Why do mountain climbers do what they do, at risk of life and limb? To cite the operative but telling cliché: because it’s there. And the “it” in question can be more than just a challenging mountain face, moving into areas of mental and physical brinksmanship, ego gratification, and existential curiosity, all of which play into the intriguing German film North Face. The big geological “it” factor in this case was the Eiger peak in the Swiss Alps, and the brave and/or foolhardy efforts of a few climbers in 1936 to be the first to conquer its “wall of death” and reach the summit.
In North Face, based on a true story, a pair of rugged young climbers, Toni Kurz and Andreas Hinterstoisser, dare to take on the challenge of the Eiger—defined by its translation as “ogre,” which “devours everyone who gets too close.” A young photojournalist from the Berliner Zeitung, a friend of the pair in her rural youth, is there to document the climb, and eventually gets involved in the rescue effort when weather takes a disastrous turn. Hampered by the obstacles presented by a competing and rather numbskull-ish pair of climbers, Kurz and Hinterstoisser’s effort runs into assorted challenges, and the scenes of struggle are juxtaposed with the decadent coziness of the nearby lodge, where pampered onlookers—including a scoop-hungry Zeitung editor—lurk in comfort.
On one level, North Face tells a pure story of athletic and adventurer spirit in action, yet it also has a slightly sinister subtext, in retrospect. In the Nazi-fueled nationalistic fervor of pre-WWII Germany, Hitler and his warmongers relished the concept of Germanic superiority and conquest in athletics and, as the world would soon discover, as would-be world dominators.
By the very nature of the story, North Face is a cliffhanger event, or a mega cliffhanger with a series of smaller nervous-making moments along the way. It’s an engaging piece of cinema, artfully made but also glazed with slick touches, including an intrusive musical score by Christian Kolonovits. We’re reminded of another film about the dogged, death-facing explorer spirit, Jan Troell’s excellent and chilling Flight of the Eagle, but this model has more popcorn in the cinematic mix.