First there is a mountain: North Face ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 20, 2010)

The hills are alive:  Lukas and Furmann in North Face

The language of cinema may be universal, but certain genres seem to be nation-centric. The American western, the Japanese samurai film and the French farce come to mind. Germany’s claim to fame (arguably running neck-in-neck with Expressionism) are the Alpine “mountain films” of the 1920s and 1930s, ruggedly adventurous tales pitting man (and occasionally, the ruggedly adventurous Leni Riefenstahl) against nature.

The narratives generally applaud moral fiber and strength of character (bet you’re glad I didn’t say “triumph of the will”), as well as variations on the theme of “What doesn’t kill you, can only make you stronger.” Many of these mountain films hold up well, mostly due to the genuinely exciting on-location climbing sequences, which obviously had to be filmed without benefit of enhancements like CGI. Okay, there were some camera tricks and such, but the actors and crew were often working in relatively perilous situations.

This brings us to Philipp Stozl’s remarkably authentic mountaineering tale, North Face (released in Germany in 2008 as Nordwand, and currently making its theatrical debut in the U.S.). I will tell you one thing. Despite what I know in my heart of hearts about the “magic” of movie making, days later I’m still pondering how the hell they produced this film without any cast or crew members going “Whoopsie!” and plunging to their doom.

The film is based on the true story of four climbers (a pair of two-man teams, one German and the other Austrian) who tackled the previously unconquered north face of Switzerland’s legendary Eiger in 1936. This particular route to the summit of the formidable 13,000 foot peak was considered suicidal at best; due to its dauntingly sheer ascent, dicey traversals, unforgiving exposure to mercurial weather conditions and relative scarcity of safe bivouacking options. Based on my research about the actual events, Stolzl and co-writers Cristoph Silber, Rupert Henning and Johannes Naber have taken artistic license in their dramatization, but have still delivered a riveting adventure.

The German climbing team of lifelong friends Toni Kurz (Benno Furmann) and Andreas Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas) are professional rivals of their Austrian counterparts, Edi Rainer (Georg Friedrich) and Willy Angerer (Simon Schwarz). Toni and Andreas have been persuaded by the government to represent Germany (and for Nazi propaganda purposes, the “superior” Aryan ideal) in a multi-nation  competition to scale the Eiger.

The two are much more enthusiastic about the potential to become the first to successfully navigate the north face than they are about scoring political points for the Fatherland. In fact, neither are party members. Although they are in the army, they are ambivalent about their military careers. They cheekily respond to the standard greeting of “Heil Hitler!” with either a cheery “Guten tag!” or a jaunty “Berg heil!”

A childhood friend of the pair named Luise (Johanna Wokelek), now an aspiring photojournalist, is assigned to accompany her editor (Ulrich Tukur) to cover the competition (for those who fret about historical accuracy, she’s a complete invention). It is intimated that Luise and Toni share a romantic history.

For one reason or another, the Germans and the Austrians are the only two teams who end up making the climb; initially as competitors but eventually merging as one team due to unexpected circumstances. The ascent subsequently is aborted and becomes a harrowing survival tale that will have you on the edge of your seat.

Despite a narrative invention or two, Stolzl has delivered a believable film; immersive, exhilarating, heartbreaking. The mountaineering sequences are astounding, instilling a sense of admiration for what these men were able to achieve, outfitted in their relatively primitive 1930s climbing gear (no Gore-Tex or GPS tracking devices in those days).

The Nazi politics are downplayed, but there is a pointed juxtaposition made between the porcine “spectators” and journalists reveling in warm and cozy opulence at the nearby four-star hotel, and the tortuous, sub-zero life-and-death struggles unfolding just a few miles away on the Eiger. Whether this was intended as political allegory is up for debate.

I detected an echo of Billy Wilder’s cynical noir classic Ace in the Hole in one scene. When news reaches the journalists that the climbers have aborted the attempt and begun a premature descent, Luise asks her editor why he has made an abrupt decision to abandon the story as well and immediately leave the hotel. He snorts, “You either need a glorious triumph…or a horrible tragedy. An unspectacular retreat is nothing more than a few lines on page 3.” Plus ca change

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