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Storm over Mont Blanc, Part 2

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Part 2 of 4

3. Above the Clouds

Storm over Mont Blanc opens, appropriately, with shots of the mountain itself and of Hannes’s cabin, situated high above the clouds. (Fanck’s working title for the film was Über den Wolken, Above the Clouds.) Once again, as in The Holy Mountain, the work of the great German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich springs to mind.

A rather different comparison was made by Siegfried Kracauer (1889–1966), a Jewish film critic for the Frankfurter Zeitung whose highly influential 1947 book From Caligari to Hitler argued that Fanck’s films had helped pave the way for the Nazis. Kracauer compared the shots of clouds in Mont Blanc – which are truly spectacular – to the clouds seen at the beginning of Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, stating that in the latter film we find the final merger “of two cults, that of the mountains, and that of the Führer.”[1] This was too much even for liberal critics. Karlheinz Wendtland responded years later: “What do mountain films have to do with Nazi tendencies? What are the differences between National Socialist clouds and, say, Communist clouds? What do such pronouncements ‘prove’?”[2]

Paul Dessau

4. The Music

Thrilling music by Paul Dessau accompanies the opening shots of the film. As I have already said, Dessau’s score is superb – but he was certainly an odd choice on Fanck’s part. A German-Jewish Communist, Dessau was born in Hamburg in 1894 and studied violin at the Klindworth-Scharwenka Conservatory in Berlin, later studying composition with Max Julius Loewengard. After service in the First World War, he became Kapellmeister at the Cologne opera house under Otto Klemperer, and in 1925 became principal Kapellmeister at the Städtische Oper Berlin under Bruno Walter. Dessau was fascinated by the possibilities presented by the medium of film music, and composed his first score in 1926. In addition to Mont Blanc, he composed two more scores for Fanck: Der Weiße Rausch (1931 – which, in the main, reused themes written for Mont Blanc), and S.O.S. Eisberg (1933).

After Hitler came to power, Dessau emigrated to France and, in 1939, to the United States where he continued to work in film, sometimes in an uncredited capacity (e.g., on House of Frankenstein and The Paradine Case). After the war, Dessau settled in East Germany, where he taught at the Staatliche Schauspielschule and remained very active as a composer, producing several operas, symphonies, and choral works. He died in 1979.

The Trautonium

In Mont Blanc, Dessau makes prominent use of a Welte Philharmonic Organ and also an early electronic instrument called the trautonium. This was state-of-the-art technology at the time, having been invented in 1929 by Friedrich Trautwein in Berlin at the Rundfunkversuchstelle, the Musikhochschule’s music and radio laboratory. The basic mechanism involves a resistor wire stretched over a metal plate which is pressed in order to produce sounds. Dessau worked with one of the early prototypes; the instrument was not actually marketed until 1933, when a small series was produced under the name “Volkstrautonium” (no kidding). It not only plays a role in the music score for Mont Blanc, it also provided the sound of Udet’s plane and other effects. The trautonium was operated for the film by Oskar Sala, who became heavily involved in the development of the device after being introduced to Trautwein by Paul Hindemith. (Hindemith would later write several short trios for three trautoniums.) Many years later Sala used the trautonium to create the bird-calls for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 classic The Birds.

Hindemith, Sala, and Trautwein with the Trautonium

Dessau would later reuse the combination of organ and trautonium in his Deutsches Miserere (1943–44). His score for Mont Blanc is “modern” – but the good, melodic sort of modern – very much in the style of Hindemith, who (under a pseudonym) had composed the score for Fanck’s 1921 film Im Kampf Mit dem Berge. Fanck was a National Socialist, but not of the knee-jerk anti-modernist variety. He enjoyed modern music and art, and collected drawings and etchings by artists like Käthe Kollwitz and George Grosz. (Fanck gave several Kollwitz sketches to Riefenstahl, advising her to take them down before Hitler visited her in her apartment. Fanck’s sound advice went unheeded: Hitler dismissed them as “too dismal, too negative.”[3])

Sepp Rist

5. Hannes and his World

To return to our story, we see Hannes in his cabin warming his hands over the open fire on the stove. This fire will appear again and again throughout the film: it plays an important role in the plot, and serves as an important symbol. Hannes lives an elemental existence on top of Mont Blanc: he lives with fire (the stove), water (the snow), earth (the jagged peaks), and air (the wind and clouds). Sepp Rist also has a strangely “elemental” face. He is quintessentially Nordic in type, but his face also has a kind of rough, brutal quality, with its great, high forehead and lantern jaw. He looks like some kind of primeval, Nordic ur-type. Someone once described him as looking like “a Dürer woodcut.”[4]

We see him making his breakfast: tea, cheese, and bread. His bread is so cold and hard Hannes has to put on gloves to hold it and cut it. A telescope dominates the cabin, signaling that astronomy is one of Hannes’s hobbies. A great pile of wood lies near the stove. On the kitchen table, we also see a wireless telegraph set and a microscope. As we shall discover later, Hannes is also interested in geology (Arnold Fanck’s doctorate, in fact, was in geology). At the back of the cabin is a large, comfortable armchair next to a radio equipped with a big gramophone horn.

Hannes above the clouds

Hannes’s environment is entirely, archetypically masculine. It is Spartan and utilitarian, like the quarters of a soldier or a monk. Hannes’s surroundings communicate, in a host of ways, mastery over the physical realm. Such mastery does not have to consist in the literal ability to manipulate matter. It also expresses itself in the drive to thoroughly know the realm of the physical; to make it completely transparent to the ceaselessly curious, penetrating, analytical masculine mind. Hannes is master of the stars. He is master of the stones. He is master of fire. And, of course, he is master of the latest technology. (As I shall discuss later, no other Fanck film contains as much technology, and it is presented here in a primarily positive, “gee whiz” fashion.)

Is Hannes also master of the realm of snow and ice? It certainly appears so – at first. He dresses to leave the cabin, wearing a heavy coat and hood, thick mittens, and hiking boots that lace up his ankles. As was de rigueur in this period (as one can see in any of the mountain films, including 2008’s North Face) he wears knee socks. To complete the picture, Hannes leaves the cabin with a jaunty pipe clenched between his teeth, just like Luis Trenker in The Holy Mountain. Although we tend to associate pipes with old geezers, they were popular with sporty young German men in this period.

Hannes at the anemometer

We now see the cabin perched high on a peak. Hannes boldly goes to the very edge and peers out over the clouds, smoke billowing from his pipe. Next we see him confidently scrambling down a snow-covered hill and up another in order to reach his anemometer. A device for measuring wind speed, the one featured in the film is a large cup-type anemometer on a vertical axis. Air flow causes the four cups of the device to spin around the axis, and average wind speed can be determined simply by counting the revolutions of the cups over a set period of time. In this particular case, the revolutions are counted by a machine and Hannes reads them on a meter at the base of the anemometer. At this point in the film, we hear for the first time Dessau’s eerie pairing of the organ and trautonium. This is music inspired by technology: there is no melodic line, and one could almost mistake it simply for epiphenomenal sounds produced by the operation of the anemometer itself. (Dessau’s use of the organ and trautonium links the various “technological” moments in the film.)

Hannes opens the box at the base of the anemometer and takes a reading. Back in the cabin, he sits down at his telegraph machine, dons a pair of headphones and begins transmitting via tapping on an old-fashioned telegraph straight key. His message in Morse code: “Mont Blanc Windstrength 4.” We then see a brief montage of different, uniformed men at various outposts in Europe receiving his transmission. The scene is actually somewhat annoying as Dessau’s music is abruptly cut off whenever the telegraph sound is heard (an effect that might also have been created using the trautonium). Later we see Hannes with headphones on, washing dishes with one hand (using straw to scrub them), and tapping out Morse messages with the other.

These scenes are meant to establish the nature of Hannes’s daily life, and to give us certain clues to his character. He is clearly highly intelligent and capable. He is tough, athletic, and fearless. As we will see later on, he is sincere, straightforward, and uncomplicated. Hannes seems to have adjusted well to his solitary life, but Fanck soon provides us with a hint that all is not entirely well with the young Wetterwart.

Hannes studies the valley below Mont Blanc

In the next scene we find Hannes outside the cabin again, training his telescope on the land below the mountain. The clouds part, and we see the valley and the town far below. Dessau’s music here conveys the feeling of receiving a revelation of some kind; it has a chilling kind of beauty that shades off into the sublime. But the grandeur of the full orchestra is soon replaced by the sound of a single violin, as Hannes – pipe clenched in his teeth – looks away from the telescope’s eyepiece and off into the distance, pensively. He is lonely. And the sweet sound of the violin suggests that he thinks of female company.

On what we suppose is the following day, we see Hannes perched high up on one of the jagged peaks of the Mont Blanc ridge known as the Aiguilles du Diable, again smoking his pipe. Suddenly we hear the buzzing of a propeller plane. It is Udet, of course. Hannes greets him joyfully. (Although it is never explained how they know each other, the suggestion is that Udet drops supplies to Hannes.) Udet cuts his engine and begins circling, as Hannes rises and stands on the narrow peak (anyone with acrophobia will squirm through this scene). And now we hear the first dialogue in a Fanck film: “Hallo Hannes!” cries Udet. He tells Hannes that their friend Walter in Berlin is playing the organ on the radio every Sunday night. He suggests that Hannes tune in, cries “See you at Christmas!” then re-starts his engine and zooms away. Fanck shows Sepp Rist ably scampering down the ridge. It is a brief but impressive sequence and serves to remind us of the courage and dexterity of Fanck’s actors.

Hella's observatory

6. The Woman and the Moon

The scene changes to evening, presumably the following Sunday. We see a man bent over, playing a church organ. This is Walter Petersen (played by Matthias Wieman). And then we see Hannes in his cabin, listening in on the wireless, stove ablaze. Later that evening he positions his telescope outside to study the stars, and the scene now shifts to the Babelsberg observatory. The great doors of the dome slide open and various mechanisms within the observatory are engaged as the telescope swings into place. Dessau again makes use of the organ in this scene, and the effect is genuinely eerie, as if we have suddenly been transported inside an alien spacecraft.

The machinery of the observatory seems massive, inhuman, and almost threatening . . . until suddenly we see a pair of delicate female hands reach up to grasp the eyepiece of the huge telescope. The hands belong to Leni Riefenstahl, playing the part of Hella Armstrong. Fanck photographs Riefenstahl in this scene through gauze, which creates a kind of halo effect around her, accentuating her femininity. Hella’s father, Professor Armstrong (Friedrich Kayßler), sits nearby at a radio transceiver.

Hella at the telescope, her father in background

Shots of the surface of the moon follow, accompanied by more organ music. And then we see that Hannes is also looking at the moon, through his own, much smaller, telescope. It’s around 10:00pm. He goes into his cabin and sits down at the transmitter to send a message. Back at the observatory, Prof. Armstrong receives the message with a smile. “Ah, Mont Blanc. Hella, your friend up there says one can get a great view tonight of the lower lunar edge. The Copernicus range.” As we shall see, Prof. Armstrong knows Hannes, and clearly suspects that his interest in Hella may be more than purely professional (though the two, at this point, have never met).

Fanck now intercuts the cabin, the observatory, and the stars. The stars connect Hella and Hannes, and technology connects them as well. As I mentioned earlier, there is more technology in Mont Blanc than in any of Fanck’s other films, and his attitude towards it is primarily positive. Technology serves in the film to connect individuals in important ways. Udet’s plane brings supplies to Hannes, and later on it will bring Hella and her father to him as well. The telescopes and telegraph connect Hella and Hannes – and at the end of the film the telegraph saves Hannes’s life. The radio connects Hannes and Udet to their friend Walter. In the end, however, the most significant item of “technology” in the film is, in fact, the most primitive: Hannes’s wood stove.


1. Siegfried Kracauer, Von Caligari bis Hitler (Hamburg, 1958), 168. My translation.

2. Karlheinz Wendtland, Geliebter Kintopp, Jahrgang 1929 und 1930, 2. Auflage 1990, 173. My translation. As Trimborn notes, “More recent publications treat the mountain film genre in a more balanced way than those of preceding decades.” See Trimborn, 37.

3. Riefenstahl, 125.

4. Quoted in Steven Bach, Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), 63.

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