The Holy Mountain

Studio: Kino Lorber

May 08, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

There will forever be a negative light cast upon the works of Leni Riefenstahl, and not without good cause. As a director, she was a cinematic innovator on par with Welles or Eisenstein, but there's also that thing about being friends with Hitler and collaborating (whether naive or not; the jury's forever out) in the most notorious mass atrocity of the 20th century, which is the kind of thing that tends to sour one's reputation.

Before her propaganda work for the Nazis, Riefenstahl was a dancer and actress; The Holy Mountain (sometimes translated as The Sacred Mountain, and obviously not to be confused with Alejandro Jodorowsky's 1973 surrealist classic of the same name) was one of her first starring roles, a few years before her first crack behind the camera. The film's director, Arnold Fanck, was known as a master of the "mountain film", a popular genre in the 1920s which framed its drama with breathtaking nature shots and death-defying feats of mountaineering. Riefenstahl had seen Fanck's previous film, The Mountain of Destiny, and practically begged to be cast in his next film. Fanck, quite taken with her looks and talent, ultimately agreed to give her a shot.

In terms of photography, The Holy Mountain is a technical marvel for its time, its shots crisp and majestic, its color tints striking and expertly placed. It's particularly fascinating to this reviewer how many of the essential ingredients of Canadian absurdist Guy Maddin's early work — the saturated two-color shots, the melodrama, the purple prose — can be traced back to this film and others like it, even if it's completely lacking in self-aware irony and bits of surrealism that mark Maddin's work.

Even while accounting for the styles of the time, though, The Holy Mountain's story and acting leave a bit more to be desired. A basic tale of love triangles, misunderstanding, loss, and mountaineering, it's a story about as nuanced as your average Fast and the Furious movie; being silent, one can't say much about its limited dialogue, but what's there is isn't terrifically snappy. The acting is much the same, with Riefenstahl proving especially hammy, all knuckle-biting and throwing herself dramatically against walls.

Despite those drawbacks, though (and really, they're not that severe), The Holy Mountain remains quite fascinating, and undeniably beautiful. It would be fantastic if the film were to make some limited theatrical rounds, as its visual splendor would be a delight on the big screen. However, and as with so much associated with her, The Holy Mountain's infamous leading lady would surely drive away a good chunk of the potential audience out of hand, making any such release unlikely. For those curious about historical film, though, it's a valuable service to have this available in any format.


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May 9th 2018