CONWAY — Generations of snow sports enthusiasts have grown up watching the epic ski films made by such legends as John Jay, Dick Barrymore, Roger Brown, Warren Miller and Greg Stump, along with the Teton Gravity Research company of Jackson Hole, Wyo.
And as Cranmore Mountain Resort kicks off 24th annual Hannes Schneider Meister Cup Race festivities today, they may be surprised to learn that one of the first ski film stars was none other than the Austrian skimeister himself.
It was Feb. 11, 1939, that the “father of modern skiing,” Hannes Schneider (1890-1955), with wife, Ludwina, and children Herbert and Herta arrived at the North Conway Train Station from New York to teach at Cranmore after he was released from Nazi custody.
Schneider’s renown had made St. Anton, Austria, the center of skiing world between the world wars. But Hannes was arrested for his anti-Nazi views in March 1938 and held under house arrest in Germany. His release was negotiated by North Conway native son, financier Harvey Dow Gibson, who brought him to Cranmore to be in charge of the ski school there.
Schneider died in 1955, after putting North Conway on the ski world map, the same way he had done St. Anton.
But back in 1920, Schneider was still a young ski phenomenon. His prowess and pioneering techniques led German action filmmaker Arnold Fanck (1889-1974) to convince the 29-year-old Schneider to collaborate on a film.
He and Fanck went on to make a ski movies, five of which were full-length productions.
The film series helped to make Schneider — founder of the Arlberg method of skiing and ski teaching — famous throughout Europe and the world.
Fanck had contacted Schneider about making a film in the winter of 1920, when Hannes’ ski school was just beginning to recover from the disruption of World War I.
According to Jeff Leich, executive director of the New England Ski Museum, for which today’s race is a fundraiser, “Fanck was a devoted skier who first skied in the Black Forest of Germany around 1908. He struggled to find and refine a technique that would suit the high mountain terrain he favored, finally evolving a combination of a telemark and stem christie.”
Seeing Schneider skiing in Davos, Switzerland, before World War I was a revelation for Fanck, Leich noted, and when the war was ended, he wrote to Schneider and proposed that they work together.
“In the spring, Hannes joined Fanck on the Swiss glaciers near the Jungfrau as cameraman Sepp Allgeier filmed him in vast fields of untracked snow,” Leich said.
Returning to St. Anton when the film was wrapped up, Hannes met his son Herbert (1920-2012), born on May 20, for the first time.
“Somewhat skeptical throughout the filming process, Hannes became a believer in the power of film when he attended the premier with Arnold Fanck in Freiberg, Germany, in the fall of 1920,” said Leich.
As Gerald Fairlie noted in his 1957 biography of Schneider, “When they got to the theater, they found that although not packed it was satisfactorily full. Fanck remained pleased. He pointed out to Hannes that a skiing film was a novelty, and that therefore it would take a few showings before it was proved that they had a smash hit.”
Hannes remained nervous. But, Fairlie continued, “when the lights were dimmed and the film started, Hannes became absorbed. It was unbelievable! The beauties of the backgrounds and of the skiing, fascinated him. In the brilliant cutting, Fanck had succeeded in showing the whole evolution of the Arlberg technique. Every phase was there. And Fanck had avoided the dullness of most technical films because of his artistic approach to the subject.”
At the end of the screening, the audience stood and cheered, according to Fairlie.
“The Wonder of the Ski,” the first Fanck-Schneider collaboration, was followed by “A Fox-Hunt on Skis through the Engadine,” and these two films, together with one by Allgeier, provided the basis for the instructional book, “Wunder des Schneeschuhs (The Wonder of the Skis),” published by Fanck with a co-author credit to Schneider.
Illustrated with stills from Allgeier’s films, the book was translated into English (and Japanese in an unauthorized edition — a fact Hannes discovered when he was invited by the Japanese government to teach skiing in Japan in 1930) and became a classic source of instructional advice at a time when there were not many experienced ski instructors in the U.S. The American edition was published in 1931.
Through the ski films, Hannes Schneider became a household name in much of Europe, which undoubtedly contributed to the outcry raised when he was detained by by the Nazis in 1938, after Hitler annexed Austria.
“Though the Fanck-Schneider ski films were not the first to be shot,” said Leich, “they may have been the most influential of the early productions. A full century on, film remains the best medium for showing the grace and beauty of skiing.”
In all, Fanck and Schneider produced 11 films together: “Das Wunder des Schneeschuhs (Wonder of the Skis),” 1920; “A Fox-hunt on Skis through the Engadine,” 1922; “Peak of Fate” and “The White Art,” both 1924; “The Holy Mountain” and “Hannes Schneider,” both 1926; “The Great Leap,” (1927); “Fight for the Matterhorn,” 1928; “The White Hell of Pitz Palu,” 1929; “White Ecstasy,” 1931; and “Mit den Skiern in den Alpen (With Skis in the Alps),” 1931.
In an interesting side note, Schneider and Fanck worked with controversial actress/film director Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003) on several of their films.
As longtime ski ski journalist Mort Lund wrote in a September 2003 article for the International Skiing History Association (“Leni Riefenstahl, Ski Film star, Nazi director”), “Fanck met Leni Riefenstahl and became enamored of her creative spirit as well as her physical beauty. First Fanck cast Leni opposite Hannes in Schneider’s own biography, the 1926 ‘Hannes Schneider,’ in which Leni played the ski pupil. Thereafter, she starred in all Fanck’s adventure dramas as the romantic female lead, beginning with the 1926 ‘Holy Mountain,’ during which she insisted on learning to excel in skiing, and that led to a twisted ankle. She finished the film in spite of the pain.”
In 1930, Fanck again cast Riefenstahl opposite Hannes in “White Ecstasy,” another ski chase film, this time with Leni and Hannes as the foxes and the St. Anton ski school instructors as the hounds.
According to Austrian ski historian Cristof Thoeny, writing in the New England Ski Museum’s Ski Journal, said “White Ecstasy” was the first ski film set to music.
It also did wonders for Riefenstahl’s career. “In those days,” Lund wrote, “ski films were popular with general audiences and ‘Ecstasy’ was such a success that in 1932 Leni was able to get financing for her own film, ‘The Blue Light,’ based on German folk myth. Hitler, by chance, saw the film and was so taken by its blend of mystical power of mind and physical strength that he arranged to meet Leni. He offered her the chance to film the documentary of the 1933 rally of the Nazi party, and she did it, with limited funding.”
In 1934, after Hitler had been elected chancellor of Germany, he had Leni film the 1934 Nazi rally at Nuremburg, a propaganda film that she produced as “Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will).”
(As Wikipedia notes, “the movies are widely considered two of the most effective, and technically innovative, propaganda films ever made. Her involvement in ‘Triumph des Willens.’ however, significantly damaged her career and reputation after the war.”)
It was the Nazi occupation of Austria, and later arrest of Schneider, that led the skimeister to North Conway. And apparently Schneider’s appearances before the camera continued when he arrived here in 1939.
Virginia Blanchard of North Conway wrote in the January 1955 issue of “New Hampshire Profiles” magazine that Schneider “now makes frequent appearances on television. Relaxing that ease before the cameras, he demonstrates and discusses the Arlberg technique, which has brought fame to him and many of the graduates of his school at Cranmore Mountain.”
The Fanck and Schneider collaborations today are appreciated for their daring and before-their-time techniques by many ski film buff, including Rick Moulton, New England Ski Museum board of directors member and an award-winning documentary filmmaker/producer with Keystone Productions of Huntington, Vt.
Moulton produced several works, including the early 1980s ski history film, “Legends of American Skiing,” which won the Banff Mountain Film Festival, and “The Voice of America: Lowell Thomas and the Rise of Broadcast Journalism,” both of which have aired on PBS.
In a telephone interview earlier this week, Moulton said he considers the German mountain films of the late 1920s to be “the best studies of black-and-white filmmaking ever made.
“If you actually watch those films and observe the backlighting, where they somehow capture the shadows in the snow crystals that loom over their shoulders or the light behind people when they are skiing and coming out of the sun with the powder throwing out behind them … it’s such a graphic moment and it makes for some pretty phenomenal filmmaking,” said Moulton, an avid skier whose passion for the sport is reflected in his own films.
He noted that in the making of ‘White Ecstacy,” “It’s amazing to find out that there were in the neighborhood of 40 skiers in ‘White Ecstasy’ and almost 40 percent broke on of their legs making the movie. It’s incredible to see what they did on those old heavy wooden skis with the metal bindings, but the carnage was unbelievable.” said Moulton.
As for the first Schneider-Fanck collaboration, “The Wonder of the Ski,” “Some of the logistical things they were up against included using a slow-motion camera that weighed over 2 tons, so to move it into place they needed workhorses and a sledge — they had to invent snowshoes for the horses! They would go up to 3,000 feet and spend the night in a cabin and then film the action the next day.”
Moulton noted that the film featured instructional stop action to show the sequences of making a stem turn, footage later used for the instructional book produced in 1925.
“So, here we were in the ’80s, thinking we were pretty cool using stop-action shots showing the difference between Stenmark’s turns versus the Mahre brothers — well, heck, Fanck was using that with Hannes in the 1920s,” Moulton said.
“As for pioneering extreme skiing? There was no question. This all predated lifts. The only way to get up there was to climb backcountry. Slab ice, avalanches … everything was right in their face.
“And just from a director’s standpoint? Try organizing 10 ski instructors coming down an untouched perfect powder slope, in front of a camera at the right time of day in exactly the right light … with no radios to communicate to one another. And then to have the whole thing come off perfectly — it’s really quite spectacular to take all of that in,” Moulton said. “Of course, they didn’t show all the collisions — just the perfect turns,” he added.
For more, go to rickmoulton.com or skimuseum.org. Be sure to visit the Eastern Slope Branch of the New England Ski Museum, where DVDs are on sale, including “The White Ecstasy,” which is sold for $20 and may be shown upon request. There, you may also look at a German copy and an English translated version of Fanck and Schneider’s “Das Wunder des Schneeschuhs (Wonders of Skiing)” book in the library. Call (603) 823-7177 or the North Conway branch at (603) 730-5044 in North Conway.