The North Face

Original title or aka: Nordwand

Director: Philipp Stölzl
Starring: Benno Fürmann, Florian Lukas, Johanna Wokalek, Georg Friedrich and Simon Schwarz.
Distributor: Rialto Films
Runtime: 121 mins. Reviewed in Feb 2010
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Rating notes: Mountaineering deaths

An impressive piece of film-making, a must for those who follow mountain climbing. However, it is an extraordinarily gruelling film to watch if you are caught up in the characters and their efforts to climb the north face of the Eiger. We share the physical energy and exertion of the climbers, the hardships in scaling rock faces, in danger of falls and avalanches, the changes in weather and the exposure to the freezing temperatures. The photography is most impressive, with sweeping vistas of the mountain and close-ups of the men and their climb.

While this is the main impetus of Nordwand, there is a very interesting historical context. The year is 1936. Some German mountaineers have died the previous year on the side of the Eiger and Swiss authorities want to ban any attempts to reach the summit. In Germany itself, Hitler has been pushing ideals for German youth and the Berlin Olympics are imminent. Government and the newspapers are eager for German climbers to conquer the Eiger. The film shows the cynical bravado of this kind of Nazi propaganda and, ultimately, the disillusionment with this kind of manipulation.

Two young men, expert and enthusiastic, are persuaded to attempt the feat. An Austrian team catches up with them. What follows is a detailed following of the climb and all its difficulties. And this, as has been said, is extremely gruelling to watch and share. It is a relief when the the action returns frequently to the warmth and comfort of the chalet. Benno Fuhrmann and Florian Lukas are very good as the two climbers who found their place in mountaineering history as the postscript to the film indicates.

The screenplay is also critical of the role that media plays in these events, hyping stories for headlines and less interested in the human problems, noting that only success or tragedy are front-page-worthy.

It is interesting to note that Hitler’s favourite director, Leni Riefenstahl, who had made the expert propaganda feature Triumph of the Will in 1934 and was a keen actor and director of mountain films at the time, was about to direct the film of the Berlin Olympiad. One of the characters in Nordwand watching the climb and lost in admiration of the men attempting an Olympic gold kind of achievement resembles Riefenstahl.

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