North Face
Don’t tell me, we’re climbing the mountain BEHIND us … Scheiße.

Theatrical Release Date: 02/26/2010
Director: Philipp Stölzl
Cast: Benno Fürmann, Florian Lukas, Johanna Wokalek, Georg Friedrich, Simon Schwarz, Ulrich Tukur

With the 2010 Winter Olympics wrapping up, it’s fairly appropriate that “North Face” is getting released here in the states (click here for release schedule). A German/Austrian production from director Philipp Stölzl, the film chronicles the true story of Toni Kurz and Andreas Hinterstoisser as they attempt to scale the Eiger’s north face, one of the most treacherous climbs in the Alps.

As of 1936, it had never been done and Hitler was pushing for a German team to complete this feat before the Summer Olympics which were to be held in Berlin that year. Kurz (Benno Fürmann) and Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas) undertake this task, as do a handful of other two-man teams from various countries – all trying to be the first to enter the record books. An aspiring reporter (Johanna Wokalek) and her boss (Ulrich Tukur) are also in the mix; she and Kurz share a long standing attraction and he is a card carrying Nazi. The story unfolds as the climbers ascend, closely followed by an Austrian team – the focus split between their efforts and those who have gathered at the mountain to watch their attempt.

The film provides a heightened sense of adventure and excels in creating tension. As the climbers face one obstacle after the other, they are truly tested and it gives the audience a small peek into the motivation one must have to undertake such a daring feat. Stölzl took great pains to ensure as much authenticity to the project as possible, citing a number of other mountaineering films which inspired him. However, not having years to put this together, he opted instead to use real climbers doubling for the actors in wide shots to give the audience the very real sense of danger involved. This pays off beautifully and elevates the drama, framing their situation in an almost documentary-like realism.

All of the actors deliver good performances, most notably Fürmann and Lukas. Their chemistry feels genuine and portrays the bond that is developed by two men who not only serve together in the military but undertake such risk in their personal lives – as quite literally, they hold each other’s lives in their hands. The romantic angle between Fürmann and Wokalek is at times a bit melodramatic but nonetheless tugs on the heartstrings as adversity strikes and the climbers are put in mortal danger, whether from the mountain itself or the constantly changing and often brutal weather that impedes their progress time and time again.

Stölzl also weaves the element of Nazi propaganda and ideology into the film, via Tukur’s character. He is always framing the climber’s attempt in terms of the good it will do the Party/German nation and his verbal sparring with a wealthy businessman at the hotel is sometimes not so subtly more threat than dinner conversation. While the film would have held up on its own, using just the climbing and romantic threads, this additional facet helps to provide the conditions and mentality of the time period.

One thing I wouldn’t do is recommend this to anyone whose loved ones seek similar thrills because I doubt you need any more imagery to spark doubt or worry. However, I would recommend it to just about anyone else – the story is incredible and the entire production value, from acting to stunts to costuming, is excellent. A 4 out of 5, “North Face” not only provides an interesting historical context to these climbers’ efforts but also compelling drama. The pacing is a little off at times, as trying to frame a week long climbing expedition isn’t exactly conducive to a film’s flow, but other than that it’s one of the more compelling stories I’ve seen in some time. Foreign film fans should not miss this one.