Filmmaker Danquart takes defeat to the extreme

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COLOGNE, Germany -- With his long, stringy hair, comfortable belly and trademark Kangol hat, Pepe Danquart is an unlikely champion of extreme sports.

But with a trio of documentaries, including his latest, "To the Limit," Danquart has shown remarkable insight into the minds of the men who push themselves to the absolute limits of human endurance.

"What we do is a revolt. A revolt against all common sense," says extreme climber Alexander Huber in "Limit."

The film tracks Huber and his brother Thomas as they attempt to beat the world speed record for climbing the infamous "Nose" in California's Yosemite Park.

The Nose is 3,000 feet of vertical granite. It takes most climbers three to five days to scale it. The Huber brothers want to do it in two-and-a-half hours.

Danquart's last docu, "Hell on Wheels" (2004), was also a portrait of men pushing against the boundaries of common sense. In this case, Team Telekom's pursuit of the unstoppable Lance Armstrong in the 2003 Tour de France.

The director's career has also defied expectations. His short "Fare Dodger" won an Oscar in 1994, but Danquart's attempts at feature-length drama, including the thriller "Angel of Death" (2002) and mob parody "C(r)ook," were flops.

With his sports documentaries, however, the director has found a more suitable outlet for his talents.

Danquart's films make interesting companion pieces to the "man against nature" documentaries of compatriot Werner Herzog, such as "Grizzly Man" (2005) or "The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner" (1974) about world champion ski-jumper Walter Steiner.

As with Herzog, Danquart sees sport as an existential metaphor for life. When they aren't panting and pulling themselves up a cliff, the Huber brothers are remarkably contemplative. Fear, sibling rivalry and an inexplicable (even to themselves) desire to test their limits drives them on.

In his first documentary, "Heimspiel" (Home Game), Danquart follows East Berlin's hockey team, the Polar Bears, and its fans in order to explore the cultural gap that still divides east and west in a united Germany.

It is revealing that all three films are stories of failure. The Huber brothers stumble in their record attempt, nearly killing themselves in the process. Team Telekom is beaten by team Lance. And the Polar Bears lose the championships.

A fascination with defeat may be something typically German -- Soenke Wortmann's soccer documentary "Germany. A Summer Fairytale" was about a losing team, and it broke boxoffice records here.

Like Wortmann, Danquart goes beyond the "winning is everything" sports documentary cliche.

"For them the goal becomes secondary," says a fellow climber of the Huber brothers in "To the Limit." "For them the trying is what it's all about."
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