It might be that for most of us, all we know of the peculiar German cinema genre plainly dubbed “the mountain film” is the orange-hued parody of it that runs through Guy Maddin’s bell jar daydream Careful. Well, in the DVD era history always comes knocking: Kino has just released three of these precious Alpine fantasies, all of them directed by Dr. Arnold Fanck (the mini-form’s Minnelli) and all of them starring Leni Riefenstahl, a strong-boned, robust leading lady from the silents who soon became the Third Reich’s most notorious propagandist. In fact, S.O.S. Iceberg (1933) was her final acting job (with the sole exception of the wartime debacle Tiefland) and was released one year before the Nuremberg rally that Riefenstahl filmed and made famous in Triumph of the Will. What we have with the mountaineering epic is a formula of calamity and tireless rescue, with Riefenstahl’s plucky heroine either pining for lost arctic scientists or tromping up real glaciers herself in search of ice-stranded loved ones. The stories may be stock, but the real-time grappling between actors and genuine icebergs, crevices and polar bears can be astonishing. The White Hell of Pitz Palu (1929) and Storm Over Mont Blanc (1930) fill out the mold as well, but they also provide fascinating evidence of the silent-to-talkies transition in the pre-Hitler years, and of the cultural that begat the Nazi state. Supplements on the three include a rare Fanck-directed short, a 2002 interview with Riefenstahl, and for S.O.S. Iceberg, an entire alternate version, filmed simultaneously (but very differently) by Tay Garnett in English, starring Rod la Rocque.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 10, 2006