by Richard von Busack
ONE NEEDED Werner Herzog for North Face; one got Philipp Stölzl, a former music-video director whose next effort is titled Goethe! (The exclamation point doesn’t bode well.) Stölzl has to subject this otherwise compelling actioner to elaborate de-Nazification: North Face gets into trouble anytime a character opens his mouth, thanks to the work of four credited writers. The film also wastes some time in the presentation of trumped-up counterpoint. It cuts to despicably soft-living cynics who don’t care about the harrowing ascent of the north face of the Eiger in Switzerland, and who would rather look at the mountains in comfort from a respectful distance, clutching a glass of champagne in unfrostbitten fingers. How do some people shave in the morning?
Essential to the plot—as it was to a 1975 Eastwood movie The Eiger Sanction, where one indomitable rocky face met another—is the fact that the Bernese built a scenic railroad through the Eiger. It makes the torment of scrabbling over all that treacherous stone harder to explain to those who love nice solid ground under their feet.
Two mountaineers (from Nazi stronghold Berchtesgaden, yet—you can see the film’s problem right away) attempt the fateful climb in the mid-1930s. Benno Fürmann plays Toni, Viggo Mortensonian in seriousness; Florian Lukas is Andreas, a.k.a. Andi, the more playful one. Both are visually like the square-headed heroes in Goebbels-era films, though they’re clearly not so into the Wehrmacht, in which they serve. They have to scrub urinals because of their bad attitude toward officers and punctuality—not that they’re overly concerned about Adolf and whatever he’s up to.Two sinister pro-Anschluss Austrians take up that overtly political department, like a good pair of straw men.
Johanna Wokalek plays Luisa, who works for a newspaper under the toxic mentoring of Berlin (hiss) editor Henry (Ulrich Tukur). On a whim, this editor dispatches Luisa to the Alps since she knows these climbers. She will be the photographer when her two childhood chums conquer the dreaded Nordwand: several thousand sheer feet of crumbly rock and slippery ice.
The real star of the movie is the Nordwand itself. “Mordwand” was the pun: “murder wall,” after some 60 climbers died on it. Once the throat-clearing stops, the film gets interesting. The ordeal itself is all about incremental things: lives depending on a decision to leave a rope in place or not, on the chance of a July snowstorm, or whether a man, blackened like a corpse from exposure, might die while still being within talking range of help.
The climbing scenes put you through it, and then the cynics are chastised—Luisa asks her editor, “Are you not also a human being?” which says more about her lack of journalistic experience than an editor’s lack of humanity. That’s the kind of writing in North Face.
The fingers, poring over a leather notebook full of pressed edelweiss at the film’s beginning, point to the movie’s end. Christian Kolonovitz’s orchestral soundtrack out-avalanches the avalanche. You wouldn’t want your life to hang from narrative rigging like this, but North Face is a compelling enough warning of what can happen to men tangled in their own knotted webs.