Vulture Wally

Die Geier-Wally, or “Vulture Wally”, the novel from 1875 by  by Wilhelmine von Hillern (1836-1916). It’s  best known to many from the opera La Wally (1892) by Alfredo Catalani. I’ve been watching the film version, made in 1921, a smash hit in the post-1918 era. Perhaps it was popular because it portrays a woman who can’t be tamed — a free spirit whom the inhibitions of society cannot restrain.  Wally represents the “New Woman” of the modern world. The photo at right comes from the frontispiece of the 1921 reprint of the novel.  

Die Geier-Wally is not a true Bergfilm like Arnold Fanck’s Die heilige Berg, made only 5 years later, technologically and artistically a far greater work of art, but it’s interesting and apparently much closer to the novel than to the opera. Walburga Stromminger was a fearless teenager, a tomboy as tough as a mountain goat. The villagers on the alpine valley don’t like a vulture, which might presumably attack their herds. Wally  volunteers to go get it. She’s lowered down a steep cliff by rope and beats off the giant bird (2 metre wing span) with a dagger. The vulture fights back because it’s guarding its nest, so perhaps it wasn’t an evil spirit. Anyway, from thence Walburga is known as Geier-Wally, or Das Geier-Mädchen, the Vulture Maiden. In the film, she’s next seen making her First Communion in a pretty dress, with a fancy cake and flowers ,  conventional feminine conformity. But then she climbs a tree, most unladylike. She also falls hopelessly in love with Bären-Joseph, who’s killed a big bear that was supposedly a danger to the community. Wally’s father, the Höchstbauer, is the richest man in town and wants Wally to marry Vincenz Gellner. Wally, who can chop wood better than a man, accidentally knocks Gellner out, and is thrown out of the house by her father. She ‘s also mad at Joseph who seems attracted to an outsider, Afra, so she storms off to live alone in the mountains, like a Berggeisr or mountain spirit of legend. Only when she’s driven by desperation does she seek the company of humans.

When Old Stromminger dies, Wally returns as lady of the Höchstbauer manor. She’s dressed in fancy velvets but has no illusions about the people around her, who once were so happy to condemn her. A bull runs amok and Joseph is gored trying to tame it. A village celebration is held. In front of everyone Joseph dares Wally to resist a kiss. The pair stalk each other until Wally collapses.  It’s a cruel prank, for which Wally wants revenge. Gellner chases Joseph into the hills, where he falls into a ravine. Guilt-stricken Wally descends into the abyss and saves him. Afra, it turns out, is his sister. Wally and Josph embrace, lovers at last. Consider the psycho-sexual and violent undertones  and the element of class war ! The Romantiker wasn’t “romantic”.  Wilhelmine von Hillern must have been an interesting person, though she lived an ostensibly upper middle class existence.

What’s also interesting about this film which was made by Gloria-Filme Catalani in Berlin, is that Henny Porten, who plays Wally, was also,part of the production team. Unlike the director Ewald André Dupont and designer Paul Leni, who both ended up in Hollywood, Porten remained in Germany, making movies for UFA to protect her Jewish husband. Both survived the Third Reich. Leni’s designs add a lot to the film, for he chooses dizzyingly Expressionist angles to accentuate the steepness of the mountains, and the predicament Wally faces. Although the interior scenes are detailed to the point of claustrophobia, the mountain scenes look “modern” in that Leni sets up shots of white snow background with jagged trees and rocks – virtues of B&W, which colour can’t quite emulate.

Original Source: Vulture Wally

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