Nothing is quite as scary as nature. Villains and monsters have some sort of motivation, or at least a hunger. They can be distracted or delayed. But the north face of the Eiger mountain and the weather around it has no agenda and shows no mercy. It simply is the environment that it is. Its blizzards can emerge out of the calmest, sunniest weather, and if you're unfortunate and/or foolish enough to be caught climbing when one hits, you'll be lucky if you merely brush with death.
North Face (Nordwand in its original German title) portrays mountaineers Toni Kurz (Benno Fürmann) and Andreas Hinterstoisser's (Florian Lukas) disastrous attempt to climb one of the most treacherous faces of the Alps in 1936. It is a marvelously stressful, nerve-racking, harrowing portrayal of men clinging onto life.
The documentary Touching the Void proved that the experience of mountain-climbing survival could bolster a feature-length film on its own, but North Face, to its credit and its detriment, aims for a much deeper examination of love, friendship and politics. While the complex series of factors motivating and discouraging the characters is fascinating, the film at times feels like it's trying to do too much. It's a romance, it's a political commentary, it's an action film, it's a study in ambition and folly, and it's a bit misshapen. The romance, for example, never reaches the kind of deeply personal connection that would make the film's conclusion truly devastating.
The film tells the story through the eyes of Luise (Johanna Wokalek), Toni and Andreas's childhood friend who learned to climbed with. Of course, it wouldn't be a movie if she didn't have a thing going on with one of them, and the sexual tension is palpable between her and Toni, the stern, less fun-loving of the men. Luise now works as an assistant at a newspaper in the city, and as her paper searches for a pair to make the climb, she sees her opportunity to take a step up in her career and travels back to her town to see if they're interested. While the pair initially turn her down because Toni thinks it's too dangerous, they have a change of heart and pretty soon all parties involved are up in the Alps, the climbers in a dingy camp at the foot of the hill, everyone else in a nearby posh resort where they can observe the action with telescopes by day and eat fancy meals by night.
Luise travels there to assist her editor Henry (Ulrich Tukur), a smarmy, opportunistic Nazi supporter who isn't so much a journalist as a propagandist. His paper operates at the service of the Third Reich, promoting the idea of Aryan and German superiority. The masterminds in the government want Germans to gain the first ascent of the Eiger as a sort of prologue to the Olympics.
The characters' political leanings aren't entirely convincing. They feel like an obvious ploy to put the audience's sympathies in the right place. Our two heroes aren't interested in the politics, and even though they serve in the army--mostly just cleaning toilets for missing curfew--they never perform a Nazi salute. The whole thing is a joke to them. Meanwhile, their Austrian rivals are enthusiastic supporters of their country's union with Nazi Germany.
But while certain story components feel forced, the mountain expedition is beautifully, horrifyingly shot. The film is largely a story of how little happenings hugely affect the exhibition's fortunes. If X and Y hadn't happened, it would've gone off without a hitch, and if they'd decided against Z, they would have made things significantly easier on themselves. For example, the rival Austrians who decide to follow the route Toni and Andreas devised eventually join them, with major consequences. As we watch the characters struggle through desperate situations, we can't help but reflect on how things might have resulted differently, whether ruthless, cold decisions might have worked out better than charitable ones. But the north face of cares naught about intentions or motivations, and its storms and avalanches move through regardless of whether anyone's around or not.