The mountain-climbing drama, a genre popular in the 1920s and ’30s, has been making a comeback in the last decade or so. This probably has something to do with the growing popularity of extreme sports and customized tours for wealthy amateurs (like the ill-fated 1996 expeditions chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s best seller Into Thin Air). But the genre has also gotten a boost from technological innovations in production and exhibition: the IMAX company grossed $76 million, a whopping figure for a large-format short, with its 44-minute documentary Everest (1998). Mountain films have become common at the Banff and Telluride festivals, and two more mountaineering adventures have played in theaters nationwide: Kevin Macdonald’s docudrama Touching the Void (2003), which re-created Joe Simpson and Simon Yates’s disastrous 1985 climb in the Andes, and Lucy Walker’s documentary Blindsight (2006), which followed blind athlete Eric Weihenmayer as he took a group of vision-impaired Tibetan children through the Himalayas.
Philipp Stölzl’s German drama North Face also deals with actual events, offering plenty of thrills and spectacular vistas. But it also harks back to the German Bergfilme genre popularized by the geologist, photographer, and avid mountaineer Arnold Fanck. A completely self-taught filmmaker, Fanck had seen only one motion picture before he shot footage of sportsmen on the slopes for his 1919 silent film The Miracle of Skiing. To stay competitive at the box office, he added simple story lines to his later films in which heroic lovers (often part of a romantic triangle) were threatened by ice, avalanches, or sudden storms. But his priorities as a filmmaker were clearly stated in the prologue to his 1926 hit The Holy Mountain: “Nature plays the primary part in this film, and the life of the mountain is intimately connected with the drama.”
As the genre developed, though, the mountaineers grew larger than life, and these heroic characters became part of the Aryan-Nordic identity that ultimately fueled the rise of Naziism. Leni Riefenstahl made her screen-acting debut in The Holy Mountain and went on to work with Fanck again, most notably in 1929’s The White Hell of Pitz Palu (which Quentin Tarantino name-checked in Inglourious Basterds) and 1930’s Storm Over Mont Blanc. A year later Riefenstahl wrote, produced, directed, and edited her first feature, a quasi-spiritual mountain film called The Blue Light, and it caught the eye of Adolf Hitler, who chose her to direct the Nazi propaganda epics Triumph of the Will (1935) and Olympia (1938). After the war Fanck’s mountain movies became identified with Riefenstahl, by then a notorious figure, and the Bergfilme petered out.
The White Hell of Pitz Palu
Stölzl takes pains to distance North Face from the genre’s Nazi taint. His two lead characters are based on real-life German climbers who partnered with two Austrians in hope of making a first ascent of the deadly Eiger Nordwand—the north face of the Eiger—in the Swiss Alps in 1936. But they’re a far cry from the idealized figures Fanck liked to pose in silhouette, with every hair in place, against clouds and mountain peaks. Toni (Benno Fürmann) and Andi (Florian Lukas) are scruffy, sweaty working-class buddies with few prospects. They’ve enlisted as reservists in Germany’s Mountain Patrol in order to avoid the army, and they never respond to guards’ salutes of “Heil, Hitler” with anything more than a flip “‘Bye!” They set out on their adventure because conquest of the Nordwand is widely seen as guaranteeing a spot on the German Olympic team. But they’re less interested in glorifying the Third Reich than in escaping their dead-end existence in provincial Berchtesgaden. As Andi says, “I want to prove to the world what I can do and who I am.”
The closest thing the movie has to a villain is Henry Arau (Ulrich Tukur of The White Ribbon), the slick and opportunistic editor of a Berlin newspaper who’s looking for front-page copy to enthrall readers and please Nazi officials. His eager young assistant, an invented character named Luise (Johanna Wokalek), knows the boys from her school days and rekindles a romance with Toni shortly before he and his colleagues assemble, along with other Olympic hopefuls from around the world, to climb the Nordwand. The story unfolds as one long flashback, recounted by Luise years later, and in a sense she becomes keeper of the flame, tending the myth of the Eiger—German for ogre—as a monster devouring anyone who gets too close.
North Face differs most from its Bergfilme predecessors in the way it portrays man and nature. Back in the 20s and 30s the mountain climber symbolized the greatness of the human spirit, but today we’re more inclined to recognize the hubris involved. After Andi executes a stunning traverse, enabling the climbers to get around an impassable section of the face, he chooses not to leave any rope behind, confident that they’ll be descending on the other side of the mountain. And when one of the Austrians is struck on the head during a rockfall, he ignores his partner’s pleas to turn back.
With no ideological or religious leanings, Toni has no choice but to look within himself for strength, and the climb—intended as a celebration of human endurance and ingenuity—ends ignominiously. The message we’re left with is more humbling than inspiring: Know your limits, because nature knows none.