The Holy Mountain Review
Mountain films, in all their bucolic splendour and with their overblown titles became practically a genre of their own in German silent and early talkie films, such was their popularity and such was the powerful influence of the work of Arnold Fanck. Right down to the pomposity of its title, Fanck’s Holy Mountain (“A Drama Poem with scenes from nature by Dr. Arnold Fanck”) must be considered one of the most notable films of its kind, not just for its genre-defining photographic techniques, but also for introducing a beautiful and brilliant young actress who was to become one of the leading and most controversial of Third Reich filmmakers – Leni Riefenstahl.
Riefenstahl plays Diotima, a famous dancer whose routines celebrate nature in all its magnificence. The opening scene of the film shows the dancer performing outdoors, inspired by and in praise of the sea, responding to its tides and rhythms, immediately identifying the nature of the female with the sea – wild, untameable and unpredictable. The film then introduces us to the two male characters – the unnamed ‘The Friend’ (Luis Trenker) and Vigo (Ernst Petersen) – two mountaineers who are identified with the masculine characteristics of the mountain – silent, solid, strong and noble, yet dangerous. Seeing one of her performances, The Friend is immediately taken with the famous dancer and on a subsequent meeting they fall in love. The man goes off in search of the most beautiful mountain that would be worthy of being a location for his proposal of marriage to her. While he is away, Diotima meets Vigo, the young man who was with The Friend when he first saw Diotima dance. Vigo, unaware of their relationship, is an admirer of the dancer himself and his love for her inspires him to great success in some spectacularly filmed Alpine sport events. The two men’s love for Diotima takes them on a perilous climb up the Santo Mountain north-face at the height of winter.
While the story of Fanck’s Holy Mountain is nothing special – a tragic love-triangle melodrama – it has many other interesting features. In its celebration of nature and the human form and character (transposed onto the sea and the mountain) it would cast a strong influence on the lead actress and make her own work obviously appealing to Nazi ideals. While the film’s theme and treatment may no longer be ideologically sound or politically correct, it in no way lessens the importance of the film, the impact of its beauty or the stunning artistic compositions and innovative filming techniques it helped develop. Using time-lapse photography, slow motion, POV shots and cameras on ski’s, there is no studio trickery here – it is all filmed in treacherous conditions at great risk to the actors. However dubious the story and its themes to a modern day audience, the photography and setting raise the film to another level entirely.
Eureka’s release of The Holy Mountain, in association with Masters of Cinema, sees another important classic silent film receive an extensive restoration. The reconstruction is based on two nitrate copies of the original negative – a tinted version from the Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv, Berlin and a black & white one from the Fondazione Cineteca Italiana, Milan – restored in 2001 with the support of the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation.
The picture is not in bad condition, although there are numerous marks, scratches and tramlines during the early part of the film. Very little however constitutes major damage and the middle and latter parts of the film are relatively clear, although evidence of the reconstruction work and possible digital noise reduction can be seen now and again. More distracting than the marks on the print is the jerkiness of movement evident throughout the film – in some scenes it looks like frames are missing every few seconds – rather spoiling some of the spectacular skiing scenes and dance sequences which should really be a lot smoother. I suspect though that this might be more to do with the manual cranking of the film through the camera than any faults with the negative itself. The DVD transfer itself is great, presenting the film on a dual-layer disc, with no sign of any digital artefacts and fabulous colour tinting. The film is presented in the various ratios used by Fanck - mainly 1.33:1, but the director is not afraid to narrow the frame down to being longer than it is wide when a particular composition calls for it. The DVD is encoded for Regions 2 and 4.
There is not much to say really about the audio track. Like Dr Mabuse, the Gambler, a new score has been composed for the film by Aljoscha Zimmerman and recorded with a small ensemble in 2002, so the quality is fine. I presume the original score listed on the opening credits is no longer in existence. Zimmerman’s score works well with the film. It could perhaps be a little more grandiose to be in keeping with the film, but on the other hand it might be better to understate in a film like this. The soundtrack is presented as a Dolby Digital 5.1 and as a Dolby Digital 2.0 mix and there is no significant difference between the two versions, both being very much up at the front.
The original German intertitles are used where available or reconstructed from the censor’s records. Optional English subtitles are available.
The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl
A very generous extra feature – previously available as a title on its own from Eureka – Ray Müller’s three hour documentary on Riefenstahl is included as the second disc in the Holy Mountain set. Riefenstahl’s early career as a dancer is covered here and there is some background on the making of The Holy Mountain including an interview with her leading man, Luis Trenker.
This is a magnificent film, fully covering Riefenstahl’s acting and directing career, allowing her to give her own account of events, while not being afraid to challenge her on controversial issues such as her friendship with Hitler, her rumoured love affair with Goebbels and her alleged use of gypsies from a Nazi concentration camp as extras in her film Tiefland. Extensive investigation is also made of Triumph of the Will, her infamous film of the Nazi Party's rally in Nuremberg in 1934, but it is clear as she shows clips from the film that she is oblivious to what the film stands for, seeing it as no more than a monumental technical achievement, a brilliant synthesis of form and content, without being able to make any judgement on the correctness of promoting Nazi ideals. It’s a balanced film, showing the feisty 90 year-old bossing and ordering the documentary film crew and the director around – and while its respect for Riefenstahl’s work is evident, it doesn’t compromise the film. Extra features don’t come any better than this.
The Holy Mountain is a rarely seen film and we are fortunate to have it presented in such a well-restored version on this Eureka DVD. Historical events and the subsequent career of Leni Riefenstahl (extensively covered in the extra features) will give modern day audiences a different perspective on the film, but The Holy Mountain is more than a historical curiosity.