An allegorical cliff-hanger

Posted: February 26, 2010

If you have a fear of heights, then North Face (Nordwand), Philipp Stölzl's high-altitude thriller about real-life Alpinists scaling the Eiger's "death wall" in 1936, probably is not for you.

For everyone else, this white-knuckle adventure is a literal and metaphoric cliff-hanger that gets a spectacular foothold on an unforgiving mountain. If it is less successful at gaining purchase on the politics of conquest, that's a minor quibble for such a tour de force.

Stölzl's movie is in the tradition of "mountain films," a genre created in the 1920s by German cinematographer Arnold Fanck, whose exhilarating nature studies of climbers ascending the Alps and Dolomites had allegorical resonance. These were popular stories of courageous souls who set an unattainable goal and, despite danger and difficulty, experienced a spiritual peak while conquering a physical one.

Not incidentally, the star of several Fanck films was future filmmaker and propagandist Leni Riefenstahl, who would star and direct her own mountain films and win a fan in rising political figure Adolf Hitler.

Nordwand opens in June 1936 as Germany prepares to stage the Berlin Olympics. To conquer the unconquered north face of the Eiger before the Summer Games begin would be a source of national pride for the host country. But few Alpinists want to risk their lives on a challenge where so many others have lost theirs. Can the Nazis recruit climbers who will demonstrate Aryan superiority?

German mountaineers Toni Kurz (Benno Fürmann) and Andi Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas) are motivated less by nationalism (or National Socialism) than by internal drive.

They are best friends and temperamental opposites. Square-jawed Toni is the cautious one, not sure they should undertake a death-defying climb. Competitive Andi is more the daredevil, a human mountain goat with supreme confidence in his skills. The two are the ideal balance of prudence and risk.

After some persuasion from Luise Fellner (Johanna Wokalek), a photojournalist who has nursed a crush on Toni since childhood, Toni and Andi leave the army and bicycle to the Alps. There, they race against Italian and Austrian climbers to see who can first make it to the top of the North Face.

As these lean and humble athletes (they hand-forge their own pitons!) subsist on barley soup and ice water, banqueting aristocrats and media types are ensconced at a four-star hotel adjacent to the Eiger, rooting for their respective countries.

The setup is solid and the payoff extraordinary. Stölzl's sequences of the climbers a mile high, hanging from ropes about as substantial as dental floss, are as exciting as anything since Touching the Void. Stölzl and his actors do a terrific job of making us feel we are there with them, assaulted by summer storms and hanging by our hangnails.

The character of Luise was invented for the movie to create romantic interest. Because the actress who plays her is a compelling brunette in the Riefenstahl mold, she is like an alternative-history version of Riefenstahl. What might have happened if Hitler's favorite filmmaker, rather than being a creator of his visual propaganda, had been critical of the Reich?

This subplot is the least successful aspect of Stölzl's film, but like the man said: It is pretty to think so.


Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey

at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com.

Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," http://www.philly.com/philly

/blogs/flickgrrl/

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