Part 1 of 4
Stürme über dem Mont Blanc (1930; literally, Storms over Mont Blanc) is my favorite of the Arnold Fanck mountain films. Fanck’s first “talkie,” Mont Blanc features some of the most striking images of his entire oeuvre, backed by a haunting, memorable score by Paul Dessau (one of the most significant music scores from the early years of talking pictures). The suspense at times is positively unbearable, and the action sequences top anything in Fanck’s earlier films. Mont Blanc features (who else?) Leni Riefenstahl, delivering a memorably zany performance as the female protagonist. She is perfectly paired with newcomer Sepp Rist, who proves himself to be Fanck’s ideal male lead. But there is more here than just action and romance on the peaks.
Storm over Mont Blanc is the third installment in a trilogy of films by Fanck dealing with the nature of man and woman, and how the state of their relationship affects the health of a nation. 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 Piz Palü (1929) also deals, in the form of an allegory, with the relation between the sexes — but this time in their degenerated, modern form. Piz 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.
(This essay is the fourth in a series dealing with the mountain films. See my review of North Face for an overview of this genre, its principal characteristics, and why it should interest readers of Counter-Currents.)
2. The Making of Storm over Mont Blanc
After completing The White Hell of Piz Palü, Leni Riefenstahl found herself in dire financial straits. This was not to last very long, however. The huge success of the film prompted AAFA to offer her twenty thousand marks to star in Fanck’s next film, which became Storm over Mont Blanc (released to the English-speaking world as Avalanche). She would co-star with Sepp Rist in his first film (in fact, it was Rist who received top billing in Mont Blanc, over Riefenstahl).
Born in 1900, Rist had served on a torpedo boat in the First World War, then had worked in Nuremberg as a police radio operator. He was also an outstanding athlete, who competed in numerous ski championships. It was on a ski race in Gurgl that he was “discovered” by cameraman Sepp Allgeier, and subsequently brought to the attention of Arnold Fanck. (Riefenstahl later tried to take credit for discovering Rist, even claiming that she “forced” Fanck to hire him.) Rist went on to enjoy a long career in German cinema, especially in the genre of so-called “Heimatfilm,” and died in 1980.
The success of Piz Palü inevitably meant that Mont Blanc would be approached in a somewhat “formulaic” manner, the idea being to repeat (and to surpass) what had made the earlier film so successful. And so we find pilot Ernst Udet making another appearance, and saving the day as he did before. Once again we have a male protagonist who has chosen a life of isolation in a desolate alpine world of ice and snow. Once again the film climaxes in a daring rescue. Ernst Petersen even makes a cameo appearance. Fanck’s collaborator on the screenplay was an uncredited Carl Mayer, whose credits included The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Murnau’s The Last Laugh. (It is not clear exactly how much Mayer contributed to the project.)
The story involves a man named Hannes (last name never revealed) who works as a Wetterwart, or weather station attendant, atop Mont Blanc. (Significantly, Gustav Diessl’s character in Piz Palü was also nicknamed “Hannes.”) The highest mountain in Western Europe, Mont Blanc rises 15,782 feet above sea level, and lies between the regions of the Aosta Valley, Italy, and Haute-Savoie, France. Hannes lives for months at a time in a tiny cabin on one of Mont Blanc’s peaks, spending his lonely days checking readings on an anemometer and telegraphing weather conditions to nearby meteorological stations. In the evenings he keeps up a telegraphic correspondence with the beautiful Hella Armstrong, a budding astronomer who works with her father at a distant observatory. They have never set eyes on each other until one day she falls out of the sky thanks to Ernst Udet . . . (I must save the rest for later.)
Shooting began on Mont Blanc in February 1930 when all of the film’s skiing sequences were shot in three weeks in Arosa, Switzerland. The film’s skiing episode climaxes with a scene where Riefenstahl hops into Udet’s silver “Moth” (Motte) two-seater, which then takes off from the frozen surface of a lake. This was shot on Lake St. Moritz. The plane had no safety belt to secure Riefenstahl, and the mischievous Udet did loops in order to deliberately frighten her. Hans Schneeberger, who had severed his relationship with Riefenstahl not long before, flew in a second plane in order to photograph Udet in flight. (Fanck had hired Schneeberger at Udet’s insistence.)
Once these sequences were completed, in April cast and crew relocated to Bernina Hospiz, a lodge more than seven thousand feet up on the Bernina Pass. Nearby they constructed the interior of Hannes’s cabin, rigging it with lights and camera equipment (electric current provided by the local railway system). One end of the set was left open to the elements for the climactic scene in which the cabin fills with snow. There was no heat, and the cast suffered through these scenes (none more so than Sepp Rist, who had to appear practically buried in snow). These scenes took six weeks to film.
During this time, Riefenstahl practiced climbing with the Lantschner brothers to prepare for the film’s impressive (and arduous) climbing sequences. Gustav “Guzzi” Lantschner and Hellmut Lantschner were both Olympic gold medalists in downhill skiing. The brother’s appeared in the film’s “foxhunt” sequence. (Guzzi would also have an important role in Fanck’s ski comedy Der weisse Rausch, released the following year.)
Cast and crew later bivouacked at the Vallot shelter hut on Mont Blanc, which (so far as I can determine) served as the exterior of Hannes’s cabin. As always on a Fanck production, much of the danger was quite real. And this time the director himself came very close to losing his life. Riefenstahl writes in her memoirs:
The glacier changed every day. It was June by now, the snow was melting, and the cracks were opening appreciably. Just a few days earlier the ground had been covered with vast stretches of snow, but now crevasses were becoming visible, wide enough and deep enough to swallow Cologne cathedral or the temple at Karnak. Fanck, obsessed with capturing these unique images on film, paid scant heed to the dangers confronting us. And that proved to be a fatal mistake. The cameras having been unpacked hundreds of feet below the Vallot hut, he walked several steps ahead in order to find the best locations. All at once we saw him – only seventy feet away – silently vanishing. The glacier had swallowed him up. Our tiny group was deathly quiet, but only for an instant or two. Then I saw with what wonderful presence of mind the staff operated in such emergencies. Within seconds a rope was plunging into the fissure. As everyone listened and it dropped foot by foot, the faces of our men grew darker and darker. Half the rope had already uncoiled, seventy feet hung into the crevasse. Finally, a sound came up, and we breathed a sigh of relief. The men felt a tug on the rope and everyone pulled with all his might. At last, Fanck’s head popped up, his mouth still holding the cigarette he had clenched in his teeth when falling. Utterly calm, as if nothing had happened, he clambered out of the crevasse, and shooting resumed.
Scenes were also filmed in the vicinity of the Dupuis hut, the ascent to which was particularly difficult. At one point, a camera fell more than a thousand feet and was smashed against the rocks. It was in the vicinity of the Dupuis hut that the crew shot Udet’s remarkable landing on the glacier – the first time it had ever been attempted.
An abrupt drop in temperature trapped the cast and crew on the mountain for days, and food supplies ran low. To make matters worse, the men were beginning to feel acute sexual frustration. According to Riefenstahl, they began trading lewd jokes and constructing “blatant sexual symbols of ice and snow.” (The imagination reels.) Needless to say, Riefenstahl was bothered quite a bit. One of the younger members of the crew even fell in love with her and threatened to leap into a crevasse. Fanck was still obsessed with Riefenstahl, and kept handing her notes and poems which “grew more and more erotic.”
The scenes where Riefenstahl appears in her observatory were shot on location at the Babelsberg Sternwarte (just outside Berlin), with the permission of its director, Paul Guthnick.
Mont Blanc was planned all along as a talkie, but for all intents and purposes it was shot as a silent film. Sound movie cameras at that time were very large and heavily padded so as to muffle the sound of the mechanism. It was simply unfeasible to haul these great behemoths up mountains and across glaciers, so silent film cameras were used throughout the production. (The introduction of big sound cameras proved a technical setback for films in general, as the mobility of the cameras was very limited. This is why early talkies often seem extremely static, like photographed stage plays.)
Sound effects, music, and dialogue were all added into Mont Blanc later. However, these were “layered” into the film in a technically primitive manner. Often, we hear sound effects or music or dialogue, but seldom any combination of the three. Music is often simply broken off when sound effects or dialogue is called for. Long stretches of the film are effectively silent, containing only music (this is not really a flaw, for Dessau’s score is one of the film’s great assets). Three years later, Fanck would use a similar process to add dialogue, music, and sound effects into Piz Palü, turning it – rather effectively – into a talkie.
In preparation for the film’s dubbing sessions, Riefenstahl had to train her voice. She hired a speech coach, Herbert Kuchenbuch, with whom she worked daily. At first, Riefenstahl had a great deal of difficulty, but reported that “Eventually I had no difficulties whatsoever in my first sound scenes for the Mont Blanc film.” Others, however, have questioned her confident judgment in this matter. Her biographer Jürgen Trimborn writes that “despite the intense efforts of Herbert Kuchenbuch . . . her Berlin accent and pitch irritated many of the moviegoing public, who felt these qualities didn’t belong to the world of the mountain film or to the image of the mythical female that audiences had assigned to the young actress. So it is not at all true that Riefenstahl ‘easily’ made the transition from silent to sound films; rather, her voice became a disadvantage that further limited her opportunities with other directors.” The truth is that her voice in Mont Blanc does sound uncomfortably like that of a cartoon mouse. Frankly, I found this rather endearing – but I can easily see why others might find it annoying.
Kino International released Storm over Mont Blanc on DVD in Region 1 in 2005. Unfortunately, they relied upon a print with many problems (perhaps because no better print could be found). The first ten minutes or so are filled with scratches, pops, and jumps. Things improve considerably after the first reel, but there are problems throughout the film. Kino created a new opening credits sequence, apparently because the original was so badly damaged. These problems should not stop anyone from watching this truly remarkable film.
1. Leni Riefenstahl, Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir, no translator credited (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992), 85. Riefenstahl’s memoir is my primary source for information on the making of the film.
2. Ibid., 85.
3. Ibid., 86.
4. Ibid., 88.
5. Jürgen Trimborn, Leni Riefenstahl: A Life, trans. Edna McCown (London: Faber and Faber, 2007), 33.