — it’s just a distraction. Drawn animation is definitely the ideal medium for creating the kind of enclosed reality that’s needed for us to invest ourselves in a vision as quirky as Felidae‘s. Given that, this film should stand as a testament to the viability of that medium in the face of the increasingly indistinguishable CGI features that hog our theater screens each holiday season.
Felidae, though in German (the original voice cast includes a number of noted German actors, including Klaus Maria Brandauer), oddly features an English language theme song sung by Boy George. There also exists a perfectly acceptable English language dub, which can be found on the German DVD release (which, sadly, doesn’t include English subtitles for the German language version). All of this indicates that it was made with an eye toward an overseas release, which is not surprising given the obviously high financial investment that went into it. Yet chances are that you have never even heard of it, much less seen it.
That it never received a theatrical release in America is a no-brainer; distributors would undoubtedly have hit a mental logjam trying to market a movie that looks on the surface like a family film but plays out like an angst-ridden version of The Aristocats as imagined by Eli Roth. But surely there are enough people here in the states who would love this orphaned little cinematic tabby — who would take it into their homes, let it curl up in front on the fire, and then rip their throats out — to merit it’s release on domestic DVD.