North Face

By Michael T. Dennis
 
Finally ready for its American release, “North Face” is based on the real life exploits of two German climbers attempting to scale the notorious Eiger mountain in 1936. The gripping adventure drama that unfolds is a marvel of visual storytelling and a reminder of the power of the filmic image.
 
At its heart, “North Face” is a simple story about two men pitted against the forces of nature—forces that are deadly and indifferent. Make no mistake: the mountain is the star here. As much as we might feel the pain of the climbers, a sense of doom has set in long before they take their first steps on the rocky face.
 
But climbing the north face of the Eiger is only part of the narrative. “North Face” takes its time getting to the actual climb, which doesn't commence until half way through the two-hour running time. The first half is spent getting to know Toni and Andi– childhood friends who now spend their days climbing rock piles when they can sneak away from their duties as lowly privates in Hitler's army.
 
The Nazi element is downplayed so that rather than prisoners of an oppressive military state, Toni and Andi are like kids being told they can't go out to play. When they do sneak away from the barracks, their personalities come to the forefront. Toni is the stoic, pragmatic counterpart to Andi's impulsiveness. As a team they complement each other perfectly and when they achieve success they share it in a moment of brotherly love.
 
In the midst of their weekend climbs, Toni and Andi become aware of the nationalistic fervor building around the upcoming Olympic games in Berlin. As a precursor to the games the German state is keen on seeing other displays of Aryan might, including an ascent of the Eiger, known as “the last problem” of the Swiss Alps. Technically forbidden to climbers because of its dangerous conditions, the Eiger is where Andi sees his chance for fame and glory, and where Toni sees an unreasonable risk.
 
Knowing that they can only function as a team, Andi at first gives in to Toni's stubborn refusal to attack the Eiger. But things change when Louise, another figure from their idyllic childhood who now serves as a journalist intern, shows up hoping to chronicle the first act of a dramatic story. Seeking to rekindle a childhood romance and to put as much distance as possible between himself and military life, Toni reluctantly agrees to be the hero Louise needs for her story.
 
Things pick up in Switzerland, where members of the social and political elite gather in a posh resort to view the climbing spectacle through telescopes. Toni and Andi start their climb at night, hoping to elude the fanfare and also to get a head start on their competition: three other teams of climbers who have gathered to be part of the show.
 
From here on “North Face” splits into two parallel narratives: Toni and Andi climbing the Eiger, followed closely by an inept team of Austrian climbers who are unprepared for the perils of the mountain, and life inside the hotel where Louise monitors the climb and works to give her boss the dramatic angle he wants without betraying a humane sympathy and deep fear that she feels for her friends.
 
As Toni and Andi press on, ever upward, the film reveals itself to be a meditation on the dangers of obsession and the costs of determination. With each cold night the line between greatness and self destruction wears perilously thin. Andi and Toni continue to push and pull one another to take risks and stay focused, respectively. Two very different methods emerge for working toward the same shared goal.
 
All of this action takes place against the backdrop of “North Face”'s spectacular cinematography. The filmmakers's location shooting in Switzerland pays off with simple camera angles and movements that emphasize the scale of the mountain and offer a sense of vertigo that is anything but a visual gimmick.
 
As a storm sets in, the film's color palette shifts toward white and grey, painting a convincing image of the freezing cold that threatens the climbers. The danger literally exists in every single shot. Even when a scene cuts from the climbers eating snow to dinner guests below sipping Champagne, the tension is relentless.
 
If “North Face” has a notable fault, it is characters who come across as rather one-dimensional. But it's important to remember that as characters Toni and Andi aren't well-rounded men either. Each is distorted by a passion that drives them to take exceptional risks. The half-formed love that develops between Toni and Louise is a testament to his singleminded nature, as evidenced by their awkward goodbye. On the mountain, Andi's chance behavior is the cause of progress, but eventual tragedy as well.
 
Another interesting feature of “North Face” is the relatively small part played by the context of pre-war Germany. Politics aren't avoided, but neither are they brought out in the open for the purpose of making a didactic point. There is some level of social commentary through the devilish contrasts between the spectators on the ground and the men on the Eiger, but no overt criticism of Nazi ideology.
 
This may be for the best, as it leaves ample room for interpretation. Perhaps the Eiger represents the onset of fascism, against which even the most determined individuals are powerless. Or maybe Toni and Andi exemplify Germany's blind arrogance as it sets its sights on world domination.
 
Ultimately the exact meaning is less important that the act of experiencing “North Face” on its surface: as a rich and compelling film about two men trying to do the impossible.
 
Cast
 
Toni Kurz – Benno Fürmann
Andreas Hinterstoisser – Florian Lukas
Luise Fellner – Johanna Wokalek
Edi Rainer – Georg Friedrich
Willy Angerer – Simon Schwarz
Henry Arau – Ulrich Tukur
Emil Landauer – Erwin Steinhauer
 
 
Credits
 
Dor Film-West Produktionsgesellschaft HmbH, Lunaris Film and MedienKnotor Movie GmbH
Distributed by Music Box Films
Directed by Philipp Stölzl
Written by Christoph Silber, Philipp Stölzl, Rupert Henning, and Johannes Naber
Producers, Benjamin Herrmann, Gerd Huber, Danny Krausz, Rudolf Santschi, Boris Schönfelder, Kurt Stocker, and Isabelle Welter
Original Music, Christian Kolonovits
Cinematographer, Kolja Brandt
Editor, Sven Budelmann
Casting, Anja Dihrberg
Production Designer, Udo Kramer
Art Director, Tommy Vögel