The loftier a mountain, the greater is his desire to conquer it, to climb the highest peak and to enjoy the thrill of victory.Nearly all the mountains of the world have now been conquered by the persistence and perseverance of man.
Whatever therefore is terrible, with regard to sight too is sublime, whether this cause of terror be endured with greatness of dimension or not.
So whereas the visual apprehension of beautiful objects induces a pleasurable feeling at the balance, harmony, and elegance of the object, what visually appears terrible or infinitely vast induces the painful or unpleasant feeling of fear, and the cause of such a feeling Burke calls “sublime.” His great successor, Immanuel Kant, deepened the psychological analysis and expanded the philosophical significance of the sublime in his (1790).
After the First World War, Europe was convulsed by political and economic forces threatening its existence: inflation and recession, fascist and communist revolutionary movements, and the dearth of able-bodied and able-minded men after the horrors of the so-called Great War.
In the midst of the fragile fledgling democracy of Weimar Germany, the film director Arnold Fanck created the new genre of the “Mountain Film” (Bergfilm), self-consciously incorporating the iconography of the earlier German Romantic painters like Caspar David Friedrich.
Rather, the mountain films may also be seen as distinctly sublime embodiments of Weimar and indeed modern anxieties: an enveloping and alarming political obscurity arising from unexpected and rapid changes in technology, economic, and social relations.
Just as a century earlier Kant had argued that the mountain sublime expressed our authentic human nature, the mountain film of the 1920s and 1930s depicted a fantastical image of physically and mentally undamaged, and politically uncompromised men risking their lives while secure in the knowledge of their climbing abilities and hence safety.
In films such as (1929) Fanck created stunning images of vulnerable male climbers exposed to nature’s elemental powers in the mountains (Fig. Critics have interpreted these films as signs of fascist inclinations, finding in the heroes’ submission to elemental forces “a mentality kindred to Nazi spirit” (Siegfried Kracauer) and “an anthology of proto-Nazi sentiments” (Susan Sontag); indeed, Fanck’s favorite actress, Leni Riefenstahl, directed and starred in her own mountain film (, 1935).
But, as film historians have observed, this interpretation omits or understates the fascinating and disquieting pleasure these films provided their huge audiences, a popularity that cannot be explained by the glorious landscapes or the melodramatic plots alone.
These experiences were immortalized and stylized by the illustrious painters and lithographers of the day. And in turn, genuine explorers and mountaineers, for whom the feeling of the sublime was an inherent and welcome byproduct of their pursuit rather than merely a manufactured and commercialized commodity to be consumed, pressed higher, farther, up into the wild heights of more distant lands.
The second great age of the sublime in Western culture occurred in the early decades of the twentieth-century, and once again occurred in the mountains, but this time on the film screen rather than the canvas.