Based on the story of a minor yet successful turn-of-the-century D’Alembert opera, the basic threesome is the traveling dancer Martha who is noticed and taken in by the Marquis Don Sebastian, the latter however finding himself constrained, for financial and political reasons, to marry someone else. He hatches the plan to marry Martha off to a simple mountain man, where she will be kept off campus for the Marquis’ exclusive use: Pedro the shepherd is to stay away except for playing the purely nominal role of houseman in exchange for a payoff. But Pedro had already fallen for Martha before the deal came down, and in his overwhelmed joy at the sudden turn of fate, somehow is not cognizant of the charade-aspect of the deal and thinks he is marrying Martha in the traditional way.
The mountains, where Pedro prefers to dwell, becomes a symbol for naïveté and purity, while the “lowlands” (hence the title) is the place of deceit and treachery.
On the assumption that Kobbé’s summary is adequate, the movie shifts the center of gravity from the original opera. In both versions, the crisis is set up by the fake marriage and Pedro’s naïveté. In both, the peasants at first laugh at Pedro, since they know what the real situation is. But in the opera, Pedro rouses himself to vengeance and thrusts it back at the peasants, while in the movie a solidarity develops between Pedro and the peasants in resisting the cruel Marquis: the peasants’ earlier mocking is thus two-faced, like the loyalty of the wicked witch’s henchmen in Oz. It is not a revolt based merely on class, for the peasants’ resentment is amply justified by the injustice and hypocricy of the Marquis. It is as if the Volk is re-established in justice by the pure one from above. Nietzsche’s man-above (Übermensch) also descended from the mountain to instruct the folk, but Nietzsche’s was as cynical and arrogant as Riefenstahl’s is naïve and open-hearted.
Leni Riefenstahl did not want to be the main star in her own film, but actresses came up scarce during the war during which the movie was actually shot though it was scheduled way back in 1934. Then, the prints were stolen by the French after the war and had to be returned by lawsuit. The editing was not suitable for release until 1954.
The photography is dark and moody, achieved by the use of color filters. There is much that is richly atmospheric in both the mountain and the Spanish village scenes. The opening sequence of the Shepherd like a young David slaying the beast that threatens the flock (symbolic of the movie’s theme) is alone almost worth the rental fee. The characterization of the Marquis may be a bit simplistic. Woman as pivot for all the action makes the film suspect to be a chick-flick — but an artistic one, that constrains me to recommend a viewing.