As with other esoteric film traditions that have given us an aesthetic and coherent worldview that matters - Soviet montage, Japanese jidaigeki, film noir, the Nuberu Bagu, of course the American western - actually more than anything with these things that vigorously beat with the heart of a nation or society, we need to relocate ourselves as best we can to where the specific world emanates from.
In jidaigeki, for example, it is the double-bind between duty and human feeling that drives forward or tears the soul, but instead of becoming visible in confusion and chaos, and this is what's so important, it radiates in perfectly disciplined form. We need to be able to see how the submission is both social evil and spiritual practice.
Unlike all the above though, here we have an even more obscure type of genre gone in a matter of years, the berg- or mountain-film. Coming to it now, we may be simply inclined to marvel at a few mountain vistas, make a few concessions about the awe-inspiring courage of filming in freezing temperatures with the bulky equipment of the time, and move on to where a story is being told. Move maybe to Murnau if we want to stick in the vicinity, who was then at Hollywood orchestrating human destinies as city symphonies.
But this is a different beast from those city films, popular then in Berlin, Moscow, Vienna, where modern life was joyous motion, a coiled spring anxiously bristling with modernist energy ready for the leap forward; here life, though optimistic at first, young and happy, gradually it turns sombre, is taught humility through suffering, obeisance through the confrontation with the elemental forces from planes above. It comes out on the other end, older, less innocent, hardened, perhaps wiser.
One can see how these images - young, tireless men and women wishing to carve their destinies in rock, though finally succumbing to the decree above - could inspire agitprop for the Nazis; we know the tragic, bitter history of Leni Riefenstahl, both hers and the one she sculpted from bodies on film, and here she's the woman who reasons, yet also instigates, the passions between the men that cause the catastrophic events. She accompanies the disastrous journey, watches aghast from a little out of way, and returns mute with loss. It's a poignant foreshadowing of her own history.
The story is about a couple who arrives at the mountains to celebrate their marriage. They frolic in the snow. Life is so blissful, a champagne falls from the sky to wish the newlyweds. The first shadow in this snowed meadow is the apparition of a second man, the ghost of a man wandering the chasms that swallowed his girl.
The two men as one really; they have the same name, the young, reckless one informally called Hans, the older, now wiser with suffering called Johannes. So the journey is simultaneously about these two; the older man vicariously walking again with the woman he lost, hoping to prevent what he couldn't, the younger walking to prove himself worthy of the other, to prove perhaps that he won't lose where he did.
There are amazing shots of shadows rolling down the craggy snowed wilderness that presage disaster. Portents of doom abound in the mountains, crevasses whispering glacial secrets, snow spilling over the edges.
We encounter later this tradition in the films of Rossellini; the mountain in Stromboli as the summit of closeness with an absent god. But here, properly German, the mountain offers not even the space of the confessional; it remains to the end indomitable, the abode of inscrutable forces beyond the human sphere. It is merely the precipice where human destiny is halted; where it submits or perishes. But whereas in Picnic at Hanging Rock, a continuation of these films, human destiny vanishes completely from the precipice, here we know the man's resting place; entombed behind a sheet of ice, he is foolhardy yet immortalized in the way of a hero.
All else aside, you should see this for its aural qualities alone. Few filmmakers have evoked a better vastness; no doubt Herzog has seen this film numerous times.
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