Part 3 of 4
7. Ascending and Descending
Storm over Mont Blanc divides neatly into three acts. The first parts of this article covered Act I, which introduces us to Hannes (Sepp Rist), the lonely Wetterwart (weather station man) who lives in a cabin on one of the peaks of Mont Blanc, and to Hella Armstrong (Leni Riefenstahl), the budding astronomer who, with her father, helps run an observatory on the outskirts of Berlin. Hannes and Hella have never met, but they keep up an innocent correspondence by telegraph, discussing astronomical points of interest.
Act II opens with a shot of a sign pointing to Chamonix, which is situated in southeastern France. The scenes that follow, however, were not shot there, but a couple of hundred miles away in Arosa, Switzerland. Skiers woosh into view, and we see the terrain moving underneath them via cameras mounted on their skis (an Arnold Fanck innovation introduced in earlier films). These scenes are accompanied by joyful, catchy music by Paul Dessau which stands in sharp contrast to the stark and dramatic music that accompanies Act I (and to the extraordinarily somber music we will hear in the final act). The theme Dessau introduces here would be recycled for Fanck’s next offering, Der weisse Rausch (1931).
A familiar face now skis into view, wearing a jaunty camp: Ernst Petersen, a nephew of Fanck who had major roles in The Holy Mountain (1926) and in The White Hell of Pitz Palu (1929). Here he merely makes a cameo. Apparently, Petersen died a month after completing these scenes, in March 1930. (I have not been able to discover the cause of death.)
Here he is engaged in a Fuchsjagd or “foxhunt,” a popular ski game in which, quite simply, one skier plays the fox and others play the hounds. Fanck had filmed a foxhunt before, in a film he made with ski legend Hannes Schneider in 1922, variously titled Eine Fuchsjagd (auf Schneeshuhen) durchs Engadin and Das Wunder des Schneeschuhs, 2. Teil – Eine Fuchsjagd auf Skiern durchs Engadin (released to the English-speaking world simply as The Chase). Petersen is pursued by a couple dozen or so men on skis.
The scene then shifts to what appears to be the lobby of a local hotel or lodge. A Christmas tree dominates the room. Hella and her father, apparently now on holiday, are sitting nearby. He shows her a photograph of Hannes’s cabin. It is apparent that Prof. Armstrong wants to encourage Hella and Hannes’s interest in each other, but she is preoccupied with other matters. Looking out the window, Hella sees Petersen being pursued and cries “Look, papa! I must go and watch.”
“We’re eating in fifteen minutes!” he replies, but she insists she’ll be right back.
Grabbing her skis, Hella joins the foxhunt. Eventually, she runs into Petersen at a small hut and decides, mischievously, to help him evade his pursuers by exchanging clothes with him. He dons her skirt and hat and curtsies to her girlishly, then they ski off in opposite directions with the “hunters” now pursuing Hella (the shots of the skiers jumping over the hut are truly impressive). This scene is interesting for those who have seen Petersen in The Holy Mountain, for there he also playfully appears in “drag,” donning Diotima’s scarf and winking at her coquettishly. In both The Holy Mountain and in The White Hell of Pitz Palu Petersen plays characters who are portrayed as “soft” and somewhat unmasculine. For whatever reason, Fanck consistently cast his nephew in “androgynous” roles.
Just like The Holy Mountain, Mont Blanc features both skiing and climbing sequences. And in both films climbing is associated with the major male protagonist, who is portrayed as a spiritually-virile “lone wolf.” An aura of solemnity surrounds the climbing sequences, and climbing itself is portrayed as a solitary affair fraught with spiritual significance (see Part 2 of my essay on The Holy Mountain). By contrast, the skiing sequences are situated near towns and always involve large groups of people. Fanck also treats them in a completely lighthearted way. (His films devoted entirely to skiing – like 1927’s Der große Sprung and 1931’s Der weisse Rausch – were usually comedies.)
8. Evola on Mountain-Climbing and Skiing
The “Ascending and Descending” chapter of Julius Evola’s Meditations on the Peaks: Mountain Climbing as Metaphor for the Spiritual Quest is devoted to the spiritual contrast between skiing and climbing. Like Fanck, Evola is not opposed to skiing, and he acknowledges its practical value for health and well-being, but as a sport he also sees it as spiritually quite different from climbing, and as fundamentally modern.
He begins by remarking that skiing has acquired popularity with young Europeans only in very recent times. “Skiing’s rapid success, its universal appeal, the genuine interest and enthusiasm it induces in both sexes are so characteristic that it would be superficial to see in it something merely casual. Rather, it is something that ought to be explained as that which precisely typifies the contemporary spirit.” He goes on to identify the essence of skiing as “the descent”:
Just as in elementary climbing, [where] the fundamental element and the center of interest is ascending, likewise in skiing this corresponds to descending. The dominant motif in mountain climbing is conquest. Once the peak is reached and the point beyond which one cannot go any further is attained, the phase most interesting to an ice or rock climber ends. In skiing, the opposite is true: the purpose of every ascent is descending. Hours of effort, which are necessary to reach a certain height, are spent only in order to be able to slide downhill.
And recently, as Evola mentions, all effort to reach those heights has been eliminated at ski resorts by the introduction of lifts. Skiers need only relax and enjoy the ride and be carried to the top as many times as they like. The special thrill of skiing has nothing to do with going up, but with going down at great speeds. Skiing is thus emblematic, for Evola, of life in the Kali Yuga, in the Iron Age. The Germans have a useful expression for degeneration: geht zugrunde, which literally means “goes to ground” but has the sense of “perishes.” In the modern age, we are all rapidly going to ground, but some, blissfully ignorant of what is really transpiring, find the speed of the descent quite thrilling.
Paradoxical as it seems, skiing may be defined as the technique, game, and enjoyment of falling. In skiing we find a form of boldness, of courage (which for all practical purposes should not be despised), and yet it is a special form that is completely different from the boldness of a mountain climber and is likewise tied to antithetical meanings: it is an essentially modern form of boldness.
The fact is that in skiing, the modern spirit finds itself essentially at home; this modern spirit is intoxicated with speed, with constant change, with acceleration. Until recently this intoxication was celebrated as the spirit of progress, despite the fact that, in many regards, it is nothing other than a collapsing and a falling down. This exhilarating motion, joined with a cerebral feeling of control over the direction of these forces hurled and no longer really mastered, is typical of the modern world, in which the self achieves its most intense self-awareness.
Skiing is the perfect sport for Hella for, as we shall see, Fanck portrays her as the quintessential modern woman. Aside from showing us Hella’s sporty and frivolous side, the “foxhunt” sequence is really just a long, entertaining digression.
9. Udet to the Rescue
At a certain point in the chase, Hella tears down the Chamonix sign seen earlier and hammers it, and its nails, into her skis as a brace to hold them parallel to each other. She then sends the skis tumbling down a hill and onto the surface of a frozen lake, while she climbs to the top of a nearby tree. The skiers come wooshing by following the tracks of her skis, while she stays perched in the tree, enjoying her clever little trick. The men then follow the tracks onto the lake, where they realize they’ve been had.
Then, all at once, none other than Ernst Udet appears, landing his silver Moth on the ice-covered lake! Hella rushes up to his plane, the skiers in hot pursuit: “Can you give me a ride?” she cries.
“Just over there!” she says, pointing back toward her hotel.
Udet agrees, and Hella clambers into the forward seat of the plane (which, as Riefenstahl states in her memoirs, had no safety belt!). The skiers now catch up with them and actually try to prevent Udet from taking off. The whole scenario seems absurd and fantastic, but it is actually quite typical of depression-era films, which often completely eschewed both realism and logic for the sake of escapism.
Fanck’s camera briefly focuses on two of the skiers watching as the plane takes off; one very tall, the other comparatively quite short. They are, respectively, Guzzi Lantschner and Walter Riml. They would reappear in Der weisse Rausch playing a pair of bumpkins who teach themselves to ski – in record time and with spectacular results – using an actual manual written by Arnold Fanck and Hannes Schneider. Riml later became a cameraman on Riefenstahl’s The Blue Light (it was he who took the most famous photograph of Riefenstahl as the witch “Junta”). Riml was also a cameraman on Triumph of the Will, and worked on several films with Luis Trenker. One of his last projects was the 1969 James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which involved a number of skiing and mountaineering sequences.
As Udet whisks Hella over Mont Blanc, the tone of the film now shifts back to that of Act I – and so does Dessau’s music (returning to the theme heard earlier when the clouds part and the lonely Hannes sees the valley below – suggesting, perhaps, that Udet carries with him the cure for this loneliness). The aerial photography here is breathtaking. Riefenstahl writes in her memoirs:
Plunging through thick cumuli, we saw the French mountains down below and towering over everything was the peak of Mont Blanc. The snow-covered range lay beneath us like so many sleeping polar bears. In a single moment, however, the scenery changed. Violent squalls whirled us topsy-turvy like a piece of paper, past razor-sharp ridges. We flew over several glaciers and peered into the immeasurably deep, blue-black crevasses. A high jagged crest zoomed directly towards us. The icy wind storming down from the peak grabbed us and whirled us closer and closer to the rocks. I screamed as the walls of ice seemed to be collapsing upon us. I saw the sky over me and then, a second later, a chasm beneath. I could only close my eyes.
Meanwhile, Hannes sits at his door smoking, wearing a Gestapo-like leather coat. Udet buzzes the cabin and Hannes waves to him. Then, something falls from the plane attached to a small parachute. Hannes rushes down from the cabin to fetch the object, which turns out to be a little pine tree. It comes with a note from Hella Armstrong: her business card, on which she has written under her name “grüsst unbekannterweise” (roughly: “greetings from a stranger”). (All of this strains credulity: did Hella and Udet, who have apparently only just met, work out this little stunt on the plane? If so, how did they communicate over the sound of the engine and the winds? One simply isn’t supposed to think of such things in a Fanck film, in which plot elements are often as fantastic as the images and stunts.)
Hella now returns to her father, who is waiting for her impatiently in the hotel lobby. She behaves like a happy child, crawling into his lap and crying “Ten minutes ago I was on Mont Blanc! You and I will go up there!” Professor Armstrong beams at her. It is obvious that he is an indulgent father who loves his daughter very much, and the scenes between them are touching.
The scene now shifts to Christmas Eve. Hannes has turned the little pine Udet sent him into a Christmas tree and decorated it with candles. He seems pensive but content as he lights the candles and “Silent Night” plays over the radio.
10. “Out of the Sky”
We next see Hannes making his morning ablutions, stripped to the waist and soaping himself up before a large basin of water. Nearby is a mirror, for shaving. (It is interesting that he continues to shave on Mont Blanc. Only near the end of the film, when he has lost hope, does he begin to let his beard grow.) Suddenly, we hear a female voice singing (almost yodeling, actually) the jolly theme heard earlier in the skiing sequences. Hannes does not believe his ears at first, then rushes to the door and steps outside, steam pouring off of him in the frigid morning air. He looks down and sees Hella far below on the glacier waving to him. Pulling on a shirt, he cries, “Hello! Where did you come from?”
“I fell out of the sky!” she responds. We assume at first this means Udet has brought her in his plane, but then his silver Moth appears and, amazingly, lands on the mountain. (The first time this had ever been attempted. Riefenstahl provides a thrilling description of the event in her memoirs.) Udet has brought Professor Armstrong with him, so we must assume that Hella has climbed up the mountain. This is not as difficult as it sounds, if one happens to be in very good shape with good ice-walking skills. (Riefenstahl remarks “This climb is no major event, it is merely strenuous.”) Hannes scrambles down to greet Udet, who then takes off again leaving the Armstrongs behind on Mont Blanc. As Hannes and his two guests climb up to the cabin, Fanck shows the fire in Hannes’s stove blazing away. There are shots of this fire throughout the film, and – as we shall see – it serves as an important symbol.
Hannes excuses his Spartan surroundings by describing his cabin as “a bachelor’s home.” It soon becomes apparent that long ago Prof. Armstrong worked as a Wetterwart atop Mont Blanc. Looking around the cabin, he is filled with nostalgia. Hella, on the other hand, is in a jolly and mischievous mood. She sits down at the telegraph machine and pretends to be Hannes tapping out a message: “Is Fraulein Armstong in the observatory?”
Her father smiles ruefully. “No, she’s here on Mont Blanc. And she’s up to no good.”
Hella then sits down in Hannes’s armchair and flips on the radio. Pop music blares from the great gramophone horn. This is, of course, the sort of music we would expect the very “modern” Hella to listen to. Soon, however, she spies the microscope on the table and eagerly peers into the eyepiece.
“Quite the housewife I brought you, eh?” Prof. Armstrong says. “What a girl! Skiing and science, that’s all she ever thinks about.”
She looks up from the microscope and says, without a trace of irony, “You men can clean up around here.”
“I’m at your command, Fräulein Doctor,” Hannes replies and then begins scrubbing the dishes while Hella continues to peer through the microscope.
Prof. Armstrong helps out, saying to Hannes, “Today’s girls aren’t much use anymore.”
“Mending socks is not exactly my specialty,” Hella shoots back.
Needless to say, this is some of the most significant dialogue of the film. Hella is Fanck’s portrait of modern woman. In The White Hell of Pitz Palu Riefenstahl portrayed a similar character (though not nearly as frivolous) who finds it impossible to “connect” with the film’s spiritually-virile male protagonist. In Mont Blanc this pattern is repeated.
Hella is an extraordinarily problematic character. She possesses a superficial charm, but she is burdened by the twin failings of modern woman: an ersatz masculinity, and a complete inability to commit, with true seriousness, to anything. She seeks constant thrills: the thrill of skiing (in Evola’s terms, the modern thrill of “descent”), the thrill of flying, the thrill of climbing, the thrill of surprising the lonely, reticent Hannes and invading his masculine world.
As we shall see later, she also derives a thrill (like Diotima in The Holy Mountain) from toying with the affections of two men simultaneously. She has no idea what, or who she really wants. She enjoys science but (as we shall also see), she is not seriously committed to it. The only thing that is consistent about her is her desire to rebel not just against convention but against nature itself. She is a feminist who sees herself as a “new kind of woman.” What she really desires, like all feminists, is to be a man. Since this is impossible, she winds up being nothing at all. Hella is simply chaos and the void.
Near the end of D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, he writes of Gudrun Brangwen, his portrait of the “modern woman”:
Her tomorrow was perfectly vague before her. This was what gave her pleasure. . . . Anything might come to pass on the morrow. And to-day was the white, snowy iridescent threshold of all possibility. All possibility—that was the charm to her, the lovely, iridescent, indefinite charm—pure illusion. All possibility—because death was inevitable, and nothing was possible but death.
She did not want things to materialize, to take any definite shape. She wanted, suddenly, at one moment of the journey tomorrow, to be wafted into an utterly new course, by some utterly unforeseen event, or motion.
There are many similarities between Gudrun and all of the characters Leni Riefenstahl plays in Arnold Fanck’s films (though Hella Armstrong is a good deal jollier than Gudrun Brangwen).
In the evening, Prof. Armstrong steps outside the cabin to gaze at the stars (each time Fanck shows us the stars above, we hear a chord from Dessau’s organ). Meanwhile, Hannes and Hella sit together awkwardly at the table. He smokes his pipe while she steals shy little sidelong glances at him, much as Maria does with Dr. Johannes in Pitz Palu.
In the morning, Fanck’s camera captures the dawn spilling over the glacier, as if bringing it to life. Hannes is awake, an axe under his arm, his guests still in bed. After awhile, Hella stirs and rubs her eyes. Hannes whispers to her: “Fräulein Hella, could you start the fire? I’ll go and chop wood outside. I don’t want to wake him.” But when he goes outside to chop the wood, Hella simply rolls over and goes back to sleep. When Hannes returns, he is chagrined to find that the fire is still out. (She is indeed “quite the housewife”!) “You can’t work up here without fire, Fräulein Armstrong,” he says, emphasizing her last name.
And it is, after all, a peculiar name for a German. The surname “Armstrong” is common to England, Ireland, and Scotland, but not Germany. (“Hella” is Scandinavian and German.) Why did Fanck pick this name for his heroine? Its foreignness is distinctive, suggesting that there is something alien about Hella; that she does not quite belong where she is. More importantly, of course, “Armstrong” is a very masculine name, suggesting muscularity and power.
Hannes, of course, winds up lighting the fire, after which he and Hella dress warmly and prepare to leave the hut. On her way out, Hella kisses her father very tenderly. (The pair are almost too close.) She and Hannes now go climbing around on the neighboring peaks, going up high onto the jagged Aiguilles du Diable ridge. At one point, Hannes extends his hand to Hella to help her up, but she waves it away. Later, he takes her to the anemometer where they linger awhile, looking out over the surrounding area, high above the clouds. She gazes at him admiringly, while he avoids her eyes, pipe clenched between his teeth. Hannes is not the sexual aggressor here. But neither is he weak. He is the Traditional, spiritually virile male whose virility has nothing to do with phallicism, and everything to do with a kind of isolated, noble detachment. His phallic aspect must be “awakened” by the feminine mystery.
While Hannes and Hella are at the anemometer, Prof. Armstrong decides to venture out onto the peaks to take rock samples. In a scene that is actually rather hard to watch, he slips and goes tumbling silently down the mountain to his death. The young pair are completely unaware of what has happened, but after awhile Hella becomes concerned for her father. She cries out to him across the peaks: “Hallo! Hallo!” When he does not respond, Hella and Hannes descend from their perch and learn the terrible truth.
Thus ends Act II of Storm over Mont Blanc.
2. Julius Evola, Meditations on the Peaks: Mountain Climbing as Metaphor for the Spiritual Quest, trans. Guido Stucco (Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 1998), 44.
3. Ibid., 44.
4. In Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, Julius Streicher says “Ein Volk, das nichts auf die Reinheit seiner Rasse hält, geht zugrunde” (A nation that does not preserve the purity of its race perishes).
5. Evola, Meditations on the Peaks, 45.
6. Ibid., 46. Lest one think that Evola is condemning skiing, he goes on to say on the same page: “Let me repeat that I myself practice skiing, although I am not disturbed or distracted by these ideas. One should not shun any experience. What matters is to maintain openness toward all experiences and thus be always aware lest physical and emotional elements attempt to exercise a seductive influence upon higher domains.”
7. Leni Riefenstahl, Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir, no translator credited (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992), 82.
8. Ibid., 8
9. Ibid., 84.
10. D. H. Lawrence, Women in Love (New York: Viking Press, 1969), 459–60.