Review: Stölzl wisely leaves behind politics in ‘North Face’
December 29, 2009
ASPEN – The German film “North Face,” based on the true story of the 1936 attempt to climb the North Face of Switzerland’s Eiger massif, sprinkles politics, personalities and love into the story.
But director Philipp Stölzl seems to know what the strength of his film is, and who his audience is, and by the time the ascent begins in earnest, the politics are virtually forgotten, and the romance and personality conflicts have been absorbed into the climbing. It is a wise choice: The climbing sequences are far and away the strongest part of “North Face”; indeed, you have to go back to “Touching the Void,” the extraordinary 2003 re-creation of an ill-fated mountaineering adventure in the Peruvian Andes, to find a more gripping account of man versus mountain.
The backstory of “North Face” does a passable job of adding context and compassion, drawing the audience in to the characters. Hitler has made his views and intentions clear: that the Aryan race is superior; that Germany will consume Austria before heading on to the rest of Europe. To convince the world of the country’s might, the Third Reich is urging German Alpinists to make the first ascent of the imposing North Face of the Eiger. A pair of young German soldiers, Toni and Andi (played by Benno Fürmann and Florian Lukas, respectively), who grew up in the mountains and have thought of little but climbing, are coaxed into joining the race to conquer the face known as “the Murder Wall.”
Enter their old friend Luise (Johanna Wokalek). Once Andi’s girlfriend, she is now a shy assistant – as well as an aspiring photographer – at a Berlin newspaper. With an inside track on the story of Toni and Andi, she jumps into the assignment. One angle of her story – pushed by her editor, a loyal Nazi – is the politically tinged competition between the German team and a pair of Austrians. But neither team is especially political, and the politics fall away.
The climbing, however, heats up. Though it is mid-July, a violent storm strikes as the mountaineers are in the middle of their ascent. The teams spend days battling not so much each other as the mountain. The filming of the struggle is magnificent; the adrenaline ratchets up as the climbers’ bodies approach the limits of endurance. It’s men and mountains – and that is drama enough to make “North Face” an extraordinary film.