Wednesday, July 05, 2006

It Came from Netflix! SOS Iceberg

Leni Reifenstahl died in 2003, at the age of 101. Most infamous as the director of Nazi propoganda films, especially Triumph of the Will, Ms. Reifenstahl was the subject of an amazing three-hour documentary entitled The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl. If you haven’t seen it, check it out, it’s extraordinary.

Reifenstahl’s lengthy life can be cut up into segments. Early on, before making films for Hitler, she was a movie actress in post war Germany. She was known for starring in a series of ‘mountain movies, ‘ an apparently popular genre in that country featuring actors performing feats of unassisted mountain climbing and the like, portraying dangerous physical acts by actually doing them.

SOS Iceberg is a similar film, made by the same director, Arnold Fanck. This one concerns a search party seeking a lost scientist in the wastes of the Arctic. Recently released by Kino on DVD, we are treated to both the English and German language versions of the film. Rather than a simple redubbing, the English version is an entirely different cut of the film featuring unique footage.

The German version lasts about an hour and a half. We open in the aftermath of a mission to explore the remote glacial regions of Greenland. During this, scientist Karl Lorenz went missing. His partner, Krafft, is called before an investigating board. He testifies that he and the rest of the team conducted a thorough search before the passage of time and the coming break up of the ice forced them to admit that Lorenz was dead.

Krafft is therefore shocked when evidence is presented proving Lorenz was alive just a few days ago. Apparently he snuck off to explore a region he had always wanted to investigate, but which was far from the locale they were scheduled to go. Because of this, Krafft and the others were searching the wrong area entirely.

Hella, Lorenz’s wife (Reifenstahl), is relieved by this news. Krafft, however, is pissed. Lorenz’s selfishness in secretly running off has not only damaged the goals of their original mission together, but has made Krafft look like a cowardly rat for leaving Lorenz out there alive. Now the whole area is disintegrating with the coming of spring, but an almost manically driven Krafft gathers the three other mission members and travels back to search for their errant colleague.

As with the mountain movies, the real thrill here—and it continues to fascinate—is in watching actors struggle against Nature in a very real and dangerous looking manner. Krafft and his crew find Lorenz’ trail and follow along it, despite this meaning that they must hop from one floating and continuously melting piece of ice to another. Several times the actors fall into the frigid waters, and I don’t care if help was available just off camera, there’s no way they weren’t putting their lives in some jeopardy here.

Eventually the crew finds Lorenz, although the scientist has (I think) lost his legs to frostbite. However, in the end they are all stranded on a floating iceberg, which has broken loose from land. Drifting ever south, it is melting and falling to pieces under them. Meanwhile, the stranded men begin going mad from lack of food and water, not to mention the horror of their plight. For her part, Hella, who proves a pilot, flies an alarmingly fragile looking prop plane through the icy wastes searching for the party.

As I indicated, I assumed the English version to be substantially the same, but it wasn’t. It’s shorter, yet opens with quite a lot of footage taking place both before and during the initial exploration mission that Lorenz sneaks off from. This involves almost all of the same cast from the German language version, who film these scenes in English. This seems odd, as the German version sports so little dialogue as to almost be a silent film. Dubbing it would surely have been easier.

The English version is more concerned with the humans and offers a straighter, cleaner storyline. However, the superior German version features more of what we came to see, simply amazing footage of puny man struggling first to dominate, and then simply to survive, implacable Nature.

Great stuff.

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