Winter Struggles, Not Sports

There’s something inherently human about gazing at a thunderous mountain peak and saying to yourself: “I can climb that.” There is something inherently cinematic, however, in actually being stupid enough to do it. The sport of rock-climbing is hard to portray successfully on-screen; the combination of the intimacy of the climb, the adrenaline of the view, and the ever-looming possibility of death is difficult to recreate.

It’s to Phillip Stolzl’s credit then that his survival-drama “North Face” (finally making the rounds in the United States) manages to carve out an engaging tale of two mountaineers fighting against the Swiss Alps. Unfortunately, when the couple is on the ground, engaged in lukewarm romances and social politics, the film starts to lose its grip.

Toni Kurtz and Andi Hinterstoisser are two strapping lads filled with appropriate 1930s derring-do, setting their sights on the peak of the Eiger range in the Swiss Alps, a then-unclaimed 5,900-foot climb. They soon realize that reaching the top isn’t just a matter of goal but of method; the near-vertical “north face” of the mountain was known for ages as the “death wall.” A successful mastering of this dangerous slope would be a propaganda goldmine for Nazi Germany heading into the Olympics of that year.

The film takes its time laying out its true story, following Kurtz and Hinterstoisser going from Army grunts to inspired examples of Nazi bravado. Between the prologue and the actual climbing is a cynical media portrayal of the event and its participants, not to mention a rekindled romance between Kurtz and his former flame Luise, While the lovers’ subplot never recovers from its plodding setup, and the political commentary is the same microwaved Nazi fluff we’ve come  to expect, the somewhat slow opening allows for the two climbers to become more fleshed out than expected. Their emotional backgrounds later factor into a much more emotional ride as they gamble their lives against the Alps.

The other major concern dragging down the narrative is its bland restructuring of history. Far from any criminal revamping of Nazi events, “North Face” makes the foolhardy decision to split the climbing team – our protagonists and two Austrian climbers – into rival factions, rather than the immediate team they had been in real life. While the two duos eventually join forces once climbing the wall, the separation of the groups by geopolitical lines comes off like a sports movie cliché and just adds more fat to an already bloated first act.

It’s the film’s saving grace, then, that whenever the mountain is pictured on screen, the pithy concerns of lovers and Nazis are buried in favor of exceptional landscape shots and suspenseful death-defiance. The dangers and beauty of a frozen-over peak are captured in unequalled elegance, aided by pitch-perfect sound and Foley work. Blistering snow gusts whip across the protagonists and camera with razor-sharp intensity, with craggy rock formations barely visible under expertly layered ice formations.

The sense of impending doom is aggressive in the most agonizingly delightful way. Scenes of the climbers shift from distraught close-ups of frozen faces to extreme long-shots from the far-off hotel, where Kurtz and Hinterstoisser appear as mere pigments scaling the inconceivably high surface.

The expected moments of emotional pandering hit their marks perfectly, with occasional slips of the ice pick sending one of the two plummeting down a hundred feet before a last minute latch into an ice chunk. Sure, that moment is expected in any movie about mountain-climbing, but with such an expert capturing of a rarely seen environment, the stereotype is quickly forgotten.

What is difficult to forgive is the resurgence of the meta-plot, as a rescue team consisting of established political and love interests later ascends the peak to assist the climbers. Scenes of a desperate Luise venturing stupidly out into the wild snow will remind the audience exactly why they preferred being away from the supporting cast in the first place.

The design of “North Face” is a commendable notch above average, even discounting the splendid audio work. Costume, makeup and hair design lead more credence to the period than most films within the era.

Similarly, the soundtrack manages to buffer the intense climbing moments without usurping the overwhelming sense of natural disaster with too much orchestral interruption. The cinematography wisely takes the simple route throughout the runtime, grinding against the tedious opening before falling in line behind the set design, letting the mountain peak speak for its badass self.

“North Face” is a rare film. Although its exposition drags, it must be survived, if only to have the chance to dazzle in the second act with its expert capturing of the mountaineering experience. Besides the non-climbing moments, there are few cinematic places where audiences can gain an appreciation of the sheer daunting nature of Mother Nature’s icy side. Take a jacket; you’ll actually feel cold.