Film reviews

The Holy Mountain (1926) – Blu-ray Review

Eureka Entertainment’s ‘Masters Of Cinema’ series brings to Blu-ray a tale of nature, love, jealousy, betrayal, and revenge, with an Alpine setting as its backdrop. It gives the audience a love letter to nature, along with a warning for the terrible harm that it can do if it fails to be properly respected by man. Unexpectedly, it also has a link to one of the darkest periods in our modern history, via its leading woman.

The Holy Mountain (or Der heilige Berg, in the original German) is a pioneering entry in the unusual ‘mountain film’ (or ‘Bergfilme’) genre. In much the same way as the Western in American cinema, the ‘mountain film’ reflects a representation of a piece of cultural iconography which is unique to a country; although adopted in later years outside Germany, the genre ran though the 1920s and 1930s, with the notion that protagonists return changed from their experiences in the mountains (and having been to see Cliffhanger, I can tell you that I certainly came back feeling different after that misadventure).

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One Dr. Arnold Fanck is the most notable director of this type of film. After making Mountain Of Destiny, released in 1924, a young dancer and aspiring actress was so enchanted by Fanck’s movie, and she met with him, in order to persuade him to let her take part in his next project. So taken with her was Fanck that he wrote a script for her in just three days and nights, and presented it to her, with the intention that she should star in it. The script was for The Holy Mountain; the muse was Leni Riefenstahl.

It’s difficult to say whether Riefenstahl’s connection to the movie overshadows it, or adds an extra level of fascination to a film which most likely would have never had the level of attention granted to it that it’s received over the years. This piece gives us a Riefenstahl who pre-dates Triumph Of The Will, and all of the stigma which came from her later association as being one of Adolf Hitler’s chief propagandists during the Nazi era. Given that this is her first starring role, it gives the movie far greater prominence compared to all the later work that she did in the ‘Bergfilme’ flicks with Fanck; the pairing of the two here means The Holy Mountain deserves its place in Eureka’s range.

The plot itself is rather uncomplicated – it revolves around Diotima (Riefenstahl), a dancer who has a mutual attraction with Karl (Luis Trenker), a mountain dweller who comes to the city to see her perform. The pair become betrothed, but things get complicated when Vigo (Ernst Petersen), a friend of Karl’s, develops an infatuation with Diotima; a simple act of kindness on her part towards him leads him to think she reciprocates his affections, and when Karl sees a perfectly innocent exchange between the two, he believes she’s being unfaithful, which sets in motion a tragic chain of events.

The love triangle at the core of the story was actually reflected behind the scenes, as there was a similar situation involving Fanck, Riefenstahl, and Trenker (with whom she had become involved during production). The awkwardness caused by the situation doesn’t appear to have had an impact on the finished product, and Fanck’s unabated infatuation led him to tutor Riefenstahl in moviemaking during production, unknowingly setting her on a path to her involvement with the Nazis. As such, this gives The Holy Mountain further noteworthiness.

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Fanck’s fascination with the mountains began at an early age, when his parents took him out there to help use the fresh, clean country air to help him to recover from illness, as he was a sickly child. His love of the terrain – as well as nature in general – comes through clearly in The Holy Mountain, as we get a true sense of majesty and grandeur in how he frames shots, with people dwarfed by the scenery throughout. In some ways, the film feels startlingly modern, with his use of slow motion photography feeling rather like an anomaly – the grace and fluidity does set it apart from the typical jerky frame rate of other contemporary silent films.

In fact, there are surprising touches and flourishes throughout – the way in which the ski race sequence is captured is quite remarkable, given the cumbersome and clunky nature of the cameras available at the time; it’s truly impressive to see how much action is recorded on the move, as the equipment would have also needed to be hand cranked while still attempting to balance when skiing alongside the actors and extras. While the story is rather thin, feeling as if it’s half-an-hour’s worth of material crammed into 106 minutes, you can’t blame Fanck for luxuriating in the visuals; town and city dwellers may have never seen the beauty of the mountains for themselves, so this would have been the next best thing to being there.

The Blu-ray has been prepared by using a combination of the best surviving nitrate prints, and although it’s rather scratchy and grainy, there’s still a lot of detail to be found. A rather nice touch is the way that the print is tinted at different points in the film, and sometimes changing within the same scene – yellow to reflect daytime or light, and blue to show night or darkness. It adds an extra dimension to the movie, not only making it far easier on the eye than some other black and white releases, but also clearly reflecting the intentions of Fanck as director, as well as giving some extra drama to the nighttime scenes high on the mountain.

It’s yet another impressive release from Eureka, with the special features – while not great in number – being very high on quality. There’s a commentary track by the film historian Travis Crawford, which adds a lot of background information on the making of the movie, as well as giving context to the genre in German culture. Ray Müller’s comprehensive three-hour documentary, The Wonderful. Horrible Life Of Leni Riefenstahl, is included on the disc, and is a truly fascinating watch, as it approaches the subject without any preconceptions.

A wonderful example of an unfamiliar genre, and a piece which surpasses the practical constraints of filmmaking of the period, and is also visually arresting. A worthy addition to the Masters Of Cinema on Blu-ray.

The Holy Mountain is available now on Blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment.

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