The Magic Mountain

“Excavation and Memory”

Sean Lambert (UC, Berkeley)

He who seeks to approach his own buried past must conduct himself like a man digging. Above all, he must not be afraid to return again and again to the same matter; to scatter it as one scatters earth, to turn it over as one turns over soil. — Walter Benjamin, “Excavation and Memory”

Daniel Mann’s and Eitan Efrat’s Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain) presents a cinematic excavation. In shots bookending the film, the camera is mounted to the front of a vehicle (first a mine car, then a boat) that descends into the depths of the Austrian spa town Bad Gastein. Between these shots, the film explores the history of the mountain town, uncovering its legacy as a sanitarium and a prison; the mysterious properties of the water and minerals found in its underground caves; and – in perhaps the film’s most surprising plotline – the episode of Emma Kunz, a mystic who attempted to harness the spa’s energies to kill Hitler. At stake is the capacity for the mountain to remember — for the earth itself to function as an archive, intertwining human and natural memory.

This mining of the archive within the earth links to a high-stakes project in contemporary German culture. Vergangenheitsbewältigung — the “working out” of the past — is a major topic in both academic and popular discourse. Der Zauberberg’s director duo is Israeli, but the film, which is mostly in German and set in Austria, engages deeply with German history, showing how the histories of people and place are inextricable. This juxtaposition of human with natural memory is expressed perhaps best by an excavator near the end of the film. Remarking on certain naturally-forming pearls in caves beneath the mountain, which were transported to the surface by prisoners, he says, “these pearls are not made only of calcite and limestone, but of the sweat and blood of these people. While preserving the pearls we have to remember that they are not merely a scientific curiosity, but also a memento of people who worked and died here.”

In their attempt to dig through the layers of the past buried within the mountain, the filmmakers confront the (super)natural mystery of Bad Gastein. The mountain’s waters possess healing properties valued, but not fully understood, by medical professionals. Its long-time fame as a sanitarium prompts its title, shared with Thomas Mann’s novel. But alongside its healing properties, the mountain’s foundations also exhibit dangerously high levels of radioactivity. What emerges from the film’s investigation of Bad Gastein is a paradoxical picture of a place: a mystery that has as much confounded as inspired scientific and mystical imagination. The film figures the earth as a site of memory – but a hazy memory. A central recurring image depicts Bad Gastein shrouded in mist.

The theme of the earth’s exhilarating but uncanny mystery is an old one in German philosophy, which the film revitalizes in relation to present-day ecocritical discourse. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the topic of nature’s wonder and mystery inspired major writings by Kant, Schelling, and other Romantics. As Novalis wrote: “Earthly existence is analogically known as inner contemplation…a going inside oneself, an immanent activity. Thus, earthly life arises from a primordial reflection, a primitive turning inward, a gathering in of oneself that is as free as our reflection.” The Romantic period saw the transformation of the medieval concept of the “Book of Nature” into a “hieroglyphics of nature.” German idealists regarded nature as a language — that is, bound nature up with communication, mediation, history, and memory — but saw this language as outside human understanding. Nature’s memory was hazy, its archive uncanny. The layers of fossils within the earth, which were just beginning to be uncovered by the then-new sciences of paleontology, archaeology, and geology, offered a record of radical alterity that provided a backdrop for teleological histories of linear human progress. Later, recipients of German idealism in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century would take inspiration for their ideas about history and memory from this notion of a natural “hieroglyphics.” Both Sigmund Freud and Walter Benjamin constructed their imagination of the past via this notion of earth-as-archive — of the past as an accumulation of layers of material to be dug through. In “Excavation and Memory,” Benjamin explicitly connects memory with the earth: “Memory is the medium of that which has been experienced, just as the earth is the medium in which ancient cities lie buried.”

In one scene in Der Zauberberg, an interviewee appraises a stone block carved out of the mountain. “I think,” he says, “that the stone has a certain energy. When I see it before me, it primarily has the energy of the people who worked the stone. They are implicit in the stone – you could say, ‘impressed’ in the stone. The care, the love.” This interview undoubtedly risks coming across as New Age cringe, but in the context of the film’s larger investigation of Bad Gastein, it becomes a valuable articulation of the notion of earth-as-archive. What the film makes clear through its assemblage of interviews and archival footage is precisely how the strange transference of energy between people and mountain stone recurs in scientific, medical, and mystical discourses, whether figured as magic, radioactivity or mysterious healing properties. Actually, a transfer of “energy” might be the best description for the mysterious effect Bad Gastein has been documented as exerting throughout its history. This “impression” of energy into rock turns the mountain into an archive – suddenly, pearls in underground caves become “mementos of people who worked and died here.” The filmmakers locate, in Bad Gastein, a site for excavating memory.

Der Zauberberg brings this rich history of German thinking about nature and memory into the 21st century, staging environmental thinking as an important part of the “working out” of cultural memory. The film expands our concept of the archive, staking out a claim for thinking the earth as a repository of memory, and cinema, not merely as a tool for digging into the past, but as one medium in dialogue with another. It confirms the first line of Benjamin’s essay: “Language has made unmistakably plain that memory is not an instrument for exploring the past, but rather a medium.” In Mann’s and Efrat’s hands, film ceases to be a tool of interpretation; instead, with all the reverence that the misty mountain demands, the filmmakers make cinema into a mode for translating the hieroglyphics of nature into equally powerful and mysterious images.

“The Hidden Landscape”

Claudia Pummer (University of Hawaii at Mānoa)

From romantic painting to the German Bergfilm to contemporary mountaineering documentaries like Free Solo (2018), Sherpa (2015), or The Summit (2012), mountains have long served as settings to portray the eternal struggle between humans, nature, and death. Suspended between monumental beauty and imminent danger, they loom large in an aesthetic tradition that tends to define nature in terms of sublime terror, indifference, and unknowability. Daniel Mann and Eitan Efrat’s The Magic Mountain (2020) resists both the visual splendor and the visceral sensationalism specific to cinematic approaches to mountainous landscapes. Instead, the film captures elements that lie beneath the earth within the dark crevices of abandoned mining tunnels and decrepit underground bunkers.

The opening shots encapsulate this focus on an unseen, hidden landscape: we are introduced to a panoramic view of the Austrian Alps that is heavily obstructed by a thick layer of slowly moving clouds through which the contours of trees and snow-covered peaks are barely visible. The landscape portrayed here exists from the start in relation (rather than in opposition) to industry and technology. Indeed, the next scene catapults us abruptly into the clinical neon-lit environment of an underground railroad station in the Gasteiner Heilstollen (healing tunnel) from where spa patients are brought to a place deep inside the mountain to expose themselves to the alleged healing effects of radon, a radioactive gas that emanates from the tunnel’s interior walls. In a series of interviews, local scientists and medical practitioners lay out the benefits of a treatment whose effects remain speculative and anecdotal.

However, The Magic Mountain is not an investigative piece about pseudo-scientific health practices or the gullible patrons who seek them out. Part observational documentary and part essayistic meditation, the film notably refrains from adding any commentary or judgment, a stance emphasized in several scenes in which we see the filmmakers listening attentively to people who engage in distinct ways and in different locations with nature’s invisible power. The titular “magic mountain” is not a single geological formation but designates rather an allegorical terrain that spans the heart of central Europe: from the Austrian spa region of Bad Gastein to the Emma Kunz Center in the Swiss alps to two underground WWII museums in Lower Silesia, Poland. In each place, the filmmakers encounter people for whom the landscape holds some form of secret power or knowledge. This includes the already mentioned radioactive treatments (Chapter One, “Radon”), the work of Swiss naturopath and “visionary artist” Emma Kunz (Chapter Two, “Aiona”), as well as amateur excavation and preservation efforts in two former German military bunker complexes that have been turned into museums in Poland (Chapter Three, “Pearls”).

The third chapter, in particular, draws attention to the fact that there is a more elusive narrative thread which connects these three distinctive subterranean topographies: the memory of historical violence, especially the legacy of German Nazism. In short, The Magic Mountain addresses the persistence of historical trauma which is not only explicitly inscribed into the Polish landscape but also into the language with which several interviewees choose to testify to nature’s cryptic energies. In the first segment, for instance, a scientist attributes the discovery of radon to the time when “Polish prisoners-of-war, who suffered from rheumatism,” worked in the underground uranium mines of Bad Gastein: “The longer they worked in the healing tunnels, the better they felt,” he claims. Another medical expert cites a study according to which minimal exposure to the nuclear fallout of the Hiroshima bomb boosted longevity among some Japanese people. War, imprisonment, forced labor, and by extension mass genocide are here reimagined as therapeutic events.

The specter of twentieth-century mass destruction haunts also the film’s second chapter about miracle healer Emma Kunz who is said to have sensed Hitler’s “negative energy” early on with the help of her magic rod. We are introduced to artifacts Kunz left behind (the rod, a pendulum) in addition to a vast collection of large color-penciled geometric drawings on graph paper, a form of expression through which Kunz recorded her prophetic visions, including a piece that represents her alleged foresight of the atomic bomb. The simple, repetitive drawings are suggestive of the film’s implicit theme: the inability to openly address the continued reality of historical trauma, replacing it instead with an esoteric worldview that is focused on personalized forms of recuperation and memory under the auspices of an imagined return into Mother Nature’s womb.

Yet, only a few moments in the film provide strong counter-visions to challenge such reductive and retreatist engagements with the world. A stone manufacturer who lives close to the Emma Kunz Center, for instance, explains that the only type of energy a rock might contain would derive from the material labor that goes into shaping and working it. The statement implicitly dispels the idea of the mountain’s innate magic, a belief that fueled both Kunz’s alleged ability to perform miracle cures and her commercial exploitation of the pulverized rock as healing powder under the brand name “Aiona.” The brief mention of Kunz’s entrepreneurial exploits reveals a much more complex and compelling intersection between historical memory, profit, and material culture than the filmmakers are willing to address.

What is missing is indeed a stronger exploration of such parallax histories of a presumably natural landscape that bears not only traces of past slave labor and genocide but that is also firmly embedded into specific economic and technological infrastructures, from the multimillion-dollar health and wellness industry in the Austrian and Swiss alps to local practices of historical commemoration in the Polish war museums. To provide a glimpse of these broader material contexts means not necessarily to deploy conventional forms of commentary or narration. In fact, from Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog (1956) to Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) to Steve McQueen’s video installation Western Deep (2002), there are plenty of non-fiction films that explore comparable themes and places yet develop a stronger political argument or personal narrative point-of-view while remaining at the same time committed to a poetic or essayistic approach that resists closed off forms of signification and the transparent sentimentality of visual spectacle.

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