Sunday, June 11, 2023

Secret in the Mountain, on MHz Choice

The picturesque Austrian village of Altaussee probably boasts the only working mine that also features an art exhibit. There is a good reason for that. During WWII, the salt mine served as the secret hiding place for art looted by the National Socialist regime. You might remember scenes of its liberation in George Clooney’s The Monuments Men. Screenwriter-director tells the story from the perspective of the miners in Secret of the Mountain, which premieres Tuesday on MHz Choice.

Sepp Rottenbacher keeps himself to himself, but not his childhood friend, Franz Mittenjager, who is widely known to supply food to the band of deserters encamped in the mountains. That secret is a little too open for his own safety, but his equally rebellious wife Leni would not have it any other way. Slowly but surely, the villagers are also becoming more defiant, as they receive news of the Axis’s military defeats.

The mines might not seem like a good place to store art, but the temperature and humidity in the deeper shafts were almost perfect. Their depth also provided protection from Allied bombing runs. Unfortunately, Hitler decided to destroy the Altaussee mine and all the art stored within, as part of his scorched earth strategy. Blowing up the art would also obliterate the village’s primary source of employment. Of course, the fanatical National Socialists do not care, but the catastrophic prospect finally shakes Rottenbacher out of his apathy.

Even though
Secret in the Mountain was produced for Austrian television, but it is a high-quality period production, with some surprisingly sophisticated characterization. Unlike many “reluctant heroes,” who cannot hardly wait for their awakening of conscience, Rottenbacher’s change of heart is a bitter, hard-fought process. Likewise, the miners’ “courtship” of SS Officer Ernst Kaltenbrunner to countermand the Altaussee’s standing orders for destruction gives the film an ironic twist. However, it is worth noting Zerhau’s screenplay largely lets the mining village off the hook for collaboration, while short-changing the efforts of the American Monuments Men to secure the imperiled art beneath Altaussee.

Regardless, Fritz Karl is terrific expressing Rottenbacher’s ambiguously conflicted state-of-mind. Harald Windisch is also surprisingly charismatic as the rasher, bolder Mittenjager. It always nice to see someone pushing “middle-age” get to play a heroic role, right? Probably the most recognizable for American viewers will be Oliver Masucci (from
Enfant Terrible and Chess Story), who is perfectly cast as the craft and calculating Kaltenbrunner.

Secret in the Mountain
was a shrewd pick-up for MHz, because it is nearly as good as The Forger and vastly superior to a film like Waiting for Anya. It is grittily fatalistic and even somewhat ironic, while remaining solidly grounded in terms of both history and morality. Highly recommended, Secret in the Mountain starts streaming Tuesday (6/13) on MHz Choice.