Based on a true story, North Face is a suspenseful adventure film about a competition to climb the most dangerous rock face in the Alps. Set in 1936, as Nazi propaganda urges the nation’s Alpinists to conquer the unclimbed north face of the Swiss massif – the Eiger – two reluctant German climbers begin their daring ascent. (Imdb)
‘Because It’s There’ Is the Least of Their Reasons
Published: January 28, 2010
As you watch Philipp Stölzl’s gripping survival drama, “North Face,”it is impossible not to put yourself in the boots of the mountaineers clinging to a sheer, icy rock face during a blizzard that threatens to send them into oblivion. The sight of the exhausted climbers fighting to stay alive after failing to reach the summit of the Eiger, a 13,000-foot peak in the Swiss Alps, is transfixing in the way that well-told life-and-death adventure tales inevitably are. It is the film’s more mundane elements — an awkward, under-nourished love story and half-baked politics — that are problematic.
The film, based on a true story, recalls the attempt of two German climbers, Toni Kurz (Benno Fürmann) and Andi Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas), to scale the Eiger’s 5,900-foot near-vertical north wall, then unconquered, in mid-July 1936.
At that time, climbing the north wall, called “the last problem of the Western Alps” by Alpinists, was something of an obsession for the Nazis in the weeks leading up to the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. (The Eiger’s summit had been reached by other routes as early as 1858.) Scaling the “death wall,” as it was nicknamed, would be a perfectly timed propaganda coup.
And as journalists and photographers amass at a nearby hotel, the event is portrayed as a cynical media circus in which fat cats, all but oblivious of the daredevils fighting for their lives hundreds of yards away, lounge beside an enormous hearth, stuffing their faces with gourmet food and fine wines.
“North Face” imagines the attempted conquest as a battle between Kurz and Hinterstoisser, from Germany, and Willy Angerer (Simon Schwarz) and Edi Rainer (Georg Friedrich), from Austria. The four actually belonged to the same team and did not join together midway in the climb, as the movie has it.
The two-hour film takes its time setting up the story. When Kurz and Hinterstoisser first appear, they are scrubbing latrines in an army barracks. Urged to undertake the adventure for the greater glory of Nazi Germany, Hinterstoisser, a rabidly competitive hothead, is gung-ho to meet the challenge; Kurz demurs.
Learning of Kurz’s doubts, Henry Arau (Ulrich Tukur), a Berlin magazine editor in pursuit of a hot story, dispatches a deputy, Luise Fellner (Johanna Wokalek), who is an aspiring photojournalist and former flame of Kurz’s, to persuade him to change his mind. When they reunite, his ardor rekindles, and he agrees. On the big day, Luise, who is very ambitious, accompanies Arau to the hotel, where he puts the moves on her.
The film’s underdeveloped subplots are really afterthoughts in a movie that doesn’t need them. When “North Face” is gazing at the Alps in constantly changing weather at different hours, your eyes are riveted to the screen. You see the climbers from a distance, like ants on a tree trunk, and from up close, where one slip of the foot can end in disaster. There are shots of Kurz dangling from a strand of rope over what looks like an endless abyss.
As an adventure story, “North Face” slowly builds in tension, not reaching its breaking point until after the four have made the painful decision to descend together because one has sustained serious head wounds. After the blinding storm strikes near nightfall, thick layers of ice accumulate on their gear; one loses his glove, another loses feeling in an arm, and the most seriously injured man becomes delirious. Pitons hammered into the rock come loose. Equipment slips out of their hands, and the roar of the storm nearly drowns out their voices as a rescue party, led by Luise, approaches.
One way they try to reach the climbers is by a train that runs inside the mountain and has a station on the north face. The moments in which Luise ventures alone onto the icy rock face are the only climbing scenes that seem blatantly faked.
But most of the time, “North Face” puts you where it wants you to be: in harm’s way. These scenes are so harrowing that you may question the famous rationale ascribed to the British climber George Mallory when asked why he wanted to ascend Mount Everest: “Because it’s there.”
Yes, we know that, but still …give me a better reason. Mallory disappeared on that 1924 expedition.