2008, NR, 121 min. Directed by Philipp Stölzl. Starring Benno Fürmann, Florian Lukas, Johanna Wokalek, Ulrich Tukur, Georg Friedrich, Simon Schwarz.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., April 30, 2010
Based on real-life events of July 1936 that took place on the titular face of the Eiger peak in the Swiss Alps, North Face is a gripping, at times downright epic, account of men vs. mountain vs. other men (and, what the hell, one woman). And, because this is 1936, there are Nazis to boot, which in no way adequately sums up the sheer, frostbitten, testosterone-fueled, and oddly innocent appeal of North Face. Mountaineering is, or was, less a sport back then than it was a highly personalized ritual pastime, a contest of wills between stoic, individual climbers and solitary, treacherous peaks. Today, you have to wait in line to ascend Everest. Where's the sturm und drang in that? Back then, prior to Germany's annexation of the Sudetenland, UFA, Germany’s principal film studio, was still cranking out bergfilme (literally, "mountain movies") by the Volkswagen-load, and indeed, it was in this particularly awe-inspiring Teutonic genre that future Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl earned her first directorial credit with 1932's The Blue Light after acting in several of them. North Face is a modern German mountain movie that retains, partly, the grim-yet-celebratory tone of films from the period it depicts. Like its cinematic ancestors, it features a romance that feels totally incidental to the actual story, but its tough-as-nails protagonists, Germans Toni (Fürmann) and Andi (Lukas), are first seen scrubbing a latrine in their Nazi uniforms (which they quickly leave behind, so eager are they to pit their climbing skills against the “death wall" in a race to disaster with a pair of (Nazi)-party-loving Austrian climbers (Friedrich, Schwarz). Before you can holler, "Ah, scheisse!" the Eiger has all four in seriously bad shape. Toni's old girlfriend Louise (Wokalek), a journalist covering the race from the hotel far below, is momentarily forgotten, and dread rules the rock face. Writer-director Stölzl has made music videos for German industrialists Rammstein (among many others), so it's not surprising he's up to tackling the Eiger in the flesh, so to speak, but it's Kolja Brandt's gloriously edge-of-the-seat/seat-of-the-pants cinematography (much of the film was shot on location) that really packs a natural wallop. Fürmann and Lukas are engaging – and, again, this is Eiger history being re-enacted – but the craggy mountain itself is, as it always has been, the real star. Who knew the Nazis had already met their match by 1936?