Having made this disclaimer, I recommend The White Hell of Pitz Palu to anyone who has an interest in the cultural history of climbing. A German silent thriller that came out in 1929, it was restored and reissued with English titles and symphonic soundtrack in 1997 by the German Film Archive. Along with Holy Mountain and a few others, it is a prime exemplar of the Bergfilm genre, which emerged in Germany between the World Wars and is apparently considered by some critics to be the quintessentially German film genre, analogous to the American Western.
The plot of the movie is simple enough. Maria and Hans, a young couple newly engaged, arrive at a hut on the flanks of Piz Palu in the Bernina Alps of southeast Switzerland. They are riding a wave of excitement and romance. But then a stranger arrives: Dr. Johannes Krafft, who years earlier had lost his wife to a crevasse fall on the Palu, and has wandered the mountain ever since, attempting new routes solo and brooding on his loss. This dangerous figure disrupts the harmonious drama of the newly engaged couple, stirring Maria’s interest and Hans’s competitive ego. The three embark on an ill-contemplated attempt on the North Face of the mountain. Trouble follows.
A series of clips from Leni Riefenstahl's Bergfilme career.
Despite the clear potential for weary psychodrama, the film does not develop a heavy-handed allegory, and instead stays in the realm of the concrete. The special effects -- including an artificial ice cliff, man-made avalanches and serac falls, and a torch-lit search operation in the underworld of the glacier -- are matched only by the fine mountain cinematography.
As enjoyable as the film may be in itself, what makes it really interesting is how it sheds light on some less obvious links between climbing and the larger history of European popular culture. Climbing was something close to a national obsession in Germany between the wars, and was connected to a much broader interest in physical fitness and spiritual overcoming. These interests in turn informed aspects of the Nazi ideology. Leni Riefenstahl, who plays Maria in The White Hell and starred in other Bergfilme, went on to direct her own films in the service of Hitler and Goebbels. Her Triumph of the Will, the film record of the 1934 party rally in Nuremberg, shares many thematic interests and visual motifs with The White Hell.
For those of us who ruminate on the dark side of our sport – the fatalism, the obsession, and the egomania, and where these can lead – the White Hell is a good feed.
Details: You might have some trouble finding it. Bellingham’s excellent high-brow video store Film Is Truth 24 Times a Second stocks it thanks to Graham, our former shop manager who once worked there. Netflix has it. Good luck finding it at any mainstream video store.
-- Tom Kirby
AAI Instructor and Guide