The image of the Olympian mountain – the towering intermediary between the physical and spiritual realms – has long loomed as an icon and motif in Germanic culture. Sub-heavenly summits have served as perches of Nietzschean pontification (what is Zarathustra without his peak?), have inspired Richard Strauss’s bombastic Eine Alpensinfonie, and, in the interwar years, were valiantly scaled by beautiful Aryans in mountain films (Bergfilme) such as Die weisse Hölle vom Piz Palü (The White Hell of Pitz Palu, Arnold Fanck and G. W. Pabst, 1929) and Das Blaue Licht (The Blue Light, Leni Riefenstahl, 1932). Werner Herzog’s 1985 television documentary Gasherbrum, Der Leuchtende Berg (literally, Gasherbrum, The Luminous Mountain, though usually known in English as The Dark Glow of the Mountains) could well be an attempt to moderate the overweening mythology implicit in this symbolism of the mountain. Balancing the metaphysical and the humanistic, and eventually tipping in favour of the latter, Herzog’s 45-minute documentary demystifies – or, if you like, de-Aryanises – the German cult of alpinism. At the same time, the death-defying trials of his mountaineering heroes allow Herzog to indulge his characteristic themes: the madness of quixotic obsession, the limitations of man in the face of infinite Nature, and, most of all, the ephemerality of human ambition.
The narrative follows the 1984 trek of mountaineers Reinhold Messner and Hans Kammerlander, the first climbers to scale the twin summits of the Himalayan Gasherbrums without aid of stationary camps or oxygen. Though the film is suffused with epical footage of mist-shrouded vistas – the long shots seem like vast, snowy foils to the claustrophobic jungles of Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (Aguirre, Wrath of God, 1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982) – Herzog here carefullly balances man with the natural world of which he is biologically a part. In Gasherbrum, Nature surely imposes and dwarfs, but it also seems neutral and unmalicious, neither consuming its heroes (as in Aguirre) nor mesmerising and dehumanising them (as in Herz aus Glas [Heart of Glass, 1976]). Within this wintry landscape, Herzog frequently pauses for straightforward interviews meant to psychologise his protagonists. When we learn that one climber was a simple bricklayer for five years, Herzog probes him about his unheroic labour. This is the sort of interview sequence most directors would relegate to the cutting room floor – but Herzog’s deliberate inclusion of it emphasises his heroes’ humility and workmanlike decency. These mountaineers are not triumphalist conquerors but slightly mad, introspective naturalists for whom the romance of the Bergfilme is a well-clouded memory.
Herzog underscores his climbers’ humility when he shows them, at first from a high, godlike angle, bathing naked in a hot spring providentially discovered amidst the glaciers. The cleansing carries no religious symbolism or higher pretense. Like everything else in the film, it represents nothing other than what it is: a simple human act in the midst of an alien landscape Herzog frames at overwhelming or contemplative distances. Though they often recede into the background, and though their still interviews cannot compete with the deafening roar of icy rapids, the climbers are never reduced to the status of extras. The natural landscape remains distant and objectivised, yet not in the Pasolinian sense that renders indistinguishable the natural and mythical, or synthesises nature and myth into modern folklore. Herzog’s poetics, once again facilitated by the meditative ambient music of Popol Vuh (1), balances rather than fuses the human subject and the natural object, as the heroes’ obsessive adventurism becomes an ironically rational response to Nature’s ever-present challenge.
The climbers’ “madness” is not merely a colourful fantasy or Herzogian metaphor, however; as we learn, other mountaineers Messner had accompanied in the past either perished or truly were driven mad by their vocation. If the film’s investigation of monomania seems familiar Herzog terrain, the interviews reveal an unexpected frankness. When Messner tearfully speaks of the mountain-climbing death of his own brother and describes his mountaineering as a “morbid obsession”, we are reminded of Herzog’s own on-camera confessions of lunacy in Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams (1982). While it may not be quite “the research into death” Herzog suggests in the voiceover, Gasherbrum nevertheless offers a quietly unsettling moment with Messner before he departs on his journey’s final leg, beyond Herzog’s surveillance and armed only with a portable Bell and Howell camera. “If we don’t come back in two weeks, it will mean that we were finished under an avalanche or are dead of weariness”, Messner says. “Don’t search for us”, he continues, coldly sipping his coffee, “no one will ever find us”. In his voice there is a jarring mixture of determination and resignation; the vain heroics of the Bergfilme and even the climactic snow-jumping triumph of Herzog’s earlier documentary Die grosse Ekstase des Bildschnitzers Steiner (The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner, 1974) are now replaced by the hero’s somber, oddly rational evaluation of mortality.
Ambivalently straddling elation and terror, Messner finds peace in the process rather than in the ostensible goal. “I never wanted to kill myself while climbing”, he says. “Someone who is on a mountain cannot think of death while he climbs it.” In the face of an ineffable personal aesthetic, the fear of death dissipates. The mountaineer’s perseverance or negation seems ultimately irrelevant; whatever their fate, we know the climbers will leave only indistinct footprints in everlasting ice. Such is Herzog’s democratic allegory – whatever our metaphorical mountains, we too strive for contentment knowing that at best we leave only the faintest traces of our humanity. Yet there is no gloom here, no Schopenhauerian pessimism, only a tenuous acceptance of the fleeting will.
- As with Aguirre, Heart of Glass, Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (Nosferatu the Vampyre, 1979), and so much of Herzog’s work, the role of Popol Vuh’s “cosmic” ambient score cannot be under-estimated. Had Gasherbrum been synched to a conventionally heroic orchestral score, the film’s balance of metaphysics and humanism would be ruined, and the film might have regressed into Bergfilme romanticism.
Gasherbrum, Der Leuchtende Berg/The Dark Glow of the Mountains (1985 West Germany 45 mins)
Prod Co: Sudfunk Stuttgart/SDR/Werner Herzog Filmproduktion Prod: Werner Herzog, Manfred Nägele Dir, Scr: Werner Herzog Phot: Rainer Klausmann Ed: Maximiliane Mainka Mus: Popol Vuh