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Kino on Video presents
The Holy Mountain (Der heilige Berg) (1926)

"Now? During the winter thaw? Are you mad?"
- Vigo (Ernst Peterson)

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: August 13, 2003

Stars: Leni Reifenstahl, Louis Trenker, Ernst Peterson
Other Stars: Hannes Schneider, Friedrich Schneider, Frida Richard
Director: Arnold Fanck

Manufacturer: Wagner & Taunusfilm
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (brief partial nudity)
Run Time: 01h:45m:35s
Release Date: August 12, 2003
UPC: 738329030728
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A BB+A- C-

DVD Review

Leni Riefenstahl is today remembered pretty much only as the infamous director of such Nazi propaganda films as Triumph of the Will and Olympia. But in the 1920s and early 1930s she was a fairly popular actress in Germany, starring in a series of films featuring a woman under harsh conditions, such as The White Hell of Pitz Palu (1929). Kino brings to DVD her first starring role in this "drama poem" written and directed by Arnold Fanck.

The dancer Diotima (Riefenstahl) is in love with an engineer known in the film only as "The Friend" (Louis Trenker), an avid mountain climber. When he introduces Diotima to his younger friend Vigo (Ernst Petersen), a medical student and avid skiier, sparks begin to fly between those two as well. When the older man learns of the triangular bond developing, he develops a plan to take Vigo mountain climbing on the north face of Santo, a dangerous climb in the best of times, made worse by the thaws that have formed highly dangerous sections of ice and loose snow.

You might think this is not much of a plot, and you're right. It's really just an excuse for Fanck to take his camera into the mountains and film a great deal of footage of men climbing mountains and skiing through the German Alps. But the trip is worth it: the film captures some incredibly breathtaking footage, all without the aid of special effects of any kind. As Riefenstahl notes in the accompanying featurette, she was actually buried in an avalanche for the film, shaking her head in dismay at her reckless youth. The viewer is treated to many amazing shots of climbs and rugged mountain terrain, of men standing at precipices and painfully hauling themselves over sheer vertical walls. Fanck emphasizes the verticality visually by using a variable aspect ratio. While much of the time the frame is a standard 1.33:1 ratio, at times it becomes as narrow as .33:1 to perfectly frame the compositions. Stylistically, this is a visual gem.

This also marks a directorial debut of sorts for Reifenstahl; she personally shot the striking sequence of torch-bearing skiiers heading off into the darkness to attempt a rescue of the heroes. Doubtlessly Fanck had something to do with it, but already Riefenstahl's undeniable eye for visuals (no matter what one may think of her politics) is already present. As an actress, she's a bit less successful here, though. She does have an appealing earnestness but in a couple sequences tends to grossly overact in the most stereotypical silent-movie manner. The rest of the film is so poetic in character that these moments truly stick out as obnoxious. Trenker and Petersen acquit themselves much better, with Trenker giving a very convincing depiction of despair in love.

Certainly not action-packed, nor quite the romance that the keepcase blurb implies, The Holy Mountain is nonetheless of interest for its visual character. But the less said about Riefenstahl's dancing (and she had actually been a dancer until a knee injury cut that career short), the better.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The presentation here is of a 2001 restoration of the film through the cooperation of a number of European archives. By comparison with the clips included in the featurette, the source print looks marvelous. Detail, texture, and clarity are generally excellent. Although some spots suffer from wear (and one segment from minor decomposition), others are practically flawless beyond the expected speckling. The main fault that I have is that the original video transfer was apparently PAL, and it was merely converted to NTSC in an effort to cut costs. The result is frequent ghosting where frames are combined into one. This only becomes seriously distracting during Riefenstahl's dance sequences and Vigo's ski jumping, but it is a problem that may irritate some viewers.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0(music only)no

Audio Transfer Review: The 2.0 surround audio features a new score by Aljoscha Zimmerman. The artists are a piano trio (including Zimmerman himself on piano) plus two percussionists. The result is most of the time quite appropriate, though on occasion I found myself irritated by the frequent misquotation of familiar classical themes. The sound quality is excellent, with good separation and very active surrounds. Hiss and noise are practically nonexistent. The piano sounds a bit overamplified but the strings and percussion have a nice natural sound to them.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
1 Featurette(s)
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: The sole extra is a clip from the documentary The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (also available on DVD from Kino), running 4m:38s. Most of the running time is devoted to an interview with Riefenstahl herself circa 1992 (as of this writing, she's still alive at over 100 and still making films). Trenker also appears in a brief clip reminiscing about the making of the film. The information is interesting and the interviews well-edited. Chaptering is a trifle on the thin side. Intertitles are in English, and no subtitles translating to other languages are available.

Extras Grade: C-


Final Comments

A gorgeous meditation on life in the mountains, with numerous obsessions, and incredible visuals throughout. Extras are slim but the audio transfer is excellent. Other than PAL-NTSC conversion artifacts, the video transfer is quite good as well.


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