Mountain climbers are notoriously individualistic and determined folk, and Phillip Stölzl’s “North Face,” which opens this Friday at the Kendall Square Cinema, provides a rare glimpse into their rugged characters. What drives them to do what they do? Or, as the film asks in its opening sequence, “Why would anyone want to climb that?” And yet the irresistible impulse of the mountaineer is to overcome the mountain and to discipline those tempting inner voices that seductively implore the climber to stay below. For anyone missing the thrill of mountain climbing, “North Face” will take you to the heart of the mountains vicariously. For its singular ability to capture the vertiginous adrenaline rush of a dangerous climb, “North Face” is to be commended. Yet the audience for “North Face” ought not to be composed solely of fans of mountaineering, for it is far more than just a simple story about climbing. In this film, the mountain represents everything that is impossible and everything that man fears, and the movie’s central question—focusing on whether the heroes can conquer that fear— is therefore all the more captivating.
The premise is simple: the year is 1936, shortly before the Berlin Winter Olympics. In the spirit of Nazi nationalism, there is a general desire in Germany to prove absolute Germanic superiority in all things, including mountain climbing. In the Alps there remains the stubbornly unconquered Eiger Nordvand (or North Face), the “last problem of the Alps.” The Eiger’s other nicknames include Ogre, or more pertinently, the Death Wall. Inexorably drawn to face their greatest challenge yet. The film’s intrepid heroes are the sprightly, fearless Andi Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas), and his climbing companion, the brooding Toni Kurz (Benno Furrmann). For this duo, to conquer the Eiger’s North Face is to conquer the world. They are cheered on by Luise (Johanna Wokalek), an amateur photographer and their childhood friend, as well as her employer, the deliciously callous Berliner Zeitung reporter Arau (Ulrich Tukur).
The rapport between Lukas and Furrmann is unwaveringly sincere, thus cementing the believability of their friendship. In fact, the acting in the film is uniformly superb, with a particularly outstanding performance from Wokalek, who conveys a seemingly paradoxical blend of timidity and strength.
The complexity of the acting in the film contrasts intriguingly with the story, which is sketched in bold, simple lines. The film speaks to the viewer on a visceral level. Its quiet moments are sublime, packed with unspoken emotion as Andi dances across vertical rock walls, Toni looks out at the dark mountains at night with an expression as inscrutable as the mountains themselves, and the piton hammers into the rock face with a defiant chink.
These moments seem almost mythical, as they momentarily reduce the world to the eternal struggle of man versus nature. It is impossible to remain uninvolved in this semi-mythic world, even though Toni and Andi seem almost painfully naïve in contrast with Arau, who watches their efforts with a curiously self-interested detachment.
The ultimate irony of Andi and Toni’s attempts to escape the banality of their day-to-day lives through the climb, is that their journey is intrinsically tied into the spirit of the times. “I’m doing this for myself” says Toni, near the beginning of the film – he later amends that statement. As the story progresses, Stölzl shows the viewer how the political agenda of 1936 Germany exploited the myth of “heroic alpinism” by transforming it into a political catchphrase. In the eyes of the Reich, mountains, as much as people and countries, are there to be conquered. The sincerity of Andi and Toni’s passion for mountain climbing becomes something to be observed, dissected and sold as propaganda by the reporter Arau, from his comfortable vantage point in a luxury hotel that overlooks the Eiger’s deadly northern face. And Arau, of course, is not alone. He is accompanied by the throngs of other visitors at the hotel who watch the ascent of the Eiger through binoculars with great excitement- the excitement, as one guest puts it, of a gladiatorial match.
Who ultimately wins in “North Face”—the climbers or the observers—is hard to say. The most obvious victor in this movie is Phillip Stölzl, who created an intensely emotional and riveting film. The simple fact that a movie focusing on such a niche interest could appeal to a general audience is a testament to the universality of its message.
—Staff writer Catherine A. Morris can be reached at email@example.com.