The setting is Germany, in 1936. Toni Kurz and Andreas Hinterstoisser are two of the country’s finest mountain climbers, tacking any peak, whether great or small, with a natural mix of experience, and smarts. There is seemingly nothing they cannot conquer; no challenge that they fear. Then, a childhood friend of the duo, Luise Fellner (who also happens to be a photojournalist), arrives from Berlin. Her mission is to get them to attempt an ascent on the North Face of the Alps, or the Eiger. Since she is more or less an intern in her current position with the newspaper, such a story could make her colleagues take her seriously; it would also catapult the two climbers to fame.
From the get-go, Andreas is gung-ho about the idea. The thought of accomplishing something that no one else had ever accomplished (two Germans died trying the year before) is intriguing to him; the ultimate thrill. But Toni is reluctant. The North Face, after all, is nicknamed “The Death Wall”–either you succeed, or die trying. The weather can change in an instant; avalanches and storms are always a possibility. This, as he tells Andreas, “is not climbing.”
Of course, it should come as no surprise to anyone settling into a viewing of Phillip Stolzl’s “North Face” that he eventually relents, otherwise it wouldn’t be a movie about mountain climbing. Germany is in the mindset of the Olympic Games, as Berlin is to host them later on that year, and a German ascent to the top would be a huge win for the nation. Newspapers, especially the Berliner Zeitung, run by Henry Arau, are all over the coverage, and dozens of citizens gather to watch the ensuing climb live, from the balcony of a local hotel.
But Toni and Andres are not the only pair with success on their minds. So do Willy Angerer and Edi Rainer, two Austrians who also have dreams of becoming the first team to conquer the treacherous climb. And so, one day in July, the two teams start their ascent to potential greatness.
What ensues is an odd mix of absolutely intense climbing sequences interspersed with groan-inducing cliches. Mr. Stolzl, who obviously has a lot of talent, seems to also have a solid knowledge of Hollywood films, as just about all the typical characters are covered with a kind of dubious precision: The cocky competitors-turned-colleagues; the reporter who only cares for the story and not the men themselves; the girlfriend who ignores the odds and attempts to save the men when no one else will. Even the fact that this is supposedly a true story seems to steal from the latest fad in American films–mention that something is based on a true story, even if it is not, and it seems to double ticket sales. Yet this is clearly another “true story” that also makes obvious use of the creative licensing that’s “allowed” by filmmakers (and other artists) to make someone else’s story more “marketable”. On even gets the feeling that the only reason the obligatory happy ending is averted, is because history itself prevented it; the one thing you cannot fake is something that can be double-checked by a quick trip to Wikipedia.
All of this, combined with the rather predictable presentation, is actually a shame, because the actual climbing scenes manage some undeniable intensity. These sequences are breathtakingly shot (by cinematographer Kolja Brandt), and so well composed that there were several moments I was tense and clinging to my seat without even noticing that I was doing it. Special mention must also be made of the filmmakers’ adherence to the facts, at least as far as the climb is concerned; from what I understand (I am not a scholar on the subject), the route presented in the film is pretty much the exact route taken by the real climbers, giving it the added weight of authenticity.
Whether or not I am recommending “North Face”, depends on what kind of film you are expecting: If you are in it simply for the breathtaking mountain sequences, then you will get exactly what you paid for . But if you are expecting those scenes to be surrounded by anything more than tired characters and plot points that you can set your watch to, then you will walk away from your screening of “North Face” sorely disappointed.
Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 4)