Friday, April 30, 2010

'North Face' is gripping

“North Face” is an extraordinary recreation of a 1936 attempt to climb the North Face of Eiger, a peak in the Alps that is so steep and dangerous that it is nicknamed the death wall.

For those with an aversion to foreign language films, yes, this is a German film and is subtitled, but the film is worth the effort. The hiking footage in the film is amazingly authentic and is an absolute must-see for hiking enthusiasts.

The film centers on Toni Kurz (Benno Fürmann) and Andi Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas), hiking partners who are prodded along by Luise (Johanna Wokalek), a childhood friend, turned struggling photojournalist, to attempt the deadly hike. The first team to make the ascent is promised fame and the title of Olympic hero.

Toni, the more practical of the pair wants nothing to do with the death wall, but Andi is hungry for the notoriety. Out of loyalty to his friend and to keep him safe, Toni agrees to the ascension.

A competing Austrian hiking team (Georg Friedrich and Simon Schwarz) follows Toni and Andy's newly created route. When things become increasingly perilous the two teams join forces. It is the Austrian team that the screenplay by Christoph Silber and director Philipp Stölzl blames for events turning tragic.

Down below Luise he is staying in a posh hotel with a reporter (Ulrich Tukur) who has taken the young photographer under his wing. The presence of this older man is upsetting to Toni, who loves Luise. This material is delicately played. The reporter keeps the relationship largely professional and it is relief that the film doesn't attempt to force a love triangle subplot. Instead, Luise's struggle is where her loyalty lies: with her friends or her job.

The film doesn't ignore the presence of the Nazi party, which want to use the conquering of Eiger as a metaphor for their strength and to turn Toni and Andi into heroes. It is good that film addresses this, but once on the mountain that's where the film's focus stays.

Director Stölzl uses an impressive mix of real footage with special effects. The illusion is completely seamless. It is very clear they are on that mountain in several scenes, but upon research I discovered other scenes were done in a studio setting. Spotting which scenes are on location and which aren't is just about impossible.

The hiking scenes, especially as the elements begin to turn on our heroes, are taut, suspenseful and gripping. The footage of Eiger is beautiful to behold, but also ominous. Eiger means ogre and the mountain, often filmed surrounded by foreboding clouds, does indeed look monstrous.

As with all films that claim to be based on a true story, some liberties are taken with the facts and, as one character notes, it is impossible to know entirely what happened up there. But, based upon what information is available, the film seems to be mostly accurate.

The acting throughout is strong, with Fürmann as Toni making the strongest impression. He has moments of tenderness with Wokalek, who doesn't play a typical passive love interest. Fürmann and Lukas portray a clear sense of friendship between Toni and Andi. We care about all the players when things start to go south.

“North Face” is not a feel good film, but it is an enthralling one. This is the kind of film you watch and wonder: how did they do that?

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