Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Eiger Problem: North Face

Evidently, mountaineering was popular under National Socialism. It must have been all that pure white snow. It was also an extreme undertaking that was highly compatible with the regime’s death-worshipping ideology. It was in the service of such German propaganda that two promising young mountaineers were cajoled into the most dangerous climb of their lives in Philipp Stölzl’s North Face (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Conquering the forbidding Eiger North Face was considered “the last problem of the Swiss Alps.” Any team to successfully reach its summit before the 1936 Games would be hailed as Olympic Heroes, assuming of course, they were good Aryans. Given the high fatality rate amongst those attempting the feat, a loyal Nazi journalist is having trouble finding credible climbers to hype. Fortunately for Henry Arua, an aspiring journalist in his office knows two promising candidates from her provincial hometown. Best of all, they also look like perfect Aryans.

Luise Fellner has known Andi Hinterstoisser and Toni Kurz all her life. Hinterstoisser is the brash, impulsive one. Kurz is the modest, self-effacing older brother type, quietly nursing his love for Fellner. Despite his better judgment, he and Hinterstoisser accept the challenge to scale the Eiger, as Fellner, her boss, and many of the elites of German high society watch on from the comfort of their lodge’s observation deck.

North Face might be playing the art-house circuit, but it was not a low budget affair. This is a major production featuring some acrophobia-inducing scenes of high peril. Kolja Brandt justly won a German Film Academy Award for his striking cinematography, which vividly captures the deadly majesty of the Alps. Stölzl also demonstrates a real talent for staging the man-against-the-elements action scenes, easily out cliffhangering Cliffhanger.

What really makes North Face interesting though is its dark side. While the film shrewdly refrains from overselling the point, it clearly suggests the Third Reich was pathologically inclined to send its best and brightest young men out to die, either in war or on a mountain. Still, it could be expressed too subtly for some viewers who might only see an adventure story unfolding in 1936 Germany, without making any attempt to address the horrific crimes of the government.

Benno Fürmann certainly looks the part as the rugged, taciturn Kurz, while Johanna Wokelek shows a bit more gumption than Kate Winslet in this Titanic-like disaster love story set amid the Alps. Although he plays another thoroughly contemptible authority figure, the fine German character actor Ulrich Tukur is again compulsively watchable as the journalist-propagandist Arua. However, Hinterstoisser is basically portrayed as the stereotypical cocky young climber who could have stepped out of any 1980’s Tom Cruise movie and the rival Austrian climbers are never really distinguished as characters, existing only as frostbitten Aryans constantly obscured by driving snows and protective clothing.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 once skewered the old b-movie Lost Continent for its endlessly repetitive scenes of “rock climbing.” With North Face, Stölzl deserves credit for redeeming mountaineering’s cinematic promise. A great looking film with some real white knuckle scenes, North Face opens this Friday (1/29) at the Lincoln Plaza and Sunshine Cinemas.