Leni Refenstahl Stars in This Silent Roman a Cliff.
DIRECTED BY ARNOLD FANCK / GERMAN, WITH ENGLISH SUBTITLES/1927
BLU-RAY RELEASE DATE APRIL 7, 2020/KINO CLASSICS
Taken on its own merits, The Great Leap (Der große Sprung) isn’t a very good movie. It’s far too long, the ski race at the end feels interminable, and only a handful of its jokes are actually funny. As an example of silent comedy, as an entry in the “mountain film” genre, and even as a part of the film career of Leni Riefenstahl, there’s little to The Great Leap to recommend it.
The Great Leap stars Riefenstahl as Gita, a young goatherd living in the Alps. Her favorite pastime is climbing rocks, then daring her suitors, particularly the oafish Toni (Luis Trenker), to climb up after her if they want her company. As they struggle up one side of the cliff face, she nimbly leaps to another precipice and the chase begins again. One day, a dandy named Michael Treuherz (‘loyal heart,’ a bit on the nose much?) arrives in town with his valet, Paule, in tow (played, respectively by Hans Schneeberger* and Paul Graetz). Michael has come for a holiday because the stress of big city life is getting to him. In the mountains, he meets Gita and falls in love. She kinda digs him, too.
After a couple of failed attempts at courtship, Gita announces that the winner of a big upcoming ski race will win her for a wife. Michael realizes this is his only shot at winning Gita’s hand, so he schemes with Paul on ways he can learn to ski and actually win the race. The race then takes up the entire second, third and fourth halves of the movie. It goes on for so long.
Fanck tries to wring as much humor as he can from footage running in reverse, which causes characters to tumble uphill, or fly out of crevasses, or fall off a wall and bounce right back up. It’s amusing and surprising the first time he pulls that trick. The gag wears out its welcome. Likewise with shots of Schneeberger running around in his ‘fat suit.’ Paul has the idea that by filling Michael’s suit with gas, he will be rendered lighter than air, and can sail over obstacles he encounters during the race harmlessly. Michael spends the latter half of the movie looking like David Byrne in Stop Making Sense. There’s a whole pile of jokes that could be made out of that setup, but nothing is done with it. Michael just looks ridiculous and nothing more.
It’s probably not fair to compare all silent comedies with the masters, but just imagine what Buster Keaton might have done with this material. There, now you’ve spent more time thinking about it than the filmmakers.
The movie’s director, Arnold Fanck, was a pioneer in the ‘mountain film,’ a genre of film that usually featured stories of men pitting their will against the forces of nature (exemplified by an arduous trek up a mountain) and coming back wiser for their efforts. These movies were especially popular in Germany during the 1920’s and Fanck was one of the genre’s most important directors (he was to mountain films what John Ford was to the Western). I haven’t seen any other film by him, but he apparently loved skiing. His first feature, on which he taught himself to shoot on location and edit, was called The Wonders of Skiing. It was very popular and launched his career. When Riefenstahl convinced him to cast her in 1926’s The Holy Mountain, that launched hers.
Riefenstahl was a dancer before she got into film acting, and she’s certainly given plenty of opportunity here to show off her physicality and athleticism. She reportedly did all her own rock climbing. In bare feet, with no climbing gear. She’s obviously a very skilled climber.
And if there’s a saving grace to The Great Leap, it’s that the director knows how to shoot athleticism. The jokes fall flat, but the feats of climbing, skiing and ski-jumping on display here are thrilling. That’s the sort of cinema that really interested Fanck. He does have an interesting montage in the beginning of the film, as Michael is freaking out over the craziness of city life. The montage, involving multiple overlapping and repeating images, seems like a close cousin to things German Expressionism was doing, like Fritz Lang in Metropolis or Murnau in Sunrise.
The blu-ray comes with a commentary track by author and film critic Samm Deighan. It provides vital context for The Great Leap‘s place in the mountain film genre, and in the filmographies of Fanck and Riefenstahl, as well as the movie’s historical and political context. The commentary track alone is worth the price of the movie.
The film is silent, and the intertitles are in German. There are English subtitles. There is an audio track featuring music by Neil Brand.
*Weird trivia time: Schneeberger was an actor here, but worked primarily as a cinematographer. He was the one who shot (uncredited) the long take at the end of The Third Man.