As Europe Watches, A 'Murder Wall' Awaits

Florian Lukas and Benno Furmann

hide captionMad Men: Florian Lucas and Benno Furmann play German mountaineers Andi Hinterstoisser and Toni Kurz — daredevil climbers who set out to scale the North Face of Switzerland's Eiger Peak, also known as the "Murder Wall."

Music Box Films

North Face

  • Director: Philipp Stolzl
  • Genre: Adventure
  • Running Time: 126 minutes

Not Rated

With: Benno Furmann, Florian Lukas, Ulrich Tukur, Johanna Wokalek

In the months leading up to the 1936 Olympics, the Third Reich put its propaganda machine to work: The host nation was intent on casting German athletic prowess as yet another example of Aryan superiority. And the push wasn't limited to the performance of athletes in the Games. In a newsreel that appears early in North Face, the government exhorts young German mountain climbers to test their mettle against a deadly measure: the oft-attempted but then-unconquered North Face of Switzerland's Eiger peak.

Still, North Face is only marginally about German prewar politics, a fact hinted at when the two men who will attempt the climb, riding their bikes out of town on the way to scale some other mountain, respond to fellow soldiers' staunch "Heil Hitler" salutes with blithe goodbye waves. These expert mountaineers don't care much for soldiering, and no matter what the newsreels or the newspapers say, Toni Kurz (Benno Furmann) and Andi Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas) climb for reasons that have little to do with nationalism — reasons that the film attempts somewhat clumsily to articulate in words. North Face is far more successful conveying those inspirations with stunning images of these men scaling daunting heights.

Still, director Phillip Stolzl and the screenwriters who collaborated with him on the script know they can't ignore the political conditions that helped put these men on Eiger's treacherous "Murder Wall" at this particular time. With the rush to solve Eiger's North Face suddenly a matter of national pride for athletes across Europe, Toni and Andi are forced to make the attempt now, or risk not being the first to the top of a mountain they know they can best. It's the nationalist newspaperman Henry Arau (an appropriately sleazy Ulrich Tukur) who seeks to make them into a Nazi cause celebre. He does so with the somewhat reluctant assistance of a young photographer, Luise (Johanna Wokalek), who also happens to be a childhood friend of the pair and an old flame of Toni's.

Florian Lukas, Benno Furmann, Simon Schwarz and Georg Friedrich i i

hide captionThe July 1936 ascent of Eiger, located in the Bernese Alps in Switzerland, came just a year after two other German mountaineers froze to death at its peak.

Music Box Films
Florian Lukas, Benno Furmann, Simon Schwarz and Georg Friedrich

The July 1936 ascent of Eiger, located in the Bernese Alps in Switzerland, came just a year after two other German mountaineers froze to death at its peak.

Music Box Films

Stolzl knows his audience is primarily there to witness a high-wire act performed without a net, thousands of feet above the ground, and with that in mind, he gives over the lion's share of the film's running time to breathtaking footage of Toni and Andi — along with the two Austrian climbers who are their main competition — clinging to that unforgiving wall, enduring rock slides, avalanches, frostbite and the gawking eyes of the leisure classes watching them from far below.

The film's political and romantic subplots take place largely among the gathered media and amid the high-society decadence in the village in Eiger's shadow; if those subsidiary stories sometimes feel slightly shallow and dashed-off, it's only because Stolzl is in a hurry to get back to the life-and-death drama unfolding on the mountain. And because the audience wants to be back there, too, it's an easy failing to forgive.

Using the classic German mountaineering films of the '20s and '30s as inspiration, cinematographer Kolja Brandt shoots visceral climbing footage that stops just short of documentary realism, yet retains a heart-pounding immediacy. Seamlessly combining footage actually captured on Eiger with remarkably realistic studio work, North Face is a consistently thrilling, vertigo-inducing piece of cinema that celebrates the staggering talent and fearlessness of these climbers — peak athletes, performing under some of the most difficult conditions imaginable.

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