S.O.S. Iceberg (S.O.S. Eisberg) is a 1933 German adventure movie starring the notorious Leni Riefenstahl. The movie was a joint production with Universal and two versions were made, one in German and one in English. The English version was not just a dubbed version - many scenes were entirely reshot.
The 1930s saw the rise of an odd and peculiarly German movie genre, the mountain films (or bergfilme). These were adventure movies, usually with a hint of romance, in alpine settings. The emphasis was often more on the splendours of nature than on the actual story. The Germans had developed an obsession with nature in the early 20th century and these movies were immensely popular. Arnold Fanck was responsible for the most popular of these movies. S.O.S. Eisberg, written and directed by Fanck, is essentially a mountain film but with the Arctic taking the place of the mountains.
Leni Riefenstahl had made her reputation as an actress in these mountain films, and had gone on to direct one herself, The Blue Light. That movie had established Riefenstahl as a visual stylist of genius, a talent that came to its full flowering in her celebrated if controversial documentary films The Triumph of the Will and Olympia (the official movie of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games).
S.O.S. Eisberg is a story of survival and of an extraordinary rescue effort. The famed polar explorer Dr Lorenz had gone missing on an expedition into the interior of Greenland. A search was mounted but with no result and it was assumed that the explorer had perished. A year later a new expedition sets out, their objective being to find Dr Lorenz’s diaries. They discover, much to their surprise, that Dr Lorenz is still alive. Unfortunately by this time the rescue party is stranded as well, trapped on drifting ice floes which are slowly being carried out to sea. They have however managed to transmit a radio message and now fresh rescue efforts are mounted to save the survivors of the two expeditions.
This is not a conventional adventure film in which nature simply provides the backdrops - nature is at the centre of the film and it often becomes more of an ode to the grandeur of nature than a straightforward narrative film.
Riefenstahl was a capable actress and she has a very definite presence. One very clever move by the producers was the casting of Ernst Udet as the expedition’s aviator who later undertakes yet another aerial rescue mission. Udet was the second highest-scoring German fighter ace of the First World War and became a famous stunt pilot in the 1920s, so he knew a thing or two about flying. He doesn’t get to do much acting but he has a great deal of charm and charisma and it’s a pity his rôle wasn’t beefed up a little. Udet, like Riefenstahl, would become a controversial figure. He became a Nazi and was one of the architects of Goering’s Luftwaffe.
S.O.S. Eisberg delivers its share of excitement and the superb visuals are more than enough to compensate for the thin plot. A movie of immense historical interest, and entertaining as well. Recommended.