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Höhenfeuer [aka Alpine Fire] (1985) – ★★★★ (GREAT)

21st September 2017 - Film
Höhenfeuer [aka Alpine Fire] (1985) – ★★★★ (GREAT)

Today I have found possibly the best alpine film – by chance. You see, I have felt the drive to find a mountain movie for many years because I have myself spent a large portion of my childhood under the shadow of mountains (not as grand as the Alps I’ll grant, but still). There is something about that experience that this film captures perfectly, but also something more.

To be in a lowly populated region surrounded by summits is a mystical experience. It’s the scale that grabs you – you are surrounded by objects so big that it is difficult for the mind to truly comprehend the distance needed to traverse and climb them. Their age is incomprehensible as well – the span of wars, civilization, and humanity itself are but the blink of an eye to these rocks. So profound is their objection to the earth, that the sky itself is interrupted by their peaks.

Essentially, to live in a mountain valley is to be humbled constantly. That fierce cultural tradition follows in these regions is also then no surprise. And this film does well to capture that awe – this family lives on the slant of a truly grand sierra.

The framing is perfect. For starters, the image is tall, but also varied in scope. There are intimate shots of the family huddled in their small gas-lit home, and long shots across the span of the range itself. But, importantly, there are no shots which capture the entirety of the mountain on which they live – and thus the mystique of the mountain’s innumerable scale is maintained and placed in suspense.

The entire film is naturally lit, or at least does well to present that illusion, and this forces the viewer to absorb the human nature of every space – that the house was built painstakingly by hand, and that all of the land must be controlled by hand. The mountain is happy to live in coexistence.

The central character of this film is the daughter, Brenni, who has had to give up her hopes of becoming a teacher to help care for the son. She is a kind person, humbled (as is everyone) and naturally caring. She enjoys playing with her brother and trying to teach him to read. She likes her radio and makeup as well, but does not begrudge her parents if they are unwilling to get her new things.

The parents are everything you’d expect of a kind germanic home – generally quiet, pious, honest, and hard working. They go along their lives not expecting more or less, but simply content.

And then, we have the boy. He means well… but man does he do some stupid things… in particular, damage to tools. Father is not impressed, but he too is humble, and he forgives what is clearly the act of misunderstanding over malicious intent. Yet, one feels with every misstep that the wellspring of patience runs drier.

The boy is inherently fascinated. In particular, the magic of the mountains is an illusion he can never quite unravel. He starts building totems and huge spans of rock walls along the mountain face – one imagines that left to his own devices he might attempt to chip away the whole cliff. Is the mountain pleased with his devotion? The valley certainly grows more rocky.

I daren’t spoil the developments of the film past here, except to say I have never experienced such dread and horror with equal measures of contentment and intimacy in a film until this one. It places in perfect perspective what is probably the gravest social taboo and makes a case for it, and it is absolutely marvelous.

This review first appeared under my Letterboxd account on the 4th of September 2017: https://letterboxd.com/sl1m/film/alpine-fire/

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