Music Box Films // 2008 // 121 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Jim Thomas // May 14th, 2010
It began as a quest for glory. It ended as a fight for survival.
By 1936, all of the great peaks in the Swiss Alps had been conquered. All but one: the North Face of the Eiger (Ogre). Other mountains were taller -- the Eiger is a mere 13,025 feet tall, compared to Monte Rosa's 15,203 elevation -- but Eiger's north face presents unique problems. Its convex shape catches and holds incoming weather, creating treacherous ice fields, while the crumbling rock face is prone to avalanche. The conditions are so extreme that many climbers choose to climb during the winter; the snow and ice are more stable, and the stronger ice stabilizes the rock face. Because of the region's capricious weather, though, all too often climbers arrive at the base, wait for a weather window, hit the mountain, and pray that the weather holds. In 1935, two of Germany's premier climbers died when a sudden snowstorm trapped them on the mountainside. Bernese authorities banned further attempts, and the string of fatalities associated with Nordwand led to the nickname Mordwand, which means Death Wall.
This brings us to North Face, based on a true story.
In 1936, the Nazi propaganda machine was trying to frame the '36 Olympics as proof of Aryan superiority; as further proof, they wanted a German conquest of Eiger's North Face. Two German climbers, Toni Kurz (Benno Furmann) and Andi Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas) have no interest in national glory; whenever someone says "Heil Hitler," they respond with the German equivalent of "whatever." The pair's only real passion is climbing, studying the mountain, and planning the best route to the summit. They're German soldiers, but that seems to be a matter of convenience. As members of the Alpenkorps, they remain stationed near mountains -- and spend a lot of time scrubbing latrines when a climb keeps them from returning to base on time. Andi is eager to try the North Face, but Toni is more reluctant, not wanting to get caught up in the media hype. Another team also has its eyes on the prize: a pair of Austrians who hope that Germany will annex Austria. Following the climb at the resort hotel are two reporters, Louise Fellner (Johanna Wokalek), a childhood friend of Kurz and Hinterstossier, and her boss Henry Arau (Ulrich Tukur), a jaded reporter who's more interested in the story than the lives that may be at stake. It's Louise' first assignment, one that she got only because of her friendship with Toni and Andi, and she is determined to make the most of her chance.
Both teams set up camp at the base of the North Face and await good weather conditions. Early one morning, before dawn, Toni and Andi decide to strike out in the hopes of establishing an insurmountable lead before the Austrians even wake up. Since the mountain is the ultimate equalizer, the Austrians are soon right behind them, dogging their footsteps. At first, the two teams are competing against one another. As conditions on the North Face deteriorate, they must join forces in a desperate attempt to stay alive.
Very simply, this film has some of the best climbing footage I have ever seen. Cinematographer Kolja Brandt, who won several awards for his work here, not only gets breathtaking shots of the face itself, shots that make you instantly appreciate that the climbers are literally an inch from death at all times, but he seamlessly combines them with studio camerawork; logically, you might be able to say "that had to be shot on a soundstage," but the picture itself reveals nothing. The result is a heart-stopping ride, one that quickly sucks you into a climb that transforms into a nightmare.
The movie stays very close to the facts, particularly with regard to the details of the climb itself, as well as the presence of the so-called "Eiger Birds" -- rich people who descend upon the luxury hotel at the base of the mountain to watch a climb, getting vicarious thrills from the prospect of watching someone die. The reporters are created for the film, and Louise in particular is the anchor of the movie. On the one hand, her friendship with Toni and Andi, in particular her rekindled romance with Toni, humanizes the climbers, making us more emotionally vested in their fate. At the other end of the spectrum lies Henry, the older reporter, who represents the cynical, jaded sort of reporter Louise may become if she remains part of the German propaganda machine. At times the commentary is a bit ham-handed, but on the plus side, moving back and forth between the lavish hotel and the mountain accentuates the brutal conditions on the face. Even with subtitles, the acting is strong. Johanna Wokalek is really the anchor of the film, being drawn towards both the allure of success and the basic pleasure of following a dream. If there is a weakness, it is that it takes too long to get to the climb itself.
We received a screener, so I can't really comment on the picture quality. The screener's non-anamorphic picture is pretty good. If the finished product has a strong picture and surround track, this movie will leave acrophobes curled into a fetal position, clutching a teddy bear and a bottle of Xanax for dear life. No extras were on the screener, but the package lists deleted scenes and visual effects (which I would dearly love to see), and the theatrical trailer.
Trivia: A 1972 espionage thriller by Trevanian, The Eiger Sanction, culminates in an attempt to climb the North Face; the book was made into a 1975 movie starring and directed by Clint Eastwood. Reaffirming the mountain's reputation, a stunt climber was killed during filming.
Guilty of being the best mountain climbing film I have ever seen.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Music Box Films
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (German)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (German)
Running Time: 121 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Deleted Scenes
* Official Site
* Wikipedia: North Face (film)
* Wikipedia: Eiger