CAST: Maria, Leni Riefenstahl (born 1902); Johannes Krafft, Gustav Diessl (7899-7948); Maria's husband, Ernst Petersen (died 1930); Christian [a guide], B. Spring; The aviator, Ernst Udet (1896?-1941)
This was the final silent film that Leni Riefenstahl starred in, but did not direct. It was originally planned as a production of Harry R. Sokal to be directed by Arnold Fanck, who specialized in nature films and photography. Riefenstahl convinced the producers to bring in G.W. Pabst to direct the acting scenes, as she had admired Pabst's work, and wanted to work under his direction. She also states in her memoirs that it was she who was responsible for getting world-renowned stunt pilot Ernst Udet to join the project. Udet was a highly decorated German war hero, and the world's most famous stunt pilot at the time.
Filmed on location in the Engadine Valley on the Morteratsch Glacier in the Swiss Alps, where temperatures were in the range of -50'F to -60'F, The White Hell of Pitz Palu was one of the most popular of the mountain dramas that came out in Europe in the 1920s and early 1930s. Ms. Riefenstahl plays Maria, one of three members of a climbing expedition on Mt. Pitz Palu. The opening shots show her frolicking in the snow in a short sleeved shirt and knee length skirt, making one wonder how she could stand the cold. The film goes on to show Maria and her husband in their cabin on their honeymoon when they hear the story of Dr. Krafft, who is looking for his wife, lost on the mountain. The couple decide to join him in the search, and this is where the drama really begins.
As the expedition conducts the search, a number of dangerous
perils are braved, including an avalanche, creating a situation in which
the rescuers must be rescued. The footage in the blizzard sequence
is phenomenal. One can see the ice forming on Riefenstahl's face as the
icy wind blows. Her face is literally caked with ice, to an even greater
extent than Lillian Gish's was in the blizzard sequence in Way Down East.
Riefenstahl's memoirs state that she suffered frostbite on her upper thighs,
and suffered a bladder disorder that remains with her to this day. The ice
on her face speaks for itself, and it is not difficult at all to believe
that what she says is 100% credible. It is a miracle that she came through
this film alive and without losing body parts
The finale of the film has pilot Ernst Udet flying his plane perilously close to the glaciers performing mindboggling stunts as he attempts to rescue the stranded mountain climbers. It is doubtful that the modern day Blue Angels team would attempt some of the death defying stuntsthat Udet accomplished in this film. The photography in the film is gorgeous. One can tell which scenes were done under Arnold Fanck's direction. The clouds are magnificent as they move in the path of the sun. The ice vapors are shown gracefully swirling up and around the mountains, as if to symbolize steam from the "white hell" in the valley of Mt. Pitz Palu. This is some of the most artistic mountain/glacier photography ever committed to celluloid. With Fanck's knack for nature cinematography direction, and Pabst's penchant for dramatic direction, the combination is magnificent. The White Hell of Pitz Palu is an artistic masterpiece, and remains an awe-inspiring film to watch today. Leni Riefenstahl demonstrated with her later directorial projects The Blue Light (1931), Triumph of the Will (1934), and Olympia (1936) that she is the greatest female cinematographer that has ever graced the planet earth, and possibly the greatest cinematographer of either sex. In this film, she demonstrates that she was a remarkable and highly talented actress as well. She braved conditions that few of her male contemporaries would attempt. She is most definitely to German silent cinema what Lillian Gish was to American silent cinema.
Ms. Riefenstahl remains active today. At 95, she was presented an award at the recent 1997 Cinecon Convention in Hollywood. As the world's oldest ever licensed scuba diver, she still does underwater diving and photography. She remains a highly controversial figure due to her involvement with the Nazi Party and Adolph Hitler in the 1930s.
It is the viewpoint of this author that much of the flack that Riefenstahl gets is a result of daring to be the best in what is typically a man's field. Sergei Eisenstein, a male director, did propaganda films for Joseph Stalin, who murdered far more people under his Communist regime than Hitler did during the Reich. Nobody condemns Eisenstein, but a Riefenstahl appearance still draws protest. Sounds like a bit of a double standard! Riefenstahl has apologized for the role she had in the Nazi regime, and it is doubtful there is one person in the world who hasn't done something in their past that they have regretted later. Ms. Riefenstahl should be recognized for her accomplishments as an artist. She has paid her dues and then some.