New Insights into Bergfilm and Contemporary Environmentalism

A study published in the Journal of Cinema and Media Studies last fall considers the contributions of the Bergfilm– or “mountain film” — to historical views of nature and environment. The films examined in this article were released in inter-war Germany, at a time when the Nazis were growing in power. The article “Moving Mountains: Glacial Contingency and Modernity in the Bergfilm,” is a key chapter from Alex Bush’s PhD dissertation, which examines how various forms of media have altered how society has viewed nature over time. 

Bush found the Bergfilm a particularly compelling moment in cinema due to the genre’s popularity in the 1930s. The two movies discussed in this paper, Stürme über dem Montblanc (Avalanche, 1930) and SOS Eisberg (SOS Iceberg, 1933) were released during inter-war Germany. They drew large audiences and were considered tremendously successful films. Both Avalanche and SOS Iceberg were directed by Arnold Fanck, a geologist and filmmaker. One centers on a weather-station attendant on Mont Blanc and the other, a glaciologist trapped on a glacier in the Greenland ice sheet. When the two films were released, film critics and theorists described them as antimodernist, a philosophy similar to the pro-fascist agenda that was promoted during this period. 

Arnold Fanck, German cinematographer and director (Source: Wiki Commons/Deutsches Filminstitut)

Fanck was thought to be a fanatic film director who sought to portray nature as realistically as possible. He often insisted on shooting in extreme conditions. When filming SOS Iceberg, Fanck and his crew had to hire two glaciologists to receive access to filming locations, because the Danish government would only grant permits to scientific expeditions. Fanck’s filming techniques resulted in movies with powerful visual effects and an emphasis on the sublime. This emphasis on the natural environment is evident in the camera panning across long mountain ranges and footage of freshly-calved icebergs. As a director, Fanck sought to capture the magnificence of nature. 

Greenland ice sheet, the second largest mass of ice in the world (Source: Wiki Commons/European Space Agency)
Arnold Fanck on the filming expedition for SOS Iceberg (Source: Wiki Commons/Wereldnieuws)

Although Fanck did not join the Nazi party until 1940, 7 years after it came to power, his Bergfilms are politically ambiguous and links can be drawn between them and pro-fascist ideologies. Nazi ideology emphasized the purity of the Aryan race, which could be directly linked to the purity and conservation of the German homeland. As Bush described it to GlacierHub, the “health of the body is the health of the land.” Fanck’s films sought to show the health of the land, displaying the picturesque German landscape and the need for its preservation. Bush explained that German Jews viewed Fanck’s romanticized films as a “brutal exploitation of the mythic aspect of nature.” However, she believed Fanck’s motivation for the Bergfilm was not political. Fanck was a scientist and an artist, and as such, Bush thought his films were produced from a pure love of art and the environment. Despite Bush’s view that Fanck’s films were not overtly political, Leni Riefenstahl, who starred in most of Fanck’s major films, became Hitler’s main propagandist. Riefenstahl started out as an actress before transitioning to directing films such as “Triumph of the Will,” an infamous Nazi propaganda piece. 

Leni Riefenstahl and Heinrich Himmler filming Triumph of the Will, 1934 (Source: Wiki Commons/German Federal Archive)

Bush recognizes the importance of addressing the Bergfilm’s contribution to Nazi cinema, however, she stressed it should not eclipse its participation in environmental history.  Counter to the characterization of the films when they were released, Bush viewed the films as modern and influential to more contemporary views of the environment. These films discuss themes of gender roles, technology, and the German environment. Technology is a prominent feature in both Avalanche and SOS Iceberg. The main characters in each film conduct scientific research and communicate long distances using Morse code. The plot of Avalanche centers around a meteorologist living atop Mont Blanc, who gets caught in an Avalanche and must be rescued by his love interest. The lead character in SOS Iceberg is a glaciologist trapped on a Glacier in the Greenland ice sheet after a calving event. The prominent use of technology in these films and the focus on science directly opposes the original anti-modern interpretation of the films. In Avalanche, the love interest is characterized by her bobbed hair style, pants, outdoor wear, and comfort with technology. These characteristics would have been considered very modern for the time, especially when paired with the storyline where the heroine saves the weather station attendant from a winter storm. The characteristics of the female love interest are in stark contrast to the Nazi party’s efforts to keep women in traditional roles. 

Leni Riefenstahl and Arnold Fanck with cameramen on the set of Avalanche (Source: Wiki Commons/Miraculamundi

The different themes addressed in Avalanche and SOS Iceberg support Bush’s research into modernity in the Bergfilm and their roles in environmentalism. The use of technology, the emphasis on science, and the portrayal of women are obviously evidence of a progressive-minded director. The question is, however, how these modern themes influenced environmental attitudes over time.

Bush’s dissertation sought to identify the difference between how society views the struggle between people and nature from the first half of the 20th century to today. In her article published about the Bergfilm, Bush uses the glacier to make this comparison between past and present. She noted the glacier is an interesting subject when looking at how environmental cinema has shaped society’s views of nature because of the cultural role of glaciers and their scale. At the time of Fanck’s films, the natural world was a popular setting for movies. The time scale at which glaciers are studied also ranges from the shorter human scale to a long-term geological time scale. To capture the changing landscape, Fanck was known to use time-lapse photography, a painstaking method in the 1930’s, such as in his film, Der Berg des Schicksals (Mountain of Destiny, 1924). Additionally, one of the glaciologists Fanck hired during the making of SOS Iceberg used time-lapse film to try and capture the movement of a glacier. Bush says this has perhaps helped shift the human view of natural environments from being eternal to exhaustible. Today, people are much more conscious of a changing environment and the importance of preserving natural resources.

Cameramen at Trient Glacier on Mont Blanc filming Avalanche (Source: Wiki Commons/Miraculamundi)

In an interview with GlacierHub, Bush also described the underlying desire in Fanck’s work to dominate and master nature. In Avalanche and SOS Iceberg, the two main characters are at the mercy of their environments. Here, Fanck’s work again differs from Nazi ideology, which emphasized the immense power of the German people and their party. In Avalanche, the weather station attendant nearly dies in a winter storm and in SOS Iceberg, the glaciologist spends the film trapped by sea ice. “There is a bigness and force to environment,” Bush said. “At the end of the day, nature is always going to win.” As Bush noted, today, humans in some ways have mastered nature, harnessing the environment’s energy and power. Although, she concedes the environment is still not completely under our control. Humans produce environmental consequences that ripple throughout ecosystems. Studying the Bergfilm allows researchers to ponder how views of nature have changed and how they have remained the same. 

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