Not many filmmakers can claim to have practically invented a film genre, much less a director not considered great or important. Arnold Fanck, however, embodies that paradox, for he certainly merits the title of the father of German film's equivalent to the American Western, the "mountain film". A genre popular in the 1920s and 30s, mountain films, not to be confused with the later and better known "Heimat" films, typically featured spectacular on-location photography of dangerous climbs as brave heroes and heroines conquered Germany's lone frontiers. German literature and art do have precedents for the genre, but Fanck nonetheless deserves much credit for developing a popular, expressive genre which marks a vivid contrast with the studio-dominated productions of the period. Film history has also underrated Fanck's talents, which captured some astonishing images.
A geologist by training, Fanck--often billed as "Dr. Arnold Fanck"--began making documentaries with "Das Wunder des Schneeschuhs/Marvels of Ski" (1921). Enchanted with the medium of cinema, he and his gifted cinematographer Sepp Allgeier established a school for documentary filmmakers. Leni Riefenstahl began as an actor for Fanck, while Luis Trenker was first hired as a tour guide for Fanck's debut film. Fanck began making fiction films with "Der Berg des Schicksals/Peak of Fate" (1924). This film and his subsequent ones, several of which co-starred future directors Riefenstahl and Trenker, had generally melodramatic storylines which were redeemed by striking footage of mountain climbing and beautifully staged rescues of trapped climbers. Possibly Fanck's best, and certainly his best-known, film came in 1929 with "Det Weisse Rausen/The White Hell of Pitz Palu". Co-directed with G. W. Pabst, who handled the interiors, "White Hell" was a stunning and powerful achievement starring Riefenstahl in a tale of a honeymoon couple trapped in the Alps.
More than a scientist who loved to show the beauty of nature, Fanck was a complete filmmaker. He wrote or co-wrote his films, and was co-cinematographer on many as well. His delight in the technical and aesthetic potential of cinema was evident in his skilled use of varied camera speeds and special lenses which could better capture the splendor of ice and rock avalanches or sudden storms. His films were popular abroad, and he collaborated with Hollywood's Tay Garnett on "S.O.S. Eisberg/S.O.S. Iceberg" (1933), with Fanck directing the German-language version and Garnett helming the simultaneous English-language production.
Elemental, mythic and often pantheistic in tone, glorifying the German wilderness and its hearty people, the mountain film could often easily be read as consonant with the ideologies of the rising Nazi Party and its cult of the "Superman". After Fanck refused party membership, though, he could not make films in his native land. After "Der Ewige Traum" (1934), he made a handful of German co-productions abroad, such as "Die Tochter des Samurai" (1937) in Japan, and in Chile he shot the compelling "Ein Robinson" (1940), a Robinson Crusoe tale featuring remarkable footage of a journey across Patagonia. The end of the latter film, with the disillusioned hero returning to Germany only with the rise of Hitler, suggests that Fanck's relative obscurity in film history may be related to his and his films' ambiguous relationship to fascist Germany and its culture. Or perhaps his early mentorship of Riefenstahl made him guilty by association in the eyes of many. Fanck himself did manage to return to his beloved German mountainsides during WWII, but his career was effectively over. He supported himself making several documentaries about public works projects and began films about the sculptors Thorak and Breker. Although Fanck lived until 1974, these films were never completed.