Leni Riefenstahl complained that directors Arnold Fanke and G.W. Pabst put her through a grueling shoot and claimed that they were deliberately cruel to her. Never-the-less this would be her most critically acclaimed performance. See more »
This frequently gripping but overdone mountain film starts with a plain and simple story: an engaged couple (Ernst Petersen and Leni Riefenstahl) on an Alpine excursion encounter a veteran climber (Gustav Diessl) who haunts the local peaks grieving for his wife who fell into a glacial crevice and disappeared during a climbing trip a few years earlier. The couple joins him on another climb but all three become trapped on a frozen ledge from which they must be rescued by hardy locals with the help of a daredevil prop plane pilot.
There are many similarities to SOS Eisberg, made a few years later with some of the same key participants: the star of both films is the icy scenery superbly shot by Richard Angst and Hans Schneeberger; Leni Riefenstahl in both cases is the loyal lover of an incapacitated explorer whose rescue depends on the quick action of a local community and the surveillance of a skilled airplane pilot; principal players endure prolonged trials in conditions that would quickly kill most people, from frostbite if nothing else. Petersen in particular is restrained with rope after he begins to lose his mind and spends what seems like days half buried in snow without moving, eating or drinking, yet we are supposed to believe his feet are spared from snapping off like popsicles thanks to occasional ankle massages from his loving fiancée. Even after severe buffetings from the raw elements, the appearance (complexions, hair and, in Riefenstahl's case, makeup) of the leads look none the worse for wear. Their clothes wouldn't keep the average person warm on a winter afternoon in Berlin, let alone on a frozen, wind-blasted rock face thousands of feet high, with no hot food and in a state of physical exhaustion. On top of this, Diessl has to cope with a broken leg. At times he starts to resemble Paul Wegener as The Golem standing stoically and gesturing stiffly against the pitiless elements.
There is far too much intercutting between rugged vistas and the unfortunate trio shivering amidst the icicles. A good 10-20 minutes could have been trimmed with no loss of content. It is not necessary to subject the audience to endless repetition in order to illustrate the climbers' sufferings. On the plus side, we get a documentary-like glimpse into the Alpine world both wild and civilized sides. There is an unpretentious naturalism in the early scenes in the mountain hut where the couple settles in before meeting Diessl.
This film as well as SOS Eisberg could have carried the title "Triumph of the Will," for what else could underlie the superhuman endurance of the main characters? In an interview which accompanies the Kino DVD of "Piz Palu" the 100-year-old Riefenstahl discusses her lifelong resistance to the notion of impossibility. It just depends on what you are up against.
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