North Face

The North Face

On DVD: 
Tuesday, May 11, 2010
Running Time: 
121 minutes
Poetic License

While North Face portrays Austrians Willy and Edi as rivals to Toni and Andi, in real life, the four were actually part of a climbing team who attempted to conquer the Eiger together.

Based on actual events, North Face, from German director Philipp Stolzl, tells the story of two German climbers who try to ascend the “murder wall,” otherwise known as the north face of the Eiger, the last unconquered peak of the Alps.  It was 1936, the Olympics were coming to Berlin, and the Nazis were amping up the propaganda machine to prove Aryan superiority.  Bavarians Karl Mehringer and Max Sedlmeyer created a stir when they died during an attempt on the Eiger, so the Nazis decided Germans needed to climb it to become Olympic heroes.

Aspiring photojournalist Louise Fellner, whose main tasks are taking notes and fetching coffee for her paper’s editors, mentions in a meeting that she has known experienced climbers and reluctant soldiers Toni Kurz and Andi Hinterstoisser since childhood and is assigned the task of convincing them to tackle the north face.  Given Toni and Andi’s passion for climbing and their lack of enthusiasm for cleaning latrines, it should have been an easy job, but she is unsuccessful, with Andi excited at the prospect, but Toni hesitant because he climbs for himself, not glory.  A disappointed and angry Louise is later surprised to join her boss, cynical reporter Henry Arau on a trip to the Eiger when climbers converge on the mountain.  She’s even more surprised when Toni and Andi arrive after Toni decides that he really doesn’t just climb for himself, he climbs for Andi, too.  The slow build is effective at getting me to care about the characters, but I was itchy for the climbing to start.

North Face kicks into high gear once Andi and Toni begin their ascent, followed closely by Austrians Willy and Edi.  The climb begins easily enough, with clear weather and friendly competition, but the weather and luck change fast and crisis after crisis hits until the four climbers decide to descend together after one of the Austrians suffers a serious head injury.  Meanwhile, Louise recruits volunteers to use a train tunnel in the Eiger to attempt a rescue.  The howling storm has other ideas. Tension builds ruthlessly, and it is only heightened by the cutaways to the “Eiger Birds,” tourists who eat sumptuous feasts and wander out on decks to lazily peek at the mountain while they wait for climbers to reach the summit or die trying, with very little preference for either.  

Johanna Wokalek’s Louise is the heart of this film, torn between ambition and friendship, conflicted in her feelings for old love Toni. Benno Furmann and Florian Lukas have great brotherly chemistry as Toni and Andi, but the real star of this film is the mighty “murder wall” of the Eiger.

Cinematographer Kolja Brandt deservedly raked in awards because visually this movie is stunning. The contrast between the early shots of a gorgeous and deceptively unthreatening Eiger and tranquil countryside and the ferocious stormy mountain face we see later is incredible and there are moments when you feel you are on that mountain with Toni and Andi, half-frozen and scrabbling for a hold, any hold, to keep you from plunging to certain death.  It is just that harrowing.

The action drags a bit in the first third and the dialogue is a bit heavy-handed in showing contempt for both the hotel voyeurs and Henry, all of whom were contemptible enough on sight.  The score is distracting at times with music that doesn’t always fit the action.  Those are minor quibbles, though, when North Face better captures the brutally mismatched battle between man and an enraged Mother Nature than any film I can remember.  It’s a thrill ride that kept my stomach in knots.

My DVD is a screener, so it has no extras, but the retail version includes a seventeen minute making of featurette, six minutes of deleted scenes, a theatrical trailer, and a short featurette about creating the visual effects (I so wish my copy had included this).  The subtitles are clear and don’t block the action and the video and audio were very good for a screener copy--so good in a couple of spots that I almost had vertigo.  If you’re a fan of mountain climbing or tension-wrought films, North Face is a must-see.

Review by Michelle St. James