As the Nazis were coming to power in the 1920s and early '30s, the German film industry became enamored of the mountain film — a genre that exalted athleticism and the triumph of man over nature. Before her infamous directorial career, that strapping babe Leni Riefenstahl got her start in films singing the praises of the mountains. It's a genre whose Aryan heroics invite the sort of parody Guy Maddin pulled off in his 1992 film Careful.
But in the tense new adventure thriller North Face, director Philipp Stolzl resurrects the genre in order to subvert it. In so doing, he's made a film that matches Kevin Macdonald's Touching the Void in its ability to turn mountain climbing into visceral, gripping visual spectacle.
In some ways, the mountain films provide a blueprint for the inspirational-sports genre that's been glutting megaplexes for the past decade. Even a movie as politically opposite as Clint Eastwood's Invictus has some of the same tropes. North Face presents the genre's flipside, where macho men risk their lives for no good reason. Based with some liberties by screenwriters Stolzl, Christoph Silber, Rupert Henning and Johannes Naber on a true story, the film chronicles the attempt of Toni (Benno Fürmann) and Andi (Florian Lukas) to scale the 13,000-foot mountain known as the Eiger, via its north wall.
In 1936, when the movie's set, that path was as yet unconquered. It's a nearly vertical climb — exactly the sort of challenge that would tempt the heroes of a mountain film. And the German athletes believe themselves capable of it. After all, they're dedicated adventurers, he-man soldiers — even if their current detail has them stuck cleaning latrines after staying out too late. Their attempt attracts the media of the time, including aspiring photographer Luise (Johanna Wakalek), a former girlfriend of Toni's.
At first, the group is jovial, participating in friendly competition with two Austrian climbers attempting the same feat. It soon becomes clear, though, that they're not entirely prepared. Little things, like losing mittens, soon lead to disastrous consequences. As the cold and height turn deadly, nature, the mountain films' old foe, seizes upon man's intrusion as a grudge match.
Oftentimes, German period pieces are a dull neo-Tradition of Quality lot. Why grapple with the country's present-day difficulties integrating Turks and residents of the former East Germany, when one can safely denounce anti-Semitism and fascism from a distance of 65 years? Although contradicting Nazi ideology in 2010 isn't exactly daring, the surprise is that North Face manages to find an edge — and some contemporary resonance — in its story of Nazi-era mountain climbers.
It's fitting that North Face first opened in the U.S. in winter 2010, just as the Winter Olympics were gathering steam. For the '30s German government, athletics were yet another way to indulge an appetite for conquest: The Nazis famously tried to use the 1936 Olympics to prove Aryan superiority. Toni and Andi are relatively innocent, but the Nazi propaganda machine has them in its clutches. Climbing the Eiger's north wall, in Stolzl's telling, is akin to invading Czechoslovakia or Poland — an assertion of individual strength as a microcosm of the nation's.
The tale North Face relates, however, is a story of machismo pummeled and thwarted. As Stolzl subjects his actors to what looks like his very own white hell — the movie seamlessly integrates footage shot on the mountain with an elaborate set built inside a refrigerated warehouse — the director's own spectatorship is implicitly paralleled with the observers watching the climb from the safety of an Alpine hotel, eating a cake baked in the shape of a mountain. I have no idea how much danger Stolzl subjected himself to while making North Face, but it's hard to watch it with the detachment he depicts in the '30s German media. One wonders how he was able to get some of his camera angles without putting his cinematographer at risk.
Less successful is the film's underdeveloped (and unnecessary) love story. Even so, North Face remains an immersive experience to rival the best films ever made about mountain climbing. Even in the best-heated theater, spectators may find themselves shivering in sympathy with the characters: The makeup department deserves credit for creating elaborate, worsening depictions of frostbite. And in Andi and Toni's dogged determination, you can glimpse the obsessive madness seething through Werner Herzog's studies of men against nature — a pitiless enemy that recognizes neither man's dominion nor nationalist superiority. North Face is at once exciting and horrifying.
North Face screenwriter Christoph Silber will talk about the film at the 7 p.m. screening Tuesday, March 16, at The Belcourt.