Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Philipp Stölzl's gripping and gorgeous NORTH FACE opens via Music Box


While TrustMovies tends not to place films about mountain-climbing high on his list of favorites, the new German film NORTH FACE (Nordwand) directed by Philipp Stölzl (shown below) has changed that. For now, at least. This amazing movie -- jumping off from fact -- is all about the attempted conquest of the then unclimbed north face of the Eiger mountain in Switzerland.



The film begins as a woman turns the pages of a scrap-
 book. We don't see her face, just the photos she uncovers, and then we're thrust back in time to a pair of smart and handsome young mountaineers Toni Kurz (Benno Fürmann, be-
low right) and Andi Hinter-
stoisser (Florian Lukas, below left). Soon we're deep in the delights of mountain ranges, greenery, rathskel-
lers, family scenes, newspa-
per offices, romance, charm, and humor. It's like taking a swell vacation -- except that we're here in the Third Reich, with heroes who are good little Nazis.


I cannot vouch for how true it is that, because the young men were not given leave to climb (Nazi propaganda urged young German mountaineers to conquer the intransigent Eiger), they resigned from what looks like a kind of pre-military-service Hitler Youth.  But this certainly frees them from the cloud of Nazidom -- and frees us to root for them, too.


Once we're climbing up the north face of the Eiger with our German twosome, as well as two more climbers from Austria who are hellbent on being the first to reach the top, the movie becomes as gripping and suspenseful, shocking and moving as any mountain-climbing movie I've ever seen. Director Stölzl and his cinematogra-
pher Kolja Brandt have accomplished something stupendous by making us part of the climb: the elements, the nearly flat sheet of rock and ice that is the mountain's face, the sheer effort of lifting the body up and up.  No apologies to Avatar: This is the movie that put me in a place no other film has yet managed.


Part of the reason for my being put off my movies that deal mainly with mountain climbing is that, often, once we're up there, just as for the actual climbers, there's no relief or change of scene.  North Face does not make this mistake.  Granted, any movie that forces us to endure nonstop peaks and chills, falls and spills is to be commended, I guess, for realism and verité. But if you are looking for entertainment, you're going to want a break now and then.


North Face provides plenty of these, and they're all interesting and often lovely to watch, taking place as they do in a posh hotel (above) at the base of the mountain. The non-climbing scenes also bring us the history of the day: from the place of women at the time to the manner in which newspapers kowtowed to Nazi protocol. The cast includes the always-fine Ulrich Tukur (above, right, from Séraphine and The White Ribbon) and, in the role of the Kurz's enamorata, a most interesting actress named Johanna Wokalek (above, left, from The Baader Meinhof Complex). Much less beau-
tiful than most "movie stars," she lights up the screen in her own manner: via sheer intensity and commitment. You can easily under-
stand why a "looker" like Fürmann would find himself in her thrall.


Movies based on historical events run the risk of audiences already knowing the outcome. American audiences, however, will be unfamiliar with this one, so the finale will retain every drop of suspense and surprise. Along the way, you'll see some interesting sights (a funeral that takes place during a climb) and thought-provoking encounters (what comes first, the photo journalist or the human being?). The award-winning screenplay and camerawork combine to make some rather incredible logistics understandable. Finally, it's the little things you'll marvel over: the difficulty, for instance, of getting frozen hands to move a rope.


North Face, from Music Box Films, opens in New York City Friday, January 29, at the Beekman, Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and Landmark's Sunshine. Additional playdates -- theaters and cities -- can be found by clicking here then scrolling down.

2 comments:

u2umm said...

I saw the NorthFace recently, and it's well worth a watch, even though youknow how the story's going to end. It's more-or-less accurate too, although it does take one or two dramatic liberties - e.g. Hinterstoisser's demise is fictionalised, and the whole sub-plot of the girl - that left me thinking "what - the real story didn't have enough drama for you??" - but it's still a very well made film, and absolutely harrowing to watch.

James van Maanen, said...

Yup, U2ummm, it IS harrowing to watch. But if there's no "real" girl in the story, then isn't Kurz's demise also fictionalized? Either way -- any way -- the film works as a good "movie."

If you knew how the story ended, then you must either be European or a mountain-climbing fan. I had no idea of the outcome.

Lastly, thanks for commenting!