Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Blue Light (1932)

The bergfilme or mountain film enjoyed enormous popularity in Germany during the 1920s and 1930s. These were adventure movies in mountain settings, often with mystical overtones and imbued with a fascination for, and a reverence for, both mountain landscapes and the way of life of mountain dwellers. One of the most successful of these movies was The Blue Light (Das blaue Licht), which marked the directorial debut of Leni Riefenstahl, soon to become one of the most controversial film-makers of all time.

Riefenstahl wrote, produced and directed the movie and played the starring role. It’s a kind of fairy tale, not surprising in view of Riefenstahl’s fondness for fairy tales.

Junta (Riefenstahl) is an outcast in her mountain village, reviled as a witch. This is because she is the only person who can climb to the top of the nearby mountain, to a grotto near the summit. On certain nights a strange blue light can be seen emanating from the grotto. The blue light is what attracts Junta, but it also attracts the young men of the village, invariably leading them to their deaths.

The blue light is given off by crystals and the villagers have a fair idea that the grotto is a natural treasure house. Junta is attracted purely by the beauty of the blue light while the young men are attracted by a combination of greed and a sense of adventure.

Junta attracts the attention of a man named Vigo (Mathias Wieman). He is fascinated by her, by the beauty of the mountains, and by the blue light. Vigo will eventually discover the secret of the grotto, which he learns by following Junta. Vigo hopes that be reaching the grotto he can bring prosperity to the village and persuade the villagers to cease their persecution of Junta.

Junta lives in a hut high up on the mountain with a young shepherd boy. It is an idyllic life. Vigo’s arrival initially seems to promise Junta happiness, but the secret of the blue light is a dangerous one.

One thing that is immediately apparent is that this is a film by the same person who made Olympia, the official movie of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. This becomes obvious within the first few minutes. The Riefenstahl trademarks are unmistakable. 

Judged purely as a visual stylist Riefenstahl was one of the towering geniuses of the cinema. Her sense of composition is extraordinary, but what makes it extraordinary is the movement. There is always movement. There is hardly a shot in the film that doesn’t contain movement of some sort. In the very rare cases when there is no movement there is a sense that movement is about to happen. Riefenstahl doesn’t show us pictures of mountains. There is always something else in the frame, something moving. It might be a waterfall, it might be the clouds, it might be a young woman running, it might be the light itself that is moving. You cannot judge Riefenstahl’s artistry by looking at still images from her films. Without the movement they just don’t work. Or rather they do still work as striking images, but it is the movement adds the touch of genius.
The Blue Light is a movie filled with a pulsating sense of life and energy that is almost organic. 

Of course you cannot discuss a Leni Riefenstahl film without mentioning her two most infamous films, The Triumph of the Will (her documentary of the Nazi Nuremberg Rally of 1934) and Olympia (her documentary on the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games). Because of these movies Riefenstahl has never been able to be judged as a mere film-maker. Her assumed complicity in the rise of National Socialism will always be there in the background. Riefenstahl later claimed that she had no inkling of what the Nazis were planning. This is of course to a large extent true. No-one can be held accountable for the horrific events of the 1940s on the basis of a movie they made in 1934. 

It is obvious however that there was a great deal in National Socialism that struck a chord in Riefenstahl - the worship of Nature, the idea of a mystical union with the landscape, the vaguely pagan pantheism, the idea of traditional communities having an organic link with the land. All of these elements formed part of the ideology of National Socialism and all of these elements are present, or at the very least implicit, in The Blue Light. These elements are also of course by no means sinister in themselves. In fact they’re part of the fabric of a great deal of modern thought and are possibly even more popular today than they were in Nazi Germany. They do not prove that Riefenstahl was a convinced Nazi; in some ways they merely explain why she was drawn to certain currents in National Socialist ideology. Riefenstahl’s obsession with nature, so obvious in The Blue Light, later led her to join Greenpeace.

The fact that The Triumph of the Will and Olympia were such strikingly effective films, judged purely in visual terms, merely proves that Riefenstahl was an exceptionally brilliant film-maker. The horrors of the Second World War and of The Holocaust occurred as a result of Hitler’s decision to invade Poland, not as a result of Riefenstahl’s films.

Whatever the truth about Riefenstahl there is no doubt about her talent. Of course you need more than just visual brilliance to be a good film-maker. The plot is fairly thin but it has just enough substance to keep the viewer interested and the story’s fairy tale quality makes it rather fascinating. In the hands of any other film-maker it would not be enough to sustain a feature film but the visuals are so breath-taking that they more than compensate for the thinness of the plot.

Riefenstahl proves herself to be a capable actress as well, giving Junta a strange innocent mystical quality.

Riefenstahl made extensive use of filters and and also used infra-red film stock for some scenes and she achieves some magnificent effects.

Pathfinder Home Entertainment’s DVD release includes the original German version plus the shortened silent version made for the export market. Picture quality for the German version is poor while the silent version is in even worse shape. This is a movie that really deserves better treatment. Its visual splendours would seemingly make it an ideal subject for a full restoration.

The Blue Light is an odd little movie, from an odd little genre, but it’s worth seeing for its extraordinary cinematography and for its historical interest. Highly recommended.

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