MOVIE: North Face (Nordwand) (2009)

This film, by German director Phillip Stölzl, tells the (more or less) true story of Andreas Hinterstoisser and Toni Kurz’s attempted first climb of the north face of the Eiger mountain in Switzerland.  Set in July 1936, the story opens with the death of two other climbers on the mountain and the resultant closure of the north face to all alpinists.  But, of course, closing a mountain to climbers because of danger is the same thing as telling bad sci-fi movie characters not to, under any circumstances, OPEN THIS BOX — it’s only going to encourage them.  That goes double if you’re Nazi Germany hosting the Berlin Olympics in 1936 with an eye towards using the whole shebang as one big propaganda tool.

And so, naturally, it’s soon declared that Germany will award an Olympic gold medal to the first team of climbers to reach the top.  Immediately, nations begin scrambling around trying to locate and coerce their best mountaineers into taking on the challenge.   Prompted by the government and under a great deal of pressure to succeed, the Berlin newspaper begins seeking out candidates to sponsor.  One of the staff interns, a photographer named Luise, suggests Hinterstoisser and Kurz, two respected climbers she knows from her youth.  Convinced by her knowledge on the subject, her editor, a somewhat creepy guy who clearly has the hots for Luise, sends her to Bavaria to track the two men down — as long as, he confirms with her, they look sufficiently “German.”

Andreas leaps at the chance to prove himself on the mountain, but the more cautious Toni balks, saying it’s essentially a suicide climb.  When Luise goes to him personally to beg him to agree to do the climb so that she can get her first big story, though, Toni can’t bring himself to turn her down.  You see, as it turns out, the two were once madly in love with each other, before Luise dumped him for life in the big city, and just seeing her again has rekindled all his old feelings.  Hers too.

At last, Toni agrees to go, and he and Andreas head out to base camp at the bottom of the face.   A few hundred meters away from their tent is a huge resort, now packed with reporters and bigwigs who enjoy fancy parties every night while the climbers cook over fires and prep their gear.  Finally the weather clears and the groups set out for the top.  Andreas and Toni, expert climbers, have come up with a route never attempted before, one they believe will get them to the top in 24 hours or less.  This plan is foiled, though, when a rock comes loose and conks an Austrian climber below them on the head.  His partner is soon begging Andreas and Toni for help and when it becomes clear the man will die if they don’t get him down, our two Bavarian heroes make the agonizing decision to give up their dream for the summit and help carry the wounded climber to safety.

Slowly trying to descend, lowering the injured man inch by inch on a rope, their progress is halted when a massive storm comes crashing into them.  The high winds make it impossible for them to traverse a section of wall, though, leaving them stranded on the rock face.  As the storm worsens and gear gets lost in blasts of wind, the characters begin to freeze to death, with almost no hope for rescue.  Meanwhile, not far below them, the lights of the resort glow warmly — so near and yet so agonizingly far.

What happens at the end of this film is so horrific — so intensely painful to watch — that I left the theater completely shaken.   If it hadn’t been a true story, I would have, quite frankly, been furious about the ending, because it’s so ridiculously over-the-top with awful.  By the time the end credits rolled, I couldn’t wait to get outside, away from all that snow and sorrow.  Gah.  Miserable.  Miserable.

Aside from THAT, though, I really enjoyed this story.  The look and sound of the film are also great.  The storm itself is incredible — I have no idea how they did that, frankly, just from a film-making perspective.   And the sound of the wind whipping around in the final act, as Luise and Toni’s voices struggle to beat through the gusts and reach to each other, was so effective I started to shiver in my seat from all that blustery air.

I was also both impressed and surprised by the quality of the dialogue in this film (mountain climbing movies not typically being known for their clever writing). Andreas and Toni are best friends who talk like brothers, and their conversations were so well scripted and acted I got a sense of their relationship almost immediately.  Good work there, boys.

That said, I did have one major problem with the movie.  The man-conquers-mountain genre has a long history in the Nazi Party — it was a genre they used more than once to highlight the power of the Aryan race (see Leni Riefenstahl’s The Sacred Mountain or The Blue Light, for example), and I got the feeling Stölzl was trying to make a powerful statement of some sort regarding this history, primarily because the two German powerhouses in the film were not only openly disdainful of their government, but also quit halfway up the hill and turned around.  So much for Aryan supremacy, right?  Yet, despite the interesting contradiction in themes, Stölzl didn’t really develop this enough.  He just kind of dropped the concept in our laps and then went back to blowing snow in our faces.  Which I get, of course, because at its heart, this IS, after all, an action movie.  Nevertheless, it felt to me like the intention was to make something a bit bigger than that, and that Stölzl couldn’t quite figure out how to make it work.  B+ for effort, D- for effect.

This film has already won numerous awards in Europe, including awards for cinematography, and I would definitely say it’s one of the most gripping mountain climbing movies I’ve ever seen.  I was on the edge of my seat the entire time they were on the Eiger, so completely engrossed in what was happening that I caught myself gasping out loud several times.   (Sorry about that, anybody seated near me!)  Fans of the genre should not miss this one, that’s for sure.  Recommended!

[Prequeue at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre:  Drama, Action
Cast:  Benno Fuhrmann, Florian Lukas, Johanna Wokalek, Ulrich Tukur (recently also seen in The White Ribbon, by the way)

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