Mountain-climber movies are troublesome for any punster to surmount; between the totemic carabiners and dangling ropes, how can one not call them “gripping” or “suspenseful”? After a rocky start—I know, I know—North Face earns its adjectives. The opening is actually less “rocky” than it should be; the film seems about halfway over before its alpinists reach their slope: the Eiger, a peak that casts its imperious shadow over the Swiss Alps. Perhaps the story remains compelling because their route doesn’t take them along the conventional sports-narrative trajectory; ignorant as I was of the source material—the famous first endeavor up the mountain’s treacherous north face, in 1936—the film’s conclusion succeeded in eluding me until it played out.
Although the protagonist, Toni (Benno Fürmann), has the angular jaw and dark eyes of a doomed romantic, he espouses the viewpoint of a pragmatic individualist. This he seems to have in common with the director, Philipp Stölzl—and it helps to ameliorate the film’s weaknesses. Their ascent is a sham from the get-go—engineered as a publicity stunt by the fulsome editor of a Berlin daily (Ulrich Tukur) to prove to his readers what Jesse Owens, a few weeks thence, would disprove to the Nazis’ embarrassment: the innate superiority of towheaded athletes, like Toni’s climbing partner Andi (Florian Lukas). Though they’re spared halos from the media or the Fatherland, Stölzl lionizes the sky-bound diad not for attempting to reach the top of the mountain, but for knowing when to go down, and why. Even as the climbers’ flesh becomes purpler than the girl whose blood became blueberry juice in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Stölzl doesn’t linger on frostbitten limbs like a porno-naturalist; nor does he photograph the Eiger as anything more than an elemental force (not) to be reckoned with. The scenery is rarely “picturesque”; some shots are even underexposed. (Only the music gushes—enough to trigger avalanches.) The film is most effective when our concentration is focused entirely on the climb; the purity is photogenic and the sympathy uncoerced. I almost petitioned the theater to supply blankets for the next showing.
But Stölzl only reaches his summit—there I go again—when things are vertical; the horizontal rudiments seem beneath him. Ugh. Well, to put a cap on my wordplay, I’ll finish by saying that Turkur, though sly and gamy, is basically reprising his venal, Claude Rains-in-Casablanca bureaucrat from The Lives of Others; his thinning flaxen hair and mustache seem combed back with a sleaze that his body naturally secretes, and once you ascertain that—it takes about two seconds—the character’s development is locked in anachronistic media-baiting mode. (Although he does have a good catchphrase. The highest compliment he can pay a staff photographer he’s jonesing for—Johanna Wokalek—is “You’re just like me!”) Andi, similarly, never asserts his humanity beyond a level of benign dweebiness. He may as well be one of the blank-faced little burghers (slihders?) who harassed Baron Turkur’s son in The White Ribbon. At its most misconceived, the movie lobs in social commentary that posits journalists as some kind of idle class and counts mountaineers as among the oppressed. I will, however, give North Face points for its jouncing pace, mainly because what it sets up is worth the wait. For the film, as for Toni, it’s not about the glory, or fame, or prestige. It’s about the climb.