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Kino on Video presents
The White Hell of Pitz Palu (Die Weisse Hölle vom Piz Palü) (1929)

"It was only a narrow crevice in the Palü glacier, but it reached far down into the darkness."
- Johannes Krafft (Gustav Diessl)

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: November 07, 2005

Stars: Gustav Diessl, Leni Riefenstahl, Ernst Peterson
Other Stars: Ernst Udet, Otto Spring
Director: Arnold Fanck, G.W. Pabst

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (moderately disturbing imagery)
Run Time: 02h:14m:15s
Release Date: November 08, 2005
UPC: 738329042424
Genre: adventure

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A+ AA-A B+

DVD Review

Arnold Fanck and Leni Riefenstahl collaborated on a number of "mountain films," such as The Holy Mountain (Der heilige Berg) in the late 1920s. Fanck was a master of capturing mountain scenery to dramatic effect, and Riefenstahl was one of the more popular actresses in Germany at the time. But the combination of forces never was better than in this spectacular tale of survival under extreme conditions, The White Hell of Pitz Palu.

Newly engaged Hans Brandt (Ernst Peterson) and Maria Maioni (Riefenstahl) have come to the Alps in celebration, staying in a hut in the shadow of the massive Pitz Palu (or as the German has it, Piz Palü) glacier, a deadly mountain of ice that is a natural challenge to climbers. They meet Dr. Johannes Krafft (Gustav Diessl), whose wife Maria perished exactly three years earlier in an avalanche. Ever since, he has combed the glacier to find her body, still haunted by her cries after she fell into the abyss. As he sets off for the treacherous north face, Hans spontaneously decides to accompany him. Spunky Maria, not one to be left behind, catches up to come along on the expedition. But Hans is injured in a bad fall atop the glacier, and Krafft breaks his leg in retrieving him, leaving the trio marooned to fight to stay alive on an icy ledge, without substantial supplies, as a blizzard approaches.

Although Fanck's other films are majestic in their grandeur, the natural footage here is even more breathtaking than usual, with the constant avalanches and shifting terrain mixed with the glare of the ice and the constant Föhn, an Alpine wind that is a constant feature within the film. The Föhn's swirling whiteness resembles the fumes of hell that give the picture its name; at one point the film even spells it out as a superimposed title reads, Inferno. The photography is endlessly dazzling, and most notably there's little fakery involved (other than an obvious model shot as five students from Zurich are killed in an avalanche). Riefenstahl reportedly suffered frostbite during the filming, and the grueling nature of the shoot is clear from the many shots of ice forming on her face. This movie drips with bitter cold in nearly every frame once the trio leaves the safety of the warming hut; while the mountain may look beautiful from that vantage point, its beauty in reality masks a terrible ferocity.

The basic plot outline was used several times by Fanck, such as in The Holy Mountain. Where this film stands out from many of Fanck's pictures, however, is that the human drama is not given short shrift. This is in no small part due to Riefenstahl's insistence that the great director G.W. Pabst be retained to direct the acting scenes, with Fanck sticking with what he did best. The collaboration is inspired, and the two manage to produce an incredibly affecting film that scores on nearly every level. The characters have depth, foibles, and credibility, helped along by a parallel structure. The two Marias are matched with Hans and Hannes (short for Johannes); either Riefenstahl played both Marias, or Krafft's wife was played by a woman who strongly resembles her (it's difficult to tell from her brief footage), making Krafft's affinity for the new Maria the basis of a romantic triangle (or quadrilateral if you count the haunting memory of his dead wife). Riefenstahl's character seems oblivious to the attraction, but Hans notices it, conveyed with subtlety by Peterson as a brief glance of suspicion, replaced by uneasy confidence in Maria's affections.

The scenes of the three trapped on the ledge are gripping even though they don't really move much. Everything is conveyed through small gestures and expressions. This is a truly silent movie, for once the three leave the hut there's also virtually no dialogue of any kind. Motifs that appeared to give comfort at the hut, such as a dripping icicle, are used later on to symbolize their impending doom. Another brilliant aspect is the inclusion of German war hero and stunt pilot Ernst Udet (playing himself) as a character in the film. First flying past to drop off a bottle of champagne to celebrate Hans and Maria's engagement, he later makes an amazing appearance as part of a rescue effort, flying in a biplane right next to the ice of the glacier, a daring stunt that has few equals short of the Ben-Hur chariot race. The marvelous nature photography, including another sequence of a torchlight rescue party, has few equals in the history of cinema, and the end result is an incredible piece of filmmaking that dazzles with its gorgeousness while it tears at the heartstrings. Few images on film are as poignant as the closeups of Riefenstahl's face, stained with tears that have frozen into solid blocks before they can trickle halfway down.

The source print is an original nitrate, restored in 1997 to match the sequence and the intertitling according to the original censor records.

Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

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

Image Transfer Review: The full-frame picture suffers from the expected wear of a film 75 years old, but since it's from an original nitrate there's a great deal of detail and in places it looks beautiful. Textures look quite nice. Occasionally the outdoors shots are contrasty, but that's most likely a circumstance of filming on vast expanses of snow and ice. There is some moderate PAL/NTSC conversion ghosting, but since there's not too much fast action it's seldom distracting.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0(music only)no

Audio Transfer Review: A lushly romantic orchestral score is provided by Ashley Irwin. It has a rich and full sound, with some significant surround information. It sounds excellent throughout, even though on occasion the score gets a bit mickey-mouse. Like the film, it wears its heart on its sleeve and makes no bones about it.

Audio Transfer Grade: A


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
1 Documentaries
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 01h:40m:46s

Extra Extras:
  1. Still gallery
  2. Excerpt of sound reissue
Extras Review: Three extras are provided on this disc. The first is a short gallery of 16 promotional stills. The second is an excerpt (8m:44s) from the 1935 sound reissue of the pivotal scene in the cabin where Hans and Maria meet Krafft, one of the few dialogue-heavy segments of the picture. The film is rather clumsily dubbed, however, and it works much better as a silent. It's nice to have this segment for comparison's sake, especially since it points up by comparison just how gorgeous the feature presentation is.

By far the most substantial extra is the documentary The Immoderation in Me, a 2002 interview with the then-100-year-old Riefenstahl, conducted by Sandra Maischberger, in subtitled German. In this substantial (59m:52s) piece, the pair cover Riefenstahl's system of editing, her then-new film of undersea footage, her work on Triumph of the Will and Olympia (the latter somehow still MIA on DVD), her controversial relationship with Adolf Hitler (which she minimizes) and her war crimes trials (about which she emphasizes twice that she was acquitted). Unlike most centenarians, she demonstrates a fondness for high tech, showing off the Avid editing suite that she was using to work on her latest film and chatting off-handedly about CGI. She remained to the end fiercely independent and an intriguing figure who never quite was able to overcome the shadow of her work under the Nazis, though she points out that she had no choice if she wanted to work at all in Germany. The viewer will have to judge for himself whether she's being defensive or really just an artist first and oblivious to politics of any kind. The documentary is intercut with segments from the 1993 film The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, shot when she was quite a bit less feeble but still quite sharp mentally if declining physically, as well as brief excerpts from various of her films.

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

A marvelous piece of filmmaking from the perspectives of humanity as well as spectacle, with few equals for amazing visuals in all of cinema. A must for any film lover.


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