True tragedy: North Face [Nordwand] (Philipp Stölzl, 2008)

northface

Never heard of Toni Kurz and his four man team’s attempt to climb the North Face of the Eiger in 1936? Don’t look him up: watch this film. Although it doesn’t adhere to the facts, the changes it makes are in the interest of a more entertaining film, and the most incredible things about this story are true.

Inserting a romance between Toni and photographer Luise seems like a cheap device, but here it takes advantage of some unique aspects of the Eiger. The North Face looms above several hotels and, weather permitting, visitors can watch the climbers through telescopes. A train also cuts through the mountain and, in places, its tunnel opens onto the Face itself. This is a prime opportunity to increase the drama by having an invested onlooker who can actually access the Face.

Luise is accompanied by her boss, Henry, and not only is their relationship interesting, he’s a complex character in his own right. He exemplifies the racist patriotism that Toni and Andi lack, and that lies behind the government’s push for a German team to make the first ascent of the Eiger. Along with his subtle sexual harassment of Luise, these darker aspects aren’t all there is to him, however; he has an appealing side, too. This acknowledges the Nazis’ appeal to ordinary people and avoids making the film a ham-fisted foreshadowing of the oncoming war. Henry’s lament that he and his readers never experience real drama, and must engage in vicarious thrills, comments on the enjoyment we get from watching this film and thus unwillingly aligns us with his point of view. These musings also become ironic when the climbers face trials that no one ever wants to go through.

Ulrich Tuker plays his role lightly enough to keep Henry from being an outright villian and this, along with his display of some musical skills, makes him an actor to seek out in other films. North Face’s leads all aquit themselves well, and between them have appeared in some of Germany’s most internationally renowned films over the last decade: Joyeux Noel (Benno Fuermann), The Baader Meinhof Complex (Johanna Wokelek), Goodbye Lenin! (Florian Lukas), The White Ribbon and The Lives of Others (Tuker). It’s not always easy to follow the career of an actor from a country that speaks a different language to your own, and North Face is a worthy film to watch if you want to see more of these four.

Knowing how Kurz’s story ends, I found more suspense in wondering how closely this film would follow the facts than in anticipating the climbers’ fates. However, I’ve talked to several people who were unfamiliar with the story, and they found North Face to be tense and brutal. It undoubtedly uses special effects to make the danger look real, but it does this so well that I couldn’t point out the effects with any certainty. This strongly made and acted film does a fine job of convincing the viewer that they are experiencing real drama.

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