Reel Berlin: Part 2 – Escape to the Mountains

Technical breakthroughs, strange dancing, and problematic ideology: In her ongoing feature Reel Berlin, film writer Jess Sweetman explores the 1927 film "Der heilige Berg" and its star, Leni Riefenstahl.

A post for Omnified by Jess Sweetman

This is the second part in a series by Jess Sweetman, who will be exploring Berlin’s cinematic history for Omnified. You can read her introduction here. 

Arnold Fanck’s 1926 film “Der heilige Berg” (in English, “The Holy Mountain”) opens with a spot of modern dance. Picture the scene, as a frizzy haired maiden launches into an uncomfortably earnest display of bobbing, weaving and drunk-aunty-at-a-wedding-style waving of arms that would have made the Manson Family suspect that someone had taken a tad too much acid.1

Now I haven’t (yet) seen enough action movies from the silent era to judge, but I suspect that even in Weimar Germany, where the land of the Novembergruppe, Bertolt Brecht, and Bauhaus meant that artistic ingenuity was widely embraced, this might have been something of a novelty.

 

But this, my friends, is no ordinary dancer. This is Leni Riefenstahl taking her first, confident steps into the mountain film (“Bergefilme”) genre, through which she cemented her fame across Weimar Germany. Ironically, the genre’s popularity was relatively short lived, in contrast to “Der heilige Berg” itself, which feels like it lasts forever. (I admit that my views are skewed against the film for two reasons, one frivolous, and one extremely serious, which I will share after this lengthy preamble!)

According to her very carefully constructed origin story, Riefenstahl was first introduced to Fanck’s work by a poster she spotted at a train station. She was instantly smitten. The poster was for Fanck’s popular mountain film “Der Berg des Shicksals” (“The Mountain of Destiny”) and it moved her enough to immediately track down the director in order to convince him to cast her in his next film. According to her biographer Jürgen Trimborn: “It did not occur to her that she would end up with anything less than a starring role.”2 She wasn’t wrong. Fanck cast her as the female lead in “Der heilige Berg.”3

At this point, Riefenstahl was already gaining a national reputation as a dancer, having dropped out of her formal training early in order to take her self-choreographed show on the road. Icarus that she was, she had flouted her teachers’ warnings that she was ending her formal training too early and hitting the road too soon. Such warnings proved prophetic. She sustained a career-ending knee injury, most likely caused by putting too much strain on unprepared muscles.4 Or, as Trimborn puts it: “As so often in her life, she ignored the advice of those who presumably knew better and acted on her belief in herself alone.”5

Leni Riefenstahl
Taken from a portrait of Leni Riefenstahl by Josef Bato (1920)

You’ve probably heard of Leni Reifenstahl, she’s the woman who made those famous Nazi propaganda films later on in her career. She rose to become the Führer’s favorite filmmaker through a mixture of opportunism, unshakeable self-belief, and timing, as from 1933 Germany’s thriving film industry was broken down by the mass exodus of those who were, or would be persecuted by the Nazi party.

“Der heilige Berg” begins with the aforementioned dance sequence, Riefenstahl’s character, the beguiling dancer Diotima’s “Dance to the Sea.” With her rad moves Riefenstahl commands the ocean like a lady Moses, and then goes on to perform on stage, which captures the eyes and heart of grumpy mountaineer Karl (Luis Trenker). The two become engaged before Karl pops off to climb his other love, the sexy mountain.6 Meanwhile Diotima, hussy that she is, becomes friends with another man. Fun mountaineer Vigo (Ernst Peterson) is (obvs) also insanely in love with Diotima as well, and they pal around, watching a lot of skiing before he innocently slides his head in her lap in helpless adoration. Karl, having dashed down the mountain to make out with his new fiancée, sees this and gets all huffy, stomping back off up the mountain with his new-frenemy Vigo.

They fight on the mountain, Vigo falls off while still roped to Karl, and Karl, filled with remorse, sacrifices himself for his friend. Meanwhile, sensing something bad has happened, Diotima halts her sold-out dance performance (she came to this mountain town to share her craft, dagnam it!) in order to implore the men in the audience to pop up the mountain to help her beloved(s). Alas, this bunch of lily-livered, modern dance-enjoying, warm-room-sitting half-men refuse, so, with the Amazonian bad-assery of Brünhild she climbs to basecamp herself, where some real mountaineers are resting up for the night, she calls the alarm for the missing men and the search party commences. Alas, it’s too little, too late and both dudes are toast.

Back to my earlier point, I find it hard to watch “Der heilige Berg” for two reasons. Firstly, I find the pacing excruciating. But, as with any silent film, you have to put the film in the context of its time. When the film first dropped, mountain films were reaching their peak popularity. According to film writer Kamaal Haque, Fanck’s previous film, “Der Berg des Shicksals,”: “broke new ground, merging: ‘on-location mountain filming with melodramatic plots to form a new cinematic genre.’”7 Much of the movie-going public in Berlin hadn’t even seen mountains in 1926, let alone climbed one, skied down one, or entered into a deadly and unwinnable grudge match against one. So when the action of the narrative seems to stop dead in the middle for a 30-minute ski montage, you have to keep reminding yourself that, not only was it mind-blowing at the time, but probably the reason most of the audience were there. Fanck and his team are still noted for their technological advances to this day, because prior to this, most films were shot entirely in studios.

My second issue, and the one that is impossible to get over, is that I watched the film in the shadow of also having read Siegfried Kracauer’s “From Caligari to Hitler.” For those unfamiliar with this seminal piece of film theory, the author, one of the many who fled the Nazis, serves up a postmortem of German cinema from its inception. In Kracauer’s opinion, much of the imagery and messaging within the national cinema at that time helped pave the way for the German embrace of Nazism. What’s more, Kracauer described the mountain genre, while not obviously fascist, as “rooted into a mentality kindred to Nazi spirit.”8 Or as Haque continues, explaining it’s link to the Nazi aesthetic: “This mentality consists of the exultation of feats of strength and will, coupled with a martial understanding of mountain climbing (besieging the mountain, then conquering it).”9

To me, a relative outsider in understanding the Nazi aesthetic, the film seemed to be a mashup of Hollywood action sequences, with ESPN-style sports montage, and the plot and ultimately regressive politics of Hallmark movies. Like the standard Hallmark romcom, the setting of the film showcased charming country folk embracing a simple life away from the dangers of the city, with a smattering of regressive gender politics and a whole lot of escapism. As Kracauer reminds us, in the context of a country still finding its feet as a republic after a devastating war: “the escapist tendency…seems to have been very strong during those years.”10

Lastly, hindsight makes watching any film from the time more complicated than you’d think. Even if it’s debatable how overt and deliberate the themes were, there’s no denying that the film’s star Trenker went on to become a filmmaker for the Third Reich, while Fanck joined the National Socialist party and supported the German mountaineering association as they brought in arian purity laws to their membership, and Leni Riefenstahl became the most celebrated propagandist of the Nazi era. It’s hard to lose yourself and enjoy a film with so much baggage.

I challenge anyone not to watch ”Der heilige Berg” with a tinge of darkness. It gave me cold chills to glimpse young Icarus Riefenstahl on her journey to the sun, dancing like everyone was watching. Soon she would become the woman who taught herself to climb, to film, to edit, to direct, and even later she would become the woman who would watch her leftwing and Jewish colleagues, co-writers, financiers and friends, leaving the country before securing her own filmmaking legend as Hitler’s favorite.

The mountain genre was pretty much left for dead after the war. Despite its popularity at the time, perhaps postwar audiences weren’t ready to re-embrace a genre that was so associated with the regime and although there are mutterings of a comeback, it remains relatively obscure. As for Riefenstahl, she would keep going, if not as meteorically as before, with the same determination. She attended four denazification trials, which eventually declared her a sympathizer (not a collaborator) and immersed herself in anti-defamation lawsuits for the rest of her life, spinning herself as apolitical, a dedicated artist, not a politician.

In the end Riefenstahl lived to 101 and after 50 years in exile finally made another film. She never apologized. Instead, she died in her web of fervent denial of her political past. Like the mountain itself, Riefenstahl remained unchanged, entrenched in the self-made clouds of her own legend, outliving both a genre and the victims of a regime that, arguably, she helped perpetuate.

 

Notes:

  1. Apologies to any fans of modern dance who might take umbrage with this, you’re definitely right, I have no idea what I’m looking at.
  2.  “Leni Riefenstahl A Life” by Jürgen Trimborn p. 28 I.B. Tauris, 2008
  3.  Again, according to Trimborn, reality was probably more complicated than the star-spun legend. 
  4.  Ibid, p. 20.
  5.  Ibid.
  6.  Who needs chicks when you’re up a mountain doing destiny-following man stuff? 
  7.  From “10 May 1924 ‘Der Berg des Schicksals Inaugurates the Genre of the “Mountain Film”” by Kamaal Haque, from “A New History of German Cinema, ed Kapczynski and Richardson, 2012 Camden House 
  8.  Siegfried Krakauer, “From Caligari to Hitler” p. 112
  9.  P145 A New History of German Cinema, Kapczynksi and Richardson
  10.  Ibid, p. 140.

 

Further Reading / Viewing:

Leni Riefenstahl, A Life by Jurgen Trimborn 

From Caligari to Hitler – A Psychological History of German Film by Siegfried Kracauer

A New History of German Cinema, edited by Kapczynski and Richardson

Fascinating Fascism – Susan Sontag 

Natural History – Rethinking the Bergfilme by Nicholas Baer

From Caligari to Hitler documentary, directed by Rüdiger Suchsland

Hitler’s Hollywood, documentary, directed by Rüdiger Suchsland

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