Wednesday, January 09, 2008


These German Mountain films I've been watching are all about men (and usually one woman, played by Leni Riefenstahl) up against the rigors of nature. They are also about the filmmakers up against nature, as they are all shot on location, usually without stunt doubles. This is one of only two fiction films directed by Riefenstahl, and it differs from other Mountain films in that it tells a folk tale/fantasy tale rather than having a reality-based disaster theme. A couple arrives at the quaint mountain village of Santa Maria and find portraits of a sad-looking young woman named Junta (Riefenstahl) all over the place. An innkeeper gives them a Bible-sized book which tells the tale of this fabled figure, a simple girl who lived with Guzzi, a young boy who is a shepherd in the higher reaches of the mountains (and who may be her younger brother, though that was not clear to me). The villagers call her a witch and she is treated like an outcast. It seems that at the full moon, a bright blue light emanates from the top of Mt. Cristallo and it is rumored that there are great riches to be had there, but whenever a young village lad tries to scale the mountain, he dies in the process (and is then mourned by the villagers with the sculpting of his Christ-like figure in rock). Parents actually drag their sons inside, away from the siren-like allure of the blue light, but each month, someone tries and is found dead the next morning. Only Junta can get to the top, hence the villagers' resentment. Vigo (Mathias Wieman), an artist, visits the village and is enchanted by Junta, as are the animals, who seem to listen intently to her when she tells stories to Guzzi. Although they do not speak the same language, Vigo decides to stay with her and paint her portrait. At the next full moon, Vigo follows Junta to the top and discovers that the blue light comes from a huge bank of crystals. With good intentions, Vigo shows the villagers a passable route to the top, but when they get there, they plunder the cavern of all the crystals, sell them, and soon the villagers are rolling in dough. When Junta discovers this violation of nature, she feels as if she herself has been violated and leaps off the mountain to her death.

Riefenstahl does much better at directing than acting; to indicate the otherworldliness of her character, she usually just stares at the camera with a slightly dazed look. The other actors are adequate, though Wieman makes a bland romantic figure. But the film is beautifully shot, with breathtaking views of the mountains, a waterfall, and the misty village at night, and the story does have a nice magical aura, even though there is a rational explanation for the blue light phenomenon. There is less footage of mountain climbing and bad weather here than in the usual Mountain movie, but the theme of the purity of nature versus the impurity of civilization is intact, and represented not just in the conflict of Junta with the villagers, but also in the failed relationship of the artist with Junta, the force of nature. Better actors and more character development would help, though that would also take the story out of the folk tale realm. The version I watched (on DVD from Pathfinder) has full sound, though it feels like all the dialogue was post-dubbed, and looks great; a shorter silent version is included, but it's in terrible shape. [DVD]

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