Tuesday, July 20, 2010

(Nearly) A Century Too Late: The Holy Mountain

The Holy Mountain. Written & Directed by Arnold Fanck.

Preconceptions: Awww, a movie from the 1920's? I don't wanna! It's going to be murky and boring and paced so slowly that I'll be able to wander out of the room, come back and nothing will have happened. Why am I putting myself through this trial? Well, I want to watch Careful for next week, which is supposed to be a pretty funny satirization of the whole Bergfilm genre (though I'm not so sure about a comedy that makes you do homework). But, considering I didn't know what a Bergfilm was, I figured I should watch one. As it turns out it's a movie about man vs nature, where a guy and his buddy gain some enlightenment up in the mountains. There is usually a love triangle thrown in as well (makes me wonder if Brokeback Mountain is one of these). I picked the Holy Mountain on Doomwench's suggestion and because it's reckoned to be one of the best and most iconic examples of what a Bergfilm is. Before you ask, yes, it's that Leni Riefenstahl starring in this (she went on to direct Triumph of the Will), but I can think of few things more dull than listening to me (a fairly ignorant secretary and criminology student) talk about about that particular kettle of fish-so I won't.

General Review: What surprised me most about The Holy Mountain was the lack of murk for a movie shot some 20 odd years after the invention of the first motion picture camera. It was beautiful and clear. Fanck gave a real sense of the scope of the Alps, scope was something else I wasn't expecting from a movie nearly 100 years old. Most of the silent films I've seen from this era are either shot in tiny sets or have so much distortion and gray around the edges that it's anyone's guess where the actors are supposed to be (some sort of parallel dimension, no doubt). There were also a surprising number of special effects, including a fairly believable mountain blowing up, artistic fade ins and avalanches.

I'll pause here briefly to give you a quick plot run down (because, shockingly, I don't think many other people have seen this old German movie). Riefenstahl plays Diotima, a dancer, who loves an unnamed mountaineer (Trenker). Trenker's young friend, Vigo, figures he's also in love with Diotima. Diotima is unaware of this and plans to marry Trenker. She treats Vigo like a child and when he wins a ski race and asks her for a hug, she agrees. Trenker sees this and in a jealous rage tricks Vigo into climbing a dangerous mountain. When neither shows up for her dance recital, Diotima discovers where they've gone and asks if any of the men in the audience will ski up to the mountaineer's lodge to send out a search party. The men in the audience turn out to be wusses, so she goes herself.

Unfortunately, while the setting is lush and textured (there I go, selling you guys a dessert again), the acting is not. With the notable exception of Luis Trenker (playing the unnamed friend), there was less acting than there was staring at the camera with blank looks on their faces. I know it must be difficult to emote properly without being able to use your voice, but very little attempt was made to do so. Riefenstahl's frolicking in the meadows, while pretty, was wooden and so was her sadness at discovering her fiance and friend were missing. Throwing your arms up in the air and clutching the walls doesn't mean you're sad and jumping up and down and flailing doesn't mean you're happy. I've been told that this is a particular failing of Fanck because the cast did a fine job when working under other directors.

Despite the overall unimpressive acting, there are a few shining moments. When Diotima asks Vigo what his favourite part of the dance was, he acts it out with her scarf in a surprisingly funny gesture. Riefenstahl's climb through the blizzard to the mountaineer's lodge is genuinely frightening and claustrophobic.
In fact, overall the physical acting was impressive, everyone did their own stunts and some of the shots of the mountaineering were breathtaking and occasionally symbolic. And, of course, I can't say enough nice things about Trenker, who seemed like the only actual actor in the bunch. Now there is a man who can emote silently (I think I may have developed a long dead crush).

Let's address my other major fear going into this: the pacing. I was even more frightened when I saw The Holy Mountain was nearly two hours long. It takes a particularly well paced modern movie to make me think it's worth passing the hour and a half mark. Surprisingly, for the most part, the movie didn't drag. Be forewarned, there is a ski race that is probably coming to a finish now, in 2010, and it took all my integrity not to fast forward through it. Putting the interminable race aside (with regret), The Holy Mountain actually moved along at a pretty good clip.There were some dance sequences (and I wondered if those were at least partially to show off Riefenstahl in a tiny outfit), which I figured would drag on endlessly (look! We have a professional dancer! Look!), but they were brief and often had other relevant scenes cut into them. In fact, the opening sequence, a dance with a poem cut into it, felt like a good short art film (and one that didn't copy, ahem I mean pay homage to, a ton of other movies). The plot itself was actually full of surprises, I'm so accustomed to modern cliches that I expected this movie to fall right in line, it didn't.

I assumed The Holy Mountain to be a movie I had to endure to better understand a certain type of movie and generally improve my knowledge of films. This simply wasn't the case. It stood as a pretty good flick on its own and something worth giving a look.

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