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An Alpine Triumph of the Will

MOVIE REVIEW
North Face (2008)

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"North Face" can pass as a horror film. It takes place over a short mountain climbing expedition, which doesn't much sound like fun. There is something tall you can fall off of. There is no easy way to get up without nearly slipping and falling to your death. There are things like rocks and avalanches which can drop on you. Your ropes can cut your hands, your gloves can get lost so you get frostbite, you rest where you can without hot food or a place to lie down and you can't fall asleep so you don't freeze. Some vacation! So the drama of "North Face" is there just in the premise. But the 1936 setting means the climbers are working in the same type of clothes we all have laying around at home - one of them wears a flatcap, for pity's sake - and there is no high-tech solution to their basic problems.

The North Face in question is that of the Eiger in Switzerland, one of the jewels of the Alps. In 1936, it had yet to be successfully climbed, and two well-known Austrian climbers died in an attempt at the ascent. Their deaths and the upcoming Berlin Olympics inspired Hitler to make the ascent of the Eiger a political act, so promised a prize for the first climbers able to make their way up. Tempted by the money and the glory - this is very carefully not a political film - Germans Toni Kurz (Benno Fürmann) and Andi Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas) decide to accept the challenge. Other countries' teams drop out, leaving only the Germans and the Austrians (Simon Schwarz and Georg Friedrich) to make the attempt. Covering the story for the Berlin papers is Luise (Johanna Wokalek), Toni's childhood sweetheart for whom this is her big career break. And by the way, this is based on a true story.

By using date and time stamps as the film progresses, "North Face" builds up a very real amount of tension and immediacy as the minutes tick by and everything that can go wrong does. What's breathtaking about the film is that it was shot with a combination of climbing doubles on the real North Face and then close-ups in a studio; there is no obvious C.G.I., which makes this all the more impressive. Despite the swirling snow and the repetitive nature of a climbing film, everything is very clear - all the characters are instantly defined people, we always knew where they are on the mountain, and the exposition explaining what is going on doesn't seem forced. Nothing seems fake: not the tension or the worry in the climbers, not the appalling weather, not the contrasts between the reporters and tourists eating cake in their hotel as the climbers wait for morning on the side of the mountain. It's so raw that I really felt I was up there with them, and the press screening I attended was one of the most nervous and tense atmospheres I've felt in a while. We were all up there with them.

The relationship between Toni and Andi is carefully yet casually portrayed. They have been best friends since childhood, know each other extremely well, and yet have a patience for each other and knack for being together rare even in old married couples. Their bond is especially important once they're up on the mountain, where trust in their equipment and each other is the only way they will survive. The decisions they make regarding the Austrians are heartbreaking, and completely understandable. The end of the film is unbelievably mawkish and melodramatic, but one will be too busy trying not to cry to notice. And according to Wikipedia it's entirely accurate.

As with most Hollywood films, the woman comes along to emote while the men do the action-hero stuff, but Ms. Wokalek is so good at it, nervous and scared yet so determined, that she holds the whole film together. What's more interesting is that she had a not a flicker of similarity with her portrayal of Gudrun Ensslin, all hectoring revolutionary, from "The Baader-Meinhof Complex." Her Luise is a scared office junior, taking minutes in the corner of editorial meetings, just grateful to be there, always with her shoulders protectively hunched. Her upcoming role in next year's "Pope Joan" is something to look forward to. It's so exciting actually, seeing a film which you can tell will breakout the careers of half its cast. Mr. Fuermann had a small part in "Speed Racer," has been working steadily in German, Italian, and French productions, and should surely start getting all the parts Viggo Mortensen doesn't want any second now. For director Philipp Stölzl, this is an assured and dramatic debut - apparently a background in making music videos for Rammstein, Garbage and Evanescence among others will give you that. In all cases, this is a solid, well-crafted, emotional film, which does not need the hook of being based on a true story to be a fantastic one.

NORTH FACE

Opens on Jan. 29, 2010 in New York and on Dec. 12 in Britain.

Directed by Philipp Stölzl; written by Christoph Silber, Rupert Henning, Mr. Stölzl and Johannes Naber, based on a script by Benedikt Roeskau; director of photography, Kolja Brandt; edited by Sven Budelmann; music by Christian Kolonovits; production designer, Udo Kramer; produced by Boris Schoenfelder, Danny Krausz, Rudolf Santschi and Benjamin Herrmann; released by Music Box Films (United States) and Metrodome Distribution (Britain). In German, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 1 minute. This film is not rated.

WITH: Benno Fürmann (Toni Kurz), Johanna Wokalek (Luise Fellner), Florian Lukas (Andi Hinterstoisser), Simon Schwarz (Willy Angerer), Georg Friedrich (Edi Rainer) and Ulrich Tukur (Henry Arau).

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