"Die-hard Climbers Die Easier Than You Think"
Released in Germany, Switzerland and Austria in 2008 (and only just now making its way to the U.S.), "North Face" (aka "Nordwand") chronicles the 1936 attempt by two teams (one German, one Swiss) to climb the sheer North face of the Eiger ("The Ogre") near Berne, Switzerland. Though the western edge had been summitted since 1858, but the concave bowl on the North slope was considered a particular challenge—"the last problem of the Alps." The deaths of two German climbers in 1935 resulted in a suspension of climbing attempts, but several teams made the trek in 1936 to be the first to attempt that route's first summit.
The film makes it an exercise in politics and career advancement for an assistant at a Berlin publication (Johanna Wokalek), an amateur alpinist, who persuades her childhood Berchtesgaden chums Toni Kurz (Benno Fürmann) and Andreas Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas) to make the attempt so that she might cover it for her paper. Kurz is initially reluctant, but his affection for Luise and the challenge of the mountain persuades him to make the attempt in July of 1936. It's watched closely by the German government, as the ascent might make quite a splash for the Nazi Olympics coming up.
The film itself is a marvel, with the actors doing their own stunts and "really being there" grasping the sides of the mountain. Director Philipp Stölzl creates tense climbing sequences of a type that hasn't been seen before, where every missed opportunity, dropped piece of equipment, and injury is keenly felt in a way that films like "Touching the Void" can't seem to convey. Partially, it's Stölzl's use of time as a factor He doesn't take short-cuts, compress events, and deliberately reminds the audience of the clock and time and daylight passing. His climbers are seen as more altruistic, as well, to the point where one liberty is taken with the story to keep the German boys in a good, audience-identifying light. And there is marked cross-cutting between the struggles on the mountain and the tourists living in the lap of luxury on the ground, while crowding the telescopes to check the climbers' progress.
It's one of the best mountain-climbing films ever made,* with a richly dramatic story keenly conveyed. That it's, for the most part, true is just frosting.
"North Face" is a Matinee. Dress warm.
* The only down-side is composer Christian Kolonovits' intrusive score which, for some ungodly reason, uses samples of pick-axes for percussion, making you think there are others on the mountain just out of sight. It's distracting and takes away from the drama on the screen.