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4.0 out of 5 stars A weak plot but some truly astonishing filmmaking, 12 May 2011
Trevor Willsmer (London, England) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The White Hell of Pitz Palu [DVD] [1929] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC] (DVD)
Long before she was Hitler's favorite film director, Leni Riefenstahl was German silent cinema's sweetheart and the queen of the mountain movies, and looking at the remarkable The White Hell of Pitz Palu it's not hard to see why: easy on the eye and an expressive and appealing actress, if you absolutely had to be stuck up a mountain with someone she's the kind of person who would be on your list. The film itself is so astonishingly visually striking and engrossing that it's hard to believe it's so largely forgotten: you're more likely to see the amazingly vivid mountain sequences turning up as stock footage (most notably in Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe) than you are to see this crop up on the revival circuit or on TV, so Kino's 134-minute DVD of the 1998 German restoration is particularly welcome.

The father of the mountain movie, main director Arnold Fanck (who shot the location exteriors while G.W. Pabst did the studio interiors) has a remarkable feeling for the changing face and nature of the title character, the mountain itself, able to shift from joyous beauty to menace in a matter of seconds. The shifts of light, the effect of the wind, the changes in temperature are as expressive as any actor's performance, creating a real adversary for its engaged couple who get lost and have to fight it for survival. The prologue sets the tone perfectly, as another couple's cocky confidence turns to tragedy, the slowly melting icicles driving the survivor mad as he waits for help, the film mirroring it minutes later as another icicle hanging from a mountain hut drips onto Riefenstahl's hand as she lies in the sun blissfully unaware of the danger it is foreshadowing. There's joy too, particularly in a remarkably vivid sequence of a plane flying around their hut in an energetic display of daring acrobatics that makes Sepp Allgeier's camerawork almost take flight itself.

(The pilot is played by WW1's second most successful flying ace Ernst Udet who, like Reifenstahl, would have his career destroyed by his association with Hitler - in his case with rather more finality. Having been instrumental in building up the Luftwaffe, political infighting and domestic problems drove him to alcoholism and a mental breakdown and his suicide in 1941 after Goring used him as a scapegoat for losing the Battle of Britain).

Unfortunately, after the dramatic entrance of `the Ghost of the Mountain,' the surviving lover who haunts the slopes looking for the frozen body of his bride, the film starts to lose its grip and only intermittently regains it. It's small wonder US distributors Universal cut the film down to 79 minutes from its original 150-minute reported running time: even in this not-quite-complete restoration it's 50 minutes before they start their ill-fated climb, the husband-to-be driven to accompany the `Ghost' by what one suspects is some Pabst-inspired jealousy over Leni's romantic awe for the bereaved climber's morbid romantic quest.

The influence on Fred Zinnemann's final film, Five Days One Summer - which also revolves around the frozen corpse of a lost love and the possibility of tragedy repeating itself - is clear, but, perhaps unsurprising considering his reputation for sadistically putting his cast in real harm's way, Fanck is less successful when it comes to drawing us into these people's story. He's obviously more interested in the mountain than his characters or the plot, both of which are thinly sketched out to avoid eating up screen time that could be better spent on more shots of the mountain, gradually eroding their effectiveness. It doesn't help that once disaster strikes and its trio are trapped on a mountain ledge the sum total of their efforts to escape are waving a flag and, at night, an oil lamp while waiting for someone to rescue them or that there's no real interaction between them as their hopes fade. As a result, when one of them does rather pointlessly make the ultimate sacrifice it all seems rather arbitrary and academic since we're so uninvolved in their fate.

What carries the film are the set pieces, particularly a visually stunning night sequence where the villagers make their way up the mountain and into a crevice and ice cave to recover the dead bodies of a group of climbers by torchlight in a remarkable chiaroscuro play of light and shadow that's worth the price of admission on its own. From the captions it's clear that the ice cave sequence was originally given a red tint to turn it into a diabolical inferno, but the restored print on Kino's DVD has no tints (not a major problem: the film looks fine in black and white), which isn't the only change from the original version that might disparage some purists. Kino's version also replaces the German intertitles with English ones, though these are presented in the style of the German version, while the various notes and letters have burned in subtitle translations. Nonetheless, the restoration feels like its treated the film with respect, and Ashley Irwin's new score is particularly impressive, adopting a bolero motif for the climbing sequences and the ever faithful Dies Iraes for the mountain in threatening mood.

Kino's DVD also includes the last TV interview with Leni Reifenstahl, a substantial 52-minutes with the surprisingly sprightly 100-year old that skirts around most of the major issues, as well as a stills gallery and an intriguing extract from the abridged German talkie reissue version that, unusually, dubbed the characters dialogue in such perfect synchronization you could be forgiven for thinking it had been shot with sound.

Its pacing and story problems alone ensure that The White Hell of Pitz Palu isn't the deathless classic of lore, but it still impresses despite its faults.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Historic film with innovative filming techniques, 10 July 2010
bernie "xyzzy" (Arlington, Texas) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The White Hell of Pitz Palu [DVD] [1929] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC] (DVD)
Weiße Hölle vom Piz Palü, Die

Newlyweds Johannes Krafft (Gustav Diessl) and Maria Krafft (Mizzi Götzel) have been warned not to be goofing off while they are climbing the pale mountain in the Bernina Alps of Switzerland. Of course, they do not listen and Maria falls into a crack and her rope brakes.

Now many years later Dr. Johannes Krafft is still wandering over the mountain looking for his lost Maria.

A new couple come to the common cabin on the where many climbers and skiers start from. Then they meet Dr. Krafft. A hand full of student hikers are about to attempt the toughest part of the mountain. Krafft wants to beat them to it. Only it is too dangerous to go alone. Therefore, the couple decides to help him get the jump on the students.

Well the race is on and here come the student up the back strip. Now we remember what happened to Maria Krafft when she did not heed the warning to pay attention. So guess what? Yep Hans Brandt (Ernst Petersen) insisted on taking the lead so he can show his stuff.

Will the students who are taking a shortcut get there first? On the other hand, do they get a few surprises?
This film is a true cliffhanger.
Will Hans showoff his stuff or will they get stuck on a cliff cave and need to be saved by Flieger Udet (Ernst Udet)?

What a minute did we not see Ernst Udet save someone with his plane in "Sturme uber dem Mont Blanc"

Additional Release Material:
Additional Footage - 1935 sound version excerpt
Photo Gallery:
Photo Stills

This film is part of a series of German Mountain films that were popular in the lat twenties and early thirties. The stars of the film are the mountains and the clouds (shot in elapse time.) In this film, there were contrived and real avalanches. Actor Leni Riefenstahl almost was avalanched.

The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl
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The White Hell of Pitz Palu [DVD] [1929] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]
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