The Holy Mountain (1926)

Mountain films sound exactly like the kind of shameless pandering I would love: gratuitous shots of nature, heavy melodrama and more gratuitous shots of nature. And I’ll admit I was drooling over just about every single shot of this film for the first five minutes. Magnificent mountains, beautiful shots of the ocean and a fascinating outcropping of rocks were drizzled throughout the opening moments of the film.

And plus, you also have Diotima (Leni Riefenstahl), the local beauty) dancing about the natural environment. It’s an opening full of grace and beauty, light and joyous. I was fully prepared to enjoy such a spectacle for the duration of the film. Sadly, as often happens, a silly thing called plot had to get in my way as well as the nefarious acts of men on these same mountains.

The Holy Mountain, like a lot of silent films, is a melodrama. But not just any kind of melodrama, it’s a–wait for it–love triangle. I swear, every other silent film I’ve seen is a love triangle and while I’m a sap for them, it often becomes hard to make them interesting. The Holy Mountain is really only a love triangle in the mind of the two men who both love Diotima, the boyish Karl (Luis Trenker) and the serious Vigo (Ernst Petersen).

A large part of the film becomes their macho contest to win the affections of Diotima through a ski race. It’s at this point that the film quits becoming about all those great looking mountains and ends up as a spectacle of human ability in the midst of mountains. Screw that. The mountains have got you whuped, boys, just give me another shot of Leni Rifenstahl dancing on a mountain.

I’ve seen a lot of great looking silent films, but this one is just magnificent. A lot of mountain films may end up looking like this, but I can’t help but be amazed at the fantastic vistas, the great silhouettes and tantalizing imagery at work. Coupled with the tints often used in the silent era, and there are some strong images at work.

The problem is, all of this is clearly escapist pandering intended for silly people like me who work so much that they can’t go off into the mountains and ski away the day or dance on the mountains in the moonlight. It’s the kind of romantic dribble that the working man eats up. I imagine all those people in the mountain were probably watching urban dramas with fascination during the same period.

But beyond all this escapist pandering, the film brings up some compelling questions about nature, and if you know me, I like any film that examines nature. While this certainly doesn’t have the analysis of a Malick film, it questions why as human beings we are so drawn to nature. It’s unfortunately done in the most heavy-handed and bombastic way possible with the characters essentially asking the question and then answering them.

Therefore, The Holy Mountain ends up being a trite film, but it’s exactly the kind of film I’m a sucker for. If you’re like me and like staring at beautiful shots of mountains and mulling over nature, this is a film for you. If not, you’ll probably find it too slow and too tedious and you’ll probably be most interested in the skiing. Don’t people know how dangerous that stuff is? The mountains will eat you alive! Best to just admire them from afar.

© 2010 James Blake Ewing