Diotima (Leni Riefenstahl) is a professional dancer who loves the sea, so much so that she stands by the ocean, with the waves crashing on the rocks around her, and performs for the elements that so entrance her. But as she lives near the Alps, she also has an interest in the mountains as well, for there are two men who are even more invested in climbing them than she will ever be, Karl (Luis Trenker) and the younger Vigo (Ernst Petersen), who pair off and ascend the peaks in the most amenable conditions to their sport. However, a misunderstanding regarding Diotima will eventually result in potential tragedy, as when Karl saw her dance, it was love at first sight for them both...
In the late nineteen-twenties and into the thirties, mountain films were a sensation in Germany, the lofty peaks they filmed around embodying the nation's indomitable spirit, or they did at least until they fell out of fashion, as indeed did that spirit. Arnold Fanck was the man who single-handedly created this genre which spawned countless imitators across the Weimar era and well into the Nazi one too, which has made the entire body of work somewhat problematic, since they celebrated a nationalism that would soon curdle into death and destruction on an unimaginable scale. This leaves you with a point to ponder: can you enjoy a German mountain film without that baggage?
The answer is probably not, not with this leading lady at any rate, for Riefenstahl would soon pick up the camera herself and turn director, capitalising on her fame as a movie star. Fair enough, a woman director in those days was a rarity, and someone to be celebrated - except for her subject matter, which was as a Nazi propagandist under Adolf Hitler with the notorious Triumph of the Will, and the glorifying of fascism that came with both that and Olympiad which recorded the Nazi-hosted Olympic Games. She spent the rest of her long life apologising for these efforts, and never lived them down, or she didn't after 1945 anyway, when it became clear she had seriously backed the wrong horse.
Therefore to return to Riefenstahl in more innocent days generated mixed feelings, and her wild over-emoting here was not much help to establishing a legacy away from the Nazis as she was frequently quite comical, whether prancing around in supposedly tasteful setpieces, or trying to create a sense of Mother Nature channelled through her character. The natural world here is noble and pure, and the love triangle of Diotima, Karl and Vigo aspires to take on its extremes as if by taming them they will attain some spiritual plateau. Fair enough, there are certainly nature worshippers around these days who would not have an issue with that philosophy, but considering the way their relationships turn out this threesome resemble lunatics more than they do any great ideals.
Fanck was known for his adherence to authenticity above all else, and that often meant placing his cast in danger, much to their chagrin, but in Trenker he did have a genuine mountain climber, and he pressed him into service, along with all his skills, as often as he could. Trenker was probably the biggest star of the Alpine genre and was convincing as a man who had the experience on the peaks, which rendered Karl's decision in the latter half to ascend the most perilous mountain around during winter the actions of a maniac. Yes, he does believe his girlfriend has taken up with another man (she hasn't), but even so what happens next looks suicidal and then murderous as he takes the hapless Vigo along with him. Not that he means to murder Vigo, but it does all get very Touching the Void in that last act. Really the main benefit of The Holy Mountain was not so much the cast, but Fanck's adoration of the mountain range, with often spectacular shots only slightly denigrated by the air of pompous pretension. Not to be confused with the Alejandro Jodorowsky weirdo epic, though you may wonder if he co-opted the title.
[This film is out on Blu-ray from Eureka with the following features:
1080p presentation on Blu-ray, from a 2014 2K digital restoration
Score by Aljoscha Zimmerman, available in both LPCM 2.0 and DTS-HD MA 5.1
Original German intertitles with optional English subtitles
The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl [180 mins] Ray Müller's definitive documentary on the life and career of Leni Riefenstahl.
Feature Length Audio Commentary by film historian Travis Crawford
PLUS: a collector's booklet featuring a new essay by critic and film historian Kat Ellinger, and a 2004 essay by Doug Cummings from the original Masters of Cinema DVD release.]