No film explores the high jinks and hysteria of thin-air alpine farce quite like Guy Maddin’s Careful (1992), in which libidinous impulse threatens the safety of a remote mountain village. Shot in a mock-expressionist vein, the Canadian director’s third feature makes rich use of the absurdity inherent in the Berg Films of the ’20s and ’30s, which pit man against mountain in a metaphoric program celebrating nature and adolescent purity. Careful is also his first film in color, and combines amour fou with a visual style the director has identified as “sherbety.” Together with Maddin’s meisterwerk, Cinema Village (in association with the Austrian Cultural Institute, the Swiss Institute, and the Goethe Institute) has assembled a short slate of films, both old and new, representing this slightly stilted genre.
Luis Trenker’s The Prodigal Son (1934) is an outrageously beautiful and uncannily ridiculous tale of a young, strapping Bavarian mountaineer who fells trees by morning and learns geography in the afternoon. Seized by wanderlust, he leaves his home in the mountains and makes his way to New York, where, dodging streetcars, he heads directly to the observation deck of the Empire State Building. The footage of the city—much of which was shot on the street with a hidden camera—is spellbinding, matched only by the mountain-climbing and skiing scenes, which were actually shot in the Italian Dolomites. Played by Trenker himself (once called “John Wayne and John Ford rolled into one”), the hapless Tonio is equal parts Schwarzenegger and Stallone—big and strong with a German accent, but all heart. Released in 1934 but produced before Goebbels’s Ministry of Propaganda called the shots, the movie is basically a glamorous Heimatfilm, in which the protagonist ultimately realizes he’d better go home.
Given the title of the series, Leni Riefenstahl’s The Blue Light (1932) is conspicuously absent. Though the film is a respected genre piece, some of the organizations involved apparently decided they’d rather avoid all association with films directed by the sometime propagandist. A young, athletic Riefenstahl stars, however, in The White Hell of Piz Palü (1929), the first Berg Film to combine mountain photography with studio material and a story line.
Unfortunately, the awe and intrigue of the early Berg Films seem lost in more recent productions. Fredi Murer’s Alpine Fire (1985) has a promising premise—a deaf-mute farmhand wants to sleep with his sister and gradually goes insane—but doesn’t deliver, while the fact that Xavier Niller’s Journey of Hope (1990) won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film simply looks bad for Oscar.