Wednesday, January 02, 2008


This film announces itself as a "drama poem with scenes from nature." Leni Riefenstahl is a free-spirited nature girl named Diotima who hangs out on the seashore and dances against the waves (rather artlessly, but her odd performance is strikingly photographed). When an mountain climbing engineer known just as the Friend (Luis Trenker) takes his young student buddy Vigo (Ernst Petersen) to see her do her Dance of Desire for an audience at the Grand Hotel, they (and most of the audience) are enraptured, with Vigo saying she is almost holy. The Friend, who spends time in nature searching for himself, is in love with her, but soon, so is Vigo. When the younger man wins a skiing competition, Diotima lets him do a little canoodling; the Friend sees them, not realizing his rival is his friend Vigo, and is distraught (his wise mother has already told him that "the sea and the stone can never be wed"). The two men go off on a dangerous climbing trip, and when the Friend realizes that Vigo is in love with Diotima, he throws Vigo off a cliff. However, the two men are tied together by a climbing rope and an odd stalemate ensues while Diotima leads a nighttime rescue mission.

This is one of the first of the German Mountain films, directed by Arnold Fanck and starring Riefenstahl in her first role in a narrative film (she appeared earlier in a documentary on physical culture). All the elements of the genre are here: men in nature, both inspired and challenged by it; a quasi-mystical female figure (also inspiring and challenging); natural disasters (in this case, an avalanche); stunning cinematography; and great stunt work. The nature/mysticism thing is a bit vague here; the narrative works best if approached more simply as a romantic triangle melodrama. Riefenstahl has a moment when she goes romping manically through an Alpine meadow like a very intense Maria von Trapp. Three impressive sequences stand out: one is a fantasy scene of The Friend and Diotima in a giant ice hall, another is of the ski race, and the third is the rescue attempt, with a long line of men with flares snaking up the hill in the dark. I find myself enjoying these mountain films, even if the finer points of the narratives and philosophies sometimes escape me, and I'll be reviewing a few more soon. Considering her reputation, Riefenstahl is often the weak link in the films, as she is here, though that is partly due to the way her character is developed (or not developed) rather than just her acting. [DVD]

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