Wednesday, September 24, 2014

S.O.S. Iceberg (1933)

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 LightThat 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.

Dr Lorenz’s wife Hella (Leni Riefenstahl) happens to be a pilot. She sets off in an aircraft and eventually locates the survivors but cracks up her plane in a difficult landing. Now she will need to be rescued as well. And she will not be the last would-be rescuer to find herself in this position. The fact that so many of the rescue attempts come to grief seems to be more than just a plot device to add excitement (although obviously it succeeds in doing this as well). The mountain films were very much concerned with contrasting mankind’s precarious but courageous attempts to survive in difficult an dangerous country with the awesome power of nature, so the failed rescue attempts serve the purpose of emphasising nature’s ability to mock human strivings.

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.

There’s really not very much to the plot but that doesn’t matter. The whole point of these movies was to feature spectacular cinematography and magnificent locations. S.O.S. Eisberg looks just as impressive today as it did in 1933, perhaps even more so when you consider the number of incredibly dangerous stunts it includes, all done for real. Arnold Fanck expected his actors to do their own stunts and Leni Riefenstahl suffered injuries in all the movies she did for him.

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 rĂ´le 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.

Kino’s DVD includes both the German (with sub-titles) and American versions. They obviously have not been fully restored but fortunately the German version is in pretty good shape, allowing the viewer to appreciate some truly magnificent photography.

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.

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