Women in Early Mountain Films

Women have taken a major part in mountain climbing since its beginnings – first as daughters, sisters and wives of the climbing men in their families, but later as independent climbers too. Their exploits have generally been documented far less, but despite this they have left us a great many documents in the form of written texts and images that give evidence of their active presence in the world of alpinism.

It is less commonly known that women climbers also played a special role in a mass medium that was new to the 20th century: film. Female climbers were present from a surprisingly early time in cinematic history. Despite a few exceptions, women initially were almost completely absent as directors of mountain films, but they frequently appeared as major or minor characters in many 20th century mountain films. Ernst Lubitsch’s comedy “Meyer from Berlin” (1919), Paul Czinner’s “Fräulein Else” (1929) and the very popular German “Bergfilm” genre by the triumvirate Arnold Fanck, Leni Riefenstahl and Luis Trenker (twenties and thirties) or Mario Craveris “Maratona Bianca” (1935) or Fred Zinnemann’s “Five Days One Summer” (1982) are just a few examples of films in which women are depicted as mountain climbers or skiers.

Although often shown in the position of the weaker members of a climbing party who have to be led and protected, women in mountain films are usually strong and athletic, with vigorous and healthy bodies. They are often unconventional, modern, determined and sometimes even heroic characters who – at least within the range of the mountain and mountaineering world they are located – manage to break free from the chains of social conventions while questioning neither traditional social values nor (more specifically) gender structures.

How are women shown in these films, which roles do they play, what kind of model of femininity and messages are they meant to get across? And: Have their roles changed within time? Does the respective image of women depend on any specific characteristics regarding the genre, the country and the historical period the films were produced? But also: Do women directors sketch women differently than men do, and if so, how?

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