' Cinema Romantico: North Face

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

North Face

This German film (2008) from director Philipp Stölzl, recounting in vivid detail the infamous Alpine expedition in 1936 of several European climbers to make a daring, never-before-done ascent of the "north face" of the Eiger, "the last problem of the western Alps", gave me, perhaps, more to think about than any film had I recently seen.

Reviews lauded its climbing sequences, all of which are breathless and terrifyingly realistic. When a mountaineer is swinging to and fro from one unforgiving rocky face to another unforgiving rocky face above an endless chasm, well, be damn sure it looks and, importantly, feels like he is swinging to and fro from one unforgiving rocky face to another unforgiving rocky face above an endless chasm. Its chronicle of the main characters' attemped summiting is entertaining, but brutally so. Even if you know how it ends, rest assured, you cannot look away. But reviews were unkind to essentially anything not happening on that mountain.


The true story (more or less) is this: Toni Kurz (Benno Fürmann) and Andi Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas) are best friends and skilled and passionate mountaineers....who also just happen to be members of the, uh, Nazi army. The Nazis, looking to drum up interest in the forthcoming Berlin Olympics, want to get some climbers to the peak of the Eiger pronto to claim it as a triumph for themselves. And so in the summer of '36 a team consisting of Kurz and Hinterstoisser and two Austrians, Willy Angerer (Simon Schwarz) and Edi Rainer (Georg Friedrich), set out to be the first to conquer the unconquerable north face.

The film's story (more or less) is this: Toni Kurz and Andi Hinterstoisser are best friends and skilled and passionate mountaineers who also just happen to be members of the Nazi army....for whom they clean latrines, for whom they seem rather indifferent, and which they will quit when it interferes with their climbing conquests. (There are two scenes of "Heil Hitler" greetings that are colorful illustrations of what Jerry Seinfeld termed the "around the office, casual heil".) Let's say they are presented as pacifists except, of course, when they are attacking some icy escarpment. They and the Austrians are not joined but separate until they are forced to unite by circumstance.

And then there is the fictional but obligatory Love Interest. This would be Luise (Johanna Wokalek), living in Berlin and striving to be a photo journalist is sent by her superior Arau (Ulrich Tukur) to try and persuade Kurz, for whom Luise pines and vice versa, to go after the Eiger. He says no but will change his mind. And so while the Eiger is climbed, Arau, Luise and many, many others will sit below, dressed immaculately, sipping wine, chattering, watching the ascent through telescopes as if it's all an opera and if anyone falls into a crevasse and dies they will immediately get back up and take a bow. Parts of these sequences are contrived and stilted, sure, but I also think they are crucial in showing how the Nazis tried to turn a matter of life and death into a pageant.


I know next to nothing about the real life Kurz and Hinterstoisser. In an interview Stölzl said this: "We don’t know, in real life, really anything about Andi and Toni. They were pretty poor—they came from the town in the Alpine region where Hitler had his mountain house. [Hitler and the Nazis] robbed so much land from the farmers there, which did not make them very popular. Also, the Alpine region is very Catholic, and Catholics were not really the best Nazis—[the best Nazis] came from other areas. They cared about climbing, and probably about getting a mountain guide license, which they could get by being in the army." If anyone has any information to which I am not privy, please, let me know, call me out, because what I want to say I am saying based on the narrative provided by the film.

The Kurz and Hinterstoisser of "North Face", it seems to me, chose to make the climb so the conquest could not be claimed by Nazis but by mountaineers. Perhaps that is melodramatic but then perhaps that is why I liked this movie so much, both on and off the mountain.

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