Many who saw Ray Muller's fascinating documentary The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (1993) were surprised to learn that the director of such controversial documentaries as Triumph of the Will (1935) and Olympia (1938) had been a glamorous movie star before becoming a director. Viewers of Muller's film were fascinated by clips featuring her in these movies, so-called "mountain films" directed by "Dr." Arnold Fanck that were visually quite spectacular. In these movies actors like Riefenstahl are seen precariously perched high up on cliff sides, clearly without the use of doubles and certainly without the advantages of present-day CGI wire removal. Thanks to Kino and DVD technology, most of these Riefenstahl-Fanck collaborations are now available in excellent transfers. DVD Talk's John Sinnott has already reviewed two of these films, The White Hell of Pitz Palu and Storm Over Mont Blanc.
S.O.S. Iceberg (S.O.S. Eisberg, 1933) was Riefenstahl's last work as an actress outside of Lowlands (Tiefland), the troubled production she directed during the war, though it wasn't even released until 1954. S.O.S. Iceberg is almost a sequel to Storm Over Mont Blanc insofar as a few characters are carried over from that earlier film, and Riefenstahl's character is named Hella in both films.
The film is set along the northwest coast of Greenland, where Professor Dr. Karl Lorenz (Gustav Diessl) has been abandoned and presumed dead, but when word reaches the expedition back in Germany that he might be alive after all, partner Dr. Johannes Krafft (Sepp Rist) launches a rescue mission. Accompanied by three colleagues (including hulking, bearded Gibson Gowland, McTeague from von Stroheim's Greed) they eventually reach Lorenz on a giant, drifting iceberg, but become stranded themselves as the ice floe drifts southward - where it will eventually melt and break up.
Meanwhile, Lorenz's aviatrix wife, Hella (Riefenstahl), realizing the rescuers need rescuing themselves, sets out in her plane, hoping to find the missing men.
S.O.S. Iceberg is a straightforward adventure piece whose main draw is its incredible scenery, which like all of Fanck's films (including The New Earth/Die Tochter des Samurai/Atarashiki tsuchi, a 1938 co-production with Japan, starring Setsuko Hara) contrast the awesomeness of nature with the relative puniness of man, and his (and her) determination to overcome its harsh and unforgiving trials. This time instead of scaling treacherous mountainsides, Riefenstahl et. al., endure the hardships of colossal glaciers which break apart and spectacularly slide and roll into the sea. They climb over and swim between them, with ice everywhere as big as mountains and small as ice cubes. Fanck's camera reveals a human interaction with that world almost never seen in narrative cinema.
Much of it is quite incredible to watch, even now more than 70 years after it was made, particularly in scenes where the actors leap from one small floe, about the size of a VW bug, to another and sometimes slip, falling into the freezing water. One actor gets within 15 feet or so of a wandering polar bear, and Riefenstahl is clearly seen in the plane swooping impressively about the icebergs.
All of this makes the rather thin story highly watchable, and at 86 minutes the film is only draggy here and there.
Video & Audio
Kino's DVD of S.O.S. Iceberg is really two films in one. Apparently a co-production with Universal in Hollywood, two versions were produced: the aforementioned German film, as well as a version in English, running 76 minutes. The American version uses most of the same actors (with Rod La Rocque replacing Diessl), their scenes re-shot in English. Riefenstahl (here called Ellen Lawrence) is obviously dubbed most of the time, and her part greatly reduced, though the rest of the cast speaks English. One would have assumed that the English version would use all the same footage except for the dialogue-heavy scenes, but this isn't the case at all. Although the two versions share some footage, even some action scenes were either re-staged later or use alternate takes. (For example, there's a sequence where a plane smashes into an iceberg and catches fire, and this appears to use different angles or perhaps even an entirely different plane.)
The U.S. version, credited to director Tay Garnett (The Postman Always Rings Twice), also deemphasizes the nature scenes in favor of more conventionally staged dialogue and human conflict. Where the German version opens in Greenland, with a desperate Dr. Lorenz (his face obscured, we see only his hands at this point) writing entries in his diary as Fanck inter-cuts shots of the massive glacier, the American version opens at the "International Society of Arctic Research," where two old fogies admire oil paintings of Admiral Byrd and whatnot. In a way, it's surprising Universal went to all the trouble in the first place. The German version has so little dialogue and is told almost entirely visually; the studio might just as well have dubbed it and let it go at that. Both versions of the film look good for their age, but the German release, with optional English subtitles, is in substantially better condition and the one to watch first.
The only other supplement beyond the U.S. version is an extremely good Photo Gallery which among other things reveals that at least portions of the iceberg scenes were shot at the studio, though it's not entirely clear whether these particular stills are for the U.S. or German release versions.
This is a real curio, a film that those interested in early talkie cinema and Leni Riefenstahl have been searching out for some time. The two versions and their many differences make for fascinating viewing, and for historical and aesthetic reasons, as well as for its spectacular cinematography, S.O.S. Iceberg comes Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.