An important and talented director, actor and screenwriter, Luis Trenker is a sadly neglected figure in film history. An Austro-Italian, Trenker began in German "mountain films" in the 1920s and was a popular lead by the end of the decade. He directed some splendid films in the 30s, but the general neglect or misunderstanding of the films he made during the pre-Nazi and Nazi eras consigned his career to obscurity. And yet, to quote film historian William K. Everson: "The mountain film was to Germany what the Western was to America, and Trenker, as its leading practitioner, was in a sense Germany's John Wayne and John Ford rolled into one."
Trenker served in WWI as a pilot flying missions over the Dolomites and later commanded a troop of mountain guides. He got his start in film when Dr. Arnold Fanck, a geologist turned documentary filmmaker, hired him in 1921 as a tour guide through the mountains. A gifted athlete, Trenker proved a natural for the mountain films' richly melodramatic tales of dangerous rock climbs and last-second rescues set amid the harsh elements of Germany's lone frontiers. Soon the handsome, strapping Trenker was playing roles in Fanck's films and studying filmmaking from Fanck and cinematographer Sepp Allgeier. Fanck teamed him with dancer turned actor--and budding director--Leni Riefenstahl for mountain films including "Der Heilige Berg/Peaks of Destiny" (1926) and "Der Grosse Sprung/The Big Jump" (1927). Trenker may not have been a great actor, but at his best he was a fine, expressive one; he played roles he understood well and his heroes could be both stoical and sensitive.
Beginning with "Berge in Flammen" (1931), Trenker began to direct and write his starring vehicles as well. Since several German mountain films, including those with Trenker, had done well in America, Universal made an English language version of the film as well, "The Doomed Battalion" (1931), directed by Cyril Gardner. Trenker's actions scenes were integrated into newly shot dialogue sequences, and Trenker handled his English dialogue quite well. He followed up with one of his finest achievements, "Der Rebell/The Rebel" (1932), for which he shot English and German language versions himself on location in Bavaria. A historical tale, based on fact, of mountain peasants defending themselves against Napoleon using guerrilla tactics, "The Rebel" was powerful, beautifully shot cinema. As with many mountain films, it was nationalistic: the story celebrated German history and traditions, and Trenker, at one point leading his pursuers on a thrillingly edited chase that could never have taken place in uninterrupted time, was an idealized, proudly German superhero type. It is thus not surprising that Trenker's films, and indeed many mountain films, would be not only popular with the German people, but also appropriated by the rising Nazi Party.
Trenker has historically found his films in the paradoxical situation of being criticized by the Nazis and yet also read as fascist. Their nationalistic flavor may have contributed to his dubious reputation, yet perhaps Trenker was also considered guilty by association, and in late years, Riefenstahl, with whom he had an affair that did not end well, had some unkind things to say about him. "The Rebel" was highly praised by no less a person than Joseph Goebbels, but when the Nazi leader tried to enlist Trenker to make films for the party, the director refused. Trenker had never aligned himself with any particular political party, but what is even more to the point, the same films which celebrate German history are also critical of military invasion and the oppression of individuality. Trenker's status as an Austro-Italian protected him to some extent, and the popular and critical acclaim his films received kept the Nazis from suppressing his work entirely. Nonetheless, Trenker found it increasing hard to work, given that his base of operations, Germany, was no longer as supportive of his efforts.
Trenker's alienation may have contributed to his next and most personal film, a Prodigal Son tale that stands as one of his greatest achievements as both filmmaker and actor, "Der Verlorene Sohn/The Lost Son" (1934). Beginning in the Tyrol, the film takes its peripatetic hero to New York for a lengthy middle sequence before returning him home. Trenker's status as an outsider, combined with remarkable documentary footage shot when Hollywood was making films almost entirely within studios, resulted in one of the most striking films ever made about the Great Depression in the US. The ethnographic thrust of the film continued upon its return to the Tyrol documenting a mountain festival. The result is a true folk epic, a tale of two cultures, but again, Trenker did not please the Nazis. With this film and his follow-up, "Der Kaiser von Kalifornien/The Kaiser of California" (1936), a sometimes conservative and romanticized, but excitingly rendered biopic of the scheming yet pioneering entrepreneur John Sutter, Trenker found himself criticized for showing, respectively, a depressed America and a very flawed protagonist at a time when Germany wanted the USA either as an ally or neutral in the upcoming war.
Alongside an atypical comedy like "Liebesbriefe aus dem Engadin" (1938), Trenker continued making historical biopics with "Condottieri/Giovanni de Medici" (1937), an Italian co-production, and his impressive "Der Berg Ruft" (1937). The latter was, boldly enough in that pre-WWII era of Germany regularly seeing how far it could bash England's reputation, the story of the British explorer Whymper, who eventually conquered the Matterhorn. Trenker also starred in an English-language remake that same year, "The Challenge" (1937), directed by Milton Rosmer. Surely the star's last line of dialogue, "The mountains are for everyone" as his character congratulates Whymper on his success, could not have endeared Trenker further to Goebbels.
"Der Feuerteufel/The Firedevil" (1940) revisited the territory of "The Rebel", with a Tyrolean uprising repelling Napoleonic forces. Critics such as Siegfried Kracauer would see the Tyrols as paralleling the Nazis, who justified their actions under terms like "national uprising". The parallels to Germany's invasion of smaller countries was obvious, though, and Goebbels finally ended Trenker's directing career in Germany. He could still act for other directors, but Trenker soon returned to his native Italy, keeping a low profile with documentary films, including a study of the Pope which was one of his own favorites from among his films. After the war, he returned occasionally to the mountain film genre, but his time as a romantic lead was past. He also made documentaries for Germany, Italy and Austria, authored a number of successful books and narrated a series for Austrian and German TV about mountaineering. His intermittent credits extended into the 1960s but the power, persuasion and intoxication with both filmmaking and the mountains which distinguished his earlier work was missing. Trenker, though, extremely robust and long-lived, could occasionally be seen well into his 90s at film festivals, feted by those who remembered him and understood the seemingly contradictory historical contexts which shaped his stellar achievements in cinema.