It's only half of a great movie but, wow, what a half! Philipp Stölzl takes a documentary-style approach to his period drama about German mountain climbers confronting the northern peak of the Eiger (dubbed "the death wall") during the Third Reich, creating an experience that's as brutal as it is riveting. If only the script were as good as the action.
Based on a true story, The North Face recounts the tragedy of Toni Kurz (Benno Fürmann) and Andi Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas), a pair of climbing buddies who are cajoled by Nazi nationalists into scaling the perilous Eiger in order to prove the superiority of German manhood. In a setup that takes too long, we're also introduced to an opportunistic newspaper editor (Ulrich Tukur) and his attractive photographer (Johanna Wokalek), who teeters on romance with Toni. The editor and photographer station themselves at the mountain's base at the posh Eigerwald hotel, better to witness the duo's treacherous ascent. Of course, the climb goes wrong. Attempting to help a wounded Austrian climber, the Germans, who probably would've made the top, get overtaken by fierce weather, mounting injuries and eventually an avalanche. One calamity after another puts them on course with tragedy, as the girl below frets and worries.
The script's romantic melodrama (penned by five writers) is as phony and uninvolving as it gets, but once Toni and Andi start hammering pitons and lashing ropes to Eiger's rocky face The North Face puts the audience in a harrowing vice grip and never lets go. Stölzl and cinematographer Kolja Brandt used doubles in the long shots under incredibly harsh weather conditions while the lead actors struggled on an expertly crafted set in a frosty warehouse. The effect is astounding, capturing the beautiful and awful vastness of the mountain while making clear that each painful step the climbers make could be their last. Frost-bitten skin, unrelenting cold, crumbling rock, cascades of falling snow and gear that seems impossibly primitive — the film is almost clinical in its detail. Hence, the climbers' despair is palpable, the danger imminent, and the tension nearly unbearable. The movie's final pulse-pounding moments border on torturous as Stölzl adds an eerie hammering sound — like the rhythmic clang of pitons — to the soundtrack.
Unfortunately, as breathtaking as the mountain sequences are, Toni and Andi are fairly anonymous characters. Other than their sardonic attitude about the Nazi regime — they answer "Heil Hitler" with a curt "Bye" — their personalities are barely sketched, and so you feel the tragedy of their situation in more generic terms. Similarly, Stölzl's jabs at how German nationalists exploited risky and fatal stunts for their propaganda machine isn't given any context or resonance. It's a missed opportunity.
Nevertheless, as far as man-against-nature struggles go, The North Face is a top-notch exercise in grim action and agonizing suspense — and one that should be experienced on the big screen. There's no getting around Stölzl's ability to generate remarkably visceral thrills and visual authenticity.
At the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), at 7 and 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, March 12 and 13, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 14. Call 313-833-3237.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.