Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The White Hell of Pitz Palu, Silent Movie DVD of the Week...

...Or when ever the hell I get around to it.

The mountain as character. Dr. Johannes Krafft (Gustav Diessl) and his wife, Maria, on the north face of Pitz Palu. Grandly romantic, this film starts with a kiss that coincides with an avalanche that sweeps Mrs. Krafft to her death. The doctor imagines that he can hear her cries for help deep with in a crevasse. Or is it his imagination. Descending into the glacier, it's only the sound of running water.

On the anniversary of her death, another young couple have arrived on the mountain, Hans (Ernst Petersen) and his fiance Maria (Leni Riefenstahl) are staying in the climbing hut beneath the north face, when Dr. Krafft, compulsively climbing in the mountains, shows up at the hut. After spending the night with Hans and Maria, he rises early to attempt the north face, as yet unclimbed. A mountain guide had showed up the night before to let him know that five students from Zurich would also be attempting the route. Joined by Hans and Maria he starts up the mountain. There is another avalanche that sweeps the students to their death in the crevasse that was the final resting place of Mrs. Krafft. The same avalanche has injured both Hans and Krafft, and along with Maria, they are now trapped on a narrow ledge, where all they can do is await rescue from the local mountain guides.

Hans is at first, unconscious, while Johannes Krafft, with a broken leg, stands on the ledge trying to signal for rescue. During the day he calls out, at night he waves a lantern, to attract attention. The mountain guide, who is also a loyal friend of the doctor's, climbs the mountain searching for the students and Krafft, and finds the dead students. He returns to the village to get the other guides and leads them on a night time, torch lit, climb of the mountain. In a spectacular sequence, the guides descend into the glacier, lit only with their torches, to recover the bodies of the dead students. They then begin, again, to search for the living. Meanwhile, a pilot and friend of the young couple, Ernst Udet, playing himself, has flown into the mountains and locates the stranded party. Over the course of three days, the guides climb to the group's rescue. Hans, losses his nerve and tries to throw himself of the mountain. Krafft and Maria tie him to the ice to save his life. As the temperatures drop, Krafft wraps Hans and Maria in his hat, sweater, and coat to prevent them from freezing to death. With his last ounce of energy, he climbs up to an ice shelf and then freezes to death, and is buried in the snow by a storm. Nearing death, Hans and Maria are saved when the guides finally climb down from a ridge, to their rescue.

Melodramatic at it's core, this movie excels with it's depiction of the climbing world. The constant shots of the mountain and it's avalanches focuses attention on the plight of the three stranded climbers. Krafft, doomed from the start, finds a level of redemption in saving the young couple, something he couldn't do for his wife. Stunning photography brings the mountains to life. The night shots of the mountain guides, climbing up the mountain, lit by their torches, followed by their day light skiing back down the mountain to the village are almost abstract in the way they are photographed.

Before she became a director herself, and, sadly, became associated with the Nazi Party, Riefenstahl was known as the star of a series of mountain movies. She is stunningly beautiful, shot against the snow and rock of the mountain. Diessel is great as the doomed climber and doctor.

The White Hell of Pitz Palu was shot in Germany, and released in 1929. Co-directed by Arnold Fanck, and the under rated G.W. Pabst, who also made Pandora's Box and Diary of a Lost Girl. The original negative has been lost. This version was mastered from a surviving nitrate print. I've written about the Kino Video version of this film. A few scratches hear and there, but over all, the condition is excellent. Highly recommended. This DVD also has an hour long interview with Riefenstahl and a sound sequence from a 1935 rerelease.

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