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North Face
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by Jay Seaver

"Climbs to the top of the pack."
5 stars

I saw a poster advertising a mini festival of "climbing movies" in the same theater where I saw "North Face", and the fact that most of us can instantly deduce what that means probably counts as a strike against this one by those looking for something unique in their moviegoing expeditions. I admit, seeing several in rapid succession would probably be a somewhat repetitive experience, but spread them out a bit, find an interesting perspective, and handle the technical aspects well, and seeing something like "North Face" can be exhilarating.

It is 1935. The north face of the Eiger in the Swiss Alps has never been ascended; indeed, the most recent attempt has taken the lives of the climbers. The surge of German interest in sport with the upcoming Olympic games leads for popular calls for a German team to conquer this challenge, with the most promising being a pair of Bavarian mountain rangers, Toni Kurz (Benno Fürmann) and Andreas "Andi" Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas). The pragmatic Kurz is against it, although his opinion is swayed somewhat when their childhood friend Luise Fellner (Johanna Wokalek) visits from the big city, saying that the paper she works for would like to cover their ascent. Naturally, Kurz and Hinterstoisser won't be the only ones making the attempt; among the others are Edi Rainer (Georg Friedrich) and Willy Angerer (Simon Schwarz), Austrians but Party members. And there wouldn't be a movie if nothing went horribly wrong.

Interestingly, the film does not actually start off with the climbers, but with Luise. We see her staring longingly at a top-of-the-line camera in a storefront and then treated with a certain amount of condescension by senior writer Henry Arau (Ulrich Tukur). In many ways, even though the latter half of the film is the expected story of danger and survival, she is its central character, and her story is the one that we'll be thinking about once the movie ends: As friendly and charming as Luise is, there's something the tiniest bit predatory about her first meetings with Toni and Andi; she is, after all, asking them to do something extremely dangerous in part for the advancement of her career. And while director Philipp Stölzl and his co-writers only occasionally hammer the point home, the scenes with Fellner and Arau have interesting things to say about the press - both as being sensationalistic and how they can function as propagandists, even when not directly being directed by outside hands.

(It's actually a relatively unique use of the Nazis on film, at least in my memory. Though the Party is referenced, and it's clear that they not only exert an influence on much of German life, but are making their presence felt on a larger scale - the annexation of Austria is an important piece of background - they are not yet the overt, in-your-face monsters we remember. They're still at the insidious stage, when many might not yet realize how thoroughly dangerous they are.)

Despite the potentially mercenary image we might have of Luise early on, she actually winds up being a pretty easy character to fall for. After all, she's got a storyline to go through and grow with, and the filmmakers opt against glamming her up even as much as a Hollywood girl-next-door. There's something very authentic about her, just one-of-the-guys enough that it's believable she might get involved in the rescue efforts later, but also plays nicely opposite Tukur's Arau. He's also interesting to watch, not particularly corrupt but still somewhat complicit in the business of journalism not matching Luise's ideals. Friedrich and Schwarz have a nice dynamic as the Austrian team shadowing Toni and Andi, especially Schwarz as the tunnel-visioned Willy. In comparison, stars Fürmann and Lukas almost seem a little bland, though they play their confident, capable characters well.

What Andi and Toni perhaps lack in the way of personal flaws is countered by how they get to do the bulk of the exciting adventure story. Stölzl takes his time getting us to the mountain, taking great care to establish the unique location, giving us reasons to take the danger involved seriously, and teaching us about not just mountain climbing, but how it was done in the 1930s. It's hardly safe now, but we immediately see what disadvantages climbers then were at, with homemade pitons, ropes that fray versus today's nylon cord, etc. The information is presented organically, demonstrated as Toni and Andi prepare as opposed to being a lecture.

And then, once on the mountain, we see plenty that is stunning and terrifying. the photography by Kolja Brandt is top-notch, capable of showing us the beauty of the environment while also demonstrating just what the dangers are. Stölzl stages things so that we get a sense of were things are in relation to each other so that distances spouted by characters mean things, and everything we've learned about climbing comes into play as the danger increases. The make-up guys do a fantastic job as well, not just in making frostbite look realistically nasty, but subtler things like how Andi and Toni appear sun- and windburned from the start, as actual climbing enthusiasts generally would.

Are these somewhat familiar ingredients to a man-versus-mountain movie? Absolutely. What Stölzl does to make it noteworthy is to execute flawlessly, not just in building exceptional tension during the life-or-death situations high above the earth, but to work Luise Fellner and her story in just enough not to distract from that drama but to give the audience a little more to think about.

It's a tricky balance, making a story of journalistic morals a central part of the movie without it seeming petty compared to the story's other half; maybe as tricky in its own way as climbing an imposing edifice. It's what makes "North Face" stand out in a range of climbing movies as worthy of audience's attention.

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originally posted: 02/23/10 15:50:27
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Seattle International Film Festival For more in the 2009 Seattle International Film Festival series, click here.

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  29-Jan-2010 (NR)
  DVD: 11-May-2010


  DVD: 18-May-2010

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