Part 4 of 4
11. Death on Mont Blanc
Act III of Storm over Mont Blanc begins in the aftermath of the death of Hella Armstrong’s father. Hella and Prof. Armstrong had come to visit Hannes, the lonely Wetterwart, atop Mont Blanc.
The day after their arrival, Hella and Hannes go climbing, while Prof. Armstrong goes off on his own, collecting rock samples. While shifting positions atop one of Mont Blanc’s peaks, Armstrong loses his footing and falls to his death. Hella and Hannes do not witness this, and only discover the terrible truth later.
The opening scenes of the act are dramatic and moving. We see shots of the clouds pouring over Mont Blanc, as a grief-stricken Hella stands outside the hut. She does not weep and wail. Her head is held high, her face expressionless. It is a noble, Teutonic grief, like that of Kriemhilde for Siegfried. (And it is obvious that Hella worshipped her father.) These scenes are accompanied by an extraordinarily simple and dramatic funeral dirge by Paul Dessau. Inside his cabin, a solemn Hannes sits down at his telegraph machine and sends a message: “Professor Armstrong in fatal accident. Send people here immediately.”
As if in a trance, Hella begins trudging away from the hut and into the snow. Hannes runs after her and gently guides her back to the cabin. Inside, she sits down on a bench and goes completely limp, like a broken doll, as Hannes kneels before her and removes her boots. He props her feet on a pillow, handling them as if they were made of glass, and then lights the stove. Fadeout.
In the morning, men arrive at the cabin to remove Prof. Armstrong’s body, and Hella prepares to leave with them. Hannes takes her hand and says “If you feel lonely down there and need some company, I have a good friend, a musician. He’s a very kind person.” Hannes, of course, is referring to Walter.
It is clear by this point that strong feelings have developed between Hella and Hannes, so why does he suggest that she contact his young and unattached friend? It may be that Hannes does not regard Walter as competition (as we shall see, there are good reasons for this). Still, it is a rather selfless act. Hannes will not be able to leave his post for several months, and so any sort of “relationship” between him and Hella is really impossible for the moment.
However, what also seems to be true is that – like Dr. Krafft in Pitz Palu – Hannes now feels that he belongs in the icy remoteness of the mountain world. His soul has been elevated by the hard life on Mont Blanc, and consequently he feels alienated from those who (literally and figuratively) live below him. This is a constant theme in Fanck’s films. In The Holy Mountain, after climbing “the dreadful north face,” Vigo tells the Friend he wants to return, and the Friend responds: “Is there something you want with the rabble below?”
In Meditations on the Peaks, Julius Evola writes: “There is no real climber who is not able to experience mountain climbing, if only in a few occasional flashes, as something more than a mere sport. Likewise, there is no real climber who does not display, in the eyes or in the face darkened by the sun’s reflection on the snow, the mark of a race that has transformed beyond that of the people of the plains.”
Fanck was completely in tune with such ideas, and his films struck a chord with climbers everywhere. At the time of Storm over Mont Blanc’s release, a commentator in a major Alpine journal wrote glowingly of the film and said of Hannes that he “would prefer to struggle with nature – would ten times prefer to struggle with the violence of the storm or the dangers of the avalanche, to struggle against hunger and cold, than to have to battle human weakness and the disillusionments of the wide world below.”
Hannes is torn. He is now thoroughly a creature of the mountain, imbued with its spirit – but in his response to Hella he feels the eternal call of life and its continuance, which really can only take place below. As we shall see, the only way he can reconcile these conflicting tendencies is if Hella comes to him as a genuine woman, not as a “modern woman.” In testing his mettle against the mountain, he has forged himself into the embodiment of the Traditional Absolute Man (see Julius Evola’s Metaphysics of Sex for more information, and my discussion of Evola’s theories in my essay on The Holy Mountain).
The only way Hannes can return to life among the “rabble” without sacrificing his spirit, is if that spirit is complemented by an embodiment of the Absolute Woman. Such a pairing would not only leave his manhood intact, but allow it to fully and completely express itself. Pitz Palu, Fanck’s previous film, ended tragically, with Dr. Johannes Krafft (the Absolute Man of that film) unable to make a connection with the very modern Maria and to come down from his “white hell.” We will see whether Hannes fares better. At the moment, things do not look so hopeful, as Hella is even more truly “modern” than was Maria.
To return to our story, when the men arrive to remove Armstrong’s body, Hella leaves with them. As they depart, Hannes plants a cross on the mountain and contemplates it a few moments. Hella stands below on the glacier, studying him. Then, she turns to go. Hannes watches the party set off down the mountain then returns to his hut, now lonelier than ever. In a simple but meaningful scene, he removes her cup from his table.
12. Return to Earth
Hella is now back in her observatory, reclining languidly in an armchair as the great telescope swings into place before her. She looks into the eyepiece for a few moments then sinks back into the chair as if enervated. She has lost interest in her work. Her father’s replacement appears, a pleasant, heavy-set man referred to only as “professor.” He tells Hella (as if she did not know) to take down the telegraph messages from Mont Blanc every evening at 10:00pm. Suddenly, as he sits at the telegraph, one comes in. He listens for a moment and says with surprise. “Well, I never . . . .” Hannes is radioing to ask how Hella is. She quickly offers an explanation: “He was an old friend of papa’s.”
The scene now shifts to the hallway of a rather decrepit apartment house in Charlottenburg (one of the boroughs of Berlin). Hella is standing outside a door on which has been affixed a sign that reads “Walter Petersen, Organist.” Hella picks up the milk that has been left by the door, knocks, and then enters. Walter is in bed apparently ill, striking keys on his piano with one hand and making notes on a score with another. Hella looks around his shabby and depressing apartment. Then Walter looks up and is quite surprised when he finally notices that a beautiful girl has entered. Matthias Wieman, who would later appear in Riefenstahl’s The Blue Light, plays Walter. His face stands in sharp contrast to that of Sepp Rist’s. His head is narrow, his chin weak, and his eyes shifty. This is Arnold Fanck’s image of the “sensitive” artist – sensitive to the point of spiritual and bodily weakness.
Hella introduces herself and brings greetings from Hannes. Then she immediately begins straightening up the messy apartment. Why is Hella willing to do these things for Walter, when she wasn’t willing to do them for the obviously superior Hannes? The answer, quite simply, is that it was precisely because Hannes is superior. Hella sees Walter as a poor specimen of manhood and feels superior to him. She can momentarily play the part of the “housewife” with him because he in no way threatens her image of herself as a modern, “liberated” (i.e., masculinized) woman. In fact, she is in complete control with Walter. To have played such a part with Hannes, however, would have constituted surrender. It is very clear that Fanck is aware of the psychological dynamic here. Significantly, he shows Hella lighting Walter’s gas stove – and then cuts directly to a shot of the fire on Hannes’s stove blazing away.
Hannes is looking into his microscope, and imagines that he hears Hella yodeling her little tune as she did when she first arrived at his cabin. Clearly, he is able to think about little other than her. He begins pacing, then starts flipping through the pages of his tear-off calendar. It is January now. On the page for April 20th (a significant day in the German calendar, of course) he has written “Tag meiner Ablösung” (literally, “day of my replacement”; the day on which he will be relieved by the next Wetterwart and can return to the world below). Hannes looks at the page and smiles.
Time passes. It is now April and we are in Walter’s apartment again. Hella enters just as Walter is writing a letter to Hannes:
I am indescribably happy to have such a sweet being [liebes Wesen] around me and I hope to soon be able to tell you about my engagement to Hella Armstrong. . . .
Hella has apparently been visiting Walter quite often and nursing him back to health. Has he simply imagined that their relationship is more than a friendly one? What are Hella’s feelings? This is not made entirely clear. Walter receives a telegram from Hannes that reads “Arriving April 26th for long vacation. Your Wetterwart.” Hella seems ecstatic at this news and begins dancing around the room and playing the piano, singing the melody heard earlier (and that Hannes keeps imagining that he hears). Walter seems dismayed at her reaction. But again, it is not clear exactly what her feelings are for either man. Fanck here repeats a pattern he established in both The Holy Mountain and The White Hell of Pitz Palu, in which the woman (each time played by Leni Riefenstahl) divides her affections between two men, one strong and the other weak, and it is never entirely clear exactly where they stand with her.
In the observatory later that evening, she tells her boss that she might quit “to look after someone. Somebody or other who needs me.” But who is that? Walter or Hannes? Both, in a way, need “looking after.”
The professor says “Mont Blanc?” implying that he thinks she’s referring to Hannes. But of course she said “somebody or other.” And she does not reply to the professor. She simply begins dancing around the observatory and singing her little tune. It is apparent that Hella really has no idea what she wants. She does not know if she wants to continue to pursue her career as an astronomer, and she does not know which man she wants. Hannes has clearly awakened something in her. She is only dimly aware of this – and she fears it.
It is now April 20th and a group of three men on skis are coming up the mountain to help Hannes move out of his cabin and return to the world. In a charming sequence, Hannes yodels at them as they approach, and they yodel back. Then he pours out some schnapps for them as they enter. One of the men says to him “You know, the glacier beckons you, and you won’t be able to leave.” These prove to be prophetic words, for the men bring with them Walter’s letter, the one in which he says “I hope to soon be able to tell you about my engagement to Hella Armstrong.”
Hannes reads the letter and is devastated. Fanck conveys Hannes’s internal state by showing us shots of avalanches and snow cornices breaking up and falling. The sequence is highly reminiscent of the one in The Holy Mountain where the Friend, just after seeing Diotima together with Vigo, imagines that he sees his favorite mountain exploding. Here the situation is very much the same, as Hella and Walter are not engaged; Walter merely hopes that they will be. And like Vigo in The Holy Mountain, he seems unaware of his friend’s feelings for Hella, or her feelings for him.
The man who brought the letter now steps outside and tells his friends, “We might just as well go home again. I don’t know what’s got into him. Now he wants to stay up here.” Inside, Hannes sits at the foot of his small bed, staring at the letter. He crumples it up and buries his head in his hands.
The three men make their way back down the mountain. They cross a snow bridge – which suddenly collapses behind them. Then another collapses. And another. And another – all just after the men have crossed to safety. (One of the men does fall into the abyss, but he has a rope around his waist and the others easily pull him back up.) The viewer almost gets the feeling that Hannes’s grief is causing these events; that he and the mountain are so spiritually close, when he suffers it suffers with him, and then attempts to consume the men from below in a rage of despair.
At his apartment, Walter receives a telegram from Hannes: “I can’t come down until further notice. I wish you both the best. Your Wetterwart.” Just after he reads this, Hella enters carrying a number of packages. On the table dominating the room is a huge gift basket filled with what appears to be fruit and bottles of wine or champagne. There is also a live lobster on the table, sitting on top of a package! Hella enters and interacts with Walter almost as if she lives there. She says: “Is your friend here? It’s time he finally got out of that endless winter.” It is odd that she refers to Hannes as “your friend” rather than by name, as if she has forgotten the bond that formed between them months before on Mont Blanc (or does she want to conceal that bond from Walter?).
It is a decidedly curious scene. Are Hella and Walter now actually engaged? (What else would explain, among other things, the gift basket?) When Hella reads the telegram she appears stunned. Is this because she had been longing to see Hannes (whether she was consciously aware of it or not), or because she realizes that Hannes believes (incorrectly?) that they are now a couple? One almost feels as if some scenes have been omitted. Indeed, according to IMDB the German running time of the film is 110 minutes, whereas the Kino DVD is 95 minutes. I have not had the opportunity to consult any other prints of the film, or to read the shooting script. However, Arnold Fanck published a book at the time of Mont Blanc’s release telling the entire story of the film in still photographs. I own a copy, and it gives no indication of any significant scenes having been omitted from the Kino version. I can only draw the conclusion that whether or not Hella and Walter are engaged, Hella is terribly confused.
13. Storms over Mont Blanc
Up above on the mountain, the winds are raging. Hannes is at the anemometer again. He takes his gloves off for a moment to check the meter, leaving them on the rim of the device. All at once, a great gust of wind sends the gloves sailing off the mountain. Retrieving them is utterly impossible. (This happens so quickly in the version of the film that I have seen, some viewers may miss what has occurred.) The distance back to the cabin is far enough to make this a serious calamity for Hannes.
By the time he reaches home, his hands are frozen. The fire has gone out, and Hannes is unable to close his fingers. How will he get the fire started again? He begins vigorously rubbing his hands with snow in order to try and restore the circulation. This is a trick we learned in Pitz Palu, at the conclusion of which rescuers rub Hans Petersen all over with snow. Here, however, it doesn’t work. Hannes tries and fails to grip a match and light it.
Time passes. As the winds roar outside, the hut and its lone inhabitant are freezing. By morning, icicles are hanging from the rafters and from Hannes’s telescope. At this point, the film becomes genuinely frightening. Hannes knows that he is in very serious trouble, and sees escape as his only hope. He puts on all of his warm clothes, even covering himself in blankets, and wraps his hands. The idea is to try to ski down the mountain – without poles, as his hands cannot grip them.
Just after Hannes leaves the cabin, and without his realizing it, the door swings open, letting in the wind and snow. With surprising dexterity (under the circumstances) Hannes skis down the glacier – but everywhere he turns he finds, as we saw earlier, that all the snow bridges have collapsed. There is no way down the mountain! Meanwhile, the wind blows the cabin door off its hinges and it sails down into the abyss. Just when things couldn’t look more dire, an avalanche occurs and Hannes must scramble to avoid it. He takes a tumble, and when he lands finds that the ends of his skis have broken off and are now useless. Hannes collapses in despair on the edge of a great crevasse. He is now completely trapped.
Riefenstahl describes shooting this scene in her memoirs:
Sepp Rist . . . had to ski down without poles. He had to concentrate hard to keep clear of the crevasses. While filming such a scene with Rist, we saw a gigantic ice cornice break away from the substratum of rock and, with tremendous force, crash over the rocks, towards our glacier. The cameramen, relentless and unflappable, kept cranking. They shot Rist fleeing the avalanche as it thundered towards him. For us it was too late to escape. Tremendous masses of ice rolled down the glacier towards us. We could only hope that the avalanche would halt before it reached us. Shrouded more and more densely in snow powder, no one dared to speak. The spell was broken only after several minutes of silence. Almost a quarter of an hour passed before the snow powder finished settling and we had some visibility. We stopped working that day. All of us had had enough of our adventures in the snow.
Hannes’s cabin is now filling with snow and ice, blown in through the open door. The telescope also topples over, smashing a window. As noted in Part I of this essay, the cabin set was constructed outdoors in Bernina, Switzerland. It was rigged with lights and camera equipment (electric current provided by the local railway system), and one end of the set was left open to the elements. Fans and shovels were used to fill Hannes’s cabin with snow for these final scenes.
Realizing that there is no way down the mountain, Hannes laboriously makes his way back to the cabin, not realizing that it has now become a death trap. For some reason, he left the radio on in the cabin and choral music plays over it, creating a genuinely eerie effect. When Hannes finally reaches the hut he is horrified to see what has transpired. Everything inside is now entirely covered in snow, like the ice-covered summer house in the final scenes of David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago, only less inviting.
Acting swiftly, his hands still almost useless, Hannes begins piling furniture in front of the door. But it is no use. There is not much to pile, and the wind simply keeps blowing it over. Hannes is not the sort of man who is eager to ask for help, but now he realizes that his life is in great danger, and that he has to call upon others for rescue. He sits down at the telegraph machine and begins tapping out an “SOS” signal with his elbow.
It is now around 10:00pm and Hella is in the observatory, hovering around the radio receiver, waiting for Hannes to call. When she hears the beeping of his Morse signal she is elated, and sits down at the machine. Her happiness turns to alarm, however, when she realizes he is sending a distress signal. Other outposts pick up the signal, and soon a group of rescuers sets out for Mont Blanc on skis. Getting across the great crevasses, however, proves to be a major problem. They try jumping across and pulling themselves up, but the snow is too soft. They try lowering themselves down and climbing up the other side, but this also won’t work. “We’ll need a ladder,” they decide. The idea is to place the ladder over the crevasses and to walk across.
We now see a train plowing through the snow, presumably carrying Hella. Then we see her waiting in the lobby of a hotel, wearing a long coat. (All of this seems to happen very quickly, though the journey from Berlin to Mont Blanc is a distance of more than 500 miles.) A bellman approaches her: “Gnädige Frau, two rescuers have just returned. They say they can’t go any further. They’re coming down to get a ladder.”
The scene now cuts to a shot of what are presumably Ernst Udet’s hands (though it could be anyone’s) opening a telegram addressed to him, at the “Grand Hotel.” It reads: “Wetterwart on Mont Blanc in mortal danger. Timely rescue possible only by plane. Hella Armstrong.” Then we see Udet in flight, heading for Mont Blanc.
Meanwhile, the rescuers are coming up the mountain carrying a ladder. And Hella is with them. This is a pattern that one finds again and again in the “mountain films”: the woman comes to the rescue of the stranded man. One finds it in The Holy Mountain, in S.O.S. Iceberg, and even in 2008’s North Face.
I noted in my essay on North Face that this is a fundamentally Nordic motif: one is reminded, for example, of capable, action-oriented characters like Brunnhilde and Kriemhilde. (There is nothing inherently “feminist” about such women, by the way. The Traditional woman is not a helpless idiot.) Hella and the rescuers lay their ladder across a crevasse and we see Hella boldly walk across it. Fanck’s camera pans from the ladder to the abyss below. Riefenstahl recalls shooting this dangerous scene:
For the maximum cinematic effect the director had chosen a very deep crevasse. I was afraid of doing this scene, and wanted to get out of it. My comrades had already placed bets that I wouldn’t cross the ladder, and usually I would take such dares, for they knew I was more afraid of looking weak. . . . What can happen? I asked myself. After all, I’m roped up, so I can’t fall very far. But that little word “far” says everything. I could still plummet forty or fifty feet and shatter my head against the ice walls. . . . The time had come. The director shouted “Action!” Ignoring my fear, I started out, and felt the ladder swaying under my feet. This was something I hadn’t counted on. . . . To make things even more difficult, the script demanded that while crossing the ladder I had to turn back and shout something at the people behind me. I mustered every ounce of my willpower to keep from collapsing on the ladder in utter terror. Somehow I made it, and the final shot of me was completed just as Fanck wanted it.
Udet now approaches in his silver Moth, but suddenly great bolts of lightning strike through the sky and the wind tosses the plane like balsa wood toy. Udet cannot land. The rescuers watch the plane above, and one of them shakes his head ruefully. It seems almost as if the gods do not want Hannes to be rescued. These scenes are extraordinarily dramatic and suspenseful, even though it is obvious that the lightning is an effect created in the studio. While all of this is taking place, Hannes sits in his armchair, covered in snow, near death from hypothermia.
Finally, and with great difficulty, Udet manages to land on the mountain! He climbs out of his plane, a cigarette wedged between his teeth, and makes his way up to the snow-filled cabin. He sees Hannes in his corner, almost completely buried, and tosses the cigarette aside. Then Udet grabs a pick and begins clearing the ice and snow from the stove.
The other rescuers are now approaching the cabin, Hella in the lead. By the time she enters, Udet has dug Hannes out of the snow and cleaned him off. When Hella walks in, she sees Hannes sitting at the kitchen table, the beginnings of a beard visible on his jaw. A bright aura surrounds him; he seems renewed. They look at each other, but exchange no words. Hannes’s frostbitten hands are still bandaged, and instinctively he tries to hide them from Hella. She smiles at him tenderly and then sits down beside him at the table. Hannes turns to her and she strokes his bandaged hands, then lays her head on them.
Suddenly, Hella looks across the room and sees the dead stove. She gets up and, as Hannes watches her, lights the fire. Once more we hear the “revelation” music that first plays near the beginning of the film, as the clouds part and we see the world below. The film closes with more shots of the clouds below the peaks.
14. The Meaning of Mont Blanc
In the end, Hella saves Hannes in more ways than one. She saves his body by bringing Udet and the rescuers to the mountain. She saves his soul by lighting the fire on the stove. This is a symbolic act, and both of them know it.
Traditionally, there has always been a connection between woman and the hearth. Julius Evola writes in The Metaphysics of Sex:
In the sacred ceremonies of the family, the polarity of the sexes was played out, emphasizing their complementarity. Hence developed the part often played by woman in Indo-European household cults in connection with the fire, of which she was the natural guardian since, in principle, she had the nature of Vesta, the “living flame” or fire of life. In a certain way woman was the living upholder of this supersensual influence and thus acted as a counterpart of the pure male principle, of the pater familias. Thus it was the woman’s duty above all to see that the flame stayed pure and did not go out; she invoked its holy force when offering sacrifices in the fire.
Of course, the flame has multiple meanings here, as does the woman’s role in keeping it lit. Among other things, it symbolizes the crucial role of the woman as foundation, really, of the household itself: as wife and mother; as the one who brings beauty and warmth into the home, and who brings forth life itself.
Hella, and modern women in general, have rejected this role. They have allowed the fire to go out – and the result is catastrophic both for them and for men. Women today flit from thrill to thrill, seeking “empowerment” and “having it all” – only to find that when childless, menopausal reality sets in they feel empty and unfulfilled. Why? Because they have been hoodwinked by high-testosterone feminist freaks into thinking that their Traditional role is a form of slavery. The result for men – especially for men like Hannes who have achieved the virtue of Traditional spiritual virility – is arguably worse.
In a 1923 newspaper interview D. H. Lawrence is quoted as saying “If men were left to themselves, they would rush off . . . into destruction.” And this is what is symbolized by the icy death of Dr. Johannes (called “Hannes” at times) in Pitz Palu, and the icy near-death of Hannes in Mont Blanc. Lawrence continues: “But women keep life back at its own center. They pull the men back. Women have enormous passive strength, the strength of inertia.” Lawrence uses here an image he often employed: women are at the center, the hub. Why? Because they are closer to “the source,” to what Lawrence called the “blood-consciousness,” than men are. Men seek some kind of purposive activity in life, and this involves moving out from the center, from home and hearth. But they draw their inspiration and strength from that source. The “blood-consciousness” in men is “activated” principally through their relationship to women.
Without a woman, therefore, a man lacks a sense of being grounded. As I put it in my essay “D. H. Lawrence on Men and Woman,” men tend “to be so focused upon doing, that they miss out on being.” Their quest to achieve their purpose in life becomes something cold and barren. Ultimately, without a home and hearth and woman to return to for sustenance, they burn themselves out along the path. They feel a sense of emptiness, and drift into despair – as Hannes does in the final act of Mont Blanc. As for woman, without a man – a real man – she takes on the male role and tries to find fulfillment through some kind of busy-ness in the world, as does Hella. And then she too winds up bitter and dissatisfied.
As Evola notes, “Complementing the Waters as female principle [e.g., Diotima and the sea in The Holy Mountain], the male principle was often linked to fire.” But this fire must be continually fed by the woman.
When Hella lights Hannes’s fire at the end of Mont Blanc, she symbolically accepts the Traditional female role. And she rescues him from his icy, hyper-masculine isolation. Through this one act, in which Hella transforms and actualizes her true nature, Hannes finds in Hella the perfect feminine complement to his spiritual virility. He is now able to return to the world below, while remaining a man above that world.
1. Julius Evola, Meditations on the Peaks, trans. Guido Stucco (Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 1998), 6.
2. Quoted in Steven Bach, Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), 64.
3. Leni Riefenstahl, A Memoir, no translator credited (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992), 86.
4. Ibid., 87.
5. Julius Evola, The Metaphysics of Sex (Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 1983), 174.
6. Evola, Metaphysics of Sex, 119.
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