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not all great DVDs are in 5.1

Silent DVD Archive


The White Hell of Pitz Palu
A column on the world of early cinema by DVDTalk reviewer John Sinnott

This month we have a review of a film that Leni Riefenstahl stared in, The White Hell of Pitz Palu. This is Leni's best work in front of the camera, and an exciting epic that was much better than I was expecting.  We also have to latest news on upcoming silent films that are scheduled to be released on DVD, and an e-mail from the founder of Lobster Films about Kino's Harold Lloyd Collection II, and some promo items that New Line is sending to the press to promote the Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection which is due out in November.  (Personally, I can't wait for this set.  With a little luck we'll have a review up before it streets.)

We recieved an e-mail from Serge Bromberg, the founder of Lobster Films in regards to our review of The Harold Lloyd Collection II from Kino.  Lobster is the French firm that restored all of the films in both waves of Kino's Slapstick Symposium series as well as the wonderful Charley Bowers set.  He gave some more information about the differences between Kino's collection and the films that are going to be presented on the upcoming Harold Lloyd collection.  Here's what he had to say:

I have never done this, but I would like to thank you 1000 times for your comments on our work. We are working night and days to find the best material on lost or rare films, and it is very comforting to see that our restorations have such echo.

For your information, most of these films are tinted (or multi-tinted) in our versions, and they should not be in the ones released by the Lloyd estate. It comes from the fact that some of the prints (35mm nitrate or acetate) were discovered in Europe, and were taken from the european negative. Therefore, it will be very entertaining for the collectors to compare shot by shot the versions presented by the estate (for which the original elements still exist) and ours, where the negatives have most certainly been destroyed, and for which we ahve noticed that, being the second take, they are most of the time funnier and with less mistakes.

I do not know if the US releases were tinted or in black and white, but as you may have noticed, whenever the films were found on tinted prints, we have restored the tints after careful 35mm preservation. I must say that I had never seen any Lloyd comedy in its tinted form before we started our researched on the subject.

Thanks for the information Serge.

Speaking of the Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection, New Line is actively promoting the series, which I was happy to see.  They sent out press kits that contained the usual tear sheet about the sets, but they went a step further too:  They had Variety print up a special issue that contained information on Lloyd and his films as well as a unique clock.  The clock is mounted on a spring, and the face of it has the famous image of Harold hanging from the face of a clock from Saftey Last.  Hopefully this will get some people in the print media to give the set some attention.

There are some other silent films that have been scheduled for release also.   Apparently Milestone has renewed their ties with Image, because they've announced two new titles that Image will be distributing for them. Grass and Chang! are two films by Merian C. Cooper of King Kong fame.  Both are scheduled for November 15th. 2005.  We hope to review both of these titles soon.

On Noverber 29th, Image is set to release another double feature of silent movies.  Cecil B. DeMille's Why Change Your Wife with Gloria Swanson will be teamed up with Miss Lulu Bett directed by Cecil's brother William.   This should make a nice companion to the Don't Change Your Husband & Golden Chance double feature that they are releasing at the end of this month.

Finally, Mackinac Media have pushed back the date on their collection of rarely seen Buster Keaton appearances.  Industrial Strength Keaton will now be released on Febuary 14. 2006.  Hmmm, I think I know what my wife is getting for Valentine's day this year.


Upcoming Silent Film DVDs


Title (* denotes new additions)
click on the title to purchase at Amazon.com
Studio
Release Date
MSRP
Charlie Chaplin:  The Forgotten Years
Hart Sharp Video
October 18th, 2005
24.99
Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film
Image
October 18th, 2005
99.99
Don't Change Your Husband/Golden Chance
Image
October 25th, 2005
 24.99
The White Hell of Pitz Palu
Kino
November 15, 2005
29.95
*Chang!
Milestone
November 15, 2005
29.99
The Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection
New Line
November 15, 2005
 89.85
*Grass
Milestone
November 15, 2005
29.99
*Why Change Your Wife/Miss Lulu Bett
Image
Noverber 29, 2005
24.99
Industrial Strength Keaton
Mackinac Media
Febuary 14, 2006
29.95

Recent Silent Film Releases


Title
click on the title to purchase at Amazon.com
Studio
Release Date
MSRP
The Blue Bird (1918) directed by Maurice Tourneur [review]
Kino
September 6, 2005
29.95
Lorna Doone (1922) directed by Maurice Tourneur [review]
Kino
September 6, 2005
29.95
The Garbo Silents: The Temptress, Flesh and the Devil, The Mysterious Lady (TMC Archives) [review]
Warner
September 6, 2005
39.92
 Charley Chase Collection II [review]
 Kino
 September 13, 2005 
 24.95
 Harold Lloyd Collection II 2 disc set [review]
 Kino
 September 13, 2005
 29.95
 Oliver Hardy Collection [review]
 Kino
 September 13, 2005
 24.95


The White Hell of Pitz Palu

Background:

Leni Riefenstahl is best known for impressive her directorial work, most notably the films Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will) (1935) a propaganda film about the 1934 Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg and Olympia (1938) which chronicled the 1938 Olympics in Berlin.  Before she ever stepped behind a camera though, Leni was a successful actress.

She first came to the public's attention while staring in a series of mountaineering films directed by Arnold Fanck.  Fanck held a doctorate degree in geology, and was an avid mountain climber.  He thought that the drama and danger of ascending peak would make the perfect setting for a film, and he was right.  He built a career around mountain epics.

Kino has now released a trio of Fanck's films that star Leni Riefenstahl.  They include S.O.S. Eisberg, Stürme über dem Mont Blanc (Storm over Mount Blanc) [review], and this film, widely regarded as the best film that Leni Riefenstahl stared in; Die Weiße Hölle vom Piz Palü (The White Hell of Pitz Palu.)  In this film Fanck was assisted in his directorial duties by G. W. Pabst, and they created a very entertaining and exciting film.

The Film:

Maria (Leni Riefenstahl) and her fiancee Hans (Ernst Petersen) are vacationing in the Alps and plan to climb the Pitz Palu Mountain.  Soon after they arrive, they meet Dr. Johannes Krafft (Gustav Diessl), a man who is haunted by his past.  Dr. Krafft attempted to climb the Pitz Palu on his honeymoon, but his wife died in an avalanche and her body was never recovered.  From that time on he has wandered the mountain like ghost, trying to scale the unclimbable north face.  He's never been able to do it because of the lack of a climbing partner.

When a local guide Christian (Otto Spring) mentions to Dr. Krafft that a group of students are arriving the next day to attempt the north face, he prepares to set out once again alone.  In the morning however, Maria and Hans insist on going with the doctor and helping him achieve his goal.

The students have a head start, but the older trio climb a steeper but faster section of the mountain and are soon ahead of them.  After a break, Hans insists on leading the way, and slips.  He's seriously wounded his head, and Dr. Krafft climbs down to rescue him.  Unfortunately the pair get trapped in a small avalanche, and Krafft breaks his leg.  Halfway up a mountain with two wounded men, the group can't get down and their only hope is to be rescued.

This is a very exciting film, and great fun to watch.  It started off at a gallop with Dr. Krafft's wife getting killed in an avalanche, but then takes the time to introduce the other characters and develop their personalities a bit.  The race with the students was a nice touch, lending a sense of urgency to the film.  Of course this pales in comparison to the life and death situation the group soon becomes trapped in.  There are several very tense scenes, and the suspense is really gripping at times.

Directors Fanck and Pabst also created a very visual film.  Some of the mountain scenes are truly stunning, especially the night shots that were lit solely with torches that villagers were carrying.  In addition to the breathtaking scenery, Fanck created several avalanches which were also impressive and added to the look of the film.

One trick that I noticed Fanck using in this movie was that he'd film the men differently from the women.  When Leni had a close-up she'd be filmed in soft focus, making her look somewhat angelic.  The male leads, on the other hand, would be photographed in a stronger light and with a sharper focus bringing making their features stand out and giving them a more rugged look.  This is a trick that Leni Riefenstahl would use in her own films.
 

Leni Riefenstahl in soft focus.

The DVD:


Audio:

The stereo audio track sounds excellent.  The score, preformed by a full orchestra, was composed by Emmy winner Ashley Irwin and it is very good.  Though he sometimes emphasizes the emotion of a scene a little too much, bellowing dramatic music every time Pitz Palu was shown before the assent for example, the soundtrack added a lot to the film.  The march that was played while the torch bearing villagers start up the mountain at night was very effective.  The sound quality was very good, without any distortion or other audio defects.

Video:

Unfortunately, the original negative to this film is lost.  All that has survived is a nitrate print that was out of sequence.  This was reconstructed using the original censor notes as a guide and restored in 1997.  I'm very impressed with the results; the image quality is very good.  There are some spots and the occasional scratch, but these were minor.  The picture is sharp, and has a good amount of contrast.  The level of detail was excellent with the texture of the snow on the mountainside easy to discern.  This is a great looking film.  The only thing that I disliked about this restoration was that the intertitles were new creations and in English.  I would have preferred if the original titles would have been left in, but this is a minor critique since they did try to approximate the look of the original cards.

Extras:

Exra features include an 8½-minute except from the 1935 sound reissue of the film (with poorly dubbed voices) and a very nice photo gallery of  promotional stills and advertising for the movie.

The most interesting feature is The Immoderation in Me an hour long interview with Leni Riefenstahl that was conducted in 2002.  In this interview, in German with burned in subtitles, Leni tours her house and shows some of the many mementos that she's kept from her life.  An amazing collection of photos, press clippings and film.  She has kept the original editing sheets from Olympia, and discusses the system that she used to edit the 400,000 meters of film that were shot.  The most amazing thing about this is that everything is neat and organized.  She was quite the archivist.
 

Leni Riefenstahl in 2002 just before her 100th birthday.

The interview was conducted in association with the release of her last film, Impressionen unter Wasser (Underwater Impressions) and a good amount of time is spent talking about that film.  Ms. Riefenstahl does talk about other aspects of her full life though, commenting at length on Triumph of the Will (she claims she never thought of the impact the film would have) and her relationship with Hitler.  I found it very informative and entertaining.  Whatever your opinion of Ms. Riefenstahl you have to admit that she lived a very full life.

Final Thoughts:

The White Hell of Pitz Palu was a very pleasant discovery.  I hadn't seen this film before, and it was much better than I was expecting.  The scenery breathtaking, and the plot was very engrossing.  There was a lot of suspense and several nail-biting scenes that raised the film above the average.  The full orchestral score was powerful and added a lot to the viewing experience and the restored print looked fabulous.  The film itself is reason enough to buy this DVD, but the added bonus of an hour long interview with Leni Riefenstahl makes this a disc that silent movie fans should include in their libraries.  Highly Recommended.



Comments?  Suggestions? Feel free to send me an e-mail.

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