‘North Face’ is a brutal, compelling moutaineering saga
It’s ironic that the mountain-climbing movie North Face should arrive in the wake of the Winter Olympics. Sure, German filmmaker Philipp Stolzl’s gripping dramatization of a true story begins like one of those “inspirational” athletic movies about the indomitable human spirit in the face of impossible odds. There’s plenty of camaraderie and suspense as fresh-faced youths test their mettle against a ferocious opponent—in this case, the notorious north face of the Eiger in the Swiss Alps. There’s even a decorous hint of romance. But as the incidents in Stolzl’s film become more harrowing, and the truly operatic scope of the drama is revealed, viewers start to realize we’re not in Hollywood any more, Toto.
The story is set in 1936, the same year as the infamous Winter Olympics in Berlin. Hitler’s Third Reich is eager to promote German youth as the best and strongest in any athletic competition, and while the Swiss authorities have forbidden any attemps to scale the merciless Eiger (many have already died trying), the Führer lets it be known that any German who succeeds in becoming the first to conquer Eiger’s “Wall of Death” will receive a hero’s welcome.
Toni Kurz (Benno Furmann) and Andreas (“Andi”) Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas) are a pair of apolitical childhood friends from Bavaria who have been climbing mountains together all their lives for the sheer joy of it. Conscripted into the German army’s Mountaineering Brigade, they scrub latrines by day while plotting their next conquest of the slopes. The more serious, pragmatic Toni believes the Eiger is too dangerous, even for them, although the cockier, fun-loving Andi is all afire to try.
Things change with a visit from another childhood friend, Luise Fellner (Johanna Wokalek), now a cub photographer for a Reich newspapr in Berlin. At the moment, her job consists mostly of making coffee for big-shot male reporters, like cynical veteran newshound Arau (Ulrich Tukur). When the old pals reunite, Luise’s desire for a big story, coupled with the prospect of international glory, sets all three friends on the fateful road to the Eiger.
It’s mid-July when several groups of would-be climbers begin camping out on the mountain’s lower slopes. Luise and Arau, there to cover the story, join a bevy of curiousity-seekers ferried by tram halfway up the mountain to a ritzy hotel, where they can watch the action from the comfort of the dining room, the bar, or a veranda equipped with telescopes. But the party atmosphere gives way to something more sinister as the men begin their ascent. It may be summer on the ground, but the Eiger commands its own weather systems, from slushy rain and debilitating fog to ferocious, blinding snow blizzards. As the crusty old tram stationmaster says, the Eiger is named for the giant ogre who supposedly lives within its frigid mists, “devouring anyone who gets too close.”
Stolzl’s mountain-climbing sequences are among the most epic, astounding and grueling ever committed to film. Exciting moments like Andi’s triumphant lateral movement across a treacherous pass, afterward named the Hinterstoisser Traverse in his honor, are soon trumped by more sobering incidents—rockslides, freezing storms, discovering the corpse of another hopeful climber buried in the ice. As the weather worsens, and the cold, fatigue, and injuries mount up, the brutality of the climbers’ situation becomes unbearable. The loss of a mitten is catastrophic, the threat of an avalanche infinitely worse. Not even Toni and Andi’s humane decision to join forces with a rival pair of beleaguered Austrian climbers dogging their trail can lessen the cruelties of their shared destiny.
Although the climb depicted is a matter of historical record, not every detail in the film is completely accurate. (For one thing, Kurz and Hinterstoisser and the two Austrians were already a team when they set out together.) But Stolzl makes their tale into a compelling study of the implacability of Nature in the face of such petty human notions as nationalism and glory.
NORTH FACE ★★★1/2
With Benno Furmann, Florian Lukas, and Johanna Wokalek. Written and directed by Philipp Stolzl.
A Music Box Films release. Not rated. 126 minutes. In German with English subtitles.
Opens March 12 at The Nick. Watch movie trailer >>>