Thursday, 1 September 2016

Berge in Flammen : Mountains in flames

Berge in Flammen, Mountains on Fire -  Bergfilm, art film, and war film, conceived and directed By Luis Trenker (1892-1990).  You'd think, from English language media, that 1914-1918 happened only on the western front. Not so! Millions died on the eastern front and in the south, in the Alps. All the more reason for watching Berge in Flammen, set in the Dolomites during the war of attrition that ran almost non stop from 1915 to 1917.  Imagine, trenches in mountains way above the snowline,dug into permafrost, cut off from supply lines.

Largely filmed on location,  the camera crew were themselves  skilled mountaineers - some of these shots would have been technically difficult to carry off.  Yet Berge in Flammen is an astonishingly beautiful film, a symphony of high peaks, snowfields and rockwalls,  shot from dizzying, expressionist angles.  Nature as poetry, dwarfing the silly battles below.  Global warming and safety regulations probably mean that films like this can't be made again. In any case, the South Tyrol depicted here is largely memory, but that, too, is a reason for seeing this film and appreciating its message. Not for nothing is this film bilingual, and those involved in the making thereof, a mix of Germans, Austrians, Frenchmen and Italians. Very much the "can do" camaraderie of the mountains. Some of the camera crew were not only climbers but also actors.

An idyllic beginning. Florian Dimal (Luis Trenker) and Arthur Franchini (Luigi Serventi) help each other up a rockstack.  They're free climbing, using only ropes, no helmets, no fancy modern gear.  But in the valley below, the church bells ring, It's August 1914. Franz Josef, the Emperor, has announced war. Florian and Arthur end up on different sides. Fantastic shots of life in underground caves and trenches tunneled through metres of snow.  Rickety ladders up steep slopes. Constant bombardment and with that, rock falls. Not many "special effects" in this filming. When the men trek through snow up to their hips, they're not acting. Bergfilme audiences knew about mountains and the technical aspects of climbing . 

Machine guns on precipices, hand grenades thrown by men clinging to ledges. Barbed wire and frozen bodies.  A sentry goes snow blind in a storm, frozen to the sandbags he was guarding. At one stage an officer with binoculars watches the action. The man at his shoulder is shot by a sniper. The officer keeps talking, unaware that his companion is dead.  Soldiers scale vertical cliffs, using mechanical drills to place explosives or maximum damage.  It doesn't take much to set off an  avalanches .And avalanches happen all the time. Most Bergfilme include shots of skiers in mass formation, but those here are particularly impressive because the men wear white coats with hoods, moving like apparitions.  The snowfields on glaciers are as spectacular as the cliffs and peaks.

Meanwhile, Florian's village has been occupied by the Italians.  Florian's home is billeted but the soldiers friendly. "Farina!"  says an Italian. "Mehl" says Pia, Florian's wife.  Florian is sent out alone, in secret on reconnaissance.  But he can't stay.  Crawling back up to the summit, during an enemy barrage, he's shot at by his own men, though is saved. The fortress is dynamited :  the whole peak explodes.  Twenty years later, Florian and Arthur (from Rome) ascend the mountains again, over the old battlefield. A vista of the Twin peaks of the Dolomites. They sit happily, together, no need for words.  The soundtrack, incidentally is very good, as modern as the cinematography.  The composer was Giuseppe Becci.

1 comment:

Chris Kaiser said...

Whoa! Those stills look incredible. I'm gonna have to track this one down.