In 1931, the future Nazi director Leni Riefenstahl found film work as a seriously terrible actress in a seriously goofy comedy, Der Weisse Rausch (The White Thrill). The movie featured Hannes Schneider, a ski instructor in St. Anton am Arlberg, as a daredevil racing and jumping down one pristine trail after another in the Arlberg massif of western Austria. To everyone’s surprise, the film took off internationally and put Schneider, alpine skiing, and St. Anton on the worldwide sporting map.
By 1936, alpine skiing would be added to the Olympic schedule (although Schneider and his band of professional ski instructors were barred from the Games). By the start of World War II, the entire world would be learning to ski using Schneider’s Arlberg technique—a gradual evolution from snowplowing into stemming and carving.
So the tiny village of St. Anton might be accurate in its rather grand claim to have invented the modern sport of downhill skiing—not that it helped Schneider. In 1938, he got in trouble with the Nazis, primarily for resisting the race laws. Snubbed in the village, hounded by Party thugs, and briefly jailed by the new regime, he eventually found a wealthy American sponsor to spring him all the way to North Conway, New Hampshire. After the war, St. Anton changed its mind and begged him to return, but by then he was thoroughly Americanized.
Nowadays, St. Anton supports hundreds of miles of trails, from bunny slopes to black pistes to helicopter skiing in the high Arlberg. You can even reach the place by highway and, since 1978, by one of the longest and highest tunnels in Europe. But the equipment has revolutionized the sport. It’s doubtful that many of the young skiers you see today know why the borrowed Schneider name appears on every other business in the village.