Part 2 of 2 (Part 1 here)
4. “Diotima’s journey into the mountains”
Due to the film’s many delays and mishaps, UFA called Arnold Fanck back to Berlin at a certain point and informed him that The Holy Mountain was canceled. He sent word back to Riefenstahl and the crew, who were in Interlaken, Switzerland waiting to shoot the film’s springtime sequences. Rather than packing up and going home, Riefenstahl and company took the equipment Fanck had left them with, shot the springtime sequences themselves, and sent the rushes to Berlin. So began the career of a great director. The executives at UFA were so impressed with what they saw that they allowed shooting to go ahead as planned! Fanck immediately rejoined his cast and crew in Switzerland.
The springtime sequence, depicting Diotima frolicking in the mountains, is a long and often beautiful series of images of Riefenstahl gathering and embracing flowers, interacting with peasants and children, and playing with animals. “A jubilant spring climbs higher up the mountains. And Diotima goes joyously on her journey into the heights.” She is in love with nature in all its forms. She dances for a shepherd. She cuddles a lamb. One must be completely without cynicism to appreciate any of this – indeed, one must be devoid (at least temporarily) of cynicism to enjoy the entire film.
As Diotima continues her ascent, past the sheep and meadows, higher up the Friend is making his lonely descent, cutting steps in the ice with a pick. Jagged mountain peaks appear before us, as Diotima is awestruck by the power of nature. “Uncannily the most menacing mountain of the chain raises itself before Diotima.” Eventually, Diotima and the friend meet. The encounter takes place at a hut, where the Friend has stopped to light his pipe. On first seeing him, Diotima appears hypnotized. The Friend is startled, and so shy he turns away from her. There follows one of the most significant exchanges of the film. “It must be very beautiful up there,” she says.
“Beautiful – hard – and dangerous!” he replies.
She seems puzzled. “And what does one seek up there?”
He thinks for a moment and responds, “One’s self.”
But this produces still more puzzlement from Diotima, who shoots back, “And nothing else?”
He appears almost offended by her response, and turns the tables on her: “And what do you seek up here . . . in nature?”
She pauses for a moment, cogitating, then shouts joyously, “The beautiful!”
Then the Friend leans toward her, his eyes dark and almost menacing. “And nothing else?” he asks, pointedly.
This exchange illustrates the fundamental, metaphysical difference between male and female, and the ultimate impossibility of any real understanding between them. Diotima is absorbed in life with all its forms and cycles, with absolutely no critical distance from it or from herself. He, on the other hand literally goes beyond life: he abstracts himself into a cold and dead realm beyond the living, in search of self-knowledge.
I remarked earlier that there seems to be a definite influence of Otto Weininger on this film. Weininger, an Austrian Jew, committed suicide at the age of 23 after completing his masterpiece Sex and Character, widely regarded today as the most misogynistic book ever written. (Indeed, even though Weininger does have many brilliant insights into female character, I do believe that at a certain point his portrayal of women becomes so negative as to verge on the absurd.) One of Weininger’s most interesting claims is that woman has no ego. Evola explains this as follows: “In fact, when Weininger speaks of ego, he means, following the philosophy of Kant, not the psychological but the transcendental ego, which is apprehended by intuition and is above the whole world of phenomena (in metaphysical terms one would say ‘above all manifestation,’ like the Hindu atman).”
In German Idealism, the transcendental ego means a kind of absolute self. Not the mundane self with which we are familiar, but the “self” that is in fact responsible for, among other things, the experience we have of a world standing opposed to us. It is also responsible for our awareness of the moral law: of the ideal that stands over us, which is not a creation of our mundane personal selves, and which commands us to rise to obey it. Weininger’s claim is essentially that woman lacks any contact with such an absolute ego, and thus has no appreciation for ideals. It is man who is obsessed with the ideal, and with duty, order, and right. This is the fundamental reason why almost all philosophers, scientists, moralists, and heroes have been male. In this short sequence, Fanck is echoing Weininger’s ideas: Diotima is puzzled by the Friend’s sentiments because in a certain sense she has no self. The Friend, on the other hand, is capable of rising “above the world of phenomena” — symbolized by his mountain climbing — and of achieving a kind of identity with the absolute ego, the source of the ideal.
But, to understand things for a moment in literal terms, how would one find “one’s self” (whether that means either the mundane or the absolute ego) through climbing a mountain? Here again Evola is our best teacher, for he has written an entire book on the spiritual significance of mountain climbing: Meditations on the Peaks. In it he writes:
In the struggle against mountain heights, action is finally free from all machines, and from everything that detracts from man’s direct and absolute relationship with things. Up close to the sky and to crevasses – among the still and silent greatness of the peaks; in the impetuous raging winds and snowstorms; among the dazzling brightness of glaciers; or among the fierce, hopeless verticality of rock faces – it is possible to reawaken (through what may at first appear to be the mere employment of the body) the symbol of overcoming, a truly spiritual and virile light, and make contact with primordial forces locked within the body’s limbs. In this way the climber’s struggle will be more than physical and the successful climb may come to represent the achievement of something that is no longer merely human. In ancient mythologies the mountain peaks were regarded as the seats of the gods; this is myth, but it is also the allegorical expression of a real belief that may always come alive again sub specie interioritatis.
[W]hat would arise in the best subjects is the feeling that every mountain excursion, every climb, every conquest, and every daring feat are only means through which he expresses an immaterial reality that he could also express in other ways. This then is the strength of those who may be said to never return from the peaks to the plains. This is the strength of those for whom there is no longer going out or coming back because the mountain is in their spirit, because the symbol has become reality, and because all dross has been shed.
In short, for Evola climbing is a spiritual process of “self-overcoming.” Superficially, this seems at odds with the Friend’s assertion that in climbing one seeks “one’s self,” but in fact these claims are compatible. In pitting oneself against the mountain and risking life and limb, one learns to transcend one’s mundane, petty, trivial self with its worldly concerns and to identify with a “higher” self. This is the “transcendental ego” that Weininger spoke of, and it is the atman of Vedanta. It is, in fact, an impersonal self, and identification with it is the goal of the initiatory, left hand path. (For more information on this matter, see Collin Cleary’s essay “What God Did Odin Worship?” here.)
5. “In His Home”
After the meeting between Diotima and the Friend, the action flashes forward some days, weeks, or months (the time in this film, like the location is left indefinite, fairytale-like). The Friend is visiting with his mother. This part is played by Frida Richard, who was an extremely busy film actress at the time. While appearing in The Holy Mountain she was also playing the part of Gretchen’s mother in Murnau’s Faust. She had appeared as Hannes Schneider’s mother in Fanck’s Berg des Schicksals. Perhaps most interesting of all to my readers, she played the “maid of the runes” in Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelugen Part I: Siegfried (1924). Richard has a faraway look in her eyes and seems to belong to an earlier time. She has the capacity to seem both tender and menacing (as we will see later on). There is no sign in the household of a father. The Friend tells her “Today I go up and seek the most beautiful mountain there is.” “And tomorrow?” she asks. “Tomorrow we celebrate our engagement there – way up high.”
The mother responds with another of the film’s lines that seems pregnant with significance: “Ihr sucht Götter und werdet Menschen finden!” Literally translated, this means “You [i.e., you all; you and Diotima?] seek gods and will find men!” (Kino’s DVD butchers this as “You go looking for gods when it’s people you truly need.”) As a warning, this is a trifle ambiguous. Perhaps she is telling him that he is falling into hubris: that he seeks some kind of experience of the ideal, but will find only a lesser, human, mundane reality. Here again we find a disconnect between masculine and feminine perspectives. Yet, as we will see in a moment, the mother is fully cognizant of these metaphysical differences.
Diotima arrives at the mother’s house and complains that the Friend will not take her up onto his mountain. She becomes almost frantic, imploring him “Take me with you one time – into your world – way up high. At least up to the hut!” He does not commit himself. Diotima and the Friend leave together, but not before the mother issues another warning to him: “The sea and the stone can never be wed” (“Nie wird sich das Meer mit dem Fels vermählen”). On encountering this line, I immediately thought of the passage in The Metaphysics of Sex where Evola quotes Erich Maria Remarque’s novel Arch of Triumph:
The wave foamed and whirled around the boulder and kissed it day and night, and hugged it with her white arms and begged it to come to her. She loved it and tossed around it and in this way slowly sapped it; until one day the boulder was wholly worn away at its bottom and yielded and fell into the arms of the wave. And for some time there was no longer any boulder to play with or love or dream of. There was only a stone drowned at the bottom of the sea. The wave felt disappointed and set herself to look for another rock.
Arch of Triumph was published in 1945, but Remarque’s “fable” (which Evola offers as an allegory of the essentially tragic relationship of the sexes) perfectly expresses the meaning of the mother’s enigmatic claim. This claim is also one of the keys to understanding the meaning of the film itself. From Fanck’s Weiningerean perspective, Diotima (the eternal feminine) can only wear away and ultimately destroy the Friend (the eternal masculine) and all that he represents.
The female partiality toward the demonic is shown in the attempt to catch and to absorb the principle of transcendental or magical manhood, linked to that which in the male reflects the supernatural element prior to the Dyad, and to what in nature is higher than nature and should have the power to “make the stream of the waters flow back on high” and to break the cosmic bond. . . . Now it is part of the female nature to tend to enslave and absorb this principle in her Demeter or Aphrodite function, but not so much on a material and human plane, with reference to procreation and to the bonds of flesh and desire, as on an occult level. In that she shows her essential daemonism and her antagonistic function. She is oriented toward keeping that order which Gnosticism, in a dualistic background, called the “world of the Demiurge,” the world of nature as opposed to that of the spirit.
In other words, the feminine is entirely caught up in nature’s cycles. She is preoccupied with the continuance of nature. The masculine, on the other hand, has concerns that transcend the natural; concerns with what we can simply call the ideal. These concerns can actually lead a man to revolt against nature and against life itself (as when he sacrifices himself for honor). Since the woman needs the man to continue nature, she must therefore somehow negate the man’s concern with the ideal, divert his attention from it, or somehow use his preoccupation with it for her own purposes. She must, in other words, negate that which makes the man a man. The woman’s love for the man thus always carries with it a destructive aspect – a fact which Fanck is about to depict for us in an extremely dramatic way.
We now see Diotima and the Friend on a peak, affording them a panoramic view of the snow-covered mountain range. The Friend is trying to teach her about his world. He sweeps his arm around. “Look – these enormous rocks have been worn away by the gigantic force of water in the eternal cycle. And the debris left standing by these waters, those are our mountains.” Here Fanck is giving us all the clues we need to unravel the meaning of the mother’s earlier comment about the sea and the stone.
Diotima asks him “And why do we find them so beautiful?” He thinks for a moment and answers, “Because we invest our souls in them.” Again, a very masculine answer. Again, Evola has much to teach us: “the mountain is connected to something that has no beginning and no end and that, having become an inalienable spiritual conquest, has become part of one’s nature, something one carries everywhere that bestows a new meaning to every action, every experience, and every struggle in everyday life.”
Diotima flings her arms wide. “You are like nature! And that’s why I love you.” She rises, coming toward the camera, hands held out to embrace him. For a moment, however, in a shot very deliberately crafted by Fanck, she looks threatening, as if she is about to push him over the edge. Again, the theme of woman as destroyer of the virile male principle. Needless to say, the Friend is blissfully unaware of all these metaphysical implications. They embrace and kiss joyfully. It is a very natural moment.
6. “In the excitement of winter sports.”
There follows now a long interlude devoted to skiing. Hannes Schneider is introduced as “The Mountain Guide.” Often referred to as “the father of modern skiing,” Schneider (1890–1955) was a famous Austrian ski instructor and creator of the “Arlberg technique.” In 1931 he co-authored a popular book on skiing with Arnold Fanck (translated into English as The Wonders of Skiing). He ran afoul of the Nazis for one reason or another and emigrated to the United States in 1939, where he established a skiing school in New Hampshire. To this day, the New England Ski Museum hosts the Hannes Schneider Meister Skiing Cup every march at Cranmore Mountain Ski Resort. It has often been stated that Schneider was Jewish (a rumor that may have been started by the Nazis), but this was not the case.
Vigo runs into Schneider (who is not photogenic) and is warned by him that he’ll be facing stiff competition from Colli the shepherd in the jumping event. But Vigo is determined to win. The scenes that follow, showing the various ski competitions, are brilliantly shot by Fanck. In particular, the shots of the jumping event, where the participants appear to ski into the void in slow motion, are really impressive. Riefenstahl’s Olympia was heavily influenced by Fanck’s technique. If one does not enjoy watching winter sports, however, these sequences will seem like a tedious digression from the story. I advise all those who feel that way to do their best to get in touch with their eternal blondeness and enjoy the show. Fanck’s films are the Nordic equivalent of Bollywood. As some of my readers may know, it is de rigueur in Indian films for the action to be interrupted from time to time by extravagant musical numbers. Audiences simply accept this and don’t really care that these sequences do almost nothing to advance the story.
Similarly, Fanck’s films are routinely broken up by skiing, climbing, and general wintertime horsing around. In The White Hell of Pitz Palü Fanck introduces flying sequences, courtesy of World War One flying ace Ernst Udet. He also frequently includes wonderful documentary-style depictions of nature. If these sequences seem boring to today’s viewers it is because they have lost the capacity to appreciate images. This may seem an odd claim, given that it often seems that we are obsessed today with the “image,” and with the superficial. But observe how many films and television shows employ rapid cutting, where the camera never lingers on an image long enough for us to savor it. The images in films today are now there largely to communicate “information.” Audiences have become jaded and insensitive to beauty.
Diotima watches these events and is rooting for Vigo. At one point they are seen walking together. He is obviously smitten with Diotima, though her feelings are not clear. He calls her “my beautiful, gentle Madonna.” Before the long distance run she tells him “Come back the winner and I’ll grant you a wish.” Meanwhile: “far away from the sporting bustle, the Friend explores his white world, seeking the most beautiful mountain – for tomorrow.” Fanck intercuts shots of the Friend climbing up into the mountains, with shots of the ski run. The action of the long distance run is interrupted by informative intertitles in the style of live sports commentary: “Colli leads,” “120 km per hour on skis!” “Vigo takes the lead!” etc.
Needless to say, Vigo wins the competition. As Diotima and Vigo walk together, the Friend descends into the valley on skis. Approaching a snow-covered hut, Vigo asks Diotima “May I have my wish now?” “And what does my victor desire?” she responds. He does not answer her, and instead kneels down and places his head on her knees as she caresses him. Just at that moment, the Friend skis into view. He sees the pair together – though it is important to note that he does not recognize Vigo, and neither Vigo nor Diotima sees him. The Friend is horror-stricken. He retreats, almost in a faint. He looks off into the distance and sees a vision of his holy mountain exploding in slow motion, his ideal love destroyed. (An effect accomplished using a model.)
7. “The Dreadful North Face”
We next see Diotima walking through town, pensive. It is not clear what emotions she is experiencing. (Remember that she does not know that the Friend saw her with Vigo.) Is she feeling love for Vigo? It is simply not clear. She decides to pay the Friend’s mother a visit, telling her about the dance the Friend has inspired her to perform: a “hymn to joy.” After she leaves, Vigo pays the mother a visit, telling her of his love for Diotima. Immediately, the mother understands the situation, and intuits that the Friend has seen Vigo and Diotima together. Meanwhile, we see the Friend ski to a precipice, contemplating suicide. He stands there awhile, then changes his mind and skis back to town.
He arrives back at his mother’s house just in time to see Vigo leaving. “Come with me, I need you,” he says to the young man. “We must finally scale the Santo north face.”
Vigo is incredulous. “Now, in winter? Are you mad?”
“If you are my friend, come with me. I must go completely mad” (Ich muss was ganz Tolles machen). Foolishly, Vigo agrees to accompany him, and they set off to pack for their climb. From the way that the Friend angrily stuffs his accordion into his bag, Vigo can tell that something is wrong with him. But the Friend reassures Vigo that it is nothing to do with him.
And now, as the mother sits home and frets, Vigo and the Friend approach the north face. What makes their climb especially dangerous is that the ice and snow are melting, thus providing them with a very unsure footing. These sequences are quite thrilling, and brilliantly shot. The Friend wears a kind of leather helmet which gives his face a demented quality. Icy winds whip the snow around them so powerfully it is a miracle they are able to cling to the surface and not fall. As Vigo and the Friend climb, they are continually covered in small avalanches of snow. Close-ups show their bare hands gripping the rock face.
As they ascend, the Friend becomes increasingly irrational. Intertitles now describe conditions on the mountain in poetic terms which seem to characterize it as a living thing. There are references to the “song” of the winds and to the rock face becoming “alive” with the avalanches. While Vigo and the Friend make their treacherous ascent, Diotima is far below in her room, practicing her dance for this evening’s performance in the Grand Hotel. When she realizes that the Friend has still not appeared, she suspects the worst and begins to panic. Nevertheless, she must go on stage. And she does, dancing her hymn to joy.
On the mountain, Vigo and the Friend have stopped to sit on a small ledge. The Friend takes out his accordion and begins playing it like a madman. Vigo insists that they climb back down. “Is there something you want with the rabble below?” the Friend asks him. Innocently, Vigo tells him of his love for Diotima, completely unaware of the Friend’s relationship with her.
“That was you!” the Friend shrieks. He throws his accordion aside and jumps up, menacing Vigo. The younger man steps backwards . . . and falls off the icy overhang! “Vigo!” shouts the Friend, as if awakening from some sort of charmed sleep. Fortunately, Vigo still has his rope around his waist, and the Friend attempts to pull him up. Over and over again he tries, but he simply cannot lift Vigo up over the overhand, and there is nothing to which the rope can be tied. The young man dangles over the abyss like a puppet. “Vigo, I would never have done anything to you!” the Friend shouts.
Far below, at the Grand Hotel, Diotima dances: “And Diotima must dance her dance to joy!” (muss is emphasized in the intertitle, suggesting compulsion). At home the mother is becoming increasingly agitated. The bitter winter wind blows her door open and she finds that the Friend has scrawled a message on it in chalk, telling her that he has gone to climb the Santo north face.
She dons a shawl and heads out into the snow towards the Grand Hotel. There, Diotima is practically going mad from worry, but she continues to dance nonetheless. At a certain point, the manager walks out on stage and interrupts her. “Our ski master and his friend Vigo have not returned from the Santo north face.” He asks if in the audience there are “mountaineers among you” who would climb to the Sellahütte and send the ski runners to the rescue. Diotima is distraught. Fanck’s camera pans across the audience: a collection of effete, brilliantined fops and their elegantly dressed wives. They turn their gaze away from the stage guiltily. Diotima springs forward and cries “Who of you will go up? For me!!” At this point, one man in the audience loses a monocle! But no one will come forward to help. This is a constant theme in Fanck’s work: the weakness and degeneracy of the city-dwellers, as contrasted to the rugged virility of the mountaineers.
In tears, Diotima returns to her dressing room, and now the mother appears, wild-eyed, like an avenging angel. “Was the ONE not enough for you?” she shrieks. Diotima is bewildered at first, then responds “The other? He was only a child.” At this, the mother appears to soften. “They are all children,” she says.
Up above, the Friend has still not succeeded in pulling Vigo up, so he just stands rooted to the ledge, holding onto the rope that supports his young comrade. Fanck’s intertitle informs us: “But no single man has the strength to pull a free hanging body over an overhang. To sacrifice the comrade – or himself with him? The greatest question of the mountains.”
If no one will help, Diotima resolves that she will go up herself and find the two men.
8. “His World”
Wearing skis, Diotima slowly makes her way through the high winds up the mountain. At a certain point, she is buried by an avalanche. These scenes were shot during a real blizzard in an area where it had been snowing steadily for five days – in April! Riefenstahl and Hans Schneeberger had to carry their camera equipment through the blinding blizzard until they found suitable places to film. The avalanche that buries Diotima is quite real. Schneeberger had to rush to dig Riefenstahl out of it.
Eventually, Diotima arrives at the ski hut and tells Hannes Schneider and the other men about what has happened. While Diotima waits in the hut, they set off for the Santo north face on skis, flares lighting the way. Riefenstahl shot the scenes of the skiers herself, as Schneeberger had to do double duty as a skier in the scene. As she cranked the camera by hand, a local boy stood next to her holding a magnesium torch. All of a sudden, the torch exploded. Both Riefenstahl and the boy were seriously burned, the former suffering third degree burns to her face. Nevertheless, she kept on filming! The local boy was carried to a neighbor’s house and miraculously healed by an old woman who simply breathed on him. Riefenstahl, by then in severe pain, found the old woman and begged her to perform the same cure. Riefenstahl reported that she heard the woman whisper something to herself, then she felt the old woman’s icy breath on her face. Not only did Riefenstahl’s pain disappear, her face healed without any scarring. (A dermatologist she consulted in Innsbruck had told her that she would be scarred for life.) Riefenstahl describes this incident in her memoirs under the heading “Miracle Cure at St. Anton.”
In the hut, Diotima seems literally to be losing her mind, so terrible is her worry and grief. Back at home, the mother prays before a large crucifix. Shaking her fists at God she demands to know “Why? Why?”
Up above, Vigo calls out to the Friend to cut him loose. “Save yourself!” he cries. But the Friend does not hear him. His face frozen, he stands rigidly on the ledge, holding onto the rope that carries his friend. An intertitle reads “His World” (Seine Welt). And now we enter into the Friend’s imagination, as he begins to hallucinate. He sees visions of huge ice castles, through which he and Diotima go walking, hand in hand.
These shots were partly accomplished through trick photography. However, an “ice castle” was actually built for the film. Standing some 52 feet high, it was built by the sculptor Karl Böhm. Delays on the film resulted in much of the ice castle melting, which meant that it had to be re-built before the scenes could be shot. These were, in fact, the first scenes shot in the production. We see Diotima and the Friend enter into the ice castle and approach a kind of foaming chalice. Suddenly, it shatters, as their love has shattered.
Lost in his reveries, the Friend continues to hang onto Vigo, not realizing that his comrade has already died. The Friend hangs onto the body until morning when, seeing the dawn, he walks off the edge in a stupor and falls to his death. Hannes Schneider and his men arrive on the scene just in time to witness this terrible event.
“Peace lies over the winter world and the soul of Diotima, who no longer agonizes over her beloved.”
Schneider returns to the hut, stone faced. He informs Diotima of what has happened with just one word: “Fallen!” “He held his fallen friend by the rope all night and sacrificed himself. With us, friendship is the highest thing of all.” Diotima does not become hysterical. In fact, she seems strangely subdued.
Times passes. Diotima returns to her beloved ocean, which now seems to reflect her inner calm.
“Peace lies over the eternal ocean – softly it rolls in long waves over human suffering and striving.” She does not dance this time, and she wears a shawl not unlike the one worn earlier by the mother. A tear rolls down her cheek. She looks out over the ocean and again we see the same split screen of the mountains over the sea – and then, superimposed over this, the Friend holding onto Vigo.
A final intertitle: “And so shines forth over his holy mountain, the greatest word that stands over humanity, LOYALTY” (Die Treue).
Diotima is no longer the same person. Formerly she had been – or had appeared to be – an innocent child of nature. (Certainly she saw herself as such.) But, as we have seen, within her there was also a terrible, unconscious will to use, consume, and to destroy the masculine ideal that so fascinated her. Obsessed with physical beauty and physical prowess, she toyed with the affections of the attractive young Vigo, with disastrous consequences. But now she has discovered the realm of the moral ideal, which transcends nature.
The Friend went mad with love for her and was ready to kill out of jealousy. Yet there was something dearer to him than his love for Diotima: his loyalty to his comrade. In the end, the ideal triumphs over nature; the uranic triumphs over the chthonic. His desire for Diotima, the call of nature and the eternal feminine, and even the instinct for self-preservation proved weaker than his love for his friend, for whom he gladly surrendered his life.
And thus, in the end, Diotima is awakened to a beauty that transcends the order of nature. She is ready to instruct Socrates.
1. Evola, Meditations on the Peaks, 5.
2. Ibid., 22.
3. Quoted in Evola, The Metaphysics of Sex, 162.
4. Evola, The Metaphysics of Sex, 141.
5. Evola, Meditations on the Peaks, 22.
6. In Meditations on the Peaks, Evola has some interesting things to say about the spiritual contrast between climbing and skiing (seeing the latter as quintessentially modern). See pp. 43–46. However, I intend to save this for my essay on Fanck’s Storm over Mont Blanc.
7. Riefenstahl, Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir, 58–59.
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