- The Washington Times - Friday, November 18, 2005

“The White Hell of Pitz Palu,” a mountaineering saga of 1929, is now available from Kino Video in a handsomely restored DVD edition. Although sold separately, at $29.95, “White Hell” is being promoted as part of a set of three movies that shared a director and leading lady as well as wintry settings.

The director, Arnold Fanck (1889-1974), was the pioneer of a genre of scenically imposing films preoccupied with mountain vistas and mountain climbing. Unfortunately, these invaluable reissues have entered the marketplace under the banner “Leni Riefenstahl: Mountain Goddess,” emphasizing a mystique of the leading lady that distorts the nature of the genre and the individual pictures.

Kino’s “Goddess” trilogy also includes “Storm Over Mont Blanc” and “S.O.S. Iceberg.” The former, a prompt follow-up of 1930 to the enormously successful “White Hell,” added talking sequences and sound effects to the forerunner’s mix of majestic scenery and heroic struggle.

“S.O.S. Iceberg,” shot in Greenland fjords in both German and English versions in 1933, was the final collaboration of Mr. Fanck and Miss Riefenstahl (1902-2003). By then, she was a precocious director herself, basking in the success of an ultrapoetic mountain idyll, “The Blue Light.”

Miss Riefenstahl’s tenure as a snowbound, storm-tossed heroine for Mr. Fanck began in 1926 with “The Holy Mountain” (which Kino revived a year ago) after an injury thwarted her aspirations to become a dancer.

A former geologist, Mr. Fanck discovered high-altitude adventure photography in the 1920s and took his own productions on the lecture circuit before being solicited by the established film industry. An example of how his style evolved has been added to the “Mont Blanc” disc: a 10-minute short called “Cloud Phenomena of Maloja,” a visual study of 1924 that observes cloud formations over the Dolomites. It anticipates characteristic pictorial aspects of the later features; it also seems to cry out for live commentary to cover transitions from one composition to the next.

The effectiveness of “The White Hell of Pitz Palu” may owe much to the fact that while socializing in Berlin before the movie began, Miss Riefenstahl took the liberty of recruiting a co-director, the great G.W. Pabst, best known at the time for such fatalistic romantic melodramas as “Joyless Street,” “Secrets of a Soul” and “The Love of Jeanne Ney.”

Mr. Pabst (1885-1967) spent an arduous month shooting expository and dramatic episodes with the three principal cast members while Mr. Fanck devoted his time to preparing the mountain spectacle.

As a rule, Mr. Fanck tended to shortchange exposition and characterization as a preamble to total, scenically awesome absorption in the rigors of winter weather and perilous ascents or the athletic virtuosity of climbers and skiers.

The prologue of “White Hell” recalls the tragedy that haunts one character, Gustav Diessl as strong-jawed Johannes Krafft, whose wife plunged down a crevasse years earlier. Recovering her remains is a melancholy obsession, earning him the nickname “Ghost of the Mountain.”

The scenario proper shifts to a disarming tone, introducing Miss Riefenstahl and Ernst Petersen as Maria and Hans, celebrating their engagement with an autumn excursion to Pitz Palu, where warming winds tend to increase the frequency of avalanches.

Mr. Pabst spends about 45 minutes fondly introducing Krafft, Maria and Hans. These tender and charming episodes flatter the characters and accumulate more human interest than Mr. Fanck typically was capable of simulating.

Inevitably, the Fanck specialties begin dominating the footage — awesome images of clouds and mountains, climbs and calamities, an impressive night sequence with a valiant search party illuminated by torchlight.

Even the set pieces are stronger as a result of the initial preparation, which sustains the principal characters despite a prolonged bout of freezing immobility. They’re stranded on a ledge for days, the men hobbled by injuries. The major sacrificial burden (and redemption) is reserved for Krafft, who imitates a beacon night and day and strips off his warmest garments to keep Maria and Hans alive.

In many respects, “White Hell” exemplifies silent filmmaking at its most accomplished and stirring. It orchestrates an exalted form of imagery and sentiment so effectively that you understand why so many talented performers and filmmakers experienced talking pictures as an artistic setback.

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