North Face (Music Box Films, NR)

When a really good climbing film comes along, it provides vicarious thrills which you just can’t get with any other genre.

 Mountain climbing is an inherently cinematic proposition with more built-in drama than 20 Super Bowls. Top-flight climbers are as athletic as any professional sportsmen, their ventures take place in gorgeous natural settings in the world, and the stakes are not a trophy or a championship but their very lives. Add in the complications of extreme weather conditions and the ever-present risk of equipment failure along with the attempt, as they used to say on Star Trek, to go where no man has gone before, and you have to wonder why there aren’t more films built around mountaineering.

Then you think about monstrosities like Cliffhanger and Vertical Limit and the answer becomes obvious: it’s not easy to make a good mountaineering film but it’s very easy (and perhaps also very expensive) to make a bad one.

But when a really good climbing film comes along, it provides vicarious thrills which you just can’t get with any other genre. Fortunately, Philipp Stölzel’s North Face is an excellent film as long as it sticks close to the mountains. Even if you know nothing at all about mountain climbing, it’s almost impossible not to get caught up in the excitement as you watch two young men try to become the first to scale the Eiger’s north face, called the Todwand or “death wall” because so many have already died in the attempt.

It’s no accident that Toni Kurz (Benno Fürmann) and Andi Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas) are making their attempt in the summer of 1936. The Berlin Olympics are coming up and Adolf Hitler has promised to award a gold medal to the first team to successfully scale the north face. Toni and Andi are not big supporters of National Socialism (they tend to return Hitler salutes with waves) but it’s better than scrubbing toilets in the army. Besides, for a climber the challenge of scaling a hitherto-unconquered peak is sufficient motivation by itself and they’re young enough not to give too much consideration to their own mortality.

Several other European nations have also entered the contest but the film focuses only on the Austrian team of Willy Angerer (Simon Schwarz) and Edi Rainer (George Friedrich), who are initially competitors to the Germans but join forces with them midway through the climb. In historical fact, the four climbers were a team from the beginning, in part to make a political statement prefiguring the Anschluss, but the change provides an additional layer of drama.

The climbing sequences, artfully stitched together using stuntmen as well as the leads on location and in the studio, are the best part of the film. Of course we know the Academy is unable to judge the merits of films in foreign languages outside the category created specifically them (and they do a poor enough job within that category, but that’s a rant for another day) but I’m still amazed that North Face was not nominated for any technical awards. Some other time you can explain to me how Avatar won the Oscar for Best Cinematography over The White Ribbon while this film did not even get nominated.

Anyway, North Face’s climbing sequences are so realistic they seem almost like documentary footage and will give you a profound appreciation for just how simple climbing was in those days. Kernmantel ropes and high-tech clothing were decades in the future: these young men must make do with hemp ropes, wool mittens and canvas jackets. North Face also makes it clear that the real enemy of the climber is frequently not the mountain itself but the weather: an ordinary climb can turn life-threatening in minutes if a storm comes up and calling for a helicopter rescue on your cell phone was not an option in 1936.

Stölzel, who also wrote the screenplay along with Cristoph Silber, Rupert Henning and Johannes, does a reasonable job sketching in the historical context, largely through the character of Henry Arau (Ulrich Tukur), a Berlin magazine editor and Nazi supporter who sees a potential goldmine in covering Toni and Andi’s attempt on the north face.

The screenplay pounds a little too hard on theme of the decadent rich, however, repeatedly contrasting the spartan conditions faced by the climbers with the luxury enjoyed by those watching their efforts from a luxury resort at the base of the mountain. A love story between aspiring journalist Luise Fellner (Johanna Wokalek) and Toni seems tacked on but it’s slight enough that it doesn’t impede too seriously the main story of man against mountain.

In the 1920s and 1930s the Bergfilm or “mountain film” was a popular genre in Germany (the young Leni Riefenstahl got her first big break starring in one of them, Der heilige Berg i.e. The Holy Mountain). If you understand the significance of these films in German culture (some argue they hold a place similar to the Western, with all its heroic myths, in the United States) it adds another layer of significance to the historical events which inspired North Face. But even if you don’t, Stölzel’s dramatic rendering of the story of men risking their lives to become the first to conquer a treacherous mountain face provides more than enough gripping drama to make this film worth your time. | Sarah Boslaugh

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