North Face

Movie review: 'North Face' is a tale as taut as a mountain climber's rope

Georg Friedrich, front, and Simon Schwarz as Austrians attempting to ascend the Eiger's "murder wall" in "North Face."
Georg Friedrich, front, and Simon Schwarz as Austrians attempting to ascend the Eiger's "murder wall" in "North Face." (Music Box Films)
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 26, 2010

Coddled urban moviegoers who trudge around in North Face jackets -- but who have never scaled anything more daunting than the snowdrifts along K Street -- may want to hide their expensive logos in shame after seeing the movie "North Face." Shot on location on the north face of the Eiger, the peak in the Swiss Alps that's one of mountain climbing's deadliest challenges, the fictionalized account of a 1936 attempt to scale what's known in German as the "murder wall" is so filled with windswept, frostbitten drama that it makes the recent Snowpocalypse look like a day at the beach.

The word "gripping" doesn't do it justice.

Centering on two Bavarian climbing friends, Toni Kurz (Benno F├╝rmann) and Andi Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas), the movie takes the audience where most of us would never dream of going: to that private club that exists between the base camp and, if all goes well, a climber's victorious return to terra firma. It puts us, in other words, right there on the mountainside.

It's not an enviable place to be.

It was, however, something of a tourist attraction, at least in 1936, when the north face had yet to be successfully climbed. As Toni and Andi begin their treacherous ascent -- joined halfway up by a pair of Austrians (Georg Friedrich and Simon Schwarz) -- wealthy gawkers fill a hotel to watch through sightseeing telescopes and binoculars, in between sips from cocktails and nibbles carved out of an Eiger-shaped cake.

Among the gawkers are aspiring photojournalist Luise (Johanna Wokalek) and her editor Henry (Ulrich Tukur). They both hope the German climbers will succeed, but for different reasons. Luise, who happens to be an old flame of Toni's and wants to see him do well, also hopes to make her name with exclusive pictures of the climb. Her editor mainly wants a good story.

What makes a good story? In Henry's nationalistic view, a German first at the summit would be great. But a dead body or two would also sell papers; as a measure of the danger involved, Toni and Andi come across the frozen remains of an earlier climber. They help themselves to his equipment and roll the body down the mountain.

Anything in between triumph and tragedy -- meaning if Toni and Andi have to give up and come crawling back home, safe but unsuccessful -- is a journalistic washout as far as Henry is concerned.

At one point, it looks like that's exactly what's going to happen. Rock slides, bad weather and an avalanche -- not to mention the Austrians, one of whom has been gravely injured -- slow down our heroes, who decide to come off the mountain.

It's there that the movie really begins. From that moment forward, the suspense is relentless, the excitement almost unbearable at times.

Set against the backdrop of Hitler's rise to power, it's hard not to read allegorical elements into the story. Is Henry a monster or a pragmatist for not caring whether Toni and Andi live or die? What responsibility do Toni and Andi have to their rivals, the Austrians? And what of the tourists, for whom the climbers' fate is reduced to a bloody spectator sport?

These issues flesh out -- but never bloat -- this lean tale. Though almost every scene is haunted by the specter of death, the taut "North Face" is a movie about life -- fragile and thrilling and worth fighting for.

*** Unrated. At Landmark's E Street Cinema and the Avalon. Contains frightening and at times gruesome images and obscenity. In German with subtitles. 121 minutes.

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