In 1929, mountain film pioneer Arnold Fanck shot his global hit Die Weisse Hölle vom Piz Palü (The White Hell of Piz Palü) in southern Graubünden. The secret star of filming was the Bernina railway, a track system that could handle tough winter operation.
Gabriel Heim is a book and film author and exhibition organiser. He is principally concerned with research into topics of modern and contemporary history and lives in Basel.
Railways and cinema are the original story of love at first sight. In one of their earliest works, the Lumière brothers filmed a train pulling into La Ciotat station in 1895, eliciting gasps of astonishment from the audience. Film and train track quickly become an inseparable couple – both have the capacity to move people, albeit in very different ways. But it’s not just in moving pictures that locomotives, landscapes rushing by or romantic moments in the coupé are an expression of this allure. As a means of transport too, the railway has proved a valuable ally of the film-making art, carrying the spectacle-seeking film industry on risky routes up to remote natural settings that would otherwise be hard to reach. The Bernina railway, which since 1910 has connected glamorous St Moritz with Tirano in Valtellina – a task for which, as the highest adhesion railway in the world, it has to climb to an impressive 2,253 metres above sea level – has played an unforeseen role in this.In the first decade of railway operation, it was cinematographers shooting cultural and nature films who made use of the sinuously snaking narrow-gauge railway to carry them, over rushing mountain streams, on their way to the lonely heights. As early as 1912, Welt-Kinematograph from Freiburg im Breisgau produced the film Von Pontresina nach Bernina Hospiz (restored by Cinémathèque Suisse) in which carriage and track can be seen peacefully together at the summit. The Alpine railway became a special attraction, and filming teams arrived in rapid succession from Italy, France and Austria to wedge themselves into the driver’s cabin with their bulky equipment, or sit biting their nails as they prayed it would stay upright in a goods wagon.
After World War I, film technology was modernised, opening up the possibility of producing adventure films on location regardless of the weather. The genre of mountain and nature films emerged, featuring spectacular climbing tours, glacier crossings and bivouacs on sheer cliff faces. One of the pioneers of this genre was the German Arnold Fanck, whose expressionist-inspired composition brought mountain films into cinemas as early as the beginning of the 1920s.Fanck was very familiar with the mountains of Switzerland, having studied geology at ETH Zurich and thoroughly explored the Alpine region on numerous climbing expeditions. In 1926 he shot his second Alpine feature film, Der heilige Berg (The Holy Mountain) in Sils Maria and the Bernina Alps, with Leni Riefenstahl and Luis Trenker – two names that have gone down in cinematic history – in the lead roles. In Fanck’s films, the main character is always the mountains; for him, the story is little more than a pretext, a mere detail, because his films are designed primarily to glorify the experience of nature, the mountains and mountain sport.
This was also true of Die Weisse Hölle vom Piz Palü, Fanck’s most successful film, featuring outdoor scenes filmed in 1929 in the snowy regions of the Bernina Alps. Leni Riefenstahl was on set again, and she was joined by another movie sensation in the form of highly decorated fighter pilot and flying ace Ernst Udet, whose job was to fly daredevil low-level missions at an artificial wall of ice created near Morteratsch, in order to save the main characters – who, according to the script, were trapped in the ice – from freezing to death by parachuting in supplies of brandy and provisions. All close-up shots in the movie were filmed in the immediate vicinity of the railway track so that the powerful wind machines and floodlights could be supplied with traction current by the shortest possible route.The Hotel du Glacier and the Morteratsch railway station at the base of the glacier of the same name served as a base camp for the production team during the technically complex filming work, which was designed to be as near-natural as possible. The director, a perfectionist who was not always popular with his actors for that reason, had huge mounds of snow put up and then knocked down again, and started avalanches with dynamite charges – and he did so as often as necessary until the desired effect was achieved and the perfect shot was ‘in the can’.The White Hell of Piz Palü went on to become an international smash hit, and is still ranked as one of the 100 best German films. But without its secret star – the Bernina railway – the dramatic and emotionally gripping winter scenes would not have been possible. In the early 1930s, the pioneer of the mountain film and his crews returned to the now well-established locations for two further film productions – once again making use of the Bernina railway, of course.