The Principles: Benno Furmann, Florian Lukas, Johanna Wokalek
The Premise: It’s 1936, the Berlin Summer Olympics and Anschluss loom. The Third Reich is giddy with trying to prove Aryan athletic supremacy. Could some sturdy German boys climb the Eiger, “the last remaining problem of the Alps”? That’s what one Nazi-driven paper is hoping. They send aspiring photojournalist Luise (Johanna Wokalek) to try and convince her childhood friends Toni Kurz (Benno Furmann) and Andreas “Andi” Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas) to make the ascent. Andi is dying to conquer the Eiger, Toni doubts it can be done. Eventually, friendship, mountainlust, and a desire to make the history books trump all thoughts of danger. It’s based on a true story, so spoilers abound if you hit Wikipedia or Google.
Is It Good: Yes. It’s a gripping watch, and beautifully shot. The special effects are seamless, and a lot of detail went into recreating 1930s climbing gear. (Who among us would go outside in handknitted mittens, let alone climb something like the Eiger?) Tony and Andi aren’t the most complex characters, and they seem suspiciously apolitical, but they’re likable enough. We all have our obsessions, and even the most couchbound watcher can empathize with the gleam in their eye as they contemplate the North Face. Even if the movie is more about the mountain then the men, watching them become windburned wrecks is quite hard.
It’s not perfect. North Face doesn’t end where it should, choosing instead to continue the journey of the plucky and useless Luise. Her entire subplot is awkward, pointless, and contrived. While her beloved Toni faces frostbite, she has to politely dodge her lecherous and racist editor. While the climbers freeze and subsist on tea, she and her Nazi companions enjoy champagne, cake, and schnitzel with noodles in a posh hotel. At one point, she actually climbs to the Eigerwand train station (9,000 feet, and inside the mountain itself) in high heels and an evening dress calling “Toni! Toni!” Somehow, she doesn’t even catch a chill or cripple herself permanently. (I’ve worn high heels. I can run in them. A climb of 50 feet would be impossible, let alone 9,000.)
Is It Worth A Look: Definitely. Even the contrived romance and Nazi newspapers don’t detract from the murderous Eiger climb. There are no ridiculous Cliffhanger muscle moments. It’s all frostbite and blood, and rarely are hammers, pitons, and ropes so nail-biting or compelling. North Face plays like a horror movie set on a mountain. Every time our heroes seem to have their ropes tied tight, and can catch a breath, the killer strikes again.
Random Anecdotes: Heinrich Harrer, of Seven Years in Tibet fame, was one of the first men to successfully climb the North Face. Clint Eastwood once took a death-defying plunge to the Eigerwand train window in The Eiger Sanction.
Cinematic Soulmates: Touching the Void, The Perfect Storm