To call mountain climbing a sport is to ignore to what extreme degree it stands for human achievement at its greatest. It is the ultimate reward for endurance and the conquest not only of nature but of self. All sorts of metaphors can be found in pushing one’s body and soul to their absolute limits in that quest for the summit. In “North Face,” the German film by Philipp Stölzl, someone says that the mountain seen from the bottom seems impossible to climb and from the top shows you a different you and a different world, not only because of the reversed point of view. You have gone beyond your fears and your physical limitations to reach the top of the world. No wonder then that periodically we find ourselves shivering on the edge of our seat watching one of these terribly gripping mountain-climbing dramas. The model of the genre would be the 2004 “Touching the Void” based on an incredible actual story. An unending string of other films, either regular features or made-for-TV releases, starring mainly Everest, constantly reminds us of the permanence of this dream.
“North Face,” also based on a true event, describes the harrowing ascent of a Swiss Alp summit, the Eiger or ogre, in 1936. That, remember, was the year the Olympics were held in Berlin, an event that the infamous and gifted Leni Riefenstahl immortalized in the film “The Triumph of the Will.” In the present story, no one had, till now, scaled the Eiger to the top though the previous year climbers had died trying. Now two teams, one German and one Austrian, make the attempt. A crowd of onlookers gathers in the luxurious hotel at the foot of the mountain, equally ready to cheer a victory or witness a tragedy. The mountain is treacherous as mountains will be, the weather uncertain, moving swiftly from sunshine to snowstorm. The four climbers, in the pathetically inadequate gear of the time, go up a mountainside as steep as any wall, carve a route through ice patches, hang on ledges barely wide enough for one man, pull themselves up or, spider-like, swing across the mountainside, risking death every difficult minute. In severe conditions, the climb takes several days, with dire consequences.
Throughout, the suspense is hardly bearable. “North Face” is a thriller, no mistake about it and only the most unemotional viewer will not identify with the climbers. The contrast between the scenes showing the four men in their ferocious determination to make it to the top despite nature on a rampage and the leisurely crowd at the hotel couldn’t be harsher. Every time we think that our fingers, blackened by the terrible cold, are about to fall off, we’re allowed to catch our breath in these opulent rooms, in front of a large fireplace, with well-trained waiters pouring wine, carving roasts and cutting cake and a pianist playing the latest popular songs.
The film, magnificent visually, undoubtedly precise to the last woolen mitten and the last piton, is somewhat marred by unnecessary subplots. The first that it could have done without is a vague romance between one of the climbers and a childhood friend. The powerful ending, especially, would have stood on its own without that additional note of sentiment. The second flaw concerns the constant reference to Nazism and Hitler and what 1936 represented. We need no reminder, thank you very much, and in “North Face” at least, the menace of the Eiger far surpasses that of the monster in Berlin.