North Face -- Film Review

Benjamin Walker
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13:  Actor Benjamin Walker attends the "Bloody Bloody Jackson" opening night after party at Brasserie 8 1/2 on October 13, 2010 in New York City.

Four men climb a steep, icy, almost vertical rock, where one false move will plunge them 3,000 feet to instant death. This situation can't be anything other than gripping. The German mountain climbing film, "North Face," more than delivers on the excitement and terror of this existential flirtation with one's own mortality. Where it falters is trying to link this event to Nazi-era politics and a feeble love story.

Last year, the film did about 3 million Euros -- about $4.3 million -- in Germany for a solid if not spectacular boxoffice. "North Face" ("Nordwand"), which played in Los Angeles as part of a series of recent German films, will open theatrically in the U.S. in January. If Music Box, which handled the successful U.S. release of Guillaume Canet's "Tell No One," markets this with the same gusto, the film should attract adult viewers eager for movie adventures.

Based on an assault on the north face of the Eiger mountain in Switzerland in 1936, this film by director Philipp Stoelzl should have viewers clinging frantically to arm rests as they climb a killer mountain along with the Alpinists. Unfortunately, the director and his team of writers have other ambitions that distract from the derring-do.

One is to tie the climb into the Nazi ideology sweeping through Germany at that moment. Another is to work in a tiny love story involving the climber whose fate is the most remembered and haunting fact of that ascent. Neither attempt comes across as convincing.

After a team of mountaineers perish on the Eiger's "murder wall," the Nazis are more determined than ever that a German team should tackle the forbidding north face. One of two Bavarians who join a second attempt, the steady Toni Kurz (Benno Feurmann), is portrayed as reluctant. But he gets talked into it by his more devil-may-care climbing pal, Andi Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas).

Screenwriters Christoph Silber, Rupert Henning, Johannes Naber and Stoelzl dangle another subtle, perhaps almost subliminal incentive in front of Toni. They imagine a former lover, photojournalist Luise (Johanna Wokalek) -- a completely fictional character -- will urge them to tackle the ascent.

So Toni changes his mind, Luise gets the assignment and she will even head up the unusual rescue effort to get her ex-boyfriend off the mountain when the weather turns deadly. The melodrama is not necessary. The drama here is more than sufficient.

Kurz, a newly qualified mountain guide, was a member of a four-men team that included Hinterstoisser and two Austrians. Since this fact doesn't entirely fit into the film's view of a Nazi-motivated publicity stunt, the movie pretends two separate teams began the climb at the exact same moment and only joined forces later that day.

It is actually Hinterstoisser who discovers a way across a rock barrier that gives the four-man team access to the heart of the face. But once everyone is across, the team retrieves the traversing rope so brilliantly fixed in place, thus sealing the climbers' fate. The back door to escape is locked behind them.

A severe head injury from falling rocks to one climber plus a violent change in weather forces the Alpinists to retreat. Now trapped, they must climb straight down the great rock barrier.

What Luise realizes -- and this is well established earlier -- is that a train line, that actually runs into the heart of the mountain, has a station where windows open out on the north face. The men may be able to reach this sanctuary.

This race against time and weather plays out with about as much nervous urgency as any movie can deliver. The most agonizing thing is watching Toni fighting to overcome his own frostbite to summon the mental and physical strength to maneuver his damaged body down a rope that swings within reach of the window.

Mixing footage of actors and their doubles on the mountain itself with scenes shot in a refrigerated warehouse, cameraman Kolja Brandt creates awesome images of men struggling to save their lives. And the film does make you wonder at the forces that beckon climbers to summon the raw courage and ignore the foolishness that makes them challenge a ruthlessly indifferent Mother Nature. Christian Kolonovits' score has an urgent, dramatic feel but grows ponderous toward the end.

Venue: German Currents 2009 Film Festival (Music Box Films)

Production companies: A Dor Film-West production with MedienKontor Movie, Dor Film, Triluna Film, Majestic Filmproduktion, Lunaris Film and Fernsehprodluktion
Cast: Benno Feurmann, Johanna Wokalek, Florian Lukas, Simon Schwarz, Georg Friedrich, Ulrich Tukur
Director: Philipp Stoelzl
Screenwriters: Christoph Silber, Rupert Henning, Philipp Stoelzl, Johannes Naber
Producers: Boris Schoenfelder, Danny Krausz, Rudolf Santschi, Benjamin Herrmann
Director of photography: Kolja Brandt
Production designer: Udo Kramer
Music: Christian Kolonovits
Costume designer: Birgit Hutter
Editor: Sven Budelmann
No rating, 126 minutes