The White Hell of Pitz Palu (Germany, 1929) * * *
D: Arnold Fanck and G.W. Pabst
Long before she directed Triumph of the Will and became the most notorious propagandist director of all time, Leni Riefenstahl was an athletic, daredevil actress, who starred in a string of "mountain" pictures which took advantage of the natural beauty of remote alpine locations, as well as Leni's own statuesque glamor. Many of these were directed by Arnold Fanck (G.W. Pabst, director of Pandora's Box, co-directs), who had an eye for the spectacular, almost alien landscapes of high climes. He also knew his way around an action scene. Early in The White Hell of Pitz Palu, Dr. Krafft (Gustav Diessl, also in Fritz Lang's wondrous Testament of Dr. Mabuse) is accompanying his wife and their friend on a trek across the cliffs of the sinister Piz Palü glacier; his wife, alas, plummets down a dark crevasse, too deep for a rescue. Now she is frozen for eternity within its hellish depths, as Dr. Krafft later forlornly tells engaged couple Maria (Riefenstahl) and Hans (Ernst Petersen), who are vacationing off the glacier. Time for another trek, of course, which leads to another, greater catastrophe: a group of young students are swept by an avalanche en masse down steep cliffs and into hidden crevasses and caves, and Krafft, Maria, and Hans become stranded, exposed to the elements, unable to scale their way to safety. The plot--of disasters, search parties, and rescue attempts--is nothing more than an excuse for Fanck's delirious stunt sequences and powerful editing. The action scenes are almost abstract, carefully plotted and edited swiftly, just like Psycho's shower scene. I highly recommend renting Kino's DVD and keeping your finger on the pause button, deconstructing frame by frame how Fanck constructs each shot (i.e. man's coat is splashed with snow, shocked heads with wide mouths whirl as the camera spins upside-down, a dummy is shoved over a ravine, etc.), and then play it back at standard speed to see how the images become almost impressionistic, forming the idea of the event rather than a coherent depiction of what has just happened. For 1929, it's astonishingly innovative, and one can almost imagine that Fanck has laid the groundwork for later blockbuster action films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, with their carefully storyboarded action setpieces. Fanck also deserves applause for simply having the gall to film on the locations he's chosen; in a 20's silent film, particularly one of German vintage, one might expect lots of expressionistic sets and makeup. Fanck is the antidote to that approach: he strives for realism, filming on location and in deep ice caverns with cascading layers of cannot-be-faked stalactites, perching his actors (and actress) on the edges of the slopes with mountain vistas behind them. This is not to say that some sets are used, and plenty of special effects applied, but a veracity is achieved--what Werner Herzog calls the "voodoo of location"--which transports the viewer inside the cinematic space. Yet these secret mountain caverns can look just as otherworldly as anything in a film by Murnau or Lang, and Fanck knows it. In the most memorable scene, when dozens of members of a rescue team penetrate a labyrinthine ice cave, each holding a flare with an eerie glow, all scattered throughout the frame to fill it completely, the fires illuminating the many frozen bodies of the dead students, Fanck indulges in superimposing a title-card: "Inferno!" It's the one moment when Fanck is willing to cop to the visual poetry he's achieved.