This is the fourth and final part (for now) of Derek Hawthorne’s series on the German “mountain films” of the 1920s and 30s. See the author’s review of North Face for an overview of this genre, its principal characteristics, and why it should interest readers of Counter-Currents.
1. Introduction: From Vertical to Horizontal
S.O.S. Iceberg is not a mountain film. It may have been conceived and directed by the great Arnold Fanck, but it is set in Greenland. The only bergs in the film are icebergs. Still, there is ample reason to include this film in my multi-part account of the “mountain film genre.” The principal reason, of course, is that it was directed by Fanck, but the deeper reason is that the film, as we shall see, displays a great many of the characteristics we have come to expect of the genre. Further, those who have read my essays on The Holy Mountain, The White Hell of Pitz Palü, and Storm Over Mont Blanc know that I have argued that Fanck is developing certain philosophical ideas through each of these films.
In brief: The main focus of The Holy Mountain (1926) was a quasi-Traditionalist account of the absolute metaphysical difference between the sexes, and their inherently tragic relationship. (I drew extensively on the works of Julius Evola in order to make this case, and I argued that Fanck had very probably been influenced by Otto Weininger’s masterpiece Sex and Character.)
The White Hell of Pitz Palü (1929) also deals, in the form of an allegory, with the relation between the sexes—but this time in their degenerated, modern form. Pitz Palü is about the inability of modern men and women to make any sort of satisfying connection.
In Mont Blanc, Fanck gives us the reason for this: the loss of the traditional understanding of sex roles. The film could not be more explicit on this point. Its conclusion is rich with symbolism, pointing the way toward a resolution of the modern war between the sexes.
S.O.S. Iceberg is the first significant Fanck film since Mont Blanc, and the first released under Hitler. The “problem of the sexes” having been solved in Mont Blanc, in S.O.S. Iceberg man and woman have come down from the mountain, and the shift is from the vertical to the horizontal. This is true in multiple senses.
On a literal level, the adventure of S.O.S. Iceberg does not, of course, involve literally “going upwards”: they merely go “up” North to the arctic. But this going upwards is by way of going outwards: out across the seas, and across the largely undiscovered land mass of Greenland.
On the metaphysical level, the dynamics here no longer involve the vertical conflict between the uranic masculine and chthonic feminine. The world depicted in S.O.S. Iceberg, in fact, is one without a hint of discord between the sexes, as well as one in which women are depicted as entirely feminine, yet also daring and brave.
No, the conflict in S.O.S. Iceberg is a horizontal conflict between man and man. The psychological dynamics in the film involve mostly tensions between men, and tensions within male friendships. In Mont Blanc, Hella must come to the rescue of Hannes; woman must, in some sense, rescue man.
In S.O.S. Iceberg, Hannes (the same name appears here as well), must come to the rescue of his friend Karl. A character named “Hella” appears here too (again played by Leni Riefenstahl), but her presence is almost completely superfluous, and, as we shall see, her attempts to rescue Karl (her husband) end in disaster, and she winds up having to be rescued as well. Just as before, Fanck’s film appears on the surface to be a completely straightforward and simple adventure story, but there is much more here than meets the eye.
2. The Making of S.O.S. Iceberg
Storm over Mont Blanc, like The White Hell of Pitz Palü, proved to be a great success at the box office. Movie goers were so captivated by its images that Fanck released a “photo book” of the film, telling the entire story in stills. But it would be a couple of years before he would release another film of comparable quality. Extensive planning went into a project called Die schwarze Katze (The Black Cat), a war drama in which Leni Riefenstahl would have played a Mata Hari-like spy. This never came to fruition, partly because (as Riefenstahl claims in her memoirs), Luis Trenker stole the idea and made his own film about a similar character!
Instead of Die schwarze Katze, in 1931 Fanck shot what was perhaps his worst film, Der weisse Rausch (The White Ecstasy). This was a wholly inconsequential and largely unfunny ski comedy, which told two parallel stories.
In one, Guzzi Lantschner and Walter Riml (who both appeared in small roles in Mont Blanc), play two bumpkins who learn to ski using an actual manual co-authored by Arnold Fanck and ski legend Hannes Schneider. The most amusing sequences in the film show these two (who were champion skiers) performing impressive feats on skis while simultaneously studying Fanck and Schneider’s book!
The second plot thread casts Riefenstahl as a hopeless klutz desperately trying to teach herself to ski. Her clothes all bear large (very large) and garish “LR” monograms. And she spends most of the film saying “Oh, great!” to everything around her. Riefenstahl hated playing this part so much she actually wept. (Incredibly enough, Lautschner and Riml would play the same “lovable” bumpkins in three more films—none of them directed by Fanck, however.)
During the making of Der weisse Rausch, Riefenstahl was planning a far more significant film of her own: Das blaue Licht (The Blue Light). This would be, in its own way, a mountain film. “I yearned for the mountains, but without ice and snow,” Riefenstahl tells us in her memoirs. Needless to say, Riefenstahl discussed the project with Fanck, who was her cinematic mentor. Fanck initially expressed great skepticism about her plans for the sort of visual quality she wanted to achieve. When Riefenstahl began sending Fanck the rushes from Italy, however, his attitude changed.
When she later had trouble editing the film, Fanck took on the job himself and produced a version Riefenstahl later described as “a mutilation.” She suspected that Fanck was motivated both by envy and resentment over her romantic rejection. It is impossible for us to determine, however, exactly how Riefenstahl’s final cut differed from the edit produced by Fanck. (It is likely, in fact, that it actually taught her a thing or two.)
Around the same time, Riefenstahl received an offer from Universal to star in S.O.S. Iceberg, which would be shot simultaneously in German, under Fanck’s direction, and in English under the direction of the American Tay Garnett. The story was inspired in part by the tragic events of the Wegener expedition, which had made international headlines in 1930.
Alfred Wegener was a German scientist and the man behind the theory of continental drift (a controversial theory at the time, but now universally accepted). In the fall of 1930, backed by the German government, Wegener and a number of others set out for Greenland to monitor arctic weather year round. The success of their mission depended upon transferring supplies from one camp to another, and it was while making this journey that Wegener and another man died. Wegener is thought to have died of heart failure, but the other man’s body was never found. The plot of S.O.S. Iceberg would concern the search for a missing scientist in Greenland, written off as dead.
Riefenstahl claims in her memoirs that she turned down the part at first. However, both Fanck and the film’s American producer Paul Kohner claimed later that she desperately wanted the role. (Kohner even claimed that Riefenstahl seduced him.) In truth, Fanck did not want her in the film. However, Universal executives wanted to repeat the great success of Pitz Palü, by re-teaming Riefenstahl with Fanck, actor Gustav Diessl, and pilot Ernst Udet. Sepp Rist, from the equally successful Mont Blanc, would also play a major role (a larger role than Diessl’s, in fact).
Universal offered Riefenstahl $10,000, and she gladly accepted—whatever the truth may have been about her initial feelings. She was also excited by the prospect of working in Greenland. Fanck had secured the participation, in an advisory capacity, of the legendary half-Danish, half-Eskimo explorer Knud Rasmussen (who would die shortly after the release of the film). In addition, two of the surviving members of the Wegener expedition would serve as advisors: Fritz Loewe and Ernst Sorge. Loewe had not escaped the Wegener tragedy unscathed: his toes became so frostbitten they had to be amputated with a pocket knife and without anesthetic.
In February 1932, shortly after agreeing to appear in S.O.S. Iceberg (and about a month before the premiere of Das blaue Licht), Riefenstahl attended one of Hitler’s speeches at the Berlin Sportpalast. She gives an extraordinarily vivid description of her reaction in her memoirs. Suffice it to say that she was “hooked.”
A number of weeks later, and just before setting sail for Greenland, Riefenstahl wrote Hitler an admiring letter, mailing it to the headquarters of the NSDAP, the “Brown House” in Munich. She soon received a phone call from Wilhelm Brückner, Hitler’s adjutant, inviting her to meet Hitler in the northern German city of Wilhelmshaven, where Hitler was then campaigning for the presidency.
She immediately accepted this offer, even though it meant skipping a party sponsored by Universal to which members of the world’s press had been invited. (As others have noted, this indicates very clearly that Riefenstahl, who was a relentless self-promoter, was very seriously interested in Hitler and his party.) In an example of “synchronicity,” Brückner told Riefenstahl that just prior to receiving her letter Hitler had told him “The most beautiful thing I have ever seen in a film was Riefenstahl’s dance on the sea in The Holy Mountain.”
On her arrival by train in Wilhelmshaven, Riefenstahl was driven to meet Hitler by his chauffeur Julius Schreck (the original leader of the SS, prior to Himmler). Soon she found herself strolling on the beach with Hitler, talking of many things. Riefenstahl’s memoirs provide a detailed description of this encounter, and a later one on the same day, but some of what she reports strains credulity. Riefenstahl claims, for example, that at one point Hitler impulsively embraced her, then backed off saying, “How can I love a woman until I have completed my task?” He told her “I feel that I have been called to save Germany—I cannot and must not refuse this calling.”
Whatever actually happened that day, it seems clear that Riefenstahl set sail for Greenland in late May an enthusiastic devotee of Hitler and the NSDAP. Hitler had Riefenstahl flown to the dock, where the British liner Borodino and the cast and crew of S.O.S. Iceberg awaited her.
The liner was packed with an enormous amount of equipment, including three airplanes (a small Klemm, Udet’s “famous Motte,” featured in Mont Blanc, and a seaplane), forty tents, two motorboats, a couple tons of luggage, and two polar bears from the Hamburg zoo. (Fanck realized, wisely, that they could not depend upon local polar bears to be available when needed).
Unlike previous Fanck shoots, this one featured a good deal more feminine company for Riefenstahl. Also on board were the wives of Loewe and Sorge, the two scientific advisers. Fanck also brought along his secretary, Lisa, whom he would later marry. Even Udet had his girlfriend in tow.
Fanck was angry with Riefenstahl for missing the party, and at first she kept the reason for her absence a secret—but not for very long. According to one account she carried with her an autographed copy of Mein Kampf and a framed photograph of Hitler. According to another account she carried several photos of Hitler, of different sizes, which she photographed against various backdrops at sea and in Greenland.
She found that her shipmates held very different opinions of Hitler. Fanck was an admirer and either already was or would soon be a member of the NSDAP. Several of the men who regularly worked with him were also enthusiastic National Socialists. Riefenstahl later claimed to have discovered Hitler almost by accident and to have been completely ignorant of politics—but this seems highly doubtful, considering that her work on the mountain films since 1926 put her into almost constant contact with a number of men who ardently admired Hitler.
Before leaving Germany, Riefenstahl had agreed to write a series of articles on the making of the film for the magazine Tempo. These were also published later in book form under the title Kampf in Schnee und Eis (Struggle in Snow and Ice).
The voyage to Greenland took eleven days. Riefenstahl writes in her memoirs, “As mountain people, we found the ocean marvelous.” This is a curious statement, which she does not bother to explain. Is it because they simply loved nature in all its forms? Did they find the contrast between mountains and ocean fascinating? The probable truth is that Riefenstahl and the others loved adventures of all sorts. The mountain films are, as I have argued, quintessentially Nordic. This expresses itself in their setting—but, actually, more importantly in the unquenchable desire of the participants to challenge themselves against nature, in myriad ways.
The Borodino arrived at Uummannak in western Greenland, where Knud Rasmussen had established the Thule trading post, and from which he had set out on in his many “Thule expeditions.” Riefenstahl describes the place as stinking of fish and overrun by hundreds of dogs. For the moment, cast and crew remained on the Borodino—for it took a solid week to unload all of their equipment and make camp. For the rest of the shoot—from June until September of 1932—they lived in tents, creating furniture out of crates. One tent served as a kitchen, and two small tents functioned as dark rooms.
Both the dogs and the bears would prove to be a lot of trouble. A pit was constructed to contain the bears, but they clambered out of it with frightening ease. One of the bears, called Tommy, managed to escape, and cast and crew spent a couple of restless nights until he was caught again. Of course, they didn’t need to worry about being surprised by Tommy in the dark, as the sun shone twenty-four hours a day.
In any case, the real dangers on this shoot were posed not but by bears but by icebergs. As much of the story involved the characters stranded on a huge iceberg, Fanck had to search for an appropriate one on which they could film. This proved extremely problematic. For one thing, the Eskimos who worked with them refused to kayak past an iceberg, for a very good reason: icebergs not only float, they have a tendency to capsize, dumping off anything that happens to be on them, and sometimes crushing anything alongside. All the icebergs Fanck encountered were far too unstable.
After awhile, the crew’s base of operations was moved further inland, to the fjords of Greenland. There they found icebergs which had just broken off from glaciers, and were therefore harder and more stable. Still, shooting on them was extraordinarily dangerous. One day an iceberg split in half while most of the cast were standing on it! There were a number of near-fatal accidents, in fact. In a case of life imitating art, Dr. Sorge went missing at one point and was found again after Udet flew off in search of him.
By the end of the summer Fanck had shot almost nothing but footage of icebergs floating by his camera. Little of the scripted scenes had actually been shot. Very reluctantly, he decided to shoot a number of sequences in the Swiss Alps. These involved what Riefenstahl refers to in her memoirs as the “acting scenes,” and were probably scenes set on the iceberg and in an ice cave (more on this later). Production stills also show the use of a large studio tank.
As I have discussed in earlier installments in this series, Fanck was a fanatic about realism, and his locations and “stunts” were almost always real, and involved the actors and not professional stuntmen. It must have irked him to have to employ such fakery (the American version of S.O.S. Iceberg, in fact, employs far more). Still, Fanck’s S.O.S. Iceberg contains enough real locations and dangerous stunts to satisfy almost anyone.
In September, Riefenstahl and a number of others sailed back to Germany on the Disco, a Danish freighter. By this point, she was suffering from a number of illnesses, including bladder colic and an ingrown toenail. Still, she was sorry to leave Greenland, which had had a peculiar effect on her, and the rest of the cast and crew. Riefenstahl writes in her memoirs:
What is the miracle that casts such a spell on this land without trees, without flowers, without vegetation, except for the swamp grass during the summer months? . . . The magic of Greenland is spun like a veil from thousands of invisible silk threads. We see differently there, we feel differently. Europe’s issues and problems lose their meanings—they fade away. In Greenland we were barely conscious of the things that agitated us at home. We carry a gigantic ballast of superfluous, unproductive things that can never make us happy, and that seemed to vanish in the ocean—no telephone, no radio, no mail, no car. We find we can do without all these things. And we had time. Our real lives were restored to us.
Back in Germany, Riefenstahl found herself the object of the unwanted advances of Joseph Goebbels—who seemingly would not be deterred. It was with some relief that she relocated in December to Sankt Anton am Arlberg, in Austria, near where the “acting scenes” would be shot (by both Fanck and Tay Garnett). Due to the weather, however, shooting was delayed for weeks.
On January 30, 1933 Riefenstahl was in Davos in a hotel sauna with photographer Hans Ertl (her lover during the Greenland shoot) and several others. According to Ertl she left the sauna at one point, wearing nothing at all, to take a call from none other than Hermann Goering. He was calling to inform her that Hitler had just been appointed Chancellor of Germany.
Some days later, Udet arrived to personally fly Riefenstahl to Lake Bernina, where exterior “sets” had been constructed and iced over to simulate the surfaces of icebergs. The majority of the footage shot there wound up in Tay Garnett’s American version of the film.
On her days off, Riefenstahl practiced skiing. Her first teachers had been Luis Trenker and Hans Schneeberger, who gave her lessons during the making of The Holy Mountain. In the seven years since, Riefenstahl had become quite accomplished. While shooting the scenes on Lake Bernina—which were completed in June 1933—she entered the Parsenn Derby and won second prize. S.O.S. Iceberg would be Riefenstahl’s final film for Arnold Fanck.
She returned to a very different Berlin, with Hitler now consolidating his power. According to Riefenstahl, Hitler met with her privately and, in effect, offered her control of the German film industry. The catch was that she had to work alongside Dr. Goebbels. Riefenstahl declined, much to Hitler’s obvious annoyance. When she informed Fanck of this turn of events, her former director advised her that she needed to make some kind of peace offering to Hitler.
In the years since they first met and Fanck had been smitten with Riefenstahl, he had given her many valuable gifts. Amongst these was a complete edition of the writings of the philosopher J. G. Fichte, bound in white leather by Fanck’s sister. (Fichte, 1762–1814, was one of the great German idealists, as well as a fervent German nationalist and anti-Semite.) Fanck advised her to give the Fichte edition to Hitler as a gift, which she soon did—anxious to safeguard her relationship with the man who would prove to be her most important patron. Later that same summer, in August, Hitler invited Riefenstahl to film Der Sieg des Glaubens (Victory of Faith), the documentary of the 1933 NSDAP rally.
The German version of S.O.S. Iceberg premiered on August 30th, 1933 at the UFA Palast am Zoo. According to reports, Riefenstahl appeared on stage in a floor-length evening gown. Instead of bowing to the large crowd, she raised her right arm in a Hitler salute.
3. “At the end of the world”
The synopsis and commentary which follow deal exclusively with the German version of S.O.S. Iceberg. Kino International has made both the German and American versions available on one disc—and the differences between them are no great surprise. Fanck’s film is replete with silences, accompanied by sublime images of the arctic landscape. In the American version, these are mostly gone.
The Universal executives felt that Fanck’s film was closer to a nature documentary than a drama, so they hired Edwin Knopf (brother of publisher Alfred A. Knopf) to provide new dialogue scenes, and more “plot.” The dialogue he produced is predominantly superfluous and awkward. A number of the German-speaking cast (including Rist and Riefenstahl, but not Diessl) appear in the film speaking English. Their voices were all dubbed, however, as were the voices of some of the English-speaking actors. And the dubbing is predictably awful.
Plotwise, a good deal of the American version makes things explicit that were only hinted at or referred to in Fanck’s film. For example, the German version only refers to how Dr. Lorentz managed to get lost; the American version shows us this. The American version is certainly an interesting curio for those who have seen the German—but it is unquestionably inferior.
Fanck’s film opens with a shot of hand operating an old telegraph straight key, sending the signal S.O.S. repeatedly. (This immediately reminds us of Storm Over Mont Blanc.) Then, the titles appear over a montage of icebergs. We are immediately informed that the film was made in cooperation with the Danish government, “under the stewardship [Protektorat] of polar explorer Knud Rasmussen, based on an idea by Arnold Fanck.”
The score is again by Paul Dessau, whom I discussed extensively in my essay on Mont Blanc. Being Jewish, Dessau fled Germany after Hitler became Chancellor, and before the premiere of S.O.S. Iceberg. His music for this film is very effective, but it is a much more conventionally melodic score than his work for Mont Blanc.
Udet is credited with “Flugaufnahmen” (aerial photography). And Drs. Loewe and Sorge are credited with “Wissenschaftliche Beiräte” (scientific advisement). Hans Schneeberger and Richard Angst are listed as cinematographers. Interestingly Fritz Maurischatt and Dr. Ernst Petersen are credited with “Bauten,” which essentially means “sets” or “set design.” Is “Dr. Ernst Petersen” the same Ernst Petersen who appeared in The Holy Mountain, Pitz Palü, and Mont Blanc—the nephew of Fanck? If so, then I was certainly relying on false information when I reported in an earlier essay that he died in 1930.
Riefenstahl plays “Hella Lorentz,” Udet plays himself, Gustav Diessl is “Dr. Karl Lorentz,” Sepp Rist is “Dr. Johannes Krafft” (Diessl’s character name in Pitz Palü). The rest of the cast list provides not just names but information about the characters. Gibson Gowland plays “John Dragan (American researcher).” Dr. Max Holzboer is credited with the role of “Jan Matushek” Finally, Walter Riml plays “Fritz Kuemmel (cook).”
The story opens in an ice-filled stone hut in Greenland. A man’s hands open a volume on which is written “Diary of Professor Lorentz.” The date on the first page is 4 October 1919. (It is not clear why the film is set at this time. Perhaps it is to assure us that it is not a depiction of the Wegener expedition. However, all the technology and clothing of the film is clearly from the 1930s.) An entry reads “At the edge of the world.” Another, dated 5 April 1920 reads “Day 187 on Karajak Glacier. The highest glacial wall in the world.” Fanck then shows us incredible footage of a glacier breaking up, as huge fragments go tumbling down into the polar sea. Lorentz writes in his journal: “What no man has seen before: The hour of a glacier’s birth.”
Lorentz’s entries grow increasingly more desperate: “Hunger! Hunger!” and “I want to see people again!” But the only living things in Lorentz’s world are seals and polar bears. And Fanck shows us the latter desperately pursuing the former, as well as many striking, exceptional shots of icebergs. The spring thaw has arrived and Lorentz is jubilant. “Freedom!” he writes in his journal. But huge walls of ice falling from the glacier destroy his kayak. Now Lorentz is trapped. “The road is too hard,” he writes.
The scene shifts from the icy wilderness to the center of civilization itself: Germany. A number of men have gathered to hold what appears to be a kind of inquest regarding the fate of Lorentz. The search for him has proved unsuccessful. Seated around the large conference table are the members of the search party: Dr. Johannes Krafft, John Dragan, Jan Matushek, Fritz Kuemmel, and Ernst Udet (again, playing himself). This is the first time in a Fanck film that we clearly hear Udet speaking.
They reluctantly draw the conclusion that Lorentz must be dead. Matushek, a thin man with a long face and noble bearing, states that it is impossible that Lorentz still lives, “but a scientist should not use the word impossible!” Dragan, the American, is a hairy, heavy-set man with a kind of wild and brutish appearance. He declares in broken German “Lorentz . . . tot” (“Lorentz . . . dead”).
When Krafft is called upon he immediately leaps to attention, as if he is the defendant in a criminal case. He was the leader of the expedition, and perhaps he feels that his performance is on trial here. Speaking of performances, Sepp Rist delivers a decidedly peculiar one in this scene. He is stiff and awkward, and though it is only three years since Mont Blanc, the bloom of youth seems already to have left him. His delivery is full of odd silences—indeed the whole scene is, and the effect is almost Bergmanesque.
Krafft is absolutely adamant that Lorentz could not possibly have survived. Much to his shock, the chairman of the meeting presents him with the broken end of ski on which is written “Karajak Glacier, day 206. Stone hut. Position 77.3 lat., 68.6 long. Save my diaries. Lorenz.” The significance of this, which will become apparent later, is that the search party was looking in the wrong place. Sepp Rist reacts to this news with an odd grimace, revealing a set of crooked teeth.
The scene now immediately shifts to Lorentz’s home in Germany, where Krafft is meeting with Hella Lorentz, the explorer’s wife. Riefenstahl wears a dress with a wide, braided collar and stiff, braided shoulders. It looks vaguely Teutonic, like a costume left over from Lang’s Die Nibelungen. Riefenstahl seems more feminine here than in any of her other Fanck films. Behind her, on the mantelpiece, there appears to be a photograph of Udet and a small model airplane. There is the slight suggestion in this scene that Krafft and Hella are (or were) something more than friends. She calls him by the nickname “Hannes,” and they use the familiar du with each other.
“What was your husband doing at Karajak all by himself?” asks Krafft, who is clearly agitated. “Up there, at the end of the world [am Ende der Welt]. Without saying a word to us, he just left one day.” There’s a great deal of background that is simply implied in this film. We are supposed to understand that Krafft and Lorentz (and apparently some of the others depicted in this film) were part of an expedition, and that at a certain point Lorentz broke away from the rest and went off on his own—apparently because he wanted to beat the others to Karajak.
“Karajak was always his dream,” Hella says.
“And I had to pay for it, with my reputation as comrade [mit meinem Ruf als Kamerad].” Krafft blames Lorentz for heading off to Karajak without him, but he clearly also feels that he is guilty of some personal failing. In the American version, Lorentz gives Krafft the option of going with him, but Krafft declines. What is clear is that the dramatic subtext to the German version involves a quest for redemption on Krafft’s part. And here we may say something else about the film’s meaning.
In calling Rist’s character “Dr. Johannes Krafft” and “Hannes,” Fanck is deliberately connecting the character to the “Krafft” of Pitz Palü and the “Hannes” of Mont Blanc. (Just as he is connecting Riefenstahl’s character to the “Hella” of Mont Blanc.) As I noted in the Introduction to this piece, Mont Blanc represents the climax of Fanck’s treatment of the “problem of the sexes”—and is thus the third in the “trilogy” that includes The Holy Mountain and Pitz Palü.
The Dr. Johannes Krafft of S.O.S. Iceberg is, in essential (but not literal) terms, the Krafft/Hannes of the earlier films come down from his icy, mountain isolation. And his problem is no longer one of relating to the opposite sex. His problem has become how to relate to other men, and to the masculinity in himself. In a sense it is easy to be a man—a real man—in the world of the mountains. It is much harder to be a real man in the modern world. And S.O.S. Iceberg is an allegory dealing both with the breakdown of Kameradschaft (comradeship) in the modern world, as well as men’s disconnection from the Traditional ideal of spiritual virility.
In The Holy Mountain, Luis Trenker plays a character very much like Krafft/Hannes, but he is known only as “the Friend.” The story centers upon the tragic conflict of the eternal masculine, represented by the Friend, and the eternal feminine, represented by Diotima (Riefenstahl). This conflict threatens to destroy the Friend’s relationship with his devoted comrade Vigo, whom he almost kills. In other words, the injection of the feminine element into his life almost negates the friendhood (if I may put it that way) of the Friend. But it is not to be. In the end, the Friend sacrifices his life for Vigo.
As I wrote in my essay on the film, “In the end, the ideal triumphs over nature; the uranic triumphs over the chthonic. His desire for Diotima, the call of nature and the eternal feminine, and even the instinct for self-preservation proved weaker than his love for his friend, for whom he gladly surrendered his life.” The film closes with a dramatic, final intertitle: “And so shines forth over his holy mountain, the greatest word that stands over humanity, LOYALTY” (Die Treue). Ultimately, what characterizes the Friend’s nature just is treue Kameradschaft (as implied by his very “name”).
S.O.S. Iceberg returns to this theme of comradeship. Only here comradeship is broken. This is not the comradeship of the mountain, but of the world below. Krafft and Lorentz are modern men. And they have both, in a way failed the other: Lorentz by going off on his own and bringing shame to his friend; Krafft by failing to find him—principally, it would seem, because of his stubborn refusal to believe in the possibility of Lorentz’s survival. This seems to represent both a failure of vision and a failure of will on Krafft’s part.
Lorentz’s going off to Karajak on his own is clearly a reckless act, but also one of vision and daring. And we must ask why exactly he decided to abandon the others. As we will see later, Lorentz notes in his diary that “I wanted to beat him [Krafft] to it.” But as the American version suggests, it may be that Krafft did not believe in Lorentz’s vision. If so, then Lorentz went off on his own because he knew that Krafft had chosen to play it safe (or safer—as one can hardly accuse any arctic explorer of lacking guts). Here, Lorentz embodies (at least in part) the Traditional conception of the spiritually virile man. Krafft represents man in a (relatively) degraded form. He is too prudent, too “sensible” to risk everything for a grand vision. Like Nietzsche’s Last Man, he “has a regard for health.”
And so Krafft’s quest to find Lorentz represents more than just the reparation of broken comradeship: it represents Krafft’s quest to reconnect with the masculine ideal. All men today are Johannes Krafft. All of us must lose our selves in order to find ourselves. We must lose the small, grasping, “practical,” socialized imp we call the “self” to find the true self, which is the reverse of all of this and is, as someone once said, “slim and lean, nimble as a greyhound, tough as leather, and hard as Krupp steel.”
To do this, furthermore, Krafft must go to “the end of the world.” He must go completely beyond the civilized world—much further than anyone went in any previous Fanck film. He must (and we must) go beyond not only the physical confines of modern civilization but beyond its degrading, emasculating spirit. And we, and Krafft, do this, of course, at a point in time that is also “the end of the world.”
To return to our story, Hella says “if only we could locate his diaries.”
4. “Lorentz lives!”
In an abrupt shift, the story advances three weeks into the future, and we see Krafft breaking Lorentz’s diaries out from under a layer of ice. He and his comrades seen earlier—Dragan, Matushek, and Kuemmel—are in Greenland, and all but Kuemmel have grown beards. With his beard, long hair, and outrageous furry breeches, Rist looks like something out of the Sagas. When he steps out of Lorentz’s stone hut, he finds his comrades outside with their dog, complaining. This is a constant element in the scenes that follow, as relations between the men grow worse and worse.
Krafft reads in the diaries: “Day 222. I wanted to beat him to it.” There follows a line which is hard to translate but may be rendered “Indeed, it was not treated [gehandelt] in a comradely [kameradschaftlich] manner. But my God, the road is too hard!” In other words, Lorentz is acknowledging that it was wrong of him to simply turn his back on Krafft and go off on his own. Krafft does not react negatively to this. Instead, he is pleased to find evidence in the next lines that Lorentz may be alive. He reads aloud from the diaries: “Day 283 at Karajak. My last hope. I’ll jump from floe to floe across the open fjord to the other side where Eskimos live in the village of Thule. Thirty kilometers of open water. Little hope of getting across. I might be pulled out into the sea if the tide sets in too soon. Therefore, I’m leaving my diaries here.”
Thule will be a familiar name to many readers. It is a name packed with many meanings, and many peculiar associations. To begin with the literal setting in the film, Thule (now known as Qaanaaq) is a town in the northern portion of a municipality in northwest Greenland called Qaasuitsup. Explorers gave it the name Thule, which has a long history dating back to the ancient Greeks.
The fourth-century Greek explorer Pytheas, whose writings have not survived, referred to a land (or area) which he called Thule. Polybius in his Histories (c. 140 BC) says that according to Pytheas Thule was a region where “there was no longer any proper land nor sea nor air, but a sort of mixture of all three of the consistency of a jellyfish in which one can neither walk nor sail, holding everything together, so to speak.” This may simply be a description of the Arctic Ocean.
Strabo’s Geography (c. 30 BC) states that Pytheas held that Thule was “six days sail north of Britain, and is near the frozen sea.” Pliny the Elder (23 AD–79 AD) again cited Pytheas, stating that in Thule “there be no nights at all, as we have declared, about mid-summer, namely when the Sun passes through the sign of Cancer; and contrariwise no days in mid-winter: and each of these times they suppose, do last six months, all day, or all night.”
Scholars have offered many conjectures as to the actual identity of Thule, including Iceland, Greenland, and some part of Scandinavia. And some believe it to be simply a myth. Western Esotericists, however, have long held Thule to be an actual place, though one that is not necessarily easy to reach. As some of my readers may already know, the Thule Society (Thule-Gesellschaft), formed in 1918, was closely associated with the rise of the NSDAP. The society believed that Thule was the capital of Hyperborea, home of the Aryan race.
To return now to our tale, Krafft decides that they will follow Lorentz’s path across the fjord. Matushek tries to talk him out of it, however. They survey the area, which is mostly open water dotted with small ice floes. And the distance to Thule is 30 kilometers. Krafft proposes that they make it there by jumping from one ice floe to another! Matushek worries, quite reasonably, that they will drift out to sea on one—and he believes that Lorentz is certainly dead. But there is no way that Krafft will succumb to such thinking a second time. He insists that Lorentz is still alive.
The scene now changes to an airfield in Germany. Udet is standing on the tarmac smoking a cigar and watching a biplane doing wild loops in the air above. With evident satisfaction, he says to a male colleague, “If only you were as advanced as this girl. Next time she’ll come to Greenland.” The other man replies, “She’s better at everything.” The plane then lands, and we are not surprised when Hella clambers out of it, clearly pleased with herself.
Superficially, the Hella of S.O.S. Iceberg is a lot like the Hella of Mont Blanc. But the Hella of the earlier film was a dysfunctional proto-feminist unable (at first) to give herself to the spiritually virile Hannes. There is nothing neurotic about the Hella of S.O.S. Iceberg. She is an archetypal Teutonic heroine: completely feminine and completely devoted to the man in her life (Lorentz), but no helpless ninny either. She is smart, brave, and capable.
Someone brings Udet a newspaper reporting on the latest news from the Greenland expedition: Lorentz’s diaries have been found, and he is believed to be “probably still alive.” Udet hands the newspaper to Hella. She glances at it then looks up and off into the distance. In a sort of dreamy tone she utters one word: “Lebt” (“He lives”).
Meanwhile, back in Greenland, the men are now carrying out Krafft’s plan. Linked together by ropes, they are jumping from floe to floe, using skis as paddles. The dog is still with them. There follow a number of harrowing and suspenseful moments. (Dessau’s music for these scenes not only builds suspense, it effectively conveys arctic cold and desolation.) Krafft jumps onto one floe but slips into the frigid water, his bare hands clawing at the ice. At one point, the dog (who was called Nakinak) becomes stranded on a floe and the men have to rescue him.
After traversing a great distance on one relatively large flow, using a makeshift sail, the men realize that they are drifting out to sea. To make matters worse, they are menaced by a huge polar bear, who looks like it might jump into the sea and swim after them. Time passes. Using his binoculars, Krafft spots a flag atop a huge iceberg. It must have been planted there by Lorentz! They paddle over to the iceberg and climb onto it, carrying their equipment with them. But the bear boards the iceberg with them! Krafft hurls great pieces of ice at the bear until finally it jumps back down into the water and disappears.
All the while, Dragan complains. Kuemmel tries to cheer him up: “Work makes life sweet,” he says, and enlists Dragan’s aid in pitching their tent. Their troubles, of course, are far from over: though they have switched icebergs, they are still drifting inexorably out to sea!
Krafft soon discovers a “cave” on the upper part of their iceberg. Inside, he finds Lorentz wrapped in heavy furs. “Lorentz!” Krafft cries. And then “Karl! Karl!” Though he is alive, his condition is far from good. Krafft tells the others and, after they finish making camp, he has a long talk with Lorentz. “Look,” says Lorentz, pointing to his legs. “The punishment was harsh.”
“Too harsh. Too damned harsh,” replies Krafft. Although it is never made clear what injuries he has sustained, the suggestion is that he is suffering from frostbite.
Lorentz disagrees with Krafft’s judgment, however. “I deserved it,” he says. “Because you four are lost now.” In other words, Lorentz realizes that his recklessness has now put the other men at grave risk. They then hear a loud rumbling, as pieces of glacial ice crash into the sea. “This is the music you’ll have to get used to,” Lorentz says.
5. “S.O.S. Iceberg!”
The next day, Krafft listens on the radio for a signal, but gets only static. He then begins sending an S.O.S. Meanwhile, Dragan is setting out provisions for four, until Kuemmel reminds him that he is forgetting about the dog. Dragan responds that they could make five portions out of the dog. “I’d sooner make ten out of you!” Kuemmel shoots back. Dragan then announces that he doesn’t want to give any food to Lorentz. “Do you want Lorentz to starve?!” Krafft cries in astonishment. It seems that Dragan is becoming increasingly desperate and irrational. However, Kuemmel succeeds in saving the day by catching some fish. Yodeling, he climbs up into the cave with them and says, cheerily, “Let’s feast!”
At last, Krafft manages to pick up a signal on the radio. Some outpost is signaling to them, asking them to send their exact location. Krafft transmits: “Sixty kilometers south of Karajak.” However, what he hears in reply is: “We’re waiting.” They’re not picking up his signal! At this point, the men begin to despair. Krafft practically goes mad, frantically signaling “S.O.S.” over and over again.
The scene shifts, however, to the home of a plucky little blonde boy, probably in some Scandinavian country. He is a hobbyist, in the midst of building a toy. Nearby is a radio set. Suddenly, he hears a Morse signal and takes it down: “S.O.S. Iceberg.”
And now other radio operators pick up Krafft’s signal as well. Fanck cuts back and forth between the operators—French, German, Japanse, American, etc.—relaying the S.O.S. The cuts become more and more rapid until each image lasts a fraction of a second. And over it all is a cacophony of voices: “S.O.S. S.O.S. S.O.S.” Now the whole world knows. It is an extremely effective scene.
The camera then pans from a radio on a table across the room to show Hella, again very elegantly dressed, listening to a report that a signal from the Greenland team has just been picked up. Fanck then immediately cuts to Hella in a seaplane, donning her goggles. Yet again, the brave Teutonic woman is off to rescue her man! (Just as we saw in The Holy Mountain, Storm over Mont Blanc, and in 2008’s North Face, an homage to Fanck.) The scenes of her plane flying over Greenland are truly spectacular. Udet, of course, did the actual flying.
Meanwhile, with no idea at all that anyone is coming to rescue them, the men grow increasingly dejected. Lorentz says to Matushek, “Everything’s being pulled out to sea by this monster of a fjord.” Dragan now seems to go completely mad. He tries to harpoon the dog, only to be stopped by Kuemmel just in the nick of time. Dragan staggers out of the cave crying “To the light! To the light!” (All of this makes one wonder what exactly Fanck thought of Americans!)
Krafft now leaves the cave and goes below to the area where the tent has been erected. He kneels at the edge of the water and embraces the dog, “It would be easy for you to jump in, with your nice thick fur coat,” Krafft says. (One has to be impressed by the all the love and consideration shown to this dog—another quintessentially Nordic trait.)
This seems to give Krafft an idea—and suddenly he jumps into the water! He swims out to an ice floe, clambers onto it, then swims to another, and another. It seems as if Krafft has gone a bit mad himself. In desperation, with no hope of rescue, he has decided to follow Lorentz’s own plan: to swim from floe to flow across the fjord until he reaches Thule and can send help to his friends.
Then, however, he spots Hella’s plane. “Hella! Hella!” he cries, though it’s not clear how he knows that it’s her. She does not seem to see him and keeps flying around the area. Now Lorentz, deep in the ice cave, hears her as well and wakes the others. They rush out and begin building a fire and waving to her.
Finally she sees them, and decides to land. At first things look good—but the seaplane skims along the surface of the water and collides with the iceberg! Hella manages to jump out just as the aircraft bursts into flames. The men quickly fish her out of the icy water. At this point, all concerned—including the audience—must be wondering “what now?”
Hella and Lorentz are now reunited. In a moving scene, he tries to stand up and come to her, but falls. She rushes forward and embraces him. Hella’s arrival, however, has only made the situation worse.
No one seems to have noticed Krafft’s absence, and he is still off on his own, hopping from ice floe to ice floe. Now he spots another plane in the sky—but the scene that follows is a peculiar one. Krafft desperately tries to signal to the low-flying plane. It is not clear whether or not the pilot sees him. Suddenly, however, the plane—which has no pontoons—simply goes smacking, nose first, into the water! The pilot climbs out and perches himself on the slowly-sinking aircraft. At the same time, Krafft is drifting on an ice floe. It is not even clear whether or not they see each other.
Nevertheless, Krafft continues on his way, swimming from floe to floe. It soon becomes apparent that he is growing increasingly exhausted and is likely suffering from hypothermia. It should be noted that there are no sound effects in these scenes, there is only Dessau’s music. As the wind and waves begin to become more violent, and Krafft’s situation more desperate, Dessau introduces a chorus (which is clearly supposed to represent the winds). The effect is dramatic, and an eerie and ominous pall hangs over the film at this point.
Back at the iceberg, Hella and the male friends she had intended to rescue have now run out of fuel for their stove. This means that they must eat their fish raw. The situation seems to present no problem at all for Dragan, who promptly bites the head off of his fish. Hella looks as if she is about to be sick, and we can hardly blame her.
Outside, two polar bears are fighting over a seal and creating a ruckus. When Mautshek goes outside to investigate, Dragan steals his fish! Matushek harpoons one of the bears. I have watched this scene over and over again, and either the actor actually does harpoon the bear, or some extraordinarily advanced trick (advanced for 1933) was employed here. Sadly, I think the harpooning is real.
The bear is only wounded, however, and it thrashes about, dislodging the harpoon—then both bears go after Matshushek! He screams for help, and Kuemmel rushes out to try to save him. But it is too late. Matushek is in the water and one of the bears has jumped in after him and is tearing him to pieces. At the same time, the iceberg begins to rock and ice comes crashing down from the nearby glacier.
The mad Dragan now seizes on this opportunity. He pulls out his knife and kills Kuemmel. Then he climbs up to the ice cave, knife drawn, and enters with a wild look in his eyes, menacing Hella and Lorentz. Just then, however, the iceberg shakes violently as more glacial ice plunges into the water. Dragan loses his balance and goes tumbling down the iceberg and into the water, where he is covered (and presumably killed) by huge pieces of falling ice.
Now another seaplane appears in the sky not far from our heroes. It is Udet, at last! He lands near a two-masted schooner, which has apparently been searching the area. (Knud Rasmussen can be glimpsed briefly on deck.) Udet reports: “I haven’t seen anything so far.” He instructs them to search a different area, then takes off again. The footage of Udet flying through the Greenland landscape is truly thrilling, no more so than when he suddenly seems about to plow into a glacier, then pulls up at the last minute. He doesn’t realize it, but he is now quite close to what remains of Krafft’s party.
Hella hears Udet flying overhead. She rushes outside and begins waving frantically. Udet sees Hella and dips so low it looks like he almost hits her. He loops around the area in spectacular fashion, letting Hella know very clearly that she has been spotted. Then he lands next to the iceberg. Hella tells him to fly over Karajak and look for Krafft. “Get Eskimos for help!” she cries.
Udet takes off again and finds Krafft very quickly. He lands in the midst of the ice floes, and a water-logged and exhausted Krafft climbs aboard the plane to triumphal music by Dessau. Udet’s plane now flies over the village of Thule, mentioned earlier. The Eskimos pour from their huts to stare at the plane, accompanied by what seems like several hundred semi-wild dogs! Fanck has a great deal of fun in these shots, showing the Eskimos gawking awkwardly at Udet’s great iron bird. (No doubt this scene would be condemned as “racist” today.)
Udet lands, leaving Krafft to swim to shore while he has a smoke (not even the most dire of situations stops Ernst Udet from taking a cigarette break when he wants one—watch the final scenes of Mont Blanc). Krafft communicates with the Eskimos in their native tongue, and the only recognizable words are “iceberg” and “kayak.”
The Eskimos now spring into action. They hop in their kayaks and begin rowing to the iceberg to save Hella and Lorentz. These scenes, which feature about fifty to sixty Eskimos in kayaks, are beautifully shot, exciting, and joyous. The earlier gloom has now lifted, as we know that our heroes are about to be rescued. Fanck shoots the Eskimos from above (though it is not clear from what vantage point—perhaps another iceberg). And he even puts a camera in one of the kayaks. The Eskimos also do an amazing trick where they “spin” 360 degrees in their kayaks, lolling to one side, going underwater, and coming up on the other side.
Hella and Lorentz are brought to Thule safely. In the final scene, we see the schooner sailing away from Greenland with the Lorentz’s and Krafft on board. Hella embraces her husband as Krafft looks on. (Is there a hint of jealousy in his expression?) They are sailing not far from the iceberg which seemed for a time like it would become their icy tomb. As they look on, it suddenly and dramatically capsizes. Nearby, Udet’s plane takes off and disappears into the sky.
Thus ends S.O.S. Iceberg.
6. Concluding Reflections on S.O.S. Iceberg and the Fanck Films
What we find above all in Fanck’s films is a tragic sense of life. Of all the films, The Holy Mountain comes the closest to an utterly negative, Schopenhauerian rejection of life. In the end of that film, only a moral ideal (that of loyalty, die Treue) is shown to be capable of redeeming our existence. The sense of life conveyed in The White Hell of Pitz Palü is hardly different. Storm Over Mont Blanc, however, ends on a far more optimistic note. In that film, “Hannes” achieves a kind of rapprochement with the feminine, and thus with life, that was denied to The Holy Mountain’s “Friend” and Pitz Palü’s Johannes Krafft.
S.O.S. Iceberg is an expression of the optimism that Mont Blanc ends with. The sense of life is still tragic, but the approach to life is now more Nietzschean than Schopenhauerian. No matter what dangers our heroes find themselves in, and no matter how many die, the mood of S.O.S. Iceberg is sunlit and joyous. It is a life-affirming and fate-affirming film.
Aside from Dragan’s rampage at the end (which, plotwise, seems largely gratuitous and unnecessary), the only human conflicts in S.O.S. Iceberg are all of the “man vs. himself” variety. And they involve instances of lingering guilt and self-doubt. Krafft feels that he has failed Lorentz not only by failing to find him on the first expedition, but also because he (apparently) did not believe in Lorentz’s dream of reaching Karajak. Lorentz feels guilty for going off on his own and making Krafft look bad. If I am right in thinking there is a hint of romantic feeling between Krafft and Hella, Krafft may wonder if he gave up on finding Lorentz too soon because he wanted Hella for himself. And Hella may have foolishly flown off to Greenland because her feelings for Krafft (if she has any) made her feel as if she has betrayed her husband.
The suggestion in S.O.S. Iceberg is that its characters are on a quest to redeem themselves. This is typified by Krafft’s mad, self-sacrificial attempt to swim from floe to floe in an effort to rescue the others. (And when he does this, of course, he is mimicking the reckless heroism of Lorentz, who also went off on his own without telling his comrades.) In the end, they all find redemption: Krafft proves himself to be a good comrade after all, and as brave as Lorentz; Lorentz is rescued and reconciled with Krafft; and Hella is reunited Lorentz, as Krafft stands aside and chooses not to come between them.
Past failings are redeemed in S.O.S. Iceberg, and one is left with the feeling that the road is now open and that anything is possible. And the old demons of earlier Fanck films are exorcised. Gone is the conflict between the masculine and the feminine. Gone is the archetype of the spiritually-virile male freezing to death (or almost freezing to death) in his mountain realm, unable to reconcile himself to the world. Gone is the contrast between the pure and noble Olympian world above, and the decadent world of man below.
One has the feeling that a new world is on the horizon, one in which the memory of past wrongs and failings will be cast aside, men and women will become truer to life, and values like honor, nobility, and loyalty will be revived. This was, of course, exactly the mood that prevailed in Germany when the National Socialists seized the day.
Arnold Fanck was not a philosopher, but he was a thoughtful and well-educated man. Fanck’s own views, as I have noted before, were decidedly to the right of center, and this comes out in various ways. But these are not “ideological” films. The ideas, attitudes, and inflections one finds in them are not there as a result of some didactic intent. These films are a largely unselfconscious expression of the Nordic soul. I made this point in the very first installment of this series: my review of 2008’s North Face.
What is it about the Nordic soul that gets expressed in Fanck’s films?
First of all, we have the joyfully tragic sense of life I have already just discussed, and which we find even in the Sagas. It is a sense of life that is tragic, but heroic. Its heroism expresses itself preeminently in testing oneself against nature—against “the regions where it is hard to live” (as Nietzsche put it); regions that are frigid, remote, and lofty; regions that repulse and terrify other races. There is a closeness to these regions that approaches a sense of psychic connection, and a love for natural phenomena and animals of all kinds. This closeness to nature and mania for physical challenge goes hand in hand with a deep distrust of cities and civilization.
The Nordic man makes an ideal comrade (Tacitus declared that no one surpasses the Germans in loyalty), but he is not a “lover of mankind.” He is loyal to his comrade, but his comrade is always “another self” who craves silence and solitude. The warmth of human bodies, especially in a mass, tends to repulse him—unless the unifying principle of that mass is devotion to some life-surpassing ideal.
Though he distrusts “civilized life” and the falseness and finery that go with it, Nordic man is drawn to technology, as an expression of his power to master and overcome nature. Hence, we find in Fanck’s films both anti-modern and pro-technology elements. One finds the same “tension” in National Socialism. There is no necessary conflict between the two, however, unless one believes that technology is inherently corrupting. Fanck’s films (especially Storm Over Mont Blanc) are archeofuturist: he clearly believes that what has corrupted the world is not technology per se, and that it is possible to live in a technologically advanced world that also honors and upholds Tradition.
And central to that Tradition, and to Fanck’s worldview, is the idea that life is about men actualizing themselves as men (the achievement of “spiritual virility”) and women as women. There are two paths here, not one unisex path. And while the path for woman always leads to actualization in attachment to a man, the path for man is two-tiered: leading to a woman, and to comradeship with other men, in some quest that goes beyond hearth and home.
There is, of course, much more that could be said here about the Nordic spirit. The mountain films give us a unique window into that spirit. It is impossible to imagine any other people having given rise to them. And only those with something of that Nordic soul within them will be able to see this and to love these truly beautiful and moving films.
1. Leni Riefenstahl, Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir, no translator credited (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992), 89.
2. Ibid., 95.
3. Ibid., 105.
4. Ibid., 107
5. Steven Bach, Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), 93. I have to say that I find the latter account incredible.
6. Riefenstahl, 108.
7. Ibid., 122.
8. Kino’s subtitle translates Kamerad as “partner” – which fails to express the sentiment being conveyed here. Kino’s subtitles for S.O.S. Iceberg are generally reliable, but miss many nuances.