The White Hell of Pitz Palu (1929)

Toronto Film Society presented The White Hell of Pitz Palu (1929) on Monday, March 25, 1968 as part of the Season 20 Monday Evening Silent Film Series, Programme 5.

Toronto Film Society


Programme No. 5
Monday March 25, 1968

Double Trouble   (U.S.A. 1926)                                                  21 min 45 sec
The White Hell of Pitz Palu  (Germany 1919)                  1 hr 12 min 10 sec
                                                                                           1 hr 33 min 55 sec


Double Trouble

Starring Snub Pollard
Directed by Lew Collins
Story and Continuity: William Lester
In 2 reels
Copyright December 9, 1926, by Universal Pictures
Reissued with a musical sound track
by Motion Picture Jublilee Productions)

Players: Snub Pollard, Marvin Loback, Harry Martell, Jack Lipson and Jean Douglas

Snub Pollard was born in Australia in 1890.  (Real name, Harold Fraser).  He began his screen career in 1914 as one of the original Keystone Kops, and was the star of countless two-reel comedies during the 1920s, as well as for the rest of his life, mostly in minor roles–his last was a bit part (Knuckles) in A Pocketful of Miracles (1961).  He died of cancer on January 19, 1962, at the age of 72.

We’re not one hundred percent sure that all the credits given above don’t belong to some other picture of the same name.  As you’ll notice when you see the film, this reissue print omits all credit names except the players.  The Library of Congress Catalogue of Motion Picture Copyright Entries (which gives titles and dates and a few credits but never actors) lists four films called Double Trouble, issued between 1915 and 1928.  The likeliest of these was the 1926 film, whose credits (direction and script) and copyright date we have included above.  The date (if it’s the right film) is not without importance.  The film will remind you of a typical Laurel and Hardy comedy (though not as good), but before you jump to the conclusion that this is an “obvious” imitation, it is well to know that the first film in which Laurel and Hardy appeared together was released in the very same month as this film.  So who influenced whom, if anyone?

(On the other hand, someone in the film calls someone “Weary River”, which is the title of a song that was very popular in 1929.  Could there have been a 1929 Double Trouble that missed getting entered in the Copyright Catalogue?  The answer could be provided by a fashion expert able to tell at a glance whether the girl’s clothes are late-1926 styles (as I believe) or 1929.  If 1929 should prove to be the date of this film, then (1) it is an imitation Laurel-and-Hardy, (2) the sound track may very well be the original and not simply period music added for the 16mm reissue, and (3) it was made in the same year as our feature).

The White Hell of Pitz Palu (Das Weisse Hölle vom Piz Palu)

Produced by H.R. Sokal Film, Germany, 1929
Directed by Dr. Arnold Fanck & G.W. Pabst
Story by Arnold Fanck
Script by Arnold Fanck & Ladislas Vajda
Photography: Sepp Allgeier, Richard Angst & Hans Schneesberger
Sets by Erno Metzner
U.S. editing by Deward Cahn.  Titles: Tom Reed
Original musical score composed by Heinz Roemheld
Released in North America by Universal Pictures
U.S. copyright May 26, 1930, by Universal
In 8 reels.  (16mm print: 2 reels)


Dr. Johannes Krafft…………………Gustav Diessl
Maria………………………………….Leni Riefenstahl
Hans………………………………….Ernst Petersen
Ernst Udet……………………………himself
The Guide……………………………B. Spring

When this film was released in the United States in 1930, Photoplay Magazine (July 1930) reviewed it rather breathlessly as follows:

This was made in Switzerland by a Germany company.  It is silent with a synchronized score.  Dialogue would have been useless and unnecessary.

It’s an amazing spectacle.  Three people trapped in the impassable mountain of Palu.  A night search party of hundreds of villagers with blazing torches.  Tremendous snow slides.  Breathtaking airplane stunts by the German aviator, Ernst Udet.  White coldness.  Pictures, grim and vital, that you’ll never forget.  Camera angles utterly different.  The majestic beauty of the Alps.  There is a pretense at story and you think that there is to be a love triangle, but you soon discover it’s not passion at all, only the way people look at each other in Switzerland.  It’s much too cold for romance, but you mustn’t miss this picture.

*     *     *

Mr. W.K. Everson, to whom we are indebted for this print, has also sent us the program notes he wrote for the showing of this film at the Theodore Huff Memorial Film Society in New York on November 15, 1966.  We can do no better than to reproduce them here:

Peculiar to German film-makers in the 20’s was the cult of idealised mountain films, which were both brilliant documentaries and first-rate melodramas, with very definite if embryonic symbolic propaganda content.  They were the inspiration and largely the monopoly of Dr. Arnold Fanck, a former geologist who translated his great passion for the mountains into film.  Initially at least his films carried an added punch in that he took his cameras into the open air, in direct contrast to his German contemporaries who largely concentrated on murky and heavy fantasies and psychological dramas made almost entirely behind studio walls.  The White Hell of Pitz Palu was the last of the great silent German mountain films, and one of the best and most successful.   Personally, I can’t help preferring some of the others–The Sacred Mountain, for its greater pictorial beauty, Leni Riefenstahl’s later The Blue Light for its more interesting story-line and romantic mysticism–but there can’t be much arguing over the fact that The White Hell of Pitz Palu is really the “definitive” film of the whole group.

There is very little studio work in the film; what sets there are (the work of Erno Metzner, who earlier had made the remarkable Uberfall) are remarkably smoothly integrated with location footage, and are usually recognisable as sets only because of camera movements which would be impossible under conditions of actuality.  Most of the film was shot, under freezing conditions and other hardships, during a five-months location trip to the 12,000 foot high Pitz Palu, in the Bernina group in the Alps.  It was Pabst’s 9th film, immediately preceding Die DreigroschenoperL’Atlantide and Kamaradschaft.  However, mountaineering and aerial footage so dominates the film that one must assume that the bulk of the directorial credit belongs to Fanck.  Commenting on this strange collaboration between two directors, one noted for his realism and the other for his romanticism, Siegfried Kracauer had this to say: “Franck made this cinematically fascinating film with the aid of G.W. Pabst, who probably did his best to cut down emotional exuberance.  However, sentimentality was inseparable from that variety of idealism”.

Universal released the film in this country in a silent and two sound versions; one of the latter, employing a melodramatic narration, was so disliked by critics that it soon disappeared.  (SEE APPENDIX – PAGE 8).  Tonight’s print has merely a musical score and effects.  The score perhaps lacks the Wagnerian majesty that it needs (the kind of score that still helps Nazism seem logical in Triumph of the Will!) but on the whole is very good, losing impact today only because its various themes were later deployed by Universal in horror films and serials (especially Bride of FrankensteinThe Mummy and Flash Gordon) so that it thus occasionally seems like a “canned” score today.

The film’s great popularity induced Carl Laemmle to instigate several co-productions for German mountain films, all of them revolving around the individual or united talents of Leni Riefenstahl and Luis Trenker (player-directors who soon took over from Fanck), Fanck and Ernst Udet.  S.O.S. IcebergThe Rebel and The Doomed Battalion were the three best of the post-White Hell mountain films, a genre which incidently enjoyed a whole new vogue in Germany right after World War Two.  The White Hell of Pitz Palu however has remained the best known and most influential of them all; its night searches by torchlight were duplicated with remarkable fidelity in the British The Glass Mountain and the American High Conquest, while actual footage from it has been used frequently through the years–from Lost Horizon down to Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe and Lost City of the Jungle.  In bulk of course it was also reused in the poor 1951 Italo-German remake with Hans Albers.

Pabst’s later–and postwar–career is well-known.  Leni Riefenstahl is now sporadically active again.  Vajda, for so long associated with Pabst and Lubitsch, turned to directing in England and died fairly recently.  Erno Matzner and Gustav Diessl both died in the early 1950’s; US Editor and later director Edward Cahn also died a couple of years ago; and World War One aviation ace Ernst Udet committed suicide in WW 2 when he was unable to reconcile his military career with Nazi ideology.  His story formed the basis of the Karl Zuckermayer play (and film) The Devil’s General.

Dramatically a bit shaky and unsound, but pictorially magnificent, this is a real thriller–and a real film.

Wm. K. Everson

In his accompanying letter to me, Mr. Everson adds:

One point I didn’t make in the enclosed notes is that the film seems a rather cold one–no pun intended–in that the basic characters are such cardboard figures, and basically such dull and pointless ones, that one can’t really be too concerned about the plight they find themselves in!

Which is fair enough warning.  I think it’s a little better than that; the character of Dr. Krafft does have a certain impressiveness . . if only because of the strong personality of the actor who plays him: Gustav Diessl.  (Those of you who have seen Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, which was shown in the TFS Main Series a few years back, will recall him in the brief but important role of Jack the Ripper, who he presented–by subtle implication only–as a pitifully tragic character).  However, Photoplay Magazine’s contemporary review, quoted on page 2, rightly dismisses the “pretense at story” as too unimportant to be allowed to stand in the way of the film’s real merits.  Heed this warning and bear in mind that the plot of this film, at once sentimental and heroic, is only a pretext for some marvellous scenic shots of the Alps in winter and of a famous stunt flyer in action.

When Leni Riefenstahl saw the film again recently, she recalled that the stunts were for real.  The actor who slipped on the ice smashed his head–and this can be clearly seen in the film as he swings on the rope.  The second cameraman was Richard Angst, and he appears in the film as one of the rescue men who are engulfed.  “Fanck had everything done for real–no back projection, no studio” . . except for a scene in which a man is frozen.  G.W. Pabst directed the scenes with the actors–Dr. Fanck did the mountain scenes.

Keven Brownlow, Feb 1968

Gustav Diessl and Georg Wilhelm Pabst first in 1921 when they played in the same film together: Im Banner der Kralle (Caught by the Claw).  Pabst (born 1885) had been an actor and director in the theatre since 1905, but this was his first entry into films–and his first and last appearance before the camera.  Thereafter he continued as script writer and (with Der Schatz, 1923) as director.  His third film was Die freudlose Gasse (The Joyless Street), 1925, (shown in the Silent Series on Feb. 29, 1960), with the young Greta Garbo in one of the leading roles.  (Other films of Pabst shown in TFS Main Series include The Love of Jeanne Ney (1927), Pandora’s Box (1929) and Kamaradschaft (1931)).  In France in 1931 he made French and German versions of The Threepenny Opera.  In 1934 he made one film in Hollywood: A Modern Hero, starring Richard Barthelmess.  Otherwise he spent most of the 1930s making films in France.  In 1939 he decided to move to the United States, but during his visit to Germany to settle his estates and fetch his aged mother, the War broke out, and he was stuck there for the duration.  (Pabst seems to have had very bad timing with his wars.  In 1914 h had set out from Germany with a troupe of actors for a tour of the United States, and was just crossing France when war was declared–and he was promptly interned, remaining in a French prison till the war’s end).  After 1945 he made films in Germany and Italy.  One of them Der Letzte Akt (1955) was released as The Last Ten Days of Hitler–and is unforgettable by those few of us who saw it.  His last film was made in 1956, after which, having suffered a light stroke, he retired to the apartment in Vienna presented to him by the Austrian government.  He died in May, 1967, aged 81.

During the 1920s Hollywood imported innumerable actors, directors, cameramen and other personnel from the German studios.  In 1928 Pabst reveresed this by importing to Berlin the American screen actress, Louise Brooks, to play the role of Lulu in Pandora’s Box–followed the next year by The Diary of a Lost Girl.  In between these two pictures Pabst collaborated with Fanck on The White Hell of Pitz Palu.  Because she therefore knew Pabst at this very period, we wrote to Louise Brooks and asked if she could tell us anything that would be pertinent to our notes for this film.  Much to our delight, she replied with the following piece, written especially for us:

During the production of a film, the director, the cast and the crew are much too occupied with the business on hand to linger over some completed film.  The filming of G.W. Pabst’s The Diary of a Lost Girl was an extraordinary exception.  Pabst had just finished directing The White Hell of Piz Palu; our camera man Sepp Allgeier had photographed it; and its stars, Leni Riefenstahl and Gustav Diessl occasionally visited the Diary set.  Immediately they would gather together to talk and laugh about the filming of Piz Palu.  Not like professional film-makers, but like children reviewing a dangerous adventure in which they had all behaved with great good will and even greater courage.  They laughed about the good-natured Diessl being almost frozen to death while he was photographed through a slab of ice.  They could never praise enough the courage of Ernst Udet, the pilot of the aerial shots whose plane was lashed about like a splinter in the wicked mountain air currents.  Sepp Allgeier never thought to add that he and his camera were also in the plane.

Sepp was Austrian, blonde, bronzed, handsome and a champion skier–the most unlikely man I ever saw behind a camera.  For, in my time, camera men were a grim and critical lot who acted as if they accomplished their task in spite of crazy directors and actors who should be photographed through burlap.  Sepp was happy and relaxed, always smoking his pipe, never arguing with Mr. Pabst about setups.  In fact he was so relaxed that on one hot July day he came on the set wearing only sneakers and shorts.  Mr. Pabst threw a fit.  Although Sepp argued that if I could be photographed wearing a bathing suit he ought to be allowed to photograph me in shorts, Mr. Pabst made him go and put on pants and a shirt.

Gustav Diessl, who played Jack the Ripper in Lulu, was the best actor I ever worked with.  In Six Talks on G.W. Pabst (1955), one of his assistants, Paul Falkenberg disagrees with my opinion and makes Pabst look rather a fool for having used Diessl more than any other actor.  (From 1928 till his death in 1948, Diessl worked in seven of Pabst’s nineteen German language films).  Falkenberg says “Pabst had a difficult time with Diessl who was rather good-looking, but by no means a born or trained actor.  He had no acting technique”.

Pabst loved Diessl because he did not muddy direction with some private “acting technique”.  Pabst loved Diessl’s “rather good-looking” face for its arresting quiet.  It was a portrait face like the faces of those other Pabst favorites–Greta Garbo, Brigitte Helm, Valeska Gert and Fritz Rasp.

Leni Riefenstahl’s face was neither beautiful nor arresting.  She had no impact on the screen as a face; and in Piz Palu the movements of her beautiful body were bundled up in bloomers.  But when I met her on the set of Diary I found that in real life she had plenty of impact, both of face and body.  Her eyes were brilliantly intelligent and she moved about with the dancer’s grace which always bewitched Mr. Pabst.  (His next-to-last film, Rosen Fuer Bettina (1956), was about a ballerina).

Listening to the animated conversation between Leni and Pabst, measuring her fine legs, I was violently jealous until I realized that she did not visit the set as an actress looking for a job, but as a future director looking for instruction in her craft.  And nobody who has seen Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia can doubt that she was a brilliant pupil.







Louise Brooks, February 1968

(In addition to contributing the above, Miss Brooks also wrote to Kevin Brownlow in London, asking him to send me information on The White Hell of Pitz Palu.  Mr. Brownlow’s prompt reply provided us with the quotations from Photoplay Magazine as well as the excerpts from his letter which we have quoted verbatim).

*     *     *

It is not really surprising that Leni Riefenstahl “moved with a dancer’s grace”.  A dancer is what she originally was.  Before that (like Natacha Rambova) she had studied to be a painter.  “In all the films I produced” she said recently, “it was the beauty of the object which especially fascinated me”.

Born in Berlin on August 22, 1902, she began achieving some fame as a dancer in Zurich, Prague, Berlin and elsewhere in her early twenties (1923-26).  In Berlin she worked with Max Reinhardt.

Dr. Arnold Fanck, searching for a young actress to play the part of a ballerina who loves mountains, signed her for Der Heilige Berg (The Holy Mountain), 1926, in which she performed her own expressionistic “Dance of the Sea”.  One of several directors of so-called mountain films, Fanck later was prominent in Nazi films.  Riefenstahl starred in a series of mountain films directed by Fanck–Der Grosse Sprung (The Great Leap), 1927; Der Weisse Rausch (The White Frenzy), 1931; Die Weiss Hölle vom Piz Palu, 1929, co-directed by G.W. Pabst; Sturme über dem Montblanc (Storm over Mount Blanc), 1930; S.O.S. Eisberg, filmed in Greenland, was directed by Tay Garnett, with Gibson Gowland in the cast.  Riefenstahl appeared also in Die Vetsera 1928, a version of the Mayerling story.  Most of these films, and Riefenstahl’s subsequent Das Blaue Licht (The Blue Light), 1932, were of the mountain genre, which celebrated the joys, beauties, perils, and self-assertion associated with mountain sports and the climbing of hitherto inaccessible heights.  The films emphasized heroic idealism that simultaneously conquers nature’s power and achieves a mystical union with it.

Film Comment, Winter 1965

In 1931 she founded her own production company and produced The Blue Light, in which she starred, and which she “co-directed and co-scripted with Bela Balazs, Hungarian critic and author of a classic text on film”–(and also, incidently, the librettist of Bela Bartok’s only opera, “Bluebeard’s Castle”, 1911).  Acting as cameraman and associate producer was Hans Schneeberger, who had previously been cameraman for S.O.S. Iceberg and chief cameraman for White Hell.  (Can such an incredibly appropriate name as Schneeberger be his real one?  And his fellow-cameraman, Richard Angst?)

With the success of The Blue Light Riefenstahl found herself embarked on her (so far) last and longest career: film maker rather than film star.  One of the admirers of The Blue Light was Adolf Hitler, and eventually he commissioned her (over the objections of Goebbels) to cover the Nazi rally at Nuremberg in 1934.  She consented on condition that the film was to be made by her company, not the Propaganda Ministry, and that there was to be no editing supervision even by Hitler.  She had only six days to shoot the film, with the assistance of eighteen cameramen (not thirty as is sometimes stated)–one of whom was Sepp Allgeiner–but she took nearly two years to edit the footage.  The result, Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will), released in 1936, was a film so great that in spite of its being an obvious propaganda film for the deplorable Nazis–like a clever commercial for a bad product–it has been the object of admiration ever since.  (TFS showed it some ten or twelve years ago).  She herself has been the object of vilification of all anti-Nazis; but she is probably telling the truth when she says she has never been interested in politics.  One can easily imagine that the opportunity of making a film of the spectacular and cleverly stage-managed Nuremberg rally appealed onto the Cecil B. DeMille in her.  (“…it was the beauty of the object…”)

A similar opportunity came along in 1936 when the Olympic Games were held in Berlin, and she was given the approval of the Olympics Commission to film it.  She used thirty cameramen–“of which only six, having feature and newsreel background, were first-rate; 70% of the shooting was useless”.  (One of her best cameramen, we can’t resist reporting, is alive and living in Bolivia).  Once again the editing took two years, but the result was the magnificent two-part Olympia (also shown by TFS), which captures all the drama, poetry, comedy, tension and splendor of these ritualistic athletic games.

Leni Riefenstahl may have been naively indifferent to the implications of her contribution to the Nazi party; but other members of the cast of Pitz Palu were more conscientious.  Supplementary to what Mr. Everson has written in his program notes (p.4), Kevin Brownlow supplies the following note on Ernst Udet:

Ernst Udet, who did the aerial stunting, became prominent in the Luftwaffe…  He rebelled against the Nazis and Goering’s policies and deliberately crashed his plane, killing himself.

*     *     *

APPENDIX (some Footnotes)

(1) As Mr. Everson’s notes mention, The White Hell of Pitz Palu was released in North America in several versions, including one which had a running commentary read by the No 1 radio announcer of the day, Graham MacNamee.  In the December 1930 issue of Photoplay Magazine, the editor, James Quirk, voiced his own commentary in his editorial page:

Have you seen The White Hell of Pitz Palu?  No?  Then take this fifty cents and go and see it the first chance you get, leaving your nervous Aunt Hattie at home.  BUT–if you see Graham MacNamee’s name on the bill as the shouting dialogue accompanist, pass right by the theatre and buy yourself a good shot of prewar Jamaica ginger.  It will be less harmful to your nerves.  Here is one of the finest miles of celluloid ever transmitted into awesome spectacle by the magic of the camera.  …In its original version the bright lads who brought it to this country called in MacNamee to pound your ear while the film itself was smashing your eyes with some of the most vividly realistic scenes ever photographed.  Praise be to the New York critics.  they gave the picture itself the magnificent notices it deserved, but let up a unanimous yell for mercy on the descriptive howling.

(2) In the credits for White Hell which Mr. Brownlow sent me there is a list of players which name an “Otto Spring” (rather than “B. Spring” as is on the credit titles on the film itself) and a Mitzi Goezel.

Notes by Fraser Macdonald


Next show: April 22 – The Eagle (Valentino!)

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