Back when I reviewed the documentary The Conquest of Everest, I gave brief mention to my schizophrenic feelings about mountains, glorious examples of nature's scale and beauty that I nonetheless prefer to gaze at from the safety of base camp. I'm not good with heights, you see, and the very idea of clambering up the side of a rock face of any meaningful stature gives me the heebie-jeebies. And yet I remain genuinely fascinated by the process of mountain climbing and those individuals for whom it has gone from being an activity to an obsession. The thing is that, despite my fear, I do understand what drives them, that desire to test your own limits against nature and to conquer a mountain or a rock face for no other reason than, as George Mallory famously said of Everest, "because it's there."
Now if you're going to engage with any story of mountain climbers in peril then you're going to need to empathise on some level. Once they're up and the rocks start falling then a certain degree of connection is inevitable – we'll all banged our heads and hurt ourselves falling after all – but if you're cold to the sense of adventure and challenge that drives these people then you're likely to find yourself complaining, as an unsympathetic friend of mine did during Touching the Void, that they shouldn't have gone up there in the first place. Which completely misses the point. But if you fall into that category then you're likely to find yourself muttering that phrase quite a bit during North Face [Nordwand], a dramatic recreation of a 1936 attempt to climb the forbidding North Face of the Eiger.
As this is a film based on true events, there are two ways you can approach it, with or without a foreknowledge of how the real story played out. If you prefer to go in cold – and that's a good way to do it if you want to maximise the tension of key scenes – then I'd skip to the end of this review. I'll try to keep spoilers to a minimum but a couple are inevitable given the film's factual background.
Of those of you still with me I would imagine that there are a fair proportion aware of the story of this fated climb. To cover the basics, this attempt at the first (successful) ascent of the Eiger via what is still regarded as one of the most difficult and potentially treacherous routes took place in 1936, the year after German mountaineers Karl Mehringer and Max Sedlmeyer froze to death three-quarters of the way up at a spot that came to be grimly known as 'Death Bivouac'. The perilous nature of the North Face route, which includes the almost glass-smooth Hinterstoisser Traverse and the avalanche spewing 'White Spider', is made worse by being permanently in shade and by weather that can change in a matter of minutes and envelop climbers in ferocious blizzards.
North Face charts the climb made by a four-man team comprised of Germans Toni Kurz (Benno Fürmann) and Andreas Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas) and Austrians Willy Angerer (Simon Schwarz) and Edi Rainer (Georg Friedrich), and even if you do approach the story without knowledge of the events that inspired it you'll quickly realise that their ascent is not going to go to plan. Mind you, if you are familiar with the facts you'll probably have a few questions for the filmmakers regarding dramatic license. That the Germans and Austrians were two separate teams that joined up en route is not in dispute, but history generally records this as an amicable arrangement, while the film paints the two parties as rivals and the relationship between them as fractious. The fateful rock fall that injures Angerer is even made part of this, with the stones dislodged here by Kurz, who then berates the Austrians for not finding their own route up. In truth the avalanche came from further above, the result of ice on The White Spider starting to melt and releasing the rocks trapped within. Drama may be built on conflict, but there's plenty of that provided by the climb itself, in the battle to complete a seemingly impossible ascent and then survive when things go awry – the story genuinely doesn't need such embellishments.
It's a similar tale with Luise (Johanna Wokalek), the girl from Toni's past who gets her big break as a reporter when her knowledge of mountaineering sees her accompany her patriotic editor Henry Arau (Ulrich Tukur) to cover a climb that Toni had initially shown no interest in taking part in. As the various nationalities gather and only the Germans and Austrians prove up to the challenge, Arau gets all glowing for the glory of the fatherland and Luise realises that she still has strong feelings for the sweetheart of her youth. All well and good, but Luise is pure invention, presumably designed to widen the film's demographic appeal – director Philipp Stölzl states in the extras that he didn't want to make a film that involved only men – and although earnestly played by Wokalek, it's she who gives rise to the film's only major credibility strain when she crawls out out of the access tunnel to sit all night in an overcoat on the North Face during a storm and provide spiritual support to the endangered Toni.
In this embellishment of the facts, North Face plays like a domestic attempt to take on Hollywood at its own game by finding a dramatic story and dressing it with the elements – human conflict, love interest – that a mass audience is perceived to expect of such a tale. And it's in its role as an old-school Hollywood-esque adventure that North Face delivers the goods, providing two good-hearted and likeable central characters, an epic challenge, a set of stacked odds and a genuinely nerve-wracking journey that occupies the film's entire second half. It's once the climbers are up on the mountain that the film comes into its own, pulling out all the cinematic stops to remind us just how how dangerous this ascent was, particularly for 1930s climbers armed with the sort of equipment and clothing that even a humble hill walker would consider inadequate today. The tension is intermittently broken by cross-cutting between the hardship endured by the climbers and the opulent comfort being enjoyed by those staying at the hotel at the mountain's base, which tends to hammer home a message that most will absorb the first time around. It does, however, highlight what appears to be a sore point with mountaneers – in his 2006 documentary The Beckoning Silence, Joe Simpson remarks with barely disguised bitterness that those watching this potentially deadly climb were doing so from the comfort and safety of the hotel, with precious little understanding of what the mountaineers were going through.
The film's propensity for blending fact with fiction reaches a head in the climactic scene, where a largely accurate timeline of events that included some genuinely extraordinary feats of endurance – Toni unpicking of a rope with a badly frostbitten hand and being left to dangle all night in a snowstorm by a rescue team unable to reach him until morning – is unnecessarily spiced up with pure invention targeted at the romantic drama crowd. More surprising is that the full details of Toni's final battle for survival have actually been watered down for the movie version, presumably to fit in with earlier changes made to the storyline and to throw in a bit of noble self-sacrifice on the part of one of Kurz's comrades. If you know nothing of the true events then there's still plenty here to have you on the edge of your seat, but a quick read up on the facts may well prompt you to wonder just why the filmmakers passed on the chance to increase the tension further simply by recreating what actually happened. But such is so often the fate of true stories when repackaged for mass consumption. The marvellous Touching the Void may have most ably demonstrated that truth really is more dramatic and compelling than fiction, but then it's unlikely that even a documentary work of this calibre would reach the sort of audience North Face is aimed at.
But if you accept that this as a case of a film being inspired by rather than telling a full story of an actual event then it definitely delivers. Ex-music video director Philipp Stölzl keeps the pace brisk and the drama tense, and all of the main roles are most convincingly performed by a cast of believable faces rather than groomed international stars. Despite some over-dramatic elements, Christian Kolonovits's score captures the majesty of the mountain and enhances the tension of key scenes (the incorporation of piton hammering sounds into the rhythm is subtly effective here), while cinematographer Kolja Brandt's handheld camerawork makes fine use of the scope frame to isolate the climbers against the rock face and provide alarming reminders of their perilous distance from the ground.
North Face plays like an old school Hollywood adventure given a CG-assisted realist makeover and a welcome dash of European earthiness and restraint. I still wouldn't rule out an American remake with a few star faces in the key roles and the dialogue delivered in English, but in terms of structure and story there's little an even half-competent director would otherwise retool. Seriously, if you're an adventure movie fan and all that's stopping you renting North Face is that the dialogue is in German then put that prejudice on hold for a couple of hours and get your hands on this film – you could be in for a treat.
This was one of those times when I had a choice between covering either the DVD or the Blu-ray release and I instantly plumped for the latter – everything about the subject matter screams for high definition presentation. And Metrodome's disc does not disappoint, with a frankly gorgeous level of detail (check out the wood grain cladding on the mountain train) and a real vibrancy to daytime exteriors. That the image is not quite as crisp once snow and mist move in is hardly surprising, but digital compression issues are never a problem here. The colours are as natural as they can be after some post-production toning down and the contrast is generally excellent, although black levels are not quite as solid in night time exteriors. On the whole, though, a very fine job.
The DTS 5.1 soundtrack is everything you'd hope for, clear for dialogue scenes with distinct frontal separation but really letting rip when the wind gets up, sending a billowing gale around the room that had me reaching for a warm pullover. There's a crystal clarity to many of sound effects, particularly falling debris and the roar of storm winds, and when accompanied by the thunderous bass rumble of avalanche the effect is genuinely alarming. The music sounds lovely throughout. Excellent work.
Making North Face (17:47)
Key cast and crew members provide blink-and-you'll-miss-it answers to captioned questions about various aspects of the film and the characters. There's also a brief look at the filming of two scenes, one of which sees the two leads doing some for-real rock face climbing and has the camera crew perched on the mountaintop looking down at them. It's heartening to see this if you watch it after...
Visual Effects of North Face (2:18)
Prepare to have your illusions shattered as some of the more spectacular climbing shots are revealed to have been all faked in the studio and green-screened into place. Before and after footage is shown, with the backgrounds layered in piece by piece. A short but very revealing extra that reminds us, perhaps a little sadly, that we can no longer believe anything we see.
Deleted Scenes (6:09)
Six deleted character scenes featuring various combinations of Toni, Andreas and Luise.
Interview with Philipp Stoelzl and Kolja Brandt
A brief translated textual interview, ALL IN CAPITALS, with director Philipp Stoelzl and cinematographer Kolja Brandt, who reveals that Touching the Void was a key influence on their approach.
The Myth of the Eiger North Face
Another textual extra, again IN CAPITALS (just a note for those producing these sort of extras – text in capitals is harder to read for those with dyslexia or imperfect vision), that looks at the North Face's reputation as a near-impossible and potentially death-bringing climb.
Timeline of Attempts on the Eiger Mountain
Exactly what it says, but I wouldn't read this before seeing the film if you're new to the story.
Cast and Crew Biographies
As is says, brief but plenty of them. In capitals.
Theatrical Trailer (2:31)
Letterboxed German trailer, neatly assembled but giving a bit too much away.
UK Exclusive Trailer (1:20)
In the tradition of UK and American trailers for foreign language films, this one carefully avoids including any dialogue in the hope that the subtitle phobic will buy it before they realise it wasn't made in America.
An engrossing, well made and convincingly performed mountaineering drama that takes a few small but significant liberties with the facts in the name of populist entertainment. In this respect it loses out to one of the key influences on the filmmakers' approach, Kevin Macdonald's Touching the Void, which recognised that man verses mountain provides all the conflict you need for great drama, though North Face still holds its own on the rock face with some of the most nail-biting mountain climbing sequences I've ever chewed my fingernails through. Watch the film, enjoy it, and then hunt out the excellent documentary The Beckoning Silence, in which Touching the Void's Joe Simpson retraces the steps of this very climb, which was the one that first fired his interest and later obsession with mountaineering.
As for the disc, well if you have a Blu-ray player then this is the one to go for – the transfer is lovely and the soundtrack excellent, although you'll need a DTS compatible amp to hear it. Recommended.