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The White Hell of Pitz Palü, Part 2

[1]5,257 words

Part 2 of 2

“It was only a narrow crevasse in the Palü Glacier,” Johannes Krafft says, “but it reached far down into the darkness.” In a flashback, we see Maria Krafft at the bottom of the crevasse. Is she unconscious, or dead? “There — an urgent cry for help came out from the icy depths — Maria was still alive!” We see Krafft peer over edge, but he can see nothing. He ties his rope to his pick, sticks it deep in the snow, and climbs down into the crevasse. (This creates terrific suspense, as the pick looks like it is about to slip out of the snow at any moment.) The rope does not reach far enough, however. Krafft calls out to her, but there is no response. “Only the sub-glacial stream roared down in the dark.” (These scenes with Gustav Diessl in the glacier are beautifully shot and genuinely unheimlich: uncanny, weird.)

“Since then, the mountain holds her captive in its icy grave.” Fanck then treats us to a chilling image of Maria’s face, shot through what seems to be a layer of ice.

Later, just before dinner, Christian the guide appears and speaks with Krafft: “Do you know there are students from Zürich coming tomorrow to attempt the north face of the Piz Palü?” Krafft gets up and lights his pipe, disturbed by this news, as Christian addresses Hans and Maria: “This is the face that poses the last great problem [das letzte große Problem] here at the Palü.” (Note the similarity here to the language of 2008’s North Face, where the north face of the Eiger is described more than once as the “last great problem of the Alps.”)

Christian then speaks of Krafft: : “He tried it already twice by himself but without the security of a second person it is too dangerous.” Christian takes his leave, but promises to return the following evening. On his way out, he passes Krafft who has left the hut, lost in thought, and is smoking his pipe. “My God, the Föhn is blowing in — now the ice will thunder at the Palü,” Christian says. Then he shakes hands with Krafft: “You should finally let go of your ambition here in the mountains, Hannes.”


Maria and Dr. Johannes Krafft

Inside the hut, Maria is cleaning up. She whispers to Hans, “Don’t you think we shouldn’t let him go by himself?” Hans is non-committal. Krafft returns to the hut and makes an entry in the logbook: “Tomorrow at 6:30 am, off to the north face of the Palü. Dr. Johannes Krafft.” He glances at the young lovers and smiles for a moment, before his usual grim expression returns. Then he adds a single word to the entry: “Allein” (alone).

Soon it is time for bed. Maria undresses behind a blanket and gets into the straw bed. Krafft is concerned and says to Hans, “She should not lie close to the wall — there is a strong draft through the cracks.” (A first, small sign that he cares for Maria.) Hans solves this problem by getting into bed and playfully rolling Maria away from the wall. Then, both men climb in, wrapping themselves in blankets, Maria in the middle. These arrangements may seem unusual to American audiences, but they were quite common in Alpine huts, which were often shared by strangers. (I do not know if the tradition continues today.)

Krafft lies awake brooding, but falls asleep after awhile. His hand drifts onto Maria’s pillow and she rolls over, sound asleep, and presses her head against it. Unfortunately, Hans wakes up at just this moment and seems shocked when he sits up and sees the position of Maria’s head. Later, Krafft awakens and, smiling benevolently at her, he gently pulls his hand from under her head, and lies staring at the ceiling.

This episode seems to have been inspired by an actual incident that occurred during the making of The Holy Mountain. At some point during filming, Fanck, Riefenstahl, Trenker, and Schneeberger all shared a hut not unlike the one in Piz Palü, only this one had large bunk beds. Fanck took the top bunk and the other three slept on the bottom, Riefenstahl in the middle. At the time, Trenker and Riefenstahl were interested in each other romantically, and the mischievous Dr. Fanck had been trying to plant in Trenker’s mind the idea that Schneeberger was his rival. When they awoke in the morning, Trenker had disappeared. Riefenstahl wrote in her memoirs:

What had happened? Had I rolled over towards Schneeberger while sleeping, and could Trenker have misunderstood and grown jealous? . . . I was furious with Fanck, for if he hadn’t provoked Trenker so maliciously none of this would have happened. Grumpy and still freezing, we were drinking our morning coffee, when the door flew open, sunshine poured into our hut, and Trenker walked in, laughing and saying “Hello!” It was a tremendous relief. Trenker appeared to be in high spirits. He teased Fanck, calling to him: “You really thought I’d never come back, didn’t you? I really fooled you!”[1]

(Clearly the egoistical Trenker’s pride had indeed been wounded and he had left in a snit — only to think better of it and return in the morning.)

5. “In the fantastic world of a glacial break”

The next morning, Krafft sneaks out of the hut with his climbing gear. He wears only a tweed blazer with sweater underneath, and a kind of knit cap that covers his entire head, leaving only his face exposed. Hans emerges from the hut, however, and stops him. “Wait a moment — I’ll go with you.” They shake hands.

Hans goes back inside and leaves the still-sleeping Maria a note: “Dear Maria, I am going with Dr. Johannes to attempt the north face, because it leaves me no peace. I want to show that I have what it takes [Ich will zeigen daß ich auch was kann].  Don’t be angry, we’ll be back this evening and hopefully we’ll remain alone after that. Yours, Hans.”

What exactly are Hans’s motivations here? Clearly, he feels a certain amount of competition with the older and tougher Krafft. He worries that his fiancée may find Krafft more manly than him, and he wants to prove that he is the equal of Krafft.

Just after the two men set off, Maria awakens and finds the note. Immediately she rushes out of the hut and, donning skis, sails down the slope to waylay the two men. “You cannot leave me alone in the hut — you have to take me with you!” Krafft initially refuses: “No, this is not for a girl.” However, he then sees a group of five men below them passing by on skis. These must be the students from Zürich that Christian spoke of. For reasons that are not entirely clear, he then relents and agrees to take Maria with them. Perhaps it is simply because he realizes that the students may beat them to the north face, and he does not want to waste time arguing with Maria.

They approach the mountain, which rises above them, white and sublime. “Look, we have to cross the great gorge of the Piz Palü underneath a dangerous ice face.” We see the students nearby, getting closer. Fanck now treats us to fascinating, eerie images of Krafft’s glacial Heimat (an intertitle announces “In the fantastic world of a glacial break.”) We are now in a real ice palace, to rival the artificial one seen near the end of The Holy Mountain.

Passing through the glacial break, the trio begin their ascent of Piz Palü, climbing the rocky face by cutting steps into the ice. The students now notice them. “Kids, Dr. Johnannes is ahead of us,” one of them cries to the others. “Let’s climb directly through the gorge — that is the only way we can still beat him. Let’s hope that the whole mess doesn’t come crashing down just today.”

With Fanck at the helm, the climbing sequences that follow are predictably impressive, especially when we see the cast leaping over yawning crevasses. It is Krafft and Maria, however, who forge ahead while Hans lags behind, becoming more and more resentful of the pair. They stop for a snack and Hans announces, “From here on, I’ll go first. I don’t want to be behind all the time.” Krafft has no desire to compete with the younger man. “Be reasonable,” he says, but Hans will not listen.

As they continue to climb higher and higher, Hans in the lead, an avalanche comes roaring down, knocking Hans off the mountain face. Krafft has tight hold of the rope that connects all of them, but Hans has fallen so far he can no longer be seen. Krafft climbs down a ways, with Maria holding onto the rope, and spots Hans hanging in the air, unconscious. Krafft moves further down, and, with great difficulty, manages to maneuver Hans onto his back and then climb back up with him onto the ledge where Maria awaits them.

Hans has a head wound and is bleeding, and Maria quickly sees to bandaging him. To make matters worse, Krafft injures his leg on the way up (it is never really made clear whether or not it is broken). Holding his pick against his knee, he snaps the wooden handle in half creating splints which Maria then ties around his wounded leg. Hans watches warily as, with evident concern, the gentle Maria tends to Krafft. “Now we are stuck,” Krafft pronounces. And indeed the situation could hardly be worse. Not only are the two men seriously injured, they are sitting on a high, exposed, icy ledge.

Far below, the Swiss students are continuing their advance up the mountain, oblivious to what has happened to Krafft’s party. Suddenly, a huge avalanche comes tumbling down from above. We see the horrified faces of the students as they realize the fate that awaits them. The avalanche sweeps all five men into a deep crevasse. Dummies were clearly used in these scenes, but they are frightening and effective nonetheless.

6. “Distress in the mountains!”


Dr. Johannes signals for help

Hours go by. We see from Krafft’s wristwatch that it is now after 5:00 pm. (The watch is unusual. It has a kind of hinged protective cage over the face.) He yells for help again and again, put hears no response. Then he begins waving a makeshift flag back and forth, with still no result. They seem to be completely alone. Shadows now creep over the mountain. When it grows completely dark, Krafft lights a lamp and begins waving it back and forth as a signal.

Back at the hut, Christian has returned just as he promised he would. He is puzzled when he finds the hut empty. When he looks in the logbook, however, he finds the entry left by Krafft. Hans has crossed through the word “Alone” and written “With Hans Brandt and Maria Maioni.” Christian steps outside and looks toward the mountain. He knows that something is not right, and sets off on skis towards Piz Palü. Meanwhile, high above, Krafft stands rigidly, waving his lantern all night long like an automaton.

In the morning, Christian finds one of the bodies of the Swiss students. Krafft is continuing to yell for help, and this time, very faintly, Christian hears him. The temperature has now dropped considerably, and Hans and Maria are huddled together. Wind and snow now buffet them. Krafft takes off his hat and places it on Maria’s head. They will have to spend another day on the ledge, but it will be a miracle if they can survive the night.


Ski rescuers go in search of the trio

That evening, snow falls heavily. In the village, Christian is trudging through it, knocking on the windows of his mountaineer friends and calling them into action: “Distress signal at the Palü!” Someone thinks to ring the church bells, warning the entire village of trouble up above. The rescuers now gather around an ornate oil lamp in one of the houses. “Take pitch torches and stretchers with you,” Christian commands them. Two dozen or so men will set out to rescue both the Krafft party and the Swiss students (if, indeed, any of them are still live). The womenfolk see them off as the men gather their equipment: ropes, sleds, stretchers, picks. Carrying flares, they set off on skis towards the mountain. These scenes are among the most beautiful of the entire film.

Once the men reach the crevasse where Christian found the first body, they climb down into it and, unfortunately, one by one they find the bodies of the other four students. These scenes — of the ice face illuminated by flares — are strange and uncanny. Slowly and laboriously, the rescuers haul the bodies out of the crevasse on ropes. High above them, Krafft continues to wave his lantern. The trio has managed to build a small fire, which Hans and Maria huddle around. She tries to get Hans to eat something, while caring for Krafft at the same time, making him drink some brandy from a flask. In another self-sacrificial gesture, Krafft removes the sweater he has been wearing underneath his blazer and gives to Maria, who receives it reluctantly.

In the morning, Krafft massages Maria’s feet in order to keep the circulation going. The rescuers are now searching for the trio, rappelling down the mountain face looking for them. But the face of the mountain is vast, and the rescuers have no idea where to look. Covered in ice and snow, Krafft continues to wave his flag, exhausted, like a toy running low on battery power.

The scene now shifts to an elegant night club in an unidentified city. Udet is there, very much in his element, wearing a tuxedo. He picks up a newspaper and one of the stories immediately catches his eye:

Alpine Misfortune: In the Engadin mountains five young climbers were overcome by an avalanche and were found dead. A second party, a young couple, led by the well known Alpinist Dr. Johannes Krafft, lost their way in the north face of the Piz Palü. For three days a rescue team searched from the summit down to find the missing, but the face is just too vast. From time to time, calls for help from the missing can be heard.

Udet leaves immediately, clearly intent on doing his part to rescue young Hans and Maria.

7. “His Last Walk”

That evening, Hans is up and about, but behaving very strangely. And Maria is growing increasingly frightened. Krafft whispers to her: “If he loses his nerve and starts to act wild, you’ll have to help me, Maria.” No sooner does he say this, in fact, than Hans walks perilously close to the edge. Maria and Krafft try to pull him back, but Hans gets in a tussle with Krafft. For a moment, it looks like he is going to pull both men over the edge. Finally, Krafft and Maria are forced to tie Hans up, for his own safety.

This scene duplicates the tension in the final scenes of The Holy Mountain, where Trenker and Peterson are trapped on a high ledge — only in that film it was Trenker who lost his mind. North Face, 2008’s homage to Arnold Fanck, creates the same suspense by having one of the Austrian climbers become unhinged and dangerous to the others — also due to a head wound.


Udet spots the stranded trio

The following morning, we see Udet’s biplane circling around the area, searching for the lost trio. Krafft and Maria see Udet and begin waving to him joyously. (Schneeberger flew with Udet for these scenes, taking shots of Udet flying the plane and of the mountain range as they zoomed above it.) Udet now makes more than one attempt to drop provisions by parachute onto the ledge. None of them manage to land. Christian watches him from below, and Udet sends him a note attached to a small parachute: “Dropping provisions unfortunately impossible. I’ll show you now the exact location by flying as close to it as possible.” He proceeds to do exactly that, flying dangerously close to the mountain face. Then, Udet flies off into the distance, leaving Krafft and Maria forlorn.

It will still take some time for the rescuers to reach them — and unfortunately conditions are growing worse. Heavy snow drifts blanket the mountains, covering the trio. Hans is still tied up, erect and rigid, looking more and more like a snow mummy. “Hans is freezing to death!” Maria cries. Slowly Krafft takes off his jacket and puts it around Hans. This is practically an act of suicide, as it leaves him only in shirtsleeves. Maria is clearly very moved by his sacrifice.

Krafft begins waving his arms to keep the circulation going. Then, he takes a small notebook from his pocket, writes something in it, and stuffs it into the snow. With great difficulty, his leg still in splints, Krafft begins climbing up to another level. Maria and Hans do not see this, as they are pressed together, eyes closed. Krafft finds a small space, not much bigger than a casket, and huddles inside it. There, near death and in delirium (like the Friend in The Holy Mountain) he sees a misty vision of a woman. Is it the first Maria, or the second?

Christian has now managed to climb down to the ledge, where he finds Hans and Maria unconscious but alive. Johannes Krafft, however, has seemingly disappeared. But Christian finds Krafft’s notebook, in which the ill-fated doctor has written the following: “Old Christian, In a few hours you might have succeeded in climbing down to us. It will just be in time for the two. I tried to keep them warm as best I could. But don’t search for me too long. Leave me where I belong. You know I was always good friends with the ice.”

Down below in the village, the people are in church praying for the safety of those above. “But the mountain rages.” Avalanches keep coming down. The other rescuers now arrive to help Christian. They attach ropes to Hans and Maria and hoist them up the mountain and off their ledge. At a certain point, as Maria is being pulled up the icy face, an avalanche falls on her. Riefenstahl has some interesting things to say about this in her memoirs:

For three days they piled up huge amounts of snow and ice fragments at the edge of [the] wall and I eyed these preparations with suspicion. I also knew Fanck too well; he didn’t mind maneuvering his performers into difficult situations so long as he obtained good shots. When everything was all set for the shooting, Fanck, noticing my anxiety, promised me that I would be hoisted only a few yards. They attached the rope to me. “Wind,” came the order, and I was pulled upward. Then I saw the snow cornice falling away from the edge of the ice wall. The sky darkened and the snowy masses went hurtling past me. Since my arms were roped up I couldn’t shield myself against the snow powder and my ears, nose and mouth filled with snow and ice. I screamed at the crew to lower me, but it was no use; contrary to Fanck’s promise, they hoisted me all the way up the ice wall. Nor did they stop when I reached the sharp icy edge: I was pulled over it, and I arrived at the top, weeping in pain and rage at my director’s brutality. Fanck’s only response was his delight at the excellent footage.[2]

While Hans and Maria are rescued, Krafft remains in his little tomb, which is soon completely filled with snow and ice.

As the church bells ring, the rescuers bring Hans and Maria down to the Diavolezza Hut. The locals are ecstatic. “They are coming! They are coming! Two have been saved. They are up in the hut.” Christian holds Maria, who is wrapped in a blanket, while the other men undress Hans and rub him down vigorously with snow to help restore his circulation. Hans has now come back to his senses. Maria smiles at him, but we know who she’s really thinking of. “And where is Dr. Johannes?” she asks. Christian shows her the note in Krafft’s journal, and Fanck’s camera emphasizes the words “You know I was always good friends with the ice.”

One final time, we see Krafft huddled in his icy grave, filmed through a sheet of ice. Then, a close-up of Maria Maioni’s face, thinking of him. The film ends with more images of the terrible Piz Palü, avalanches pouring down it, and Christian gazing up at the white hell.

8. The meaning of Piz Palü


Page from a 1929 pressbook showing Riefenstahl, Diessl, and Udet

The White Hell of Piz Palü had its premiere on November 15, 1929 at Berlin’s UFA Palace by the Tiergarten. It was a big success with both critics and audiences. Then as now, viewers have taken this film as a straightforward adventure story. While it is not the metaphysical fairytale that was The Holy Mountain, I believe that Piz Palü can be seen as a continuation of that film’s commentary on the nature of masculinity and femininity.

In my essay [7] on The Holy Mountain I argued that Fanck’s screenplay presents a quasi-Traditionalist account of the metaphysical difference between the sexes, and their ultimately tragic relationship. I drew extensively on the works of Julius Evola in order to make this case (especially his Metaphysics of Sex [8]), and I argued that Fanck had very probably been influenced by Otto Weininger’s masterpiece Sex and Character: An Investigation of Fundamental Principles [9].

The Holy Mountain presents us with a portrait of the Absolute Man — “the Friend” (played by Luis Trenker), who is associated with the mountains — and the Absolute Woman — Diotima (played by Leni Riefenstahl), who is associated with the sea. They are drawn to each other, but, as the Friend’s mother warns us “the sea and the stone can never be wed.” Ultimately, Diotima’s recklessness creates a situation in which the Friend imagines that she has cheated on him with his faithful companion, Vigo (played by Ernst Petersen). On a climb, the Friend almost kills Vigo, only to wind up sacrificing his life in order to save him. In the end, the Martial love of comrades thus triumphs over the love of Venus.

In Piz Palü, Dr. Johannes Krafft bears a certain similarity to the Friend. It seems fairly clear to me that Fanck identified with both the Friend and Krafft, and that their stories are at least in part an expression of Fanck’s own feelings of isolation and his lack of fulfillment in relations with the opposite sex. As I have mentioned before, he was madly in love with Riefenstahl, who did not return his affections. At the beginning of the film, Krafft is carefree and irresponsible (“Don’t be cocky up here, Hannes!” warns Christian), and is at least somewhat to blame for his wife’s death.

The Krafft of the remainder of the film is a completely changed man. No longer cocky and devil-may-care, he is strong, noble, and self-sacrificing. In a supreme expression of moral autonomy (of “giving a law to oneself”), he condemns himself to spend the rest of his days wandering through a white hell. He is a tragic figure, but an extraordinarily admirable one. It is important to understand, however, that his admirable character is only born through the death of the woman in his life. Fanck’s view of relations between the sexes is the most tragic in the history of cinema.

Then along come Hans and Maria, a very modern couple indeed. They are playful and frivolous. As I remarked earlier, they behave more like brother and sister than like a man and woman in love. Hans is “sensitive”: he presents her with a cake ringed by candles. When Krafft objects to Maria sleeping too close to the drafty wall he puts Maria — his fiancée — in the middle of the bed, next to the handsome Dr. Krafft. Why didn’t he put Maria at the other end, and himself in the middle? Well, that would have meant asking Krafft to sleep next to the draft, and Hans is too polite (too weak?) to do that.

Or perhaps he puts Maria in the middle because, like so many modern men, he has a neurotic aversion to the close physical proximity of another male. Is this born of latent homosexual tendencies, or of a narcissistic desire to prove to others that he has no such tendencies? Who knows. But, curiously enough, in The Holy Mountain and in Storm over Mont Blanc, Petersen’s character displays an effeminate quality, in both films willingly donning “drag” and playing at being a woman. What is very clear in Piz Palü is that Fanck, as in The Holy Mountain, is contrasting a spiritually virile male (with whom he identifies) with a younger, weaker, somewhat “feminized” male.

In any case, it is obvious that while Maria may love Hans, she does not respect him that much. Where he is weak, she in fact is strong. She skis and climbs like a man and demonstrates that she is a better climber than Hans. She stops Hans and Krafft from going off on their own perhaps because she wants to look after Hans. (Like Riefenstahl in real life, Maria is the dominant partner in her relationships with men.) Again, Hans and Maria are a very modern couple. But the innate differences between the sexes cannot be eradicated; they can only be ignored, for a time — until they positively demand to be recognized.


Gustav Diessl and Leni Riefenstahl

Hans becomes increasingly aware that Maria respects Krafft as a man, much more than she respects him. And so he sets off with Krafft to prove that he “has what it takes” on the north face of Piz Palü, thus precipitating the entire crisis that makes up the bulk of the film. For her part, Maria — the modern woman – is drawn to Krafft precisely because, unlike her fiancé, he is a man capable of dominating her. Krafft is an incarnation of the Absolute Man of Tradition, and when Hans and Maria encounter him their modern relationship is thrown into turmoil.

The film is filled with shots of Riefenstahl all googoo-eyed for Gustav Diessl. Maria stares at Krafft throughout the film, her gaze a combination, it seems, of worship and a curious kind of baffled incomprehension. She is experiencing emotions she has never felt before — emotions she cannot consciously process and understand. And she is almost completely incapable of communicating with Krafft. Again and again we see her looking at him as if she is on the verge of saying something, but it is as if there is a divide between them that cannot be crossed.

The fact that Maria has the same first name as Krafft’s dead wife is, of course, significant and obviously a very deliberate choice on Fanck’s part. However, there is no hackneyed “reincarnation of dead wife” plot here (a plot we’ve been through countless times with the Mummy, Dracula, and even Blacula). It is Maria who feels a strong attraction to Krafft.

On a certain level it is obvious that Krafft finds her attractive (most men would), but in the main his attitude towards her is one of benevolence and kindness, with a hint of condescension. He has the same attitude toward her as a benevolent Greek god would have toward a beautiful but ignorant mortal. He is, in a sense, above her. His own personal tragedy has deepened his character, and made it impossible for him to love quickly or easily. And it is has made it impossible for him to love — to truly love — the modern woman, whose character is a combination of triviality and ersatz masculinity (i.e., “liberation”).

When Krafft descends from the heights of his white hell and into the world of the Last Man below, he finds only Last Women, some of whom (like Maria) still possess a beautiful outer form (and it is oh so easy to be misled by that outer form into thinking there is a corresponding beauty within). And so he remains forever trapped in the vast, icy tomb of his wife, still in love with the ideal she represents. The tragedy of his life has made a real man out of him — a spiritually virile man belonging to another time — and rendered him incapable of finding happiness with a woman of the present.

In a 1913 letter D. H. Lawrence wrote that “it is the problem of to-day, the establishment of a new relation, or the readjustment of the old one, between men and women.” (See my essay “D.H. Lawrence on Men and Women [11].”) In its own strange way, this is what The White Hell of Piz Palü is about. It is about the inability of modern men and women to make a connection. More specifically, it is about the inability of a true man to connect with today’s women (a problem that should be very familiar to all the male Traditionalists who happen to be reading this). Robbed of traditional ways of understanding the sex roles, and of traditional routes to achieving fulfillment as a man or a woman, relations between the sexes in the modern world have been utterly devastated.

And so the real men isolate themselves in a world of icy and remote ideals and abstractions, unable to unite with the feminine. The Uranic is cut off from the Chthonic. The masculinity of Johannes Krafft is a masculinity that has chosen death. Kraft in German means strength, power, energy. And Johannes Krafft is full of this. But as Aristotle understood, strength, power, energy are dunamis: pure potentiality (potency) which must find expression in some form (some means of actualization) or remain mere potentiality. (This relationship between potentiality and actuality is very similar to the Shiva-Shakti relation discussed in my Holy Mountain essay.) The Kraffts of this modern world can find no expression for their Kraft.

In truth, both Krafft and the Friend of The Holy Mountain fail to see women realistically. Krafft is forever obsessed with the ideal of his dead wife (who, in truth, was probably no better a woman than the other Maria). The Friend also sees Diotima as an ideal. When faced with what he thinks is her infidelity, he imagines his holy mountain exploding; his ideal destroyed. But the “ideal woman,” never existed; only the authentic one. Because he cannot see the true nature of woman, he fails to do what the Absolute Man must do with the Absolute Woman: he fails to master her. (This is, in fact, is what the Absolute Woman wants of the Absolute Man. But part of her would turn to stone any man who she thinks has understood this.)

The portrayal of the modern breakdown of relations between the sexes is made even more explicit and intense in Arnold Fanck’s next film, and the subject of my next essay: Storm over Mont Blanc (1930). And in that film, Fanck offers us the solution to the problem.


1. Leni Riefesnstahl: A Memoir, 53.

2. Ibid., 71.