Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Phlipp Stoelzl
Stars; Benno Furmann, Johanna Wokalek, Florian Lukas, Georg Friedrich, Simon Schwarz, Ulrich Tukur.
Philipp Stoelzl’s riveting drama North Face pays homage to the mountain climbing films that were an extremely popular part of German cinema in the 1930’s, particularly the films of Arnold Franck and Leni Riefenstahl. Those films represented some kind of Nazi ideal and subtly hinted at their philosophy encouraging human endeavour and sacrifice for the Fatherland. And it’s difficult to separate that obvious link between Nazism and mountain climbing, even in this film.
Based on a true story, North Face tells of the attempt by two German mountain climbers to become the first to scale the unconquered north face of the Eiger Mountain. Their achievement would have been a propaganda coup for the Nazis on the eve of the Berlin Olympics. In July 1936 Toni Kurtz (Benno Furmann, from Speed Racer, My House In Umbria, etc) and his climbing partner Andreas Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas) were persuaded to try and climb the peak.
At the behest of her editor, Toni’s former girl friend Luise (Johanna Wokalek), who works as a secretary in a Berlin newspaper, persuades them that this is their patriotic duty. The pair is apolitical, and couldn’t care less about Hitler, but they certainly rise to the challenge. There is also a rivalry that develops with a pair of Austrian climbers attempting to reach the peak at the same time. However, a combination of the hazardous rock face, inhospitable conditions, snowfalls and avalanches, and their own hubris and obsession to become the first to reach the peak ensures that this adventure will end in failure. The quest for immortality quickly becomes a desperate race against the odds to survive. A sense of inevitable tragedy permeates this tale of the epic struggle between man and the elemental forces of nature.
Director Philipp Stoelzl (a former director of commercials, who has also made rock videos for bands like Rammstein, etc) brings a dizzying verisimilitude and white knuckled intensity to the mountain climbing scenes. North Face is an enormously visceral piece of filmmaking that has been stunningly filmed by cinematographer Kolja Brandt. There is a documentary-like realism to the film, as the audience is taken onto the rock face with the climbers. Some scenes are almost vertigo inducing, such is the realism! Stoelzl draws a nice subtle contrast between the freezing cruel condition faced by the climbers on the mountains and the comfortable accommodation enjoyed by the reporters at the base – warm rooms, open fires, and three course meals.
When it becomes obvious that the mission is doomed to fail though the reporters all return to Berlin. Except for Luise, who waits frantically for the climbers’ return, and who is instrumental in setting up the rescue mission for Toni, who is the only survivor of this monumental folly. The scenes dealing with Luise and the souring relationship with her editor at the base camp occasionally slow down this engrossing drama.
While watching North Face it is hard to avoid comparisons with Kevin McDonald’s marvellous docudrama Touching The Void, or even Clint Eastwood’s thriller The Eiger Sanction. North Face is excellent, and may well be one of the best movies about mountain climbing yet produced!