White Hell of Pitz Palü

English Title: White Hell of Pitz Palü

Original Title: Die weiße Hölle vom Piz Palü

Country of Origin: Germany

Director: Arnold Fanck, G. W. Pabst

Producer(s): Henry Sokal

Screenplay: Arnold Fanck

Editor: Arnold Fanck

Runtime: 150 minutes

Genre: Mountain, Adventure

Starring/Cast: Gustav Diessl, Mizzi Götzel, Ernst Petersen, Leni Riefenstahl, Otto Spring, Ernst Udet

Year: 1929

Volume: German

While climbing the dangerous north face of Pitz Palü in the Dolomites, Dr. Johannes Krafft's (Diessl) wife drops into the ravine of a mountain glacier and dies. Three years later a young couple, Maria and Hans (Riefenstahl and Petersen), spend their honeymoon in a cabin at the foot of Pitz Palü. Maria is reading about the tragedy in the logbook when Krafft suddenly appears. Since the accident, he has become restless and plans to tackle Pitz Palü again. As he gets ready for his morning ascent, Hans and Maria join him. On the way to the top, Hans trips and hangs unconscious from a rope that Krafft manages to haul up. Hans has suffered a head injury, however, and they must wait for help to arrive from the village. Meanwhile, a group of inexperienced students climbing the mountain and using a different route are hit by an avalanche and plunge to their deaths. Weather conditions worsen and three days pass before a local mountain guide and old friend of Krafft locates and rescues Maria and Hans. Help comes too late for Krafft, who awaits his death in a small cave on Pitz Palü.

White Hell of Pitz Palü, a film by director and mountaineer Arnold Fanck, plays out as a contest between humankind and nature. On a narrative level Pitz Palü presents a challenge for Krafft, Hans and Maria, with each character having their own motive for climbing the mountain. Krafft wants to win a race against the younger students; Maria, under Krafft’s spell, aims to live up to Krafft’s dead wife; finally, Hans tests his manliness against that of Krafft, who has become a rival for Maria’s affection. Only the villagers, a religious community whose men come to the rescue of the stranded are wise enough to shun this kind of contest. They appear respectful of the mountain and dare not challenge its mighty presence. For them, as the title of an earlier Fanck film suggests, it is a The Holy Mountain (1926).

Fanck pioneered the mountain film, a genre whose essence lies in their tantalizing visual properties. White Hell of Pitz Palü is a prime example of this aesthetic formula: thinly plotted, the film is notable for its icy Alpine scenery. As in his other films, the sublime glacial backdrops dwarf the people who admire them. These images evoke the work of Romantic landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich, who viewed natural phenomena as overwhelming experiences for the human soul.

White Hell of Pitz Palü pays tribute to Fanck’s passion for two inventions that stimulated and expanded human imagination in the first half of the twentieth century: the film camera and the airplane. The extended sequence of a propeller plane filmed against snowy landscapes suggests Fanck is mesmerized by new technologies as tools to render the secrets of nature visible. The many aerial shots offering panoramic views of the mountain and valleys often feature parts of the plane and its pilot (flying ace Ernst Udet manoeuvred the airplane in this film as well as Fanck’s Storm Over Mont Blanc [1930] and S.O.S. Eisberg [1933]), revealing the location of the cameraman. In this way, the spectator is made aware of the location shooting as both dangerous venture and remarkable achievement. The aesthetic appeal of the locations supports the idea that the mountain film is on one level complementary to the Weimar street film rather than it’s opposite (see Rentschler 1996b: 137–61). Both genres share a strong link with modernity, White Hell of Pitz Palü drawing on tourism and vacationing as a counterbalance to the hectic city lifestyle.

It is up to the viewer to decide whether the passion for aviation and film-making takes precedence over that for the natural world of the mountains, but scholarship on the mountain film generally asserts that the marriage between natural powers and modern technology aesthetically forebodes Nazi ideology. White Hell’s final scenes suggest that humankind should respect the might of the mountain. Even after Maria and Hans's traumatic experiences, Pitz Palü appears as benevolent and inviting as ever, as if to say that the misfortune of the couple was due to their own ignorance. According to Carsten Strathausen this ‘cinematic sublime’ in the mountain film creates an ‘oscillation between peaceful and dangerous images,’ a suture that makes pleasurable the threatening aspect of nature (2001: 181). Utilized in fascist aesthetics, the cinematic sublime has the effect of glorifying the danger of death.   

Author of this review: Claudia Sandberg