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Region 1 DVD

Leni Riefenstahl

Holy Mountain
cast: Leni Riefenstahl, Louis Trenker, and Ernst Petersen
director: Arnold Franck
105 minutes (U) 1926
Eureka DVD Region 2 retail
RATING: 6/10

The Wonderful Horrible Life Of
Leni Riefenstahl

director: Ray Müller
188 minutes (E) 1993 widescreen ratio 16:9
RATING: 9/10

reviewed by Richard Bowden

Eureka's very generous bundle includes one of the so-called 'mountain films' of the 1920s, newly restored, and until now relatively hard to see either on DVD in general or in the UK in particular - as well as a three-hour documentary, The Wonderful Horrible Life Of Leni Riefensthal. Riefensthal, whose first real film The Holy Mountain (aka: The Sacred Mountain; Der Heilige Berg) was, recounted some of the events that went on during the shoot in her indiscreet memoirs - including the fact that there was a real life love triangle amongst the principals, an ironic reflection of the fictional events they were currently struggling to portray on screen. More interesting is that, after the film suffered severe production difficulties; she immediately took it upon herself to direct some of the sections, the success of which convinced a doubtful studio to continue with the project.
   Mountain films were a specific genre, virtually invented by the director Arnold Franck beginning with such films as Peak Of Fate (aka: Der Berg Des Shicksals, 1924). As others have pointed out the genre did not just enjoy a vogue in Germany, and examples can be found in films by Hitchcock (The Mountain Eagle, 1926) and, arguably, even much later by Zimmerman (Five Days One Summer, 1982). But it was in the Fatherland that they found their most sympathetic audience, and watching The Holy Mountain, with after-sight, it is not hard to detect why. Magnificently photographed and celebrating the most grandiose kinds of natural beauty, these films also embodied an inflated spirit of heroic idealism. This film's overarching exultation of the purely physical, in the context of loyalty and sacrifice, ultimately reduces the significance of the individual in regards to the demands of a higher ideal. As critic Siegfried Kracauer has observed, such ethics were ultimately "rooted in a mentality kindred to (the) Nazi spirit," and it doesn't take much stretch of visual imagination to jump from the torch-lit rescue party of The Holy Mountain, arranged with practically military preciseness before the viewfinder by Riefensthal, to the torch-lit ceremonials, or the book burning flames of Hitler's martial followers a decade later.
   Riefenstahl of course is a great director, and one troublesome to appreciate. Like D.W. Griffith before her, whose Birth Of A Nation is couched in racist terms that make it profoundly uncomfortable to the modern viewer, Riefensthal's political sympathies mean her masterpiece Triumph Of The Will (1934), undeniably a great work of art, leaves one with a moral chill. Some of the technical elements of her later films can be found in The Holy Mountain, such as slow motion photography - one thinks of the divers in her Olympia (1938) - and monumental compositions. Franck was apparently known to be a realist, hated photographic trickery and preferred to always shoot in location (the present film is announced as having being "inspired by events which took place over a 20-year period," one which uses Austrian, German and Swiss master skiers). Although the official director was obviously not immune to new ideas, Riefensthal later took credit for shooting some of the more fanciful scenes, such as the flower-filled springtime scenes in Inken and the nocturnal rescue sequence.
   At the centre of The Holy Mountain is Riefensthal herself, both as an actress and creative force. In real life, an anticipated career as a professional dancer had been cut short by injury, and here in several scenes she gives some spirited moves which, allied with her obvious sexuality, must have proved fairly provocative at the time. (One notable admirer, Hitler, was very much taken with her for instance, and there were unsubstantiated rumours of a dalliance between the two). As Diotona, the free spirited performer in Holy Mountain, she is loved by intense downhill skier, the granite-jawed, pipe smoking Karl. Also keen on her is Vigo, a medical student and friend of Karl. Between the three of them, the mountains, ice and a skiing championship, there's admittedly not much else of character development in a film which contains such ardent intertitles as "he rushes upwards into the mountain to saviour his overwhelming experience." As far as Diotona is concerned, she's an experience devoutly to be wished, and creates desire practically interchangeable with the landscape: "you are like nature, which is why I love you so much." Like the mount in question she 'seems almost holy'. The highest peaks and the arduous experiences required to get there are given almost orgasmic vehemence amongst the men, while to 'satiate her longing' Diotona dances and sees her suitors already 'on the highest peaks'. The final cliffhanger, high up in the ice, is melodramatic, the theatrics staunchly done in the old fashioned way and, to this viewer at least, such personal drama was a long time coming.
   Much of the appeal of the film lies elsewhere, and while Riefensthal's dancing may raise few eyebrows today (in fact it often appears intensely artificial, a victim of changing tastes) the cinematography of Holy Mountain remains remarkable. Stark images of snow and rock, mountains and valleys, intermingled with some poetic special effects still create an impression and leaves the viewer with something of the spiritual awe which, presumably, the creators intended. An interesting and striking film then, but Riefensthal's admirers may wish to have seen a lesser known title entirely her own work, such as The Blue Light (1932) or the controversial late project Tiefland (1954).
   Coupled with the feature is an extraordinarily generous bonus - the three-hour-long documentary The Wonderful Horrible Life Of Leni Riefenstahl (aka: Die Macht der Bilder: Leni Riefenstahl), directed by Ray Müller. Müller clearly has a fascination with his subject as he later completed Leni Riefenstahl im Sudan (2000). Remarkably restrained, detailed and non-judgemental, his work had the possible disadvantage of being completed while his subject was still alive, but the collaboration of the feisty director creates a memorable portrait of a remarkable and controversial creative force. After her association with the Nazis brought her film career to a premature close, she opened other avenues of endeavour at which, typically, she also excelled. Then in her early nineties, she was not only the world's oldest active scuba diver, but was directing an undersea documentary. Earlier, while in her sixties, she went by herself to live with the Nuba, an African tribe, and recorded their lives in a book of photographs. Müller painstakingly reconstructs her career, and she is not always happy with his implied assertions as a result of it, with some tense questioning of her self-justification (she was "appalled and confused to have lived through that period") ensuing. Memorable scenes include a technical discussion of the making of Triumph Of The Will, as well as the elderly Riefenstahl contemplating the torsos of young Nubian athletes. At the end of the documentary one is inclined the give the director the benefit of the doubt as far as National Socialism is concerned, although there is no question that her most famous work aided and elevated the cause and one remains unconvinced that, had the war gone the other way, Riefenstahl would still have been quite so distanced from her most notorious mentor. Some have argued that the running time here could have been edited down a little, but for this viewer, with something like the effect of Lanzmann's holocaust documentary Shoah (1985), Wonderful Horrible Life... makes its impact precisely because it refuses to cut away, but instead piles small observations up on one another, until a whole edifice is constructed. Müller's film is, in its own way, a masterpiece and by no account should be missed.
   DVD extras: on Holy Mountain - chapter access and audio set up. Wonderful Horrible Life - scene access only.

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