Donald G. Daviau (University of California, Riverside)
The Artistic Films of Arnold Fanck, the Apostle of Skiing and High-Mountain Climbing
The present volume is devoted to the reality and virtuality of mountains, and it is no exaggeration to claim that up to now no one has ever exhibited in virtual form the art of skiing and the challenges of high mountain climbing better than Arnold Fanck (1889-1974) in his mountain films. As the various articles here will show, mountains have been portrayed in every artistic manner in paintings, photographs, novels, plays, lyric poems and films. In these virtual forms, artists have shown the awe-inspiring grandeur and beauty of these natural wonders as well as their dangers such as the deadly cold, unexpected snow storms, accumulations of snow that can suddenly turn into an avalanche, falling rocks, unseen crevasses in glaciers, which swallow their victims, volcanos which erupt and pour out hot lava which destroys everything in its path. Like the powers of nature that created them, mountains are primeval reality, which, despite all human interventions, remain so. As elemental natural creations, mountains are not concerned about whether people climb them or not, whether they drill mines into them, farm the land or cut the trees. They have no control over the forces of nature to which they are subject just as are the human beings who venture on them for whatever purpose. For this reason I do not agree with those who consider climbing a mountain a contest between the climber and the mountain any more than I think diving to the bottom of the ocean is a contest of diver and ocean or crossing the desert is a contest with the sand and heat or that flying is a contest with the sky. To me a contest is where the opponent is equally adept and uses defensive and offensive means to win just as the challenger is doing. Certainly all of these things are great feats, which prove courage, skill, strength, perseverance and boldness, but they are not contests between man and nature. Nor are mountains ever conquered, as is so often claimed. They remain what they are, proud wonders of nature, regardless of whether some intrepid climber has planted a flag or a cross at the top. Climbing a mountain is not like breaking a wild horse and transforming it into a docile beast of burden. The mountain is not tamed but remains just as inviting and just as dangerous for the next person as it ever was.
Of all the ways in which the beauty, majesty and hazards of mountains have been and can be depicted in virtual form, none can rival cinematography in impact, as Arnold Fanck firmly believed:
Das große - für mich einzige - Mittel dazu bot der Film. Nur durch die Sprache des Filmes kann man sich an das ganze Volk, ja an Völker, wenden. Und vor allem - nur der Film kann Natur und Leben in der Natur mit der höchst erreichbaren Realität und Lebendigkeit zeigen. Dies war eben, was ich brauchte: Die Natur zu zeigen, wie sie ist, so schön und fruchtbar, so idyllisch und dramatisch, so sonnig und so düster, starr und bewegt - ganz einfach das Erlebnis der Natur zu vermitteln - das war die Aufgabe, die ich mir gestellt hatte, als ich mich von den Naturwissenschaften der Naturkinematographie zuwandte.(1)
No other means can bring the adventurous experience of the mountains to the viewer, whether it be exuberant joy or mortal tragedy, with greater immediacy and impact than film. Arnold Fanck, who is rightfully acknowledged as "Der Begründer des Bergfilms," believed this, and it was one of the reasons that he became a filmmaker. He loved the mountains, particularly the high mountains above the tree line, which he made his specialty, and he wanted to make it possible for others, who would never get to enjoy them in reality, to experience them in all of their many aspects and phases. This was the motivation behind all of his mountain films. In his words:
Eine starre, kalte Welt, für den, der nicht seine eigene Freude hinauftragen kann auf ihre Höhen. Aber doch noch schön - schön wie diese ganze Natur, von kleinstem Schneekristall bis zum gewaltigsten Viertausender. Und all diese Schönheit einer Bergwelt, allen Jubel und alles Leid, das wir als Jugend einst selbst da hinaufgetragen, nunmehr den großen Massen in den Städten zu zeigen und mitzuteilen - das war die Aufgabe, die mir übrigblieb, nachdem der Tod aller Jugendfreunde (Walter Schaufelberger und Hans Rohde) dem eignenen Bergglück ein Ende gestetzt hatte.(2)
Leni Riefenstahl, whom Fanck discovered and made into a star, and who later became a top director herself, was motivated by the same goal: "Wenn es uns gelungen ist, das im Film fühlbar zu machen und in den Alltag der vielen tausend Großstadtmenschen, die nur selten in die Berge kommen können, einen Abglanz ihrer Herrlichkeiten zu tragen, dann fühlen wir uns reichlich belohnt."(3)
Fanck's pride, as that also of his disciples Leni Riefenstahl and Luis Trenker, another actor he made into a star and who also became a leading director, was the authenticity of his films, which were produced under the most arduous, harrowing, dangerous conditions. The crews, including the actors, had to lug the heavy equipment up the mountain and then live for weeks, if not months at the high altitudes, subject to every vagary of the weather. Every member of his team had to be an expert skier and mountain climber, as he was himself. He knew that the regular studios would simply build sets and film under optimum conditions, but he refused to compromise. He wanted to present the reality accurately as it really was, not as an imitation. That is why it was said of him, "Er führte Regie mit Gletschern, Stürmen und Lawinen," an accolade that he used as the title of his autobiography (München 1974). Just as the high mountain climbers felt that they were special because of their accomplishments, so too Fanck and his dedicated retinue believed that they were creating something exceptional, which in fact they were. They created the new genre of the mountain film, popularized skiing and mountain climbing, thereby launching an entire sports industry as well as boosting tourism. People knew and appreciated that Fanck's films were shot on location, that the nature scenes were real. Helmut K. Ammon described the arduous conditions to which the film crew was exposed:
Daß die Operateure von Fancks Truppe ganz besondere Kerle sein mußten, die ständig in Lebensgefahr schwebten, sei nochmals gesagt. Die Kamerastandpunkte sollten ja unüblich und etwas Besonderes sein. So mußte der Kameramann mit seinem Gerät oft zigmal zwanzig bis fünfzig Meter am Fels abgeseilt werden und in dieser unnatürlichen, verkrampften Haltung die Einstellungen drehen. Auch konnte er nur dürftig abgesichert werden, denn er brauchte ja für seine Arbeit genügend Bewegungsfreiheit. [...] All die aufgeführten Extrembedingungen zeigen, daß ein solches Arbeiten nur mit einer Elite von "verrückten" Männern zu schaffen war, die sowohl physisch robust als auch hervorragende Skifahrer, Bergsteiger und Filmtechniker in einem sein mußten.(4)
This authenticity set Fanck's films apart and resulted in their extraordinary success. At the same time one must not forget that Fanck was not making documentary outdoor films in the National Geographic fashion, but art works. Hence the special and spectacular camera angles, hence the unique lighting effects and the carefully choreographed sequences, from the procession of clouds passing overhead to the raging snow storms, to the graceful, ballet-like skiing sequences to ace pilot Ernst Udet's pirouhettes in the sky and between mountain peaks with his plane.
After the ordeal of making these films, it is understandable that Fanck would react in anger to critics, who refused to believe that the films adequately presented reality. His lengthy letter to a Dr. Bing, who seems to have made a practice of methodically deprecating each new Fanck film, provides an eloquent explanation of his methods and intentions. Apparently Bing came from that school, which feels that to be critical means to find fault. Over 13 closely argued pages, Fanck in 21 points refutes each of Bing's criticisms and in the process provides a clear statement of his aims, intentions and methods.(5)
Fanck's basic theme from the beginning had been to depict honestly the wonders of the high mountains for skiers and climbers: "Denn auf diesem einfachen Geheimnis, nur selbst Erlebtes oder selbst Beobachtetes künstlerisch zu verwerten, beruht letzten Endes der starke Wirklichkeitsgehalt meiner Filme, selbst wo sie ins Phantastisch-Romantische abstreiften."(6) He wanted his films to illustrate every aspect of the high mountains:
Klettern, Skilaufen, Gletscherbruch, Spalten, Eiswände, Fels und Eisgrat, Lawinen, Wolken, Schneesturm, stäubenden Schnee, funkelndes Eis, Wasser, etc. etc., alles unter Sonnenlicht glitzernd oder partiell aufleuchtend im nächtlichen Licht von Laternen, Fackeln oder Scheinwerfern, werden sich nun in jedem Hochgebirgsfilm immer wiederholen. Und etwas bildlich Neues wird das Hochgebirge nicht mehr hergeben, einfach, weil es nichts anderes mehr in diesen Regionen des ewigen Eises gibt, das optisch darzustellen wäre. (Ich übergehe dabei absichtlich solche Bildmomente, wie Hochgebirgsfauna und -flora, sowie das Milieu des im Gebirge ansässigen Menschen, weil das alles nicht mehr zum eigentlichen Hochgebirge gehört, d.h. zu den Gletscher- und Felsenregionen oberhalb menschlichen und pflanzlichen Lebens, in dem meine Themen bisher fast ausschließlich spielten [...]"(7)
Audiences could enjoy all of these activities in virtual form, seated in a comfortable theater while being entertained by the most amazing scenery and athletic feats on the screen. In the early films they could watch 40 skiers engaged in the most intricate choreographed skiing maneuvers or comedians performing an early version of the Keystone Cops, eventually all ending up in a collision. In the subsequent films, when plots were added, audiences could vicariously share adventures and deep human emotions amidst the most spectacular scenery as well as climbers in precarious situations facing and sometimes finding death. In short, through his films, as has been the case throughout the history of film, audiences could vicariously satisfy their desire for action, adventure and heroic deeds, could expand their horizons into totally new areas of life, all without risk for the small price of a ticket. Nothing like these films had been seen before, and so it is small wonder that they captivated audiences and critics alike.
In a demonstration of artistic character, Fanck, once he had accomplished his purpose and felt that he had nothing new to show regarding skiing and climbing, ceased creating mountain films and turned to other themes. He could have continued to make films, creating ever new plots about people involved with mountains in one form or another. Themes involving people are plentiful, whereas what can be said and shown about mountains is limited. For Fanck the mountain itself was the primary object, not the people he had had to introduce to the dismay of the pure Alpinists who only wanted nature scenes, simply because a feature film demanded a story. As it turned out, plots were always his weak point. Nothing argues more in favor of him as a true artist than his unwillingness to simply repeat his early successes, to become an imitator of himself. He could have proceeded to the next level of the human despoliation of the mountains, namely, the arrival of the engineers, who utilized technology to exploit their water, wood and mineral resources. But this approach did not interest Fanck, so he gave such a theme to his disciple Luis Trenker, whose early film Die drei heiligen Brunnen depicted the building of an aqueduct to control water.
Fanck's fascination for mountains came about in a curious and circuitous way. As a sickly child, who could barely walk by age ten, he had been sent to a sanatorium in the high mountains, where he not only recovered his health, but also went on to become a most adept and daring mountain climber and skier. His interest in film came about unexpectedly. A filmmaker, who wanted some high, dangerous shots and found no one in his crew who would make the climb to film them, heard of Fanck and hired him to do the job. Thus through two chance events in his life, Fanck found his calling. He was not the first man to make a high mountain film, but he was the first to make a significant one, which still retains its power today. The earliest attempts in 1901, 1905 and 1909 were amateurish affairs of no lasting value,(8) whereas Fanck's first film, Das Wunder des Schneeschuhs, Teil I (1920), was regarded as a sensation. He had worked on an earlier film, carrying up the camera equipment for Erste Besteigung des Monte Rosa mit Filmkamera und Skiern (1913), but only a few meters of this film still exist. Primarily this was a learning experience for Fanck, who was completely self-taught as a filmmaker. However, it also brought the additional benefit of his meeting the cameraman Sepp Allgeier and the alpinist Dr. Deodatus Tauern, who later became permanent members of his crew.
Together with Tauern, Fanck founded Die Freiburger Berg- und Sportfilm GmbH, and devoted six months to making his first film, which no film company would distribute. Consequently he presented the film himself with considerable success. Good reviews in Freiburg, Münich and Berlin caused a distributor to take it over. One reviewer for the Freiburger Tagesanzeiger wrote: "Nicht der Kampf des Guten gegen das Schlechte, sondern der Mensch im Kampfe gegen Naturgewalten, sein Sieg und seine Belohnung. Dieses Filmwerk wird eine gute Zukunft vor sich haben und bahnbrechend wirken."(9) Only 1200 meters of this film still exist. The contents demonstrate skiing techniques, "mit Schwünge und Sprünge von einer Schanze, die praktische Anwendung des Schneeschuhs im Gelände, der Aufstieg in den Bergen und das Abseilen über Gletscherspalten, eine wilde Fahrt von 4200 Metern ins Tal hinunter, und Aufnahmen des Operateurs beim Filmen in schneebedeckten Wäldern."(10)
Because of the popularity of the films, Fanck together with Hannes Schneider and his cameraman Sepp Algeier published the book Wunder des Schneeschuhs (1927), which sold 18,000 copies by the fourth edition in 1930. The richly illustrated book (242 pictures) is basically a manual on every aspect of skiing and testifies to the growth of the sport brought about by the films. In addition the book contains 1400 "Kinomatigraphische Reihenbilder," selected out of two million pictures examined, showing the precise movements of every skiing maneuver. Fanck believed that the movie film, broken down into individual pictures was superior to still shots of a regular camera for showing the progression of the body activity in minute detail.(11)
The book, like the film, was intended to popularize skiing, particularly high mountain skiing, to which Fanck was so devoted. Especially effective in both forms are the pictures of skiers jumping from steep cliffs, taken at such at angle as to make it appear that they are floating over the clouds, which can be clearly seen below them in their flight. In this way the spectators are given a sense of the great freedom and elation that the skiers experience. According to Horak, "Durch die Kamera, die Lichtgestaltung, die Bildkomposition kommuniziert Fanck nicht nur die Begeisterung für den Sport, vielmehr wird hier eine Ideologie propagiert, die den Hochgebirgsmenschen als göttlich signifiziert. Dies gilt umsomehr für den zweiten Teil."(12) Actually I do not believe that Fanck was trying to create or spread any kind of ideology in his films. Rather he simply wanted to share his enthusiasm for high mountain sports with others, to win people over to these sports and also to show those who would never experience the high mountains in actuality, what they were missing. His idea was totally correct, as the interest in mountain films and the tremendous growth in these sports testify. That people who came to excel at these sports felt proud of themselves is not at all surprising but totally natural. Champions in all sports have always exhibited the same pride. But that they feel "göttlich" is highly debatable.
Just as debatable is the claim that high-mountain climbing became a Nazi specialty and that therefore Fanck's films were proto-Nazi films.(13) The evidence clearly contradicts such an allegation. Fanck became the apostle of the high mountains for everyone who would see his films and read his books, not as a matter of Nazi ideology. No serious, objective person can consider him responsible for the fact that young Nazis along with countless others adopted the sports of skiing and climbing. That the Nazis made their feats a matter of testing their personal courage is no different from the thinking of Sir Edmund Hillary, who climbed Mt. Everest, or of the celebrated Heinrich Harrer or Reinhold Messner, the well-known Austrian extreme climber. Those who make this allegation also overlooked the matter of the chronology: the majority of these films were made in the 1920s before there the Nazis had importance. His last major mountain films S.O.S. Eisberg and Der ewige Traum appeared in 1933 and 1934, respectively. That Fanck felt obliged to join the Nazi part in 1941, so he could continue filming has nothing to do with the attitude informing these early films and to taint them with the later brush is a mistaken critical approach.
Because of the success of the first film, which he had had to finance himself, Fanck made a second part, Das Wunder des Schneeschuhs Teil II. Eine Fuchsjagd auf Schneeschuhen durchs Engadin. Whereas the first part had celebrated the techniques and pleasures of skiing, jumping and climbing, the second film, completed in 1922, introduced a suggestion of a plot in addition to hiring expert Norwegian skiers who put on a dazzling show of jumping, sometimes as far as 50 meters, giving the impression of flying. The mountain and mountain sports are still the central focus, but at the heart of the action is a wager between a male champion and a female skier. The male challenges the woman to a game of fox and hare, betting her that she cannot catch him. The chase is filled with all manner of daring maneuvers and jumps and is done with some humor as well, so that it does not get tiresome, even though it runs for the entire 11/2 hours of the film. For additional humor Fanck hired two well-known skiers, who are supposed to represent beginners just learning to ski with all the pratfalls and other amusing twists and turns they can manage. They were such a hit that Fanck used them again in future films, and they also appeared in other films as well. The reviews praised these two films as well as the following ones, Die weiße Kunst, Im Kampf mit dem Berge and Der Berg des Schicksals (1924), which introduced Luis Trenker and made him a star: "Eine gewaltige künstlerische, oder sagen wir allgemeiner eine kulturelleLeistung, die kaum noch genug eingeschätzt werden kann. [...] Diese Filme sind wundervoll, unvergleichlich, sie haben den Natur- und Sportfilm auf ein ganz anderes Niveau hinaufgehoben."(14)
For his next film, Der heilige Berg (1926), Fanck recognized that he needed more of a plot in order to please audiences, who expected a story in a feature film, so he introduced Leni Riefenstahl as the love interest of two men. While the nature scenes were unanimously praised as "die wundervollsten Aufnahmen von Felsen und Eis, von Skisprüngen und Jagden durch Wälder und mit Fackeln durch die Nacht," the plot was criticized as "eine trübe und in jedem Sinne peinliche Liebesgeschichte."(15) Similarly Fritz Rosenfeld, who discussed the film in terms of a Bildsymphonie, which Fanck intended with all of the carefully choreographed nature scenes, praised the film, stating, "Kein Film, den man in dieser Saison gesehen hat, ist so fesselnd wie dieser, keiner gibt dem Auge so viel an Wundern der Wirklichkeit, ist er doch Natur und Dichtung. Natur in Dichtung, schaut er doch die Wirklichkeit an jener Grenze, wo sie gespenstig wird (im nächtlichen Sausen der Skiläufer über den Stäubenden Schnee!), die Natur, wo sie Märchen wird. [...] Dieses Filmwerk ist eine der wenigen Schöpfungen der Filmkunst, die zu jedem sprechen, jeden packen, jedem gefallen."(16) Rosenfeld notes especially Fanck's technique, which keeps the natural scenery at the center of attention: "Nicht nur die Auswahl der Landschaften, auch der Rahmen, in den sie gestellt werden, trägt zur Geschlossenheit dieser Filmsymphonie in ihrer eigenartigen Rhythmik bei. [...] Fanck stellt die Menschen meist als Silhoutte gegen den Himmel oder das Schneefeld. Er [...] bringt im Schattenriss die menschliche Erscheinung zur konzentriertesten Wirkung."(17)
Because of the criticism of the weak plot in Der heilige Berg, Fanck teamed with the experienced director G.W. Pabst for his next film Die weiße Hölle vom Piz Palü (1929) to create one of the last silent films and one of his greatest successes. The mountain was still the center of attention, showing all of its many magical and mystical facets from the procession of clouds overhead, peaceful and stormy, to avalanches and fierce snow storms. Fanck with his brilliant camera team of Sepp Allgeier, Richard Angst and Hans Schneeberger photographed the outdoor scenes, while Pabst shot the indoor scenes in the studio. The plot, written by Fanck, is simple but effective: a young couple decide to climb Piz Palü to celebrate their engagement on top of the mountain. There they are joined by a taciturn man, whom they learn had lost his wife exactly a year earlier, when she fell into a crevasse in the glacier and he could not save her. He has never recovered from the experience. On the way up five young climbers pass them and choose another route to the top. They are caught in an avalanche and swept into the glacier. When the trio sees a storm approaching, they try to descend quickly, but the young man falls and is injured. They become trapped, unable to proceed in any direction. Without warm clothing they are freezing. The young man goes bezerk and has to be restrained to keep him from killing himself. Finally, the man wraps him in his coat and lies down in an alcove of ice to die, sacrificing himself, so that the young couple might survive. They manage to do so, because they are discovered by a plane, piloted by Ernst Udet, the German flying ace from World War I, who has been guiding a rescue party to where the group of young men plunged into the glacier. He can now guide the rescuers to the young couple.
The reviewers oudid themselves with praise for this film, calling it "eine Symphonie, [...] ein Werk aus einem Guß, der keine Bruchstelle, keine Lötung zeigt. [...] Meisterwerke der Aufnahmetechnik, Bilder von unvergeßlicher Schönheit wie die Fotographen den Fackelzug der Rettungsmannschaftenoder die Fliegerkunststücke Ernst Udets in die Kamera einfangen. Wundervolle Bildeffekte in der Gesamtheit und im malerischen Detail."(18) Dr. Robert Volz is equally enthusiastic in his praise of the camera work and the organic unity of plot and nature. But he recognizes that the mountain is the main focus: "Noch nie hat der Berg in solchem Maße wie in der weißen Hölle vom Piz Palü die Führung übernommen. Er ist der Kern der Handlung, ist das Schicksal der Menschen, ist Anfang und Ende, Seligkeit und Verzweiflung, Tod und Ewigkeit."(19) Especially effective are the scenes of the rescuers walking through the depths of the glacier by torchlight, searching for the bodies of the young climbers.
Fanck's next film displayed his humorous side, which had been evidence earlier in Die Wunder des Schneeschuhs. Teil II and in Der große Sprung (1927), which portrays a manager taking his vacation in the mountains. In Der weiße Rausch (1931), which is essentially a remake of the earlier film with sound added, two carpenters from Hamburg are shown learning to ski, with all the pratfalls that one might expect. They were played again by the Austrian skiers Guzzi Lantscher und Walter Riml. There is no real plot, simply a sequence of brilliant visual effects as a means of showing the joys of skiing, and creating enthusiasm for the wonders of the high mountains.
There is also some humor in Stürme über Mont Blanc (1931), Fanck's first sound film, which otherwise is weighted down by a trivial plot. It contains the typical ingredients of a death by falling into a crevasse, a man trapped on the mountain by a raging snowstorm, and the heroics of Ernst Udet, who discovers the man frozen in the ice, lands, builds a fire to thaw him out and restores him to his anxious girl friend. Happy end. A scientist and his daughter Hella, who is his assistant, study the mountain from below. She meets Ernst Udet, who flies first her and on the following day her father to the top of the mountain, where she falls in love with the weatherman. The father goes for a walk that he once took as a young man and falls to his death. A violent storm forces the weatherman to flee, but he is frozen trying to make his way down the mountain. Hella organizes a rescue party, and Ernst Udet in his plane is able to locate and save him. Whereas in Piz Palü nature dominated, here, as one critic noted, "der Alpine Kitsch die Alpine Echtheit in vieler Hinsicht überwuchert."(20) After discussing all of the imporbabilites in this film, Bing in his lengthy review nevertheless calls the film "in seinem alpinen Teil das Beste, was bis jetzt in der Geschichte des Bergsport-Films geleistet wurde. Dieses Urteil gilt nicht nur für die Technik, sondern merkwürdigerweise auch für die Idee."(21) He adds that even the trivial plot could not diminish the greatness of the mountain, and calls the film "zum großen Teile der Film der Bergsteiger."(22) Bing also gives a good idea of what the viewers received in this film, which originally was to have been called "Über den Wolken," which he feels would have been a more appropriate title to convey the contents:
Aber nicht die Größe des konkreten Themas überwältigt den Beschauer. Wenn man von der rein sportlichmondänen Einleitung absieht, dann hinterläßt auch das Abstrakte, das rein Gedankliche dieses Films dauernde und hinreißende Eindrücke. Lediglich durch die Darstellung dessen, was der Mensch in Höhen über 4000 Meter sieht, empfindet und erlebt, lediglich durch die überwältigende Natursymphonie über den Wolken gibt der Regisseur einen Begriff vom wahren Geiste des Bergsteigens."(23)
Again the exceptional camera work is praised:
Die Bedeutung und Wirkung dieses Films liegt aber auch im Phototechnischen: was Sepp Allgeier und sein getreuer Kumpan Hans Schneeberger, den kleinen Operateur Angst nicht zu vergessen, unter Fancks Regie an Wolkenbildungen, an Lichtreflexen, an Sturmszenen am Grat und vor allem an Lawinenbildern einfingen, ist einfach unbeschreiblich. [...] Die Aufnahmen im Hochgwitter auf den Montblanc-Gletschern bilden den Höhepunkt nicht nur des Films, sondern der alpin filmischen Entwicklung der letzten Jahre überhaupt. Der Naturalismus ist so echt, daß sich seine erschütternden Wirkungen unbewußt auch im Minenspiel und in den Gebärden der Darsteller ausdrücken.(24)
Fanck's mastery of the high mountain film did not escape the notice of Hollywood. The agent and producer Frederick Kohner approached him in 1928 with an offer from Carl Laemmle, head of Universal Studios in Germany, to make a film about the highest mountain in America. For whatever reason Fanck preferred to shoot his film in Greenland. In 1932 he set out by ship loaded with provisions for six months along with 3 planes for Udet, 3 polar bears and 40 tents. The film, entitled S.O.S. Eisberg (1933), eventually cost 700, 000 Marks, making it the most expensive film that Fanck ever made.
Again the plot is simple and straightforward: a scientist named Dr. Karl Lorenz, in order to make a new discovery on an expedition in Greenland, becomes separated from his party, which gives up any hope of finding him and returns home without him. The film opens with a board of inquiry finding that the leader, Dr. Johannes Krafft, did not devote enough effort to locating Lorenz and is guilty of disloyalty. Stung by this allegation, Krafft organizes a new party with some of the members of the original team, who volunteer to return to search for their colleague. After six months they have no expectation of finding him still alive, but they hope to find his diaries, which might explain his disappearance. Lorenz's daughter (Leni Riefenstahl) tells Krafft that her husband's dream had been to examine the last bit of unexplored territory in Greenland.
In powerful visual scenes the film portrays the hazardous journey of the search party, which ultimately does find the Lorenz in frail condition but alive. However, the five men become trapped on an iceberg, which is floating out to sea. Dr. Krafft sends out SOS calls on his radio, which is fading fast. An amateur in Labrador picks up the signal and sends the call on to Europe, where Hella Lorenz is contacted. She does not fit the stereotype of the German housewife, but rather she has trained as a pilot with Ernst Udet and immediately flies to her father's rescue, accompanied by a second plane. She locates the stranded party but both planes crash trying to land on the iceberg. The other pilot dies. She is now united with her sickly father and spends the rest of the film by his side in an ice cave. A few of the men go beserk with fear and hunger and three die. Finally Ernst Udet comes to the rescue. He alerts a nearby Eskimo village, and the men come in their boats to the rescue. The cinematography is spectacular and was praised in the highest terms: "Wundervoll die Aufnahmen aus dem arktischen Meer, die Niederbrüche der kalbenden Eisberge. Unvergleichlich die grandiose Aufnahme eines Sturmes auf dem Eismeer, die ergreifendsten, packendsten Bilder, seitdem es eine Kinematographie gibt."(25)
As has been shown in the previous films, all powerful nature dominates here. The human theme is a tribute to the comradeship that exists between explorers.
There is not much room for any acting, since the member of the expedition have no choice but to seek refuge in the cave and simply try to survive in the hope that resuers will come. Whether one wants to see in this refuge a return to the womb, as Horak views all caves just as all mountain peaks are regarded as phallic symbols, is a personal matter.(26) There are times when a cave serves simply as a common sense way of trying to survive in a storm.
We see the tragedy of the young pilot, who flew the second plane and crashes into the bay. He cannot swim to the iceberg nor can anyone reach him, only watch him go under with the plane. According to Horak, the passivity of the characters in their predicament shows a difference from American filmmaking. Americans would strive actively to extricate themselves. Here, however, the characters succumb to a feeling helplessness and hopelessness and become lethargic waiting for rescue. Yet we do see heroics from Dr. Krafft, who unbelievably tries to go for help by swimming from iceberg to iceberg in the freezing water and icy cold wind. It is highly improbable that he could survive more than 5 to 8 minutes before he succumbed to hyperthermia, but he manages to endure until Udet, after putting on a flying display, finally lands and rescues him. This is one of the few lapses in the realism of the film. S. O.S. Iceberg is the only Fanck film that appeared in an English version in the U.S.
After this succession of deservedly highly praised and critically acclaimed films, Fanck created a clichee-ridden, weak production called Der ewige Traum (1934), which was made in both German and French versions. The plot was based on Karl Ziak's story "Picard wider Balmat." The latter was the first to climb Montblanc in 1786 to search for gold. Indeed, unlike his previous films, in which the mountain is always the central focus, here Fanck features the conflict of materialism versus nature. When the city offers 1000 Louisdor to the first man to climb Montblanc, many try, but everyone, including Balmat, fails because of a severe storm, which he survives only by finding refuge in a cave. Later he does reach the top, but the successful climb is not even shown, either because Fanck did not want to repeat himself or as an economy measure. Suddenly Balmat is on top, but his victory has a price: his son dies in childbirth at the same moment.
Nevertheless Balmat remains obsessed by gold and has the motto "Gold ist Macht" carved over his doorway. He is looked down on by his neighbors, he does not appreciate his friend Maria and has sacrificed his son all because of his obsession for gold. He finally comes to the insight that the love of Maria is the real gold. He even refuses the prize money for his climb. He surrenders his Western materialism for a life as a farmer, which, whether by intention or not, brought the film more into line with the prevailing Nazi ideology. It did not help gain him any standing with Goebbels, the head of the Nazi film industry, who disliked the film because it was based on a French character. Whereas in the earlier films, the mountain dominated the action, here the plot takes the upper hand with the mountain only as background. Unlike the previous films, this production did not win any plaudits for its camera work but rather negative reviews because of the plot.
A mountain appears for the last time in a Fanck film in Die Tochter des Samurai (1937), a Japanese/German cooperative effort intended to celebrate the pact between the two countries. The plot deals with the idea of the lost son, in this case a young Japanese who had traveled to Germany, where he became enthused over Nazism as well as a blond, German woman journalist, who accompanies him back to Japan. He hopes to marry her but learns that in the traditional manner the family has selected a Japanese bride for him. At first he rejects his new bride and is at odds with his family, until he learns that the German woman has no intentions of marrying him. This rejection causes the young protagonist, who had wanted to become westernized and not simply be a farmer like his father, to fall into deep depression. However, a visit to the beautiful countryside and the sight of powerful Mount Fuji remind him of his heritage and his duty to his family and country. He rushes to make amends with his father and hurries to claim his bride, only to learn that in her disgrace she has gone to throw herself into a volcano. He undertakes an arduous odyssey, swimming through bodies of hot water and climbing barefoot over the hot rocks and steaming fissures to reach the top just in time to save her from her fatal plunge. Together they settle with their son on newly occupied land in recently conquered Chinese Manchuria, where he will fulfill his destiny as a successful rice farmer. The Faustian dream of reclaiming land seized by military might and the final scene of the soldier standing vigilant guard over the enterprise leaves no doubts about the analogy with Nazi Germany.
While the plot is intended to celebrate Japanese/German relations, despite the unwillingness of the German woman to marry a Japanese, quite likely for racial reasons, the real strength of the film lies where it always has in Fanck's productions, in the extraordinary filming of the natural beauty of the landscape - exquisite scenes of water, clouds and blossoming cherry trees - and particularly in the scenic excitement of the threatening volcanic mountain, with powerful scenes of the bubbling liquid pools, hissing escaping gases, and explosive sounds, as the volcano prepares to erupt. These nature scenes rather than the plot make the film memorable and give it the artistic value that it possesses. Many of the scenes are incredibly beautiful and resemble exquisite paintings. The depiction of the inner workings of the volcanic mountain are equally impressive and memorable.
Die Tochter des Samurai leaves no doubt that Fanck intended it to ingratiate himself with Goebbels and Hitler, in order to be able to keep making films. His efforts begrudgingly gained him a few more films, all of which were undistinguished: Das Dritte Reich, Ein Robinson (1940), Josef Thorak (1943). Arno Breker (1944) and Atlantikwall (1944), none of which had anything more to do with mountains or indeed with anything significant. The price he had to pay for this attempt to extend his career was high, for after the war his party membership prevented him from any possibility of taking up filmmaking again. Despite this pathetic denoument to what had been an epoch-making film career, Fanck will always be remembered and honored for his role as the founder of the Bergfilm genre and as the pioneer, who through his brilliant virtual artistic presentations popularized skiing and mountain climbing and helped develop these activities into national sports and pastimes.(27)
The life of the mountain film continued even without Fanck. His disciples Leni Riefenstahl and Luis Trenker continued the form on the high level, they had learned from their discoverer, but subsequently the genre deteriorated when it became absorbed into the trivial genre of the Heimatfilm.(28) Mountain films are still made but always with the mountain serving only as background for the plot. The truly epoch-making mountain films still remain those of Fanck, which to date have never been surpassed.
(1) Arnold Fanck, "Die Zukunft des Naturfilms (1928)," in: Jan-Christopher Horak with Gisela Pichler, eds., Berge, Licht und Traum. Dr. Arnold Fanck und der deutsche Bergfilm (München: Bruckmann, 1997), p. 143. Henceforth cited as Berge, Licht und Traum.
(3) Leni Riefenstahl, "Filmarbeit wie noch nie ... Ein Gespräch mit Leni Riefenstahl," in: Mein Film (1932), No. 328, p. 4.
(4) Helmut K. Ammon and Gisela Pichler, "Ein Kameramann erzählt", in: Berge, Licht und Traum, p. 225.
(5) Arnold Fanck, "Brief an Herrn Dr. Bing" (1932), in: Berge, Licht und Traum, pp. 155-168.
(6) Arnold Fanck, "Die Zukunft des Bergfilms" (1930), in: Berge, Licht und Traum, p. 149.
(8) Stefan König, "Der Mythos vom heiligen Berg. Kleine geneologische Abhandlung in Sachen deutscher Bergfilmtradtion," in: Berge, Licht und Traum, p. 105.
(9) Quoted from Jan-Christopher Horak, "Dr. Arnold Fanck: Träume vom Wolkenmeer und einer guten Stube," in: Berge, Licht und Traum, p.17.
(10) Ibid, p. 20.
(11) Arnold Fanck, Wunder des Schneeschuhs (Hamburg: Gebrüder Enoch Verlag, 1930), p. 19.
(12) Jan-Christopher Horak, "Dr. Arnold Fanck," in: Berge, Licht und Traum, p. 20.
(13) This view was spread particularly by the film critic Siegfried Kracauer in his influential book, Von Caligari bis Hitler (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1979), and the allegations severely damaged Fanck's reputation. Erich Rentschler finally put matters into a more accurate perspective in his article "Hochgebirge und Moderne. Eine Standortbestimmung des Bergfilms," in: Berge, Licht und Traum, pp. 85-102, but in scholarship it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to eradicate a misconception once it has taken root. For example, for a showing of Der weisse Rausch at a "Bergfilm Festival" in Kleinwalsertal on 22 August 2002, the organizer had to include a podium discussion entitled "Der weisse Rausch: Eine Huldigung des Skisports oder cineastische Allegorie des Faschismus?," in an attempt to defuse voiced complaints about showing a Nazi film.
(14) Dr. Günther Dyrenfurth, "Aus den Mitteillungen des Deutsch-Ost Alpenvereins," in: Berge, Licht und Traum, p. 207.
(15) Axel Eggebrecht, "Der heilige Berg," in: Berge, Licht und Traum, p. 208.
(16) "Der heilige Berg," Völkermagazin, Berlin, in: Berge, Licht und Traum, p. 210.
(18) Dr. Kurt Mühsam, "Die weisse Hölle vom Piz Palü," in: Berge, Licht und Traum, p. 211.
(19) "Der Film von Piz Palü. Dr. Fancks neues Wunderwerk," in: Berge, Licht und Traum, p. 211.
(20) Dr. Walter Bing, "Stürme über Montblanc. Eine kritische Betrachtung zum neuen Fanck Tonfilm," in: Berge, Licht und Traum, p. 215.
(21) Ibid, p. 216.
(23) Ibid, p. 218.
(25) "S. O. S. Eisberg," Kinematograph, Berlin, in: Berge, Licht und Traum, p. 219.
(26) Jan-Christopher Horak, "Träume vom Wolkenmeer und einer guten Stube," in: Berge, Licht und Traum, p. 50.
(27) For an excellent study of the mountain film genre, concentrating on Fanck, Trenker and riefenstahl, see Christian Rapp, Höhenrausch. Der deutsche Bergfilm (Wien: Sonderzahl, 1997).
(28) Cf. Gertraud Steiner, Die Heimat-Macher - Kino in Österreich 1946-66 (Wien 1987) and Gertraud Steiner Daviau, "Der Bergfilm zwischen Kunst, Kitsch und Ideologie. Über Ganghofer, Fanck, Riefenstahl und Trenker zum Heimatfilm," in: Friedbert Aspetsberger, Hrsg.: Der Berg. Einige Berg- und Tal, Lebens- und Todesbahnen (Innsbruck: Studien Verlag, 2001), pp. 302-315.