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The White Hell of Pitz Palü, Part 1

[1]4,097 words

Part 1 of 2

1. Introduction

The White Hell of Piz Palü (Die weisse Hölle vom Piz Palü, 1929) is considered by many to be the finest of Arnold Fanck’s mountain films. As pure cinema, this may well be the case. Though the film does not have quite the philosophical richness of Fanck’s The Holy Mountain, there is definitely more here than meets the eye. The main focus of The Holy Mountain was a quasi-Traditionalist account of the absolute metaphysical difference between the sexes, and their inherently tragic relationship.

Piz Palü also deals, in the form of an allegory, with the relation between the sexes — but this time in their degenerated, modern form. Piz Palü, in fact, is the second installment of what I see as a trilogy of films by Fanck dealing with the nature of man and woman, and how the state of their relationship affects the health of a nation. (The third film is Storm Over Mont Blanc, 1930.) At the very end of this essay, I will offer some reflections on how these themes figure in Piz Palü.

(This essay is the third in a series dealing with the mountain films. See my review [2] of North Face for an overview of this genre, its principal characteristics, and why it should interest readers of Counter-Currents.)

Between 1926’s The Holy Mountain and Piz Palü, Fanck was busy with other projects. He had originally planned to follow up The Holy Mountain with an epic titled Ein Wintermärchen (A Winter Fairytale) With a budget equal to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (which had practically bankrupted UFA), Ein Wintermärchen was to feature Leni Riefenstahl and Luis Trenker, stars of the highly-successful Holy Mountain. This was not to be, however, thanks to the ill will of the notoriously egomaniacal Trenker. After the release of The Holy Mountain, Trenker gave a press conference at which he rubbished both Fanck and Riefenstahl, referring to the latter as eine Ziege (a nanny goat). Present for Trenker’s remarks was Dr. Roland Schacht, an influential film critic. Schacht’s subsequent review of The Holy Mountain savaged the film and repeated most of Trenker’s derogatory claims.

In spite of the film’s many good notices, UFA took Schacht’s review very seriously, and began to have misgivings about their association with Fanck. As a result, they canceled Ein Wintermärchen and requested that Fanck produce a screenplay for a shorter, cheaper film. (This would not be the last time, incidentally, that Trenker’s actions caused one of Fanck’s projects to be scuttled.)


Leni with nanny goat in "The Big Leap"

The result was 1927’s Der große Sprung (The Big Leap), a comedy set in the alps. In an example of Fanck’s wit, Leni Riefenstahl played a goatherd accompanied by a nanny goat. (It was in this film, by the way, that Riefenstahl famously climbed mountains barefoot.) Because Trenker was proving to be good box office, Fanck swallowed his pride and cast him in the film as well, in the role of a peasant (“Typecasting,” Riefenstahl later said).

After this, Fanck severed his connection with UFA (Piz Pal Palü would be distributed by Aafa-Film AG). In 1928 he filmed Das weisse Stadion (The White Stadium) a documentary about the Winter Olympics at St. Moritz. That same year he scripted Der Kampf ums Matterhorn (The Battle for the Matterhorn) from a novel by Carl Haensel. The film was directed by Mario Bonnard and Nunzio Malasomma, and starred (who else?) Luis Trenker.

Following these projects, Fanck (along with collaborator Ladislaus Vajda) turned his attention to writing The White Hell of Piz Palü which, as the film itself tells us, was inspired by “a brief newspaper report about some young mountain climbers who lost their way in a rock face near Innsbruck and fought for their lives for seven days.” As his leading lady, Fanck again chose Riefenstahl, with whom he was still deeply in love (a love that would remain unrequited).

However, despite the success of her earlier films with Fanck, Riefenstahl was not eager to star in another. For one thing, she was tiring of Fanck’s unwanted attentions (by her account he constantly showered her with love letters and gifts). His films were also extremely physically demanding and often dangerous. Perhaps most importantly, however, they left Riefenstahl unfulfilled as an actress. She was the first to admit that Fanck’s direction of the skiing and climbing sequences was brilliant, but he paid comparatively much less attention to the actors. (The performances in The Holy Mountain have frequently been criticized as stilted and overripe.) By chance, Riefenstahl ran into G. W. Pabst one day, and had an inspiration.


G. W. Pabst

Pabst (1885–1967) was the highly successful director of a number of important silent films, among them The Joyless Street (1925) with Greta Garbo, Secrets of a Soul (1926) with Lili Damita, The Loves of Jeanne Ney (1927) with Brigitte Helm, and Pandora’s Box (1928) and Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) both of which starred the American actress Louise Brooks.

Riefenstahl admired Pabst’s work and found that she liked him as a person. On an impulse, she suggested that he co-direct Piz Palü with Fanck. Pabst could direct the “acting scenes,” while Fanck could handle the climbing and skiing sequences. Pabst thought this a great idea, but Riefenstahl wasn’t so sure that Fanck would go along with her scheme.

To her great surprise, Fanck readily agreed, as did producer Harry Sokal (who was also in love with Riefenstahl — though, as so often happens, his love would turn to hate). It is extremely rare in films for two directors to work together, and while Fanck and Pabst’s collaboration was not without conflict, the result was spectacularly successful.

In late January of 1929 the cast and crew set up shop on the on the Morteratsch Glacier in the Engadine Valley. The area was experiencing a record cold snap at the time and temperatures hovered between minus 28 and 30 degrees centigrade throughout filming. Riefenstahl’s legs became so frostbitten at one point that she had to drop out of filming for several weeks to undergo radiotherapy. All members of the cast suffered, but perhaps Gustav Diessel most all, as he had to perform a number of outdoor sequences wearing only shirtsleeves.

Some of the exterior locations were created artificially — but always outdoors. For the scene where Riefenstahl and friends are trapped on a high mountain ledge, Fanck found a low-lying ledge, about the height of a house, and sprayed it with water to create ice. At times the cast were subjected to propellers, which Fanck used to create high winds and to blow ice and snow onto the actors. A great deal of cognac was consumed by all.[1]

Pabst’s sequences were much easier to shoot, and were completed in a month. In her memoirs, Riefenstahl stated that she performed much better under Pabst’s direction than under Fanck’s. She said that this was partly because Fanck projected onto her his ideal of “a naïve, gentle type, a sort of ingénue, very different from me.”[2] (This statement is rather unfair, as she is certainly no “ingénue” in Storm over Mont Blanc or, especially, in S.O.S. Eisberg, as I shall discuss in subsequent essays.) Further, Riefenstahl claims that it was Pabst and not Fanck who realized that she had potential as a director. (Interestingly, after Fanck had edited the film for German theaters, Sokal hired Riefenstahl to edit it for release in France. Her first work as an editor pleased Sokal, and enraged Fanck.)

Riefenstahl also reported that she found Fanck’s advances increasingly hard to bear during the making of Piz Palü. One evening she had had enough and tried to escape, venturing out of the cabin in which the cast were staying and into a blizzard. Blinded by the snow, Riefenstahl lost her way and might very well have lost her life also, had she not been found by a guide. Once again, just as in The Holy Mountain, the off-screen conflicts and dangers were almost as compelling as those on screen.

The original negative to The White Hell of Piz Palü has been lost, though prints in good condition have survived. In 1997 the film was restored by Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek in collaboration with Taurus Film in the Federal Archive/Film Archive. The following year, Kino International released the film on videocassette, and on DVD in 2005. For this release, Kino commissioned a new score by the Australian composer Ashley Irwin. For the most part, the score is highly effective, and received top honors from the Australian Guild of Film Composers.

2. Föhn

The opening credits of The White Hell of Piz Palü describe it as “A film by Arnold Fanck,” despite the fact that the very next card credits direction to both Fanck and Pabst (in that order). Sepp Allgeier and Hans Schneeberger, who also worked on The Holy Mountain, are credited as cameramen, along with Richard Angst. (By this point, a romance had developed between Riefenstahl and Schneeberger, and they were living together.)


Gustav Diessl

The real star of Piz Palü was not Riefenstahl, but Gustav Diessl. An Austrian, Diessl had a prolific career in German cinema until he died of a stroke in 1948 at the age of 48. He also starred in Fanck’s S.O.S. Iceberg, but is perhaps best-known for his role in Fritz Lang’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1932). In Piz Palü, he plays the enigmatic Dr. Johannes Krafft, a name Fanck would re-use in S.O.S. Iceberg, for a character played by Sepp Rist. (In Piz Palü, Diessl’s character is also referred to by the nickname, “Hannes,” which is also the name of Sepp Rist’s character in Storm over Mont Blanc.)

Riefenstahl received second-billing, after Diessl. Her name is followed by Ernst Petersen. A nephew of Arnold Fanck, Peterson also appeared in The Holy Mountain and Storm over Mont Blanc. “Pilot Ernst Udet” follows in the credits (more about him in a moment), followed by “Mountainguide Spring.” This odd way of listing actors by their real-life profession was typical of Fanck (see my discussion of this in the Holy Mountain essay). Spring, whose first name was Otto, plays a fictitious mountain guide named Christian.

The initial intertitle of Piz Palü, which was to be Fanck’s final silent film, reads “Föhn,” in wispy, stylized letters suggesting what Föhn is: “a warm alpine wind.” Kino’s American release DVD actually adds these explanatory words to the intertitle.[3] The film opens with spectacular, ominous shots of the Föhn lashing the faces of Piz Palü (a mountain in the Bernina range in Switzerland and Italy).

We next see the smiling, handsome face of Gustav Diessl as Dr. Johannes Krafft. He is exploring the mountain’s icy slopes with his wife Maria (an uncredited Mizzi Götzel) and Mountainguide Christian. She wears what appears to be an angora sweater and matching cap. It is apparent that Krafft and Maria are very much in love. A minor avalanche occurs near them, but Krafft doesn’t even stop kissing Maria to pay it any notice. “Don’t be cocky up here, Hannes!” admonishes Christian. Krafft is tempting fate.


Gustav Diessl as Dr. Johannes Krafft

With a rope about her waist, Maria ventures close to an enormous crevasse. Krafft grabs one end of the rope, confident that he has a secure hold on her. Suddenly, another, much greater avalanche comes tumbling down. Krafft screams in horror as Maria goes plunging into the crevasse. He pulls on the rope frantically, only to realize that it has broken. He stands holding the frayed end of the rope, a look of utter disbelief and devastation on his face. Diessl’s performance here is excellent — a model of good silent film acting — and the scene still has the capacity to shock audiences.

Acting quickly, Krafft lowers Christian down into the crevasse on another rope, so that he can look for signs of Maria. Christian calls up to him: “The rope does not reach far enough down — ! Wait here, I’ll run down to the valley to get help.” He leaves Krafft alone with his thoughts, to wait for his return.

“Suddenly — the mountain is silent.”


A grief-stricken Dr. Johannes driven mad by dripping icicles

Unable to do anything other than wait helplessly, Krafft sits by the edge of the crevasse. The minutes pass slowly, and Christian is a long time in coming. A brief but beautiful montage of dripping icicles now plays on screen. Krafft hears (or imagines that he hears) the sound of their dripping, and he becomes obsessed with it, and increasingly unhinged. He begins to tap one finger against his face in time with the drip drip drip of the icicles. When he can no longer bear it, he covers his ears, his face contorted in grief.

Years pass, and “Once again, two young people stand in front of this mountain.” It is Leni Riefenstahl and Ernst Petersen, playing an engaged couple, Hans Brandt and Maria Maioni. (The fact that Riefenstahl’s character has the same first name as Krafft’s dead wife is obviously significant, though nothing is made of it in the film.) Hans has his arm around her, and they both look impossibly fresh and young. They have just made it to the Diavolezza Hut, which faces the mountain, situated at a height of 2977 meters above sea level. (The actual hut appears in the film. In reality, it was in a state of serious disrepair. Still, members of the cast and crew did stay there for awhile during filming.)

Hans and Maria enter the hut together and soon find that they will be “roughing it” there, to say the least. As Hans unpacks, Maria inspects the kitchen area, sticking her fingers into a greasy pot, then discovering the bent silverware in the cupboard. He sets her frilly slippers down on the floor between pairs of hiking boots, then hops on the great straw bed with a “come hither” look that manages to be naïve and innocent at the same time.

Maria is clearly determined to resist temptation, however, and rushes outdoors with a broom, where she begins brushing snow off of the picnic table. She then lies on the table, as drops of cold water fall on her hand from icicles on the overhanging roof. Hans joins her, playfully turning her head so that the water falls on her face. They then chase each other, and he showers her with snow, bent over and flinging it at her from between his legs, like a dog digging in it. In truth, Hans and Maria behave more like brother and sister than a man and woman in love. We will soon see their love put to the test.

3. Udet


Udet buzzes the Diavolezza Hut

Suddenly, from out of nowhere, a biplane appears and begins circling round and round and doing somersaults. Hans and Maria know exactly who the pilot is: “Udet! Udet!” they cry enthusiastically. An object falls from the plane attached to a parachute, just before the plane zooms away. Hans goes to retrieve it, and we see that it is a bottle of champagne. Wrapped around the bottle is a cartoon of Hans and Maria kissing and pilot Udet over them, depicted as a kind of flying man, with wings for arms. The caption reads “All the best to the engaged couple!”

Ernst Udet (1896–1941) was a German flying ace of the First World War. His 62 confirmed victories were second only to Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron himself, under whom Udet served. Raised in Munich, Udet was fascinated by airplanes from a very early age. At only 5 feet 3 inches, he was rejected by the army when war broke out in 1914, but after receiving private flight training (at a cost of 2,000 Marks) he was accepted into the German Army Air Service in the spring of 1915. His terrific skill as a pilot (and the number of kills he kept racking up) earned him an invitation to join Richthofen’s Flying Circus. There, he was soon given command of his own fight squadron, Jagdstaffel 11, which had formerly been commanded by Richthofen himself.


Udet in the First World War

Udet idolized the Red Baron, who, after 80 combat victories, was killed in April 1918. His successor as commander of the “Flying Circus” was none other than Hermann Göring, who was not popular with his men. (Nevertheless, Göring ended the war with a respectable 22 confirmed kills.) After the war, Udet became renowned as a stunt pilot and man-about-town. (He had a reputation as a lady killer.) In fact, the plane he flies in Piz Palü was named after him. The Udet U 12 Flamingo was a plane specially designed for stunt piloting and flight training. The plane sold well due not just to Udet’s fame as a war hero, but also to the notoriety of Udet’s wild aerial acrobatics (one of his stunts consisted in picking a handkerchief off the ground with the tip of a wing).

Though he was far more interested in living the good life than in ideology, Udet joined the NSDAP in 1933 after Göring promised him two American Curtiss Hawk II biplanes. These were carefully studied by Udet and others, and influenced the development of the German Stuka dive bombers. In 1936 Udet was given command of the research and development branch of the Reich Air Ministry. In 1938 he was made Generalluftzeugmeister (Director of General Air Equipment) in the Luftwaffe.

With the advent of the Second World War, however, Udet had great difficulties with German industry, which, due to shortages of materials, simply could not keep up with the demand for aircraft. When the Luftwaffe was defeated in the Battle of Britain, Göring apparently tried to shift some of the blame onto Udet.


Udet in his Luftwaffe uniform

The result for the unfortunate Udet seems to have been a mental collapse. On November 17, 1941 he shot himself. His suicide note (the content of which is disputed) is said to have included the words “Reichsmarschall, why have you deserted me?” Udet’s suicide was not revealed to the German public. Instead, he was said to have died while testing a new plane. He was given a funeral befitting one of Germany’s greatest war heroes, and was buried next to Manfred von Richthofen.

It was Leni Riefenstahl, in fact, who got Udet involved in Piz Palü. One day, in the early stages of planning the film, she was on the street in the pouring rain trying to find a taxi. A man approached Riefenstahl and, recognizing her from her films, offered to drive her home. It was Ernst Udet. Riefenstahl knew who he was, as did just about everyone else in Germany at that time. She took an immediate liking to “Erni” (as friends called him), who was renowned for his wit and sunny disposition. Just as had happened with Pabst, Riefenstahl had a sudden inspiration and invited him to appear in Piz Palü. It didn’t take much to convince Fanck to go along with this idea, as he knew well that Udet’s fame could only help them.

Udet would go on to appear in Storm over Mont Blanc and in S.O.S. Iceberg, always playing himself. He also had a reputation as a skillful cartoonist, and the drawing that appears in Piz Palü was almost certainly by Udet himself. Riefenstahl recalled in her memoirs that he would often amuse her with his caricatures of Göring, which she described as “masterful.”[4]


The Udet U12 Flamingo

She introduced Udet to Schneeberger, and the two became good friends. However, when Schneeberger began accompanying Udet to nightclubs and wild parties (where Udet was always surrounded by beautiful women), Riefenstahl grew uneasy. And rightly so. Shortly after filming concluded on Piz Palü, Schneeberger broke things off with Riefenstahl, explaining in a curt note that he had met another woman. Riefenstahl, who had been deeply in love with him, swore that she would never allow herself to fall for another man.

4. The Ghost of the Mountain

To return to our story, shadows pass over the mountains as Hans and Maria drink Udet’s champagne. “You know, suddenly all that ice up here seems forbidding,” Maria says, and then a shadow passes over her face. Back inside the hut, Hans presents her with a cake surrounded by lit candles. “Today we are alone for the first time, Maria,” he says. But their privacy will soon be invaded. She finds a book labeled “Log of the Diavolezza Hut,” signed by all who have stayed there. One inscription is dated October 6, 1925, by Dr. Johnannes Krafft and wife Maria. And there is a notation next to the wife’s name: “died by accident in the Piz Palü glacier.” She shows this to Hans.

“Don’t you know the story of Dr. Johannes Krafft?” he says, implying that it must be a famous tale by now, at least among alpinists. “It happened at Piz Palü — the pale mountain.” Maria gets a faraway look as Hans tells her the sad tale. “. . . And since then he goes as a restless, solitary wanderer over all the ridges and faces of the Palü. The local community calls him the ghost of the mountain.”


Krafft, Hans, and Maria in the Diavolezza Hut

Just then, very dramatically, the door either blows or is flung open, letting in a blast of bitter wind which blows out the candles surrounding the cake. Dr. Johannes Krafft stands outside, pick in hand. He wears a cap, a tweed blazer and slacks, and a rope wound from shoulder to hip. Krafft enters, taking his cap off, and sits down with them in grim silence. They eye him warily as he takes some cheese from his bag and cuts himself a slice. No introductions are necessary: it is apparent that Hans and Maria know exactly who he is. And it is apparent that Maria feels great sympathy for the unfortunate Dr. Johannes (as he is frequently referred to in the film).

Maria gets up to make tea, but has trouble cutting the wood to make kindling for the fire, hacking at it ineptly with an axe. With a slight but benevolent smile, Krafft takes the piece of wood from her and, using his pocketknife, whittles the end of it into ribbons. Maria watches him with evident fascination as he lights the wood and places it in the stove. It is a small but significant gesture of the archetypal male mastery of the material realm. Hans brings in buckets of snow to use for water, and Maria places some of it in the rapidly-warming pot. There follows a simple but indescribably beautiful shot of the snow as it melts on the stove (this sort of touch — which finds beauty in simple things, neglected by modern people — is typical of Fanck). Maria offers Krafft a cup of tea, and he seems touched by this simple gesture.


Maria gazes at Dr. Johannes

But it seems that Krafft can never find peace. He hears an icicle dripping outside the hut, forming a puddle on the ground, and is reminded, of course, of the agonizing moments following the loss of his wife. Krafft becomes increasingly agitated, tapping his fingers as in the earlier scene. Then, when he can stand it no longer, he goes outside with his pick and angrily obliterates the icicle. Hans and Maria watch as he does this, and seem slightly frightened by his intensity.

When Krafft returns to the cabin, Hans goes outside to cut more wood, leaving his fiancée alone with the strange man. She is fascinated by him, but somewhat afraid. At last she screws up her courage and asks him “Why do you go to this mountain again and again? And why do you wander always alone?” He is distressed by this question. She puts her hand on his, as he tells her his story.


1. Riefenstahl gives a brief account of making the film in her memoirs. See Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir, no translator credited (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992), 67–72.

2. Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir, 69.

3. In general, Kino’s English translation of the German intertitles of Piz Palü is reliable (unlike their translation of the Holy Mountain intertitles). I have sometimes altered the translation to make it more literal. The entire German version is available currently on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tAYQgwPUyMU [14]

4. Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir, 68.