May 24, 2010
Reviewer: Alan Hogue
Rating (out of 5): ****
This happens about halfway through the German film North Face, in the dining room of a swank hotel in the Swiss alps. Several waiters enter with a giant brown cake on a trolley, adorned with sparklers. This misshapen and thoroughly unappetizing lump of confectionery is a reproduction of the mountain just outside. The head waiter announces that the cake commemorates the imminent conquest of the murderous north face of the Eiger. The diners, nearly all reporters here to cover just such a momentous event, politely applaud.
Outside, perched on the frozen face of the mountain, are diners of a very different kind. Bundled in sleeping bags in near pitch darkness, buffeted by high winds, awkwardly arranged on a frozen ledge from which one could easily slip and fall to certain death, they have somehow managed to make soup and are carefully slurping it down.
To the people inside, the press corps, the Eiger and the incredible hardship endured by the climbers outside is as real as their cake. This great drama, which will retroactively turn either heroic or tragic, is no more than a grand narrative to them, and the men outside nothing but symbols. It is genteel blood sport, played out by a few poor boys from Bavaria for the entertainment of the elite. And, of course, it is proof of the Reich's superiority should they succeed. For only one spectator, a childhood friend of the men dangling in pitch darkness halfway up the north face of the Eiger, is the mountain outside real.
Philipp Stolzl's North Face, set in 1936 and inspired by a true story, is an extremely well crafted movie in many ways, but what makes it especially worthy is that it tackles head on the strange fascination of climbing mountains which clearly don't want to be climbed. The motivation of the climbers is explored somewhat (though ultimately, I think, it's just a compulsion you either understand or you don't -- I would be one of those who most definitely do not). But it is the meaning of the attempt to the rest of the world, what makes it both irresistible and cruel, that North Face captures very well.
Good mountain climbing movies are few and far between, and North Face could serve as a lesson to future filmmakers who want to tackle this very difficult subject. Climbing a mountain is not the sort of conflict that naturally works as a film because the adversary is inanimate. This film is satisfying and intense where other climbing movies are not partially because there is real human drama here. Perhaps more important, there is a rather naive tendency in many climbing movies to rely upon the panoramic grandeur of the environment. This is exactly the wrong thing to do; clinging to an icy ledge while trying to maneuver a pack full of equipment without plunging to your doom is in fact a very claustrophobic situation. The climbing scenes in North Face are easily the most intense and frightening I have seen, largely because they are composed of very tight, detailed shots which brilliantly evoke the feeling of being a few inches from oblivion. The pull of the chasm is felt all the more acutely because you rarely see it.
North Face is not especially artistically ambitious or groundbreaking. The script is extremely well structured in a Hollywood screenwriting seminar sort of way; there's certainly nothing wrong with that, but even with film's insight and thoughtfulness there are plot points and foreshadowings which are a bit too obvious. Certain characters, especially those of a rival climbing team, are disappointingly shallow. Until the second half, the Austrian climbing team have little more depth than the bad guys in a teen comedy, though fortunately this changes somewhat.
But these minor flaws are easy to live with, because North Face is ultimately a gripping and well crafted film.
North Face official site.
Posted by cphillips at May 24, 2010 10:52 AM