Thursday, April 13, 2006


There is a small genre of German films from the late silent era called the mountain film. According to Wikipedia, these films focused on the adventures of mountaineers, and the overriding theme was man versus nature. A few years ago, I saw a movie called CAREFUL by art-house director Guy Maddin which was a parody of/homage to these films, but until now I'd never actually seen the real thing. This silent film, recently restored and supplied with a wonderful musical score, and co-directed by Arnold Fanck, one of the founders of the genre, is a truly beautiful and exciting film, shot on location in the Swiss Alps. In the opening segment, a honeymooning couple on Pitz Palu ("pale mountain") is caught in some nasty wind squalls and avalanches, and the woman falls to her death in a glacier crevice. The man, Dr. Krafft (Gustav Diessl), is bereft and spends all of his time on the mountain, earning the nickname "Ghost of the Mountain." Years later, an engaged couple, Hans and Maria (Ernst Petersen and Leni Riefenstahl--yes, the famous Nazi director), come to the mountain to spend some time at a cabin (where a friend flies over and drops them some champagne) and do some climbing. The two frolic in the warm sunshine but as darkness falls, Maria feels a sense of foreboding, which is heightened by the arrival of Krafft, who shares the night (and, platonically, the couple's bed). The next day, Krafft goes off to climb the north face of the mountain, with Hans and Maria joining him at the last minute. Also in the area is a group of students trying to beat Krafft. With warm winds setting up the danger of increased ice slides, a situation develops like the one on Mt. Everest that Jon Krakauer wrote about in "Into Thin Air," and sure enough, everyone (Krafft, the lovers, and the students) winds up trapped in the mountains. Most of the students are killed in an avalanche. Hans is injured when he slams into the side of the mountain and Krafft breaks his leg trying to help him; the three wind up, without suitable protection or food, stuck in a small ice cavern for three days, with Krafft standing watch, calling for help and swinging a lantern at night. The caretaker of the cabin calls on villagers to form a rescue party, but in the meantime Hans freaks out and has to be subdued, and it soon becomes clear that not all three will last until the rescue party arrives.

This was filmed on location in the Alps during an occasionally dangerous five-month shoot and the photography is indeed stunning, all the more impressive when you realize that every frame is real, with no digital effects, and not even any matte paintings in the background. I assume that the actors didn't do their own stunts, but clearly real people were clinging to ropes and getting banged around on the mountain. Riefenstahl is the most famous cast member, and gets top billing on the Kino DVD cover, but she doesn't have much to do. Far more impressive is Diessel, who, looking like a cross between Gary Cooper and John Wayne, is the very embodiment of ruggedness--he had a long film career, but died at 49. The restored DVD print is over two hours, and the middle section does feel a bit long, but mostly this film is gripping, well acted, and beautifully shot--and it doesn't hurt that both leading men are handsome! The score, written in the 90's, perfectly complements the onscreen action, and the ending is appropriately haunting. Highly recommended. [DVD]

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