Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

29 April, 2010

Northwand (North Face)



It was against my better judgment that I went to see North Face (Nordwand). When it comes to heights, I am not your man. But the approaching summer blockbuster season means less foreign films so I figured I'd better see it while I still could.

The film is based on the true story of four mountaineers who attempted to climb the north face of the Eiger mountain in Switzerland in 1936. Berlin would soon be hosting the Olympics and it had become a matter of national pride (as well as a Nazi propaganda triumph) that it was Germans who scaled the heights and solved what was known as “the last problem of the Western Alps”.

Editors at the Berliner Zeit newspaper bemoan the lack of aspiring alpinists until Luise, who makes the coffee, notes that she grew up with Toni Kurz and Andi Hinterstoisser who will scale anything. She is immediately dispatched to Berchtesgaden where Toni and Andi where the Army has stationed them. Luise finds them still climbing and tries to convince them to scale Eiger's north face. Andi is up for the challenge but Toni, with whom Luise was romantically involved, is unwilling.

After Luise returns to Berlin unsuccessful, Toni finally comes around and he and Andi head to Switzerland and the imposing "death wall". There they find other aspiring climbers as well as Luise and her boss, Henry Arau, who have come to cover the event. This sets up the structure of the film which will bounce back and forth between the daring ascent and the wealthy voyeurs who safely wine, dine, and, in general, have a nice vacation while other people ply their derring-do in the distance.

Toni and Andi begin their ascent early one morning and soon discover that two Austrian climbers are following them. As our heroes climb, a small rockslide starts and a chunk of limestone ends up hitting one of the Austrians on the head though he vows to carry on. These scenes are absolutely terrifying with cinematographer Kolja Brandt often placing the climbers at the far edge of the frame with the sky and a steep drop filling up the majority of the screen. I often found myself looking at the seats in front of me for some reassurance that I was firmly attached to the ground. With the summit just a short distance away, the guy who'd been hit on the head takes a turn for the worse and the two groups unite in order to get him to safety. This involves descending a snow-covered ice sheet and rigging a system to lower the man down from ledge to ledge during a blizzard which is increasingly taking its toll on the climbers with frostbite.

With the potential thrill of victory and a worthy story gone, Arau decided to return to Berlin. But Luise isn't ready to give up on her friends and Toni in particular. With things looking worse by the minute, she walks the tunnel that was bored through the mountain which allows a trolley to take visitors up to admire the view from a lookout point. The sound of the film was marvelous here as her screams for Toni through the din of the wind and snow echoed from speakers behind me. A small thing, perhaps, but it reinforced Toni's isolation on the sheer rock face.



Overall, North Face was simply harrowing to watch. The shots of the alpinists climbing in good weather were bad enough but the film slowly turns the screw as more impediments present themselves. While the scenes of Luise, Arau, and the other chalet guests along with a modicum of social commentary on Germany at the time were the weakest of the film, they at least had the virtue of providing some momentary relief of the vertigo induced by watching Andi and Toni scaling the mountain. Towards the end, Luise climbs out onto a ledge from one of the lookout points in order to be within earshot of her love. Although she had earlier mentioned how her friends had taught her some climbing skills, I found someone with no equipment being able to wander out onto the icy rock to be unbelievable. But I guess the filmmakers had to play up the love story between Luise and Toni.

As far as visceral thrills go North Face has them in spades and is quite a ride. One could argue that it is also a love story and a commentary on loyalty to and sacrifice made for loved one but, at the end of the day, it's an adventure story. On that note, it succeeds wildly.
|| Palmer, 1:55 PM

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