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North Face

German film fictionalizes true tale


The Eiger Sanction was a 1975 thriller directed by and starring Clint Eastwood as a contract killer assigned to bump off an Alpine expedition member. It’s a plan that seemed almost superfluous considering the 5,900-foot nearly vertical Eiger north face, site of 64 climber deaths since 1935, is nicknamed “the Murder Wall. A fictionalized account of one early attempt to summit Eiger is told in the new German film North Face, which depicts a disastrous 1936 climb.

Andi (Florian Lukas) and Toni (Benno Furmann) are lackluster privates in the Nazi Army, frequently missing military curfew due to extended bouldering and climbing excursions. When a party-pleasing newspaper editor (Ulrich Tukur) decides to adopt the two as poster boys for German vitality, he sends young photographer Luise (Johanna Wokalek) to convince the childhood friends to scale the Eiger, a feat calculated to demonstrate the prowess of Aryan athletes in the months leading up to the Berlin Olympics.

Luise, born in the same Bavarian village as the boys, is caught between her excitement at getting a big story and her worry for Toni, the man with whom she shares an unspoken attraction. The Swiss town of Grindelwald, situated at the foot of Eiger’s imposing north face, becomes the site of a press-fueled fury as climbing teams from four nations encamp, each determined to crest the snowy citadel first. As Toni and Andi set off, they are insistently tailed by a two-man Austrian outfit, but unpredictable weather shifts and frequent avalanches band the four together as they struggle to survive the vicious vertical elements.

While based on true events, North Face is fictional, with the addition of a leading lady and augmented antagonism from the Austrian team. As Tukur’s character explains midway through the film, we’ll never understand the exact drama of a mountaineering misadventure. But historically speaking, we know the real Andi and Toni set out as a four-man expedition. And we can thoroughly discount any on-site romance. But none of these narrative embellishments particularly harms the story, nor detracts from the inherently thrilling tale of man vs. mountain. Screenwriter Christoph Silber (Goodbye, Lenin!) doesn't oversell these emotional elements, using them to color and shape these characters in an otherwise fairly straightforward story. While pacing the film with almost aggressive reserve, director Philipp Stolzl’s use of a classically inspired score--provided by composer Christian Kolonovits--and cinematographer Kolja Brandt’s eye for sweeping snowy vistas share the drama of the story without showy vocal exposition.

With or without this emotional embroidery, North Face is an exciting film. It’s the type of flick that makes you view your own neighboring mountains differently, each incline an invitation, every crag a caution. While featuring fanciful pieces that strike falsely in only a few places, the story of four men scaling a behemoth in a blizzard is a thrilling, sensational tale told with skill and respect.