The White Hell of Piz Palu (Die weitte Hölle vom Piz Palü) offers so many potential avenues from which one could approach it. There’s the career of geologist-filmmaker Arnold Fanck, whose fascination with mountains and mountaineering resulting in a series of films possessed of breathtaking 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 more lavish and epic in scope than many people 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 natural talent, revolutionary film technique, loyalty to 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 attempting to rehabilitate her grim reputation.
The White Hell of Piz Palu represents the middle entry in a thematic trilogy that began with the quasi-mystical The Holy Mountain and ended with Storm Over Mont Blanc (SOS Iceberg is sort of a cousin), all 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 I 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 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) 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 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. It serves as an incredible, documentary-like look at Alpine climbing in the early 20th century. In fact, this movie could very well be regarded as a documentary about mountain climbing with some fictional drama injected. Fanck, working alongside co-director G.W. Pabst, films much of the movie on location and with actual mountaineering going on. 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.
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 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. Instead of doing the freak out, he simply sits there, winces slightly, then quietly gets up, walks outside, and breaks off the icicle.
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. There’s an 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 with Fanck (SOS Iceberg), 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 realism even in the sometimes dreamlike The Holy Mountain, Riefenstahl’s film goes whole hog in on mysticism. Hitler became infatuated with Riefenstahl and began the process of bringing her into the Nazi party.
She 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. He was eventually caught up in the purge and charged by Himmler and Hermann Göring 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.
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. On the other hand, she continued her propaganda work, regardless of the truth of her feelings at the execution, 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, was tasked with arresting Riefenstahl. The Allies wanted her in Nuremberg for the war crimes trials, so that she could identify the 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.
She attempted to return to film making but found few people willing to finance her projects. Tiefland was finally released in 1954. 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 important as they are terrible, and she remains a divisive person to discuss. 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 Olympia and not get swept up by how beautiful it is.
Arnold Fanck, on the other hand, ran afoul of German propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels early on. After making such films as Storm Over Mont Blanc, 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. Mountain adventure films have come and gone since Fanck, but Fanck is where this type of adventure begins. Even if his became a 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. Unencumbered by the modern thirst for special effects, Fanck simply lets the mountain be a mountain.
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 effective and dragging on for too long. 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, 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 frequently captures scenes of iconic beauty.
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). It captures the menace and the beauty of 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, like the talent of Leni Riefenstahl, we feel the oppressive weight of its menace as well as the allure of its beauty.