Music Box Films // 2008 // 121 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Matt Dicker (Retired) // July 14th, 2013
It began as a quest for glory and ended in a fight for survival.
North Face is a thrilling and altogether terrifying film that represents a welcome return to the dormant mountain film genre.
During the run-up to the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, the Nazi propaganda machine sought to exploit any opportunity to promote German physical supremacy. Mountaineering, long a sport of German supremacy, offered such an opportunity. The Eiger, a 13,000 foot mountain in the Swiss Alps, was the ultimate goal for German mountaineers. Though the mountain had first been summited in 1858, Eiger's north face had never been successfully climbed, with attempts ending so disastrously that the mountain earned the nickname Mordwand, or murderous wall.
Andi (Florian Lukas, Good Bye Lenin!) and Toni (Benno Furmann, Joyeux Noel) are best friends and mountaineering partners who have successfully climbed many difficult mountains and are drawn to the challenge of Eiger, despite recognizing the great risk involved. Leaving the German military in order to travel to make their attempt, they are joined by their childhood friend and aspiring photojournalist Luise (Johanna Wokalek, The Baader Meinhof Complex) and her boss, Henry (Ulrich Tukur, The White Ribbon), who will watch and report from the hotel at the foot of the mountain. After beginning their ascent with relative ease, with their only real challenge coming from fellow climbers Willy (Simon Schwarz, Silentium) and Edi (Georg Friedrich, The Piano Teacher), their climb turns perilous as the weather turns, and the four climbers face impossible conditions as they struggle to stay alive.
Though mountain films are rarely made anymore, with the last effort of note coming in 2003 (Touching the Void), the tropes of the genre are well laid out: one or more men (occasionally women) set out to climb a seemingly impossible peak and must endure unimaginable obstacles as they either reach the top in victory or die trying. North Face succeeds not by subverting these conventions, but by fully embracing them, deriving its dramatic tension from well developed characters, strong performances, and outstanding technical achievement.
The climbing scenes of North Face are stunningly achieved, skillfully blending shots of real climbing with green screen effects. Director Philipp Stolzl (Erased) chose to shoot the scenes in a straightforward, documentary style, wisely sacrificing visual flair for realism. Most modern audiences' exposure to mountain films have been restricted to documentaries, and by employing a similar visual style Stolzl is able to achieve a similar sense of realism. What results are some of the most frightening and vertigo-inducing scenes put on film.
North Face spends little time developing Andi and Toni's characters, choosing instead to get them on the mountain as quickly as possible. The screenplay develops the characters through nice little moments instead of long expository scenes, succinctly giving shape to the characters without slowing the pace of the film. These early scenes are a model for efficient character development. Greater development of the characters would have given more emotional impact to the scenes in which they face the greatest dangers, but greater fleshing out would have come at the cost of the film's strong pacing, and the ultimate balance is well struck.
The film's only significant fault is a love story that doesn't quite fit with the rest of the film. The filmmakers obviously worked hard to integrate the love story, and while it does not feel merely tacked on as is often the case in adventure films, neither does it feel integrated with the rest of the film. The scenes of Luise back at the hotel serve not as a welcome relief from the tension of the travails of Andi and Toni, but instead as an unwelcome distraction from the story. The deleted scenes available as a bonus feature help add greater depth to the love story that might have allowed for a more seamless integration with the narrative, but the film would have been better off without this unnecessary diversion.
Aside from the deleted scenes, the only bonuses are two featurettes. The first is a series of brief on-set interviews with the director and various cast members discussing the filmmaking process. There is some interesting content in these interviews, but it's largely the standard on-set publicity and avoids any real depth. The other featurette is a brief look at how the visual effects of the film were realized. It's is a series of before and after shots of the effects without any explanation or context, and would have benefited from more of a structure. Still, the effects are beautifully and seamlessly incorporated into the film, and it is worth seeing how they were accomplished.
Music Box has done a very nice job in producing this Blu-ray, and this is a film that should absolutely be seen in the highest possible resolution. There's a bit of visual noise at times, but overall the visuals are crisp and the many shades of white in the snow and ice are faithfully rendered. The audio quality is also top notch, fully immersing the audience in the horrifying sounds a mountaineer hears while climbing in the Alps in the wintertime.
Those who do not speak German and must rely on the English subtitles will at times likely find the subtitles difficult to read, due to the challenge of reading white subtitles overlaid over white snow. The problem isn't insurmountable and nothing essential was lost, but it is worth keeping the remote control handy for quick rewinds to view missed subtitles.
North Face is that rarest of pleasure, a smart adventure film with sincere emotional impact. Its stunning visuals make it worth watching on the best possible format. Just make sure you take your vertigo medication and grab a warm blanket before watching.
Guilty of provoking this judge's acrophobia.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Music Box Films
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (German)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 121 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Deleted Scenes