Home Video Hovel: The Holy Mountain, by David Bax

The opening titles of Arnold Fanck’s 1926 The Holy Mountain would like you to know that no trick photography was used. It’s referring specifically to the extensive footage of expert ski jumpers doing flips and spins in the air; for a considerable percentage of its runtime, the movie is like watching the Winter Olympics or a sports documentary (that’s not a complaint). Yet that initial warning could just as well apply to any other section of Franck’s sweeping melodrama, so beautiful, immersive and provocative is its imagery.

Leni Riefenstahl, years before cementing her damned legacy as a Nazi propagandist, stars as the dancer Diotima, famed throughout Germany’s upper crust. She meets a skier and adventurer named Karl (Luis Trenker) and they quickly fall in love. But when Karl spies Diotima offering a scarf and some comforting words to his younger friend Vigo (Ernst Peterson), he mistakes her kindness for betrayal and makes a series of rash decisions that will forever change the lives of all three of them. Franck’s expert use of cross-cutting between simultaneous situations clicks up the tension to a nearly unbearable degree as we approach the devastating climax.

Fanck employs stunning location photography and a strong command of dimensionality–some shots have sweeping depth and others appear almost as paper cutouts in silhouette–to place his characters in a relationship with nature that is often mystical. Diotima’s opening dance number is accompanied by shots of slow motion waves that approach surrealism. Later, the towering mountain where Karl and Vigo have their ultimate showdown seems to threaten to come to life at any moment.

In a way, that mountain actually is alive, in the sense that Fanck depicts is as a malleable, living metaphor for the inner self of anyone who would attempt to climb it. High altitude psychosis is a real and terrifying phenomenon but, in The Holy Mountain, it feels as if Karl may be losing his mind because the mountain is forcing out everything that’s eating away at his psyche. Every falling rock is a piece of his crumbling soul.

The 2K restoration on this new Kino Blu-ray, from 35mm elements, was undertaken by the F.W. Murnau foundation with assistance from L’Immagine Ritrovata. Despite that pedigree, there are some drawbacks. While density is consistent, scratches and stability issues abound.

Special features include a commentary by film historian Travis Crawford and pre-existing interviews with Riefenstahl and Trenker from an earlier documentary.

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