‘North Face’: Climbing ordeals mesmerizing

  • Thu Feb 4th, 2010 4:02pm
  • Life

By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic

Possibly because I think mountain climbing is crazy and the people who do it are insane, I tend to enjoy movies about mountain climbing. Here is something I would never do, so seeing it on a screen is a safe bit of tourism.

“North Face” leaves us hanging off a sheer rock face, a story based on truth but with a lot of buttery flavoring added for movie consumption. The true story happened in 1936 on the Eiger, Switzerland’s forbidding and sometimes deadly mountain.

That year the Nazis were in power in Germany and the Olympic Games were in Berlin, which fueled the fever to have German mountaineers conquer the terrifying North Face of the Eiger for the first time.

Two German climbers, Toni Kurz (Benno Furmann) and Andi Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas), decide to make the assault. The movie implies it’s not because of their faith in Hitler’s Fatherland, but because — well, “because it’s there,” as the saying goes.

From the ground, a fledgling reporter (Johanna Wokalek) and her worldly editor (Ulrich Tukur, from “The Lives of Others”) watch the ascent. There’s a lookout opposite the Eiger where telescopes allow visitors to witness the entire climb — a strange piece of voyeurism when lives are literally hanging in the balance.

If you’ve never watched a mountain-climbing movie, be advised that avalanches, rock falls, slipped ropes and freezing nights are part of the deal. “North Face” doesn’t disappoint on that score: Once Kurz and Hinterstoisser are on their way, their progress is nail-biting, especially after two other climbers horn in on their new path.

And even if some of the material involving the reporter (whose past romance with Kurz is hinted at) feels hokey, we are whipped back to the stark surface of the mountain with regularity.

The Germans have an especially good history with mountain movies, including the early career of Hitler’s future favored director, Leni Riefenstahl. Here, filmmaker Philipp Stolzl doesn’t disappoint: The exteriors are spectacular and the crevasses are scary.

Throw in the Eastwoodlike cool of Benno Furmann (a big European star who appeared in “Speed Racer”), and you’ve got yourself a popcorn movie —yes, with an emphasis on the corn. But it’s not hard to see why the thing was a hit in Germany.