Remember that German mountain film Bridget Von Hammersmark kept rambling on about in QT’s Inglourious Basterds? Well, North Face (Nordwand) isn’t it. (POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD) You see, this historical suspense-packed mountaineering film clearly paints the Third Reich’s desire in 1936 to use two politically indifferent Germans’ race to the top of the north face of the Eiger as a part of their propaganda machine, but it wasn’t meant to be. What’s so refreshing about North Face is that instead of showing the triumph of the men who would eventually make it to the top of the Eiger, it shows the folly of the men who didn’t: ordinary men trying to do extraordinary things (the climbers) and a government catastrophically over-reaching its power. However, whether or not the Third Reich ever gets their story about “Superior Aryan Mountain Climbers” (and they do, though it’s a footnote in history) becomes the least of their problems.
Directed by relative newcomer Philipp Stolzl and starring Benno Furmann (whom I recall from the superbly Hitchcockian Jerichow and is apparently the German Brad Pitt) and the lovely Johanna Wokalek (watch out for her if she ever comes to Hollywood), North Face enjoys all the benefits of its old-fashioned suspenseful styling and engages in modern hindsight that attempts to elaborate on the historical context while still reveling in the grand human drama. The film does have a few rough patches where it can’t decide if it wants to focus on the mountain climbers and do for mountains what Jaws did for beaches (ah, the Eiger is their “white whale”…and instead of needing a bigger boat…they’re going to need more rope) or instead turn into some Titanic-style historical romance. The taut direction and the good performances keep you vested in the outcome.
What stands out most is the photography of the treacherous climb up the Eiger. Stolzl proves with North Face that there is still much beauty and suspense to be found in nature. One needs not spend $500 million dollars to fabricate an alien world (Avatar, we’re talking about you) when there are still such natural wonders to behold on earth. All you need to do is point a camera and shoot. Maybe some mountains aren’t meant to be climbed, but they’re still as pretty as a picture.
I saw North Face this past Sunday afternoon at the Ritz at the Bourse in Olde City Philadelphia, which has become my favorite movie theater. If you live in the area, it’s the best of the three neighborhood Ritz Theaters with its charming escalators, perfect 4th Street location and the most “interesting” line-up of art house faire you’ll find in the city. After being chilled to the bone watching the harrowing mountainside theatrics of North Face, it felt great to step out into the sun on a perfect late winter afternoon. There was still a bit of a nip in the air, but with the sun shining bright, it was a perfect spring-preview day to stroll around Olde City.
Here are some random photos I decided to just point and shoot: