Movie Review: “North Face”

ImageWe tend judge to filmed stories of survival on an epic ordeal scale. How excruciating was what the people went through in this tale endured?

That puts the German production “North Face” on the short list of greatest mountaineering movies ever made, a vivid recreation of an agonizing climb that tested four young men to their very limits in 1936 Switzerland.

You wouldn’t think a film about German soldiers and Austrians competing to be the first to conquer the North Face of the murderous mountain the Swiss named “The Ogre” — Eiger — could be so compelling.

Nazis and Nazi sympathizers struggling against mountain and the elements? Who cares? Alpine settings were a favorite symbol of Nazi iconographers, in particular Nazi filmmaker Leni Reifenstahl. What’s novel about this?

Co-writer/director Philip Stolzl took this true story of a campaign than failed, and crafted a romantic, heroic and tense movie, with great cinematography and nerve-wracking suspense.

Florian Lukas is Andi Hinterstoisser and Benno Furhmann is Toni Kurz, two outdoorsy young Berchtesgarden Bavarians who aren’t quite into Army life — even though that’s what the Fuhrer wants. They tolerate the training their hometown mountain division demands only because it keeps them close to climbing.

It’s the Olympic summer of 1936, and dramatic failures to climb icy, sheer side of the Eiger have inspired German propagandists, including Berlin newspaper editors, to recruit young Aryans to do it as the crowning “gold medal” of that glorious year.

Since newspaper clerk Luise (Johanna Wokalek) has history with the lads, she’s recruited to go talk them into attempting it and get her first scoop as she does.

She has history with Toni climber, which complicates things. And Toni sees that attempt as vain and suicidal, and won’t go for it. But when they hear that French, Italians and Austrians are making their way to the Eiger to have a go, they’re inspired.

All they have to do is quit Hitler’s Army — Wait, was it really that easy? — make their way to Switzerland and gain lasting glory.

Luise is dragged along by her reporter/editor (Ulrich Tukor) to cover the quest, to play up the glorious virtues of the young people of the German Reich.


“North Face” captures the peculiarly touristy nature of the Eiger — with its funicular railway carved inside to allow visitors an easier way up, its gorgeous resort at the base and the telescope-covered viewing patio out back. A famous climbing team just died up there. Take a close look. Maybe you’ll see it happen again.

The cynical reporter knows that there are only two stories here — success for the Fatherland, or tragic death. Anything in between is a waste of time. He’s a reporter first, “But aren’t you a human being?”

“From time to time.”

The climbing lads, whom the film takes pains to paint as non-Nazis (“Heil Hitler” is met with “Bye bye.”), are simple men with just enough gear, guts and smarts to make the attempt. But as they head up, they’re trailed, closely, by the Austrians.

Stolzl’s film finds its footing on the peak with them, capturing, in grey and white, the stark vertical landscape of rock falls, cliffs and ice fields. The actors, clad in Earth tones themselves, give flesh and blood to the physique of the mountain and the physical demands of such a climb.

Lose a glove, you might lose a finger. Lose a piton, crampon, carabiner or ice ax, and you may lose your life.

The climb is a stunningly detailed crawl up ropes and hand-carved steps through the ice. Clinging to a ledge for a few hours sleep, a scanty meal of barley soup, and onward.

Bravery and cunning come into play, but also brashness, recklessness and a refusal to acknowledge one’s physical limits. Even members of the Master Race had no business on that rock when a blizzard hit.

“North Face’s” politics are a bit muddled, submerged, largely present in the person of the cynical reporter. But Luise knows these men, has some experience on mountains herself. She is terrified for them, depressed over all that’s gone unsaid with Toni. Worst of all, she’s worried this is all her doing.

“North Face” clambers upward, sideways and downward toward a gripping climax, a superior thriller whose ticking clock is a storm and the knowledge of just how much cold a human being in extreme physical stress can take. I love the way composer Christian Kolonovits incorporates the sound of ice hammer hitting piton into the score, rhythmically ratcheting up the suspense with each beat.

The suffering is great, the role that luck, conditioning and humility play in the sport is greater.

The Eiger is a great, dramatic setting for a climbing drama (Clint Eastwood’s “The Eiger Sanction” did well with it over 30 years ago), and Stolzl and company more than do justice to it with this intimate epic of those who do what they do not for Fuhrer and Fatherland, but “Because it’s there.”

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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