Dr. Johannes Krafft (Gustav Diessl) and his bride Maria are spending their honeymoon mountain climbing in the Bernina Alps in southeast Switzerland. While climbing the north face of Piz Palü in the strong föhn winds, the loving couple's guide Christian (Christian Klucker) warns Krafft not to be cocky in this dangerous environment, but the doctor dismisses the warning. Just then a violent avalanche descends on the couple, the safety rope breaks, and Maria is swept down into a deep crevice in the Piz Palü glacier. Despite his wife's initial cries for help, Krafft is unable to reach her in her icy grave. Krafft spends the next years wandering the mountain alone like a ghost, looking for the body of his lost bride.
Four years later, a young couple—Maria Maioni (Leni Riefenstahl) and her fiancé Hans Brandt (Ernst Petersen)—arrive at the Diavolezza-Hütte (2977 m) preparing to climb Piz Palü. Recently engaged and very much in love, the couple settle in to their remote mountain hut. While paging through the Diavolezza-Hütte log, Maria notices an entry for 6 October 1925 written by Dr. Johannes Krafft. The entry notes that Maria Krafft died by accident in the Piz Palü glacier. Just then, Krafft arrives at the mountain hut on one of his solitary excursions. Maria offers the lonely man tea, and soon the three become acquainted.
The local guide, Christian, arrives and mentions that a group of students from Zurich will be arriving the next day to climb the north face. Disturbed by the news, Krafft prepares to set out once again on his own. After Christian tells Maria that Krafft tried climbing the north face twice and failed because he was alone, she asks Hans if they should let him make the climb alone. The next morning, as Krafft prepares to leave, Hans approaches and offers to accompany the doctor, who accepts. Later when Maria discovers that Hans left with Krafft for the north face, she skiis after the men, catches up with them, and insists that they take her along. Despite the memory of his wife's terrible fate on the mountain, Krafft reluctantly agrees. Together they set off across the pristine snow for the Piz Palü north face.
As they ascend the icy mountain, Hans insists on taking the lead. While traversing a difficult stretch, he is swept away by an avalanche. Krafft climbs down and rescues the injured Hans, moving him to a precarious ledge near an avalanche shute. Maria bandages Hans' injured scalp, and the three consider their predicament—trapped on the narrow ledge with no means of escape. Despite Krafft's desperate calls for help, there is no one near enough to rescue them. They find a small ice cave which provides some shelter during the night for Maria and Hans, while Krafft stands outside with his lantern signaling for help.
Meanwhile, Christian returns to the hut and discovers Hans' log entry. Concerned for their safety in the coming storm, the mountain guide sets off after them, but soon is turned back by the blizzard conditions. He returns to the valley and enlists the help of his fellow villagers. Soon a rescue team snakes its way up the mountain with pitch torches and stretchers. They make their way through the night, illuminated by the magical light of the torches. The next day they reach the summit and attempt to rope down to the stranded party, but they are unsuccessful. Later that night, the three can barely survive the freezing cold and wind. Delirious with fever, Hans tries to jump to his death. When Krafft tries to prevent him, Hans attempts to kill the doctor. Krafft is saved when Maria ties up her crazed fiancé.
The next morning, after learning of the stranded party, Ernst Udet the aviator takes off in his aircraft in search of Krafft, Maria, and Hans. When he locates them, he makes several unsuccessful attempts to parachute supplies down to them. Before leaving, he manage to show Christian their exact location on the mountain. With no help in sight, however, Krafft takes off his jacket and wraps it around Hans to prevent the young man from freezing to death. Krafft then crawls away to an isolated ice ledge and waits to die.
Christian finally rappels down to them and discovers a note Krafft left for him indicating that he did his best to save the two young people. He asks his old friend to leave him where he is—that he was always "good friends with the ice". During his attempt to bring Maria and Hans back to safety, an avalanche nearly kills them. Later they arrive back at the village, where Maria and Hans are nursed back to health. When Maria awakens from the trauma, she learns that Krafft perished in the ice on the same mountain that once took his wife.
The film was shot from January to June 1929 in the Bernina Range in the Alps. Work was divided between the two directors. Arnold Fanck was responsible for the location shots in the mountains, Georg Wilhelm Pabst was responsible for the indoor shots and was advising Fanck in matters of dramaturgy. The set design was by Ernö Metzner, the cinematography by Fanck's long-time collaborators Sepp Allgeier, Richard Angst and Hans Schneeberger. Fanck would continue to work with actors Leni Riefenstahl and Ernst Udet in the films Storm over Mont Blanc (1930) and S.O.S. Eisberg (1933).
On 11 October 1929 the film premiered in Vienna. In Germany the film had its premiere in the same year on November 1 inStuttgart. The official German premiere was on 15 November 1929 in Berlin. In the first four weeks the film was seen by more than 100,000 people at the UFA Palast in Berlin, at this time Germany's largest and most important movie theater.
In 1930 a sound film version in English was released internationally. In 1935 a German sound film version with a film score byGiuseppe Becce was produced. The film was shortened to 90 minutes. With the Nazis in power since 1933, all nightclub scenes with the Jewish actor Kurt Gerron, who was murdered in Auschwitz concentration camp in 1944, were cut from this release. A remake was produced in 1950 under the title Föhn by Rolf Hansen, starring Hans Albers and Liselotte Pulver.
The original version of Die weiße Hölle vom Piz Palü was lost until 1996. The film was restored in 1997 by the German Federal Film Archive. The original film score by Willy Schmidt-Gentner is still lost.
The White Hell of Piz Palu was well received, both critically and commercially. The film premiered in Vienna and Hamburg to critical praise. At the film's opening in Berlin's Ufa Palast am Zoo on November 15, 1929, the film became the second highest box-office hit of the year in Germany.
The film was equally well received at its United States premier at New York's Roxy Theater in September 1930. In his review for the New York Times, Mordaunt Hall praised the film for its "beautifully photographed sequences". Hall concluded:
Despite its surface simplicity there is a swift undercurrent of tenseness and anticipation that carries one along through the avalanches, up the precipitous and threatening mountainside and finally to the climax of the rescue. Leni Riefenstahl is convincing as Maria, the brave girl of the group, and Gustav Diesel as Dr. Krafft appears to advantage as the disillusioned searcher.
The film is considered Fanck's most successful film and Riefenstahl's best acting performance. It also became the second biggest box office hit of the year in Germany.