We’re not done with the mountains yet. You just have to ask Reinhold Messner. The 79-year-old no longer climbs any peaks, but he was recently deprived of one he had already climbed. The question was: Was he at the top of Annapurna in the Himalayas in Nepal in 1985 or was he still five crucial meters away from reaching the top?
An absurd debate ensued. We should have been talking about record-breaking mountaineers who carelessly pass a dying person towards the summit, as happened on K2 this summer. Or about the melting Alpine glaciers, which leave behind a gray stone desert in which no marmot feels comfortable anymore.
A longing for death in front of a mountain backdrop
But the mountains are still fascinating, especially in Germany. Nowhere is this reflected more clearly than in the cinema – and there the mountain film carries heavy baggage: the genre is charged with National Socialist ideology.
Initially, the mountain film was taken to lonely heights in the Weimar Republic – and then the National Socialists occupied it. Longing for death, comradeship until the end, German fateful peaks: a dangerous mixture was used together.
Anything but an Alpine idyll: Stefan Gorski as Andreas Egger and Julia Franz Richter as Marie in a scene from the film “A Whole Life”.
Director Philipp Stölzl described the mountain film as a “German Western” when he brought “Nordwand” to the cinema in 2008. In it he recapitulates the tragic attempt by two rope teams to conquer the infamous north face of the Eiger in 1936. The daring venture, which had aroused national excitement, was to be rewarded with a special gold medal at the Olympic Games. The mountain demanded heroic role models, and so did the leader.
The mountaineers become victims of their arrogance. They remove a rope that would have given them the opportunity to return. The Berchtesgaden mountain infantryman Toni Kurz (played by Benno Fürmann in the film) dies last. There is an original photo of Kurz’s body, taken on July 23, 1936. An ice-covered body dangles on a rope in front of a vertical wall. His rescuers came within a few meters of him and saw him freezing to death.
The curse of the mountain film
Stölzl’s film was not only met with praise. Some placed him in the visual tradition of Leni Riefenstahl and Luis Trenker. They certainly did Stölzl an injustice, but the criticism also showed that no one can escape the curse of the genre. The mountain film is contaminated.
And yet the mountains in this country are always a filmic destination for directors. Pepe Danquart accompanied two extreme mountaineers in his documentary “Am Limit” (2007). In the feature film “Nanga Parbat” (2010), Joseph Vilsmaier set out to investigate the death of Messner’s brother Günther in 1970. In the drama “Like Between Heaven and Earth” (2012), Hannah Herzsprung plays a mountaineer who accompanies a trek with Tibetan children to Nepal. A docudrama about Messner himself was made in 2012, which also explored his losses and setbacks. In “Drei Zinnen” (2017), director Jan Zabeil told of a family and survival drama in the Dolomites.
Now the mountain has called again. Hans Steinbichler brings Robert Seethaler’s successful novel “A Whole Life” (release: November 9th) to the cinema, a story embedded in an (initially) secluded Alpine world. A loner goes his own way unwaveringly. Nowhere does he feel more at home than in the majestic mountains, even when a rockfall kills his beloved wife Marie. He witnesses the profound changes in the Alps.
“I made a pact with myself that I wouldn’t play Nazis.”
Sandra Hülser calls right on time – and with every answer she proves that good actresses do more than just act. A conversation about prizes in Cannes, modern female figures – and the responsibility of embodying the wife of a concentration camp commander.
The Freiburg geologist and ski instructor Arnold Fanck, born in 1889, is considered the undisputed mountain film pioneer. He filmed in super slow motion in his debut, “The Miracle of the Snowshoe” (1920). The monstrous special camera was developed during the First World War to test the penetration power of bullets on armor plates. War, cinema, mountains: This conjured up a martial triad.
Fanck’s goal: “To show nature as it is, so beautiful and fertile, so idyllic and dramatic, so sunny and so gloomy, rigid and moving. That was the task I set myself when I turned from the natural sciences to natural cinematography.” He thrilled people with his daring shots with the camera. He gathered the best skiers around him. Nobody had ever presented something like this in the cinema.
An avalanche for Leni Riefenstahl
The director also sometimes used an avalanche to rain down on his leading actress Leni Riefenstahl or diverted streams so that the ice solidified more beautifully on rock faces. No effort was too much for his team: his film architect built a 16-meter-high ice palace for “The Holy Mountain” (1926) – twice because the magnificent building melted down during the thaw.
Fanck discovered Riefenstahl for the film with the enormous ice palace, and his second star Luis Trenker for “The Mountain of Destiny” in 1923. Film titles like “The White Hell of Piz Palü” (1929) or “Storms over Mont Blanc” (1930) spoke for themselves. His two main actors soon moved behind the camera themselves. Luis Trenker created “Mountains in Flames” (1931). Riefenstahl directed “The Blue Light” (1932).
She directed the mystical mountain film “The Blue Light”: Leni Riefenstahl.
It is not so easy to say how much Fanck had in common with National Socialism. Some initially see him as an early auteur filmmaker whose imagery could be exploited for claims to omnipotence. However, his mountain film aesthetic led more or less directly to Riefenstahl’s propaganda films such as Triumph of the Will (1935), the middle part of her trilogy about the NSDAP party conferences. The person appears larger than life, heroic, filmed from below.
The mountain film offered an escape for a nation humiliated after the First World War: new territory had to be conquered at high altitudes. In 1947, the sociologist and historical philosopher Siegfried Kracauer wrote in “From Caligari to Hitler” of a genre that was “exclusively German” and exploited by the Nazis. The enthusiasm for the mountains amounted to “a heroic idealism”. In other words: the youth should learn to die on the mountain.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that the Alpine clubs were already riddled with anti-Semitic tendencies in the 1920s. Jewish members were accepted only reluctantly. In some huts only “Aryans” were welcome.
In the fifties, the mountain film stood for escapism from politics and a longing for an idyll. Colorful geraniums bloomed in front of dollhouse-like wooden houses. Heart rhymed with pain. Proper foresters walked through the silver forest or, exceptionally, the green heath. Germany was ruined after the war, and the cinema attracted a seemingly perfect world.
Steinbichler’s film drama “A Whole Life” does not raise suspicion. The director, who was born in Solothurn in Switzerland and grew up in Chiemgau, has been known as an innovator of local films since his pre-Alpine tragedy “Hierankl” (2003), without any kitsch or sentimental pretense. In “A Whole Life” he also describes how tourism is moving into the Alps and how nature is being domesticated with concrete and steel. And yet: there are no more innocent mountain views.
Individualism instead of National Socialism
Nationalism was pushed back in mountaineering after the Second World War. The individualistic took its place. Soon loners like Messner were climbing the mountains. He focused on self-realization and doing his own thing long before commercialization arrived with high-tech equipment and the use of helicopters.
In the meantime, Messner could get his summit entry for Annapurna back thanks to a specially invented “tolerance zone” and thus be listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the first person to have climbed all 14 eight-thousanders in the world. But now he doesn’t want to do it anymore and has threatened to sue the publisher if he appears in the Guinness Book again.
Mountaineering has “nothing to do with records,” said Messner. “This is a conflict between man and nature.” Sounds somewhat heroic.