Outstanding alpine landscapes, tremendous vastness, overwhelming forces of nature – these are the features of a film genre Weimar cinema has become especially famous for, and, indeed, even today is often associated with: the German Bergfilm (mountain film).
Though discussed in various studies and many essays,[i] the mountain film still is a genre hard to define appropriately, as its particularities include a variety of ambiguities, not only concerning the question whether or not it is – as often claimed – the prototype of an anti-modernist genre supporting the National Socialist attitudes, but also with regard to the query if the mountain narratives are to be considered as the polar counterpart of the likewise popular Weimar city film.
Due to the numerous uncertainties, this essay attempts to analyze to which extent the Bergfilm contains anti-modernist elements as well as parts opposing the city film focussing especially two of the works of the most significant Bergfilm director of the 1920s, Arnold Fanck, namely “Der heilige Berg” (“The Holy Mountain”, 1926) and “Die weiße Hölle vom Pitz Palü” (“The White Hell of Pitz Palu”, 1929).
As initially stated, the mountain film is repeatedly understood as a reaction against modernity, and many analysts even try to find a connection between romantic imagery of genre and Nazi aesthetics.[ii] Which of its particular traits are responsible for this comprehension? This question marks the starting point of my considerations.
On the one hand, the specifics that distinguish the Bergfilm from other genres, e.g. the city film,[iii] are directed towards a traditional, pre-modern track, which seem to have nothing to do with modernist attitudes: “Read symptomatically, the mountain film manifests a desire to take flight from the troubled streets of modernity, from anomie and inflation, to escape into a pristine world of snow-covered peaks and overpowering elements.”[iv] Especially the highly poetic atmosphere caused by the impressive nature pictures, the complementary contrasts of sky and mountains, and the pompous language of the intertitles reminds of classical methods. For example, the narration of “Der heilige Berg” reminds of a classic (Greek) drama due to the opening sequence and the mysterious names of the characters (“Diotima”, “Vigo”). Also the conventional norms of the beautiful can be found in the mountain film stories and aesthetics.[v] Again, “Der heilige Berg” supplies us with an illustrative example: To perfect this film, Fanck insisted on building an enourmous dome of ice in which the confused and freezing mountaineer marries Diotima in his hallucinating dreams. The extravagant construction reminds exceptionally of a Gothic building.[vi] Thus, old traditions are still as much present in the Bergfilm as the glorification of heroic but irrational actions which are in the same way very typical for classical arts (for instance the sacrificing deaths of the male characters in both of the films).
[i] See for example Christian Rapp, Höhenrausch. Der deutsche Bergfilm, Wien: Sonderzahl, 1997; Eric
Rentschler, ’Mountains and Modernity: Relocating the Bergfilm’, in Terri Ginsberg, Kirsten Moana Thompson (eds.), Perspectives on German Cinema, New York: G.K. Hall,1996, p. 693-713; Carsten Strathausen, ’The Image as Abyss: The Mountain Film and the Cinematic Sublime’, in Kenneth S. Calhoon (eds.), Peripheral visions: the hidden stages of Weimar cinema, Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2001, p. 171-189.
[ii] See e.g. Strathausen (2001), p. 172.
[iii] A detailed comparison between mountain and city film is to be given later.
[iv] Rentschler (1996), p. 694.
[v] For details about the conception of the beautiful and its special attractiveness for the Third Reich see Erica Carter (2004), p. 142.
[vi] See Rapp (1997), p. 113f.
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- University of Southampton – University of Southampton, School of Humanities: Film Studies
- Specifics Equivocal Genre Weimar Bergfilm Image Sound Narrative Late Cinema