Let me confess upfront: This isn’t a type of movie I care for. A barometer of that may be found in the fact that most criticisms of Philipp Stölzl’s fact-based mountain-climbing drama North Face center on the film’s political backstory, the newspaper story and the romantic story—in short everything but the mountain climbing itself and everything I liked best about the film. Watching guys climb a mountain simply has limited appeal for me—perhaps because I can’t understand the whole mountain-climbing business (and “because it’s there” doesn’t cut it as an explanation). It’s worth considering this in reading my assessment of the film.
The story takes place in 1936 Germany. We see a newsreel about two mountaineers who have died trying to scale the north face of the Eiger, the mountain referred to as “the last problem of the Alps” (which strikes me as only a problem if you insist on climbing the thing). The newsreel makes it clear that the resultant ban on climbing the Eiger will doubtless be seen as more of a challenge than a deterrent to the iron-willed youth of Germany. Indeed, Hitler is apparently keen on this as useful propaganda to tie in with the Olympics. It’s the patriotic dream of Berlin newspaper editor Henry Arau (Ulrich Tukur) to bring this to fruition.
As luck would have it, Arau has in his employ a plucky wannabe photojournalist, Luise Fellner (Johanna Wokalek), whose current position is that of a kind of secretary who makes coffee. But Luise “practically grew up with” the very two mountain climbers he has in mind—Toni Kurz (Benno Fürmann) and Andi Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas)—and so she soon finds a camera in her hands and an assignment to do a piece on them on her schedule. Of course, she might be helpful in getting them to undertake the climb, too. Toni and Andi aren’t exactly model Nazis and are unlikely to do it for the glory of the Reich, but with other motivations at hand, they might be persuaded. And, of course, they are, though it’s not quite as simple as Luise wanting them to do it.
How much of this is historically accurate? I have no idea if anything beyond the essentials is accurate. A good deal of it feels more like a 1930s movie than a 1930s event. Plucky girl reporters were a reichsmark a dozen in 1930s movies, as were callous newspaper editors for whom getting the story was the only consideration. Though Arau is apparently meant to be a Nazi true believer, he’s pretty much in the mode of the editor as defined by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur in the 1928 play The Front Page—a characterization that lasted for years. While this may compromise the film as history, it also gives it something to balance out the mountaineering portions. There’s an interesting contrast between the climbers on the icy mountain and the spectators in a warm, posh hotel that makes the drama more compelling.
But make no mistake, the climbing scenes are indeed compelling drama in themselves. They’re beautifully executed and the mix of what must be studio work and the real thing is seamlessly achieved. They are also quite suspenseful—even when you know the outcome. But, for me at least, there’s a limit to just how long this sort of thing can retain its impact. Even with the additional drama, North Face, for all its undeniable merit, tested the limits of my involvement. I’m really hard-pressed to imagine sitting through it without the scenes away from the climb itself. Not rated.