Director: Arnold Fanck
Screenplay: Arnold Fanck
Starring: Leni Riefenstahl, Luis Trenker, Ernst Petersen, Frida Richard, Friedrich Schneider
Running Time: 105 min
BBFC Certificate: U
Leni Riefenstahl is a fascinating figure in the history of cinema. She was one of the first women to achieve notable acclaim and recognition as a film director, picking up several awards at the Venice Film Festival in the 30s and her work has long been thought of as pioneering, particularly in the field of documentary filmmaking. However, her career was cut short and her work overshadowed by her links with the Nazi party. She was not convicted of war crimes, only dubbed a “fellow traveller” (a.k.a. Nazi sympathiser), but the two films she produced for the party, particularly the notorious Triumph of the Will, were powerful adverts for the Nazis and some consider them key factors in the spread of their message across Germany in the 30s. Due to this, she only managed to direct one more film following WWII, Lowlands (a.k.a. Tiefland), which to many is a shame as, despite her objectionable politics and beliefs, she was undoubtedly a bold and astonishingly accomplished filmmaker.
The Holy Mountain, in which Riefenstahl stars (but didn’t direct), is a landmark film for her in a number of aspects. Not only was it her screen debut (discounting an appearance in the documentary Ways to Strength and Beauty) after previously working as a dancer, but it made her a star and was reportedly the film that brought Riefenstahl to the attention of Adolf Hitler himself. He was supposedly entranced by her dance on the beach which opens the film. Later, after she had made her directorial debut with The Blue Light, Hitler approached her to document the 5th Nuremberg Rally in 1933, leading her towards the toxic end of her career.
The Holy Mountain was directed by Arnold Fanck, who Riefenstahl approached after being fascinated by one of his earlier films. Fanck was similarly blown away by Riefenstahl, falling in love with her and quickly knocking together a script to become a star vehicle for the then dancer. Although Riefenstahl never reciprocated Fanck’s love, the pair made six films together in total, all ‘mountain films’, a genre Fanck specialised in. These were films centring around, you guessed it, mountains, worshipping the glory of the natural monuments as well as the skills of those who ‘conquered’ them. It’s a genre that still exists today, in the likes of Everest and documentaries such as Free Solo and Mountain. Back in the 20s and 30s in Germany they were all the rage and Fanck made a name for himself directing them with great visual style, using authentic locations whenever possible. No mean feat in the days of big, clunky hand-cranked film cameras.
Like a lot of Fanck’s mountain films, The Holy Mountain has a fairly basic plot. Riefenstahl plays Diotima, a dancer who bewitches two friends, Karl (Luis Trenker) and Vigo (Ernst Petersen), at a show she puts on in town. She later meets Karl in the mountains and the two fall in love. When he’s away she bumps into Vigo though, who takes part in a skiing competition and wins. Vigo asks her to embrace him as a sort of prize and she agrees, but unfortunately does so just as Karl comes home, who of course gets the wrong end of the stick. Luckily he doesn’t realise it’s Vigo as he storms off in a jealous rage, but Karl’s anger sends him on a dangerous trek up a treacherous peak, dragging Vigo with him for company. Will the journey calm his temper, or will it be the downfall of both men? Diotima is left with this fear and calls upon local skiers for help during a terrible snowstorm.
It’s exciting stuff then, even if the story is more than a little fluffy and melodramatic. The mountaineering and skiing scenes, all shot for real as an opening caption informs us, are still thrilling to watch some 90-odd years later. Perhaps a couple of sequences are drawn out further than you’d expect these days, making for a slightly slower pace than one might be used to, but it’s still good fun as an action film.
It also looks stunning. Fanck and his team of cinematographers frame their surroundings meticulously, making the most of the bold lines and shapes of the landscape. The film is both Fanck’s love letter to Riefenstahl and the mountains themselves, with the camera idolising both in equal measure. There are some fairly modern techniques used too, particularly in the ski race, such as some slow-motion shots and fast-paced skier tracking shots long before the invention of tiny, portable GoPro cameras. There’s a spectacular fantasy sequence at the end too, which looks gorgeous.
So, as a fellow filmmaker I was impressed by The Holy Mountain, despite its flimsy story. Style over substance is certainly the case here, though there’s a kind of poetry in the imagery and the vaguely pretentious inter-titles match this. With healthy doses of excitement and drama it’s still an enjoyable watch and Riefenstahl demonstrates her often forgotten charms in front of the camera. It may be hard to respect her, following the work she did for Hitler later in life, but it’s hard to argue against her great talents in the world of cinema.
The Holy Mountain is out on 17th June on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. They released it on DVD too a long while ago (I’m not sure if it’s still in print). The transfer looks good. It shows its age with quite a lot of flecks and scratches on the print, but the picture remains detailed. The score sounds great too and you get both 5.1 and stereo options.
You get a few special features too:
– 1080p presentation on Blu-ray, from a 2014 2K digital restoration
– Score by Aljoscha Zimmerman, available in both LPCM 2.0 and DTS-HD MA 5.1
– Original German intertitles with optional English subtitles
– The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl [180 mins] Ray Müller’s definitive documentary on the life and career of Leni Reifenstahl.
– Feature Length Audio Commentary by film historian Travis Crawford
– PLUS: a collector’s booklet featuring a new essay by critic and film historian Kat Ellinger, and a 2004 essay by Doug Cummings from the original Masters of Cinema DVD release.
The list of features might not look long on paper, but check the running time on that documentary. Running a whopping 3 hours, the Reifenstahl film is superb. It was actually the main reason I was interested in picking up the set to be honest as I’ve always found her story an fascinating one. The documentary didn’t disappoint either, with it offering an in-depth look at her life from her own perspective. I felt like I should often take her comments with a pinch of salt, but the director is aware of this and sensitively suggests as much. I thoroughly recommend anyone with even a passing interest in Reifenstahl and the history of German cinema to give it a watch.
Crawford’s commentary is very good too and the quality of Eureka’s booklets can never be overstated. Kat Ellinger contributes a particularly interesting piece on Reifenstahl.