- The Washington Times - Friday, August 22, 2003

Leni Riefenstahl, the German documentary filmmaker who notoriously used her technical mastery to spread a heroic glow over Nazi propaganda spectacles, turned 101 yesterday.

To mark the birthday, Kino Video has released a DVD edition of “The Holy Mountain,” Miss Riefenstahl’s debut movie, restored by archivists in France and Germany.

Her legend and influence have for decades supplied the occasion for provocative movie criticism, most recently when an extraordinary documentary summation of her achievements and shortcomings was released in 1994. The work of a fair-minded, insightful German filmmaker named Ray Muller, it was titled “The Power of Images: Leni Riefenstahl” in Europe. When imported to the United States, it became “The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl.” A presumptuous and mocking change, of course, but there are aspects of the Riefenstahl saga that make either title justifiable.

A few excerpts from Mr. Muller’s invaluable memoir-compilation are included as a supplement to the DVD edition of “The Holy Mountain.” The excerpts deal with the period in the late 1920s when Miss Riefenstahl, a dancer sidelined by a serious knee injury, shifted career aspirations under the influence of a particular movie, Arnold Fanck’s “Mountain of Destiny,” a glorification of mountain scenery and mountain climbers.

A geologist based in Freiburg, Mr. Fanck (1889-1974) was also an enthusiastic photographer and climber who began to shoot nature and winter sports films as an avocation after World War I. He exhibited them privately before his success attracted the interest of the commercial film industry.

“Mountain of Destiny” was a crossover project: his first fictionalized movie and the first financed and distributed by UFA, the major film consortium in Germany.

In her inimitable, epic, sometimes deliriously enthralling autobiography, “A Memoir,” Miss Riefenstahl recalls how seeing a poster for “Mountain of Destiny” stirred an immediate yearning to see the picture. That experience proved so mesmerizing that she made efforts in succeeding months to express her admiration personally to the leading man, Luis Trenker, and then the filmmaker, volunteering her services for the next Fanck picture. Evidently, he was so flattered (and smitten) that Miss Riefenstahl became the inspiration for his follow-up, “The Holy Mountain.”

According to the behind-the-scenes account in “A Memoir” of the film’s gestation and production, a love triangle threatened to sabotage “Holy Mountain” at the outset. Unable to reciprocate her esteemed director’s passion, Miss Riefenstahl at 22 was receptive to an affair with Mr. Trenker.

“The door flew open,” she writes, “and Fanck entered the room. Raving like a madman, he jumped on Trenker, who, being a stronger man, grabbed and held him. But Fanck was beyond control. He tore loose, and a brutal fistfight began. … I tried to pull them apart, but it was no use. I ran to the window, opened it, and climbed on to the window sill as if I were going to jump. My ploy worked. The men stopped fighting. Trenker lifted me down into his arms, and Fanck stormed out of the room.”

Despite the preliminary rivalry and belligerence, the movie got made and became a substantial hit when released the week before Christmas of 1926. Uncooperative weather and several injuries (Miss Riefenstahl suffered a broken ankle while learning to ski) had extended the production over two consecutive winters in Switzerland. By that time, the Trenker-Riefenstahl romance was a bad memory, supplanted by the starlet’s liaison with Hans Schneeberger. A skiing champion and virtuoso mountain photographer, Mr. Schneeberger was destined to become not only a consort but an indispensable scenic collaborator when Miss Riefenstahl assembled the camera crews needed for the movies that brought her enduring fame and infamy during the Hitler regime, “Triumph of the Will” and “Olympiad.” The documentaries celebrated a 1934 Nazi Party convocation in Nuremberg and the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, respectively.

Not yet a skier or climber when “Holy Mountain” was made, Leni Riefenstahl was a willing instrument and avid enthusiast. Her aptitude for cinematic know-how exceeded her enthusiasm for winter athletics. According to her own testimony, she soaked up every bit of expertise available from the photographers and the Fanck editing room, anticipating the eventual 18-month vigil a decade later that allowed her to transform the Olympics footage into a sustained kinetic and pictorial masterpiece.

In retrospect, it seems appropriate that Leni Riefenstahl was introduced to the medium as a still image of a sleeping beauty. The Fanck intertitles summarize “The Holy Mountain” as “a drama poem with scenes from nature.” His heroine, called Diotima, is the first character to appear, quickly mobilized as a dancing figure, silhouetted in the foreground against majestic seascapes. Miss Riefenstahl’s account of how difficult it was to sustain dance movement on this rocky, slippery platform in Helgoland makes for sympathetic, demystifying reading in “A Memoir.”

Evidently, her dance prelude had an instantly seductive impact on European audiences. Adolf Hitler was one of the spectators who confessed to beguilement when he and Miss Riefenstahl met. At this late date, it’s easier to be amused than bedazzled by the idiom of ecstatic footwork and arm waving that distinguishes Miss Riefestahl’s dance solos. Nevertheless, a tunic clings with enviable intimacy to her torso during the surfside traipsing and gesticulating, which seem to reach an emotional summit with a gesture of uplifted hands.

Despite being established as a sea-gazing siren, Diotima has visions of a man on a mountain, anticipating the eventual entrance of Luis Trenker. Transported to an Alpine region, Diotima becomes the romantic ideal of two friends unaware of each other’s attraction to the same dame: the solitary, unnamed mountaineer played by Mr. Trenker and a more sociable young skier called Vigo, played by Ernst Petersen, a nephew of Mr. Fanck and probably the most photogenic of the three leads.

Miss Riefenstahl was shocked by her first screen test until learning that the director insisted on faces in the raw, trusting that his lighting and composition would outweigh any advantages associated with makeup.

Modern viewers are likely to conclude that he was less than foolproof about framing Miss Riefenstahl’s face and figure. Her haircut alone would be enough to reduce the makeover team of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” to uncontrollable mirth. Diotima’s puffy-frizzy look seems to cry out for a little softening and streamlining. There are some shots in which she appears to be anticipating “The Bride of Frankenstein.”

Nevertheless, it is gratifying to have this piece of the Riefenstahl filmography within easy reach. “Mountain” is a starting point that helps clarify certain things about the eventual, haunted destination of her career. There’s even a visionary sequence set in a crystal cavern dominated by a replica of the Olympic torch, which inexplicably crumbles, turning something kind of marvelous into so much wreckage.

TITLE: “The Holy Mountain”

RATING: No MPAA Rating (made in 1926, decades before the advent of a film rating system)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Arnold Fanck. Photographed by Hans Schneeberger and Sepp Allgeier. Music by Aljoscha Zimmerman

DISTRIBUTOR: Kino Video

RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes

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