North Face: Alpine Tragedy Becomes Harrowing Film

No, not the parkas. The fearsome north face of the Eiger became the object of National Socialist obsession during the ’30s. An Olympic gold medal was promised to its first summit party—preferably to be of good, blonde Aryan stock—and the Nazi press glorified those alpinists who tried. Though as a newspaper editor says in this dramatization of an epic, real-life attempt, “Those two don’t care about the politics,” meaning the rustic Bavarian mountaineers who quit the Wehrmacht to make the attempt—after bicycling 700 kilometers to Switzerland with their gear! Benno Fürmann and Florian Lukas play the impetuous pair. Embellishing the story is a journalist from their home village (Johanna Wokalek) to provide a love interest and tears. Climbers (myself included) who know the famous tale needn’t be warned of spoilers: Shot on location, the film is slow, realistic, and excruciating in its latter stages. The difference between a 50- and 60-meter rope is life and death. A lost mitten means debilitating frostbite. There are no helmets, GPS units, or cell phones to call for rescue. This isn’t Vertical Limit, but Touching the Void. (The train-tunnel “gallery” windows drilled through the Nordwand are also familiar from The Eiger Sanction.) Director Philipp Stölzl makes the movie a tad more political (i.e., anti-Nazi) than it needs to be, but Fürmann’s stoic performance reduces the story to its harsh, true fundamentals. Of the risks in climbing (as in life), he says, “You can be the best, but it’s still a lottery.”