Rent: A Movie About Nazis and Mountain-Climbing
The supremely entertaining German film North Face debuted Tuesday on DVD, Blu-ray, and Netflix Watch Instantly. It is not, as its English title suggests, a polar-fleece-origin-story advertorial, but a period mountaineering adventure—Nordwand is the considerably more majestic German-language title—that dabbles in rise-of-Nazism portents. With its intrusive orchestral score and lines like "Step aside! Get your own magic eyepiece!" North Face doesn't brook subtlety, but then again neither does Mother Nature. The elements are particularly uninviting on the titular route to the top of the Eiger, in the mid-1930s considered the baddest stretch of berg in the Alps.
Director Phillip Stölzl's based-on-a-true-story film follows two cocky boyhood friends, Toni Kurz (Benno Fürmann) and Andi Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas), as they attempt to scale the so-called Murder Wall as part of a 1936 competition. At a swanky hotel at the base of the mountain are newspaperman Arau (Ulrich Tukur) and his photo-snapping assistant, Luise (Johanna Wokalek), who grew up with Toni and Andi, and who is in love with the former. What she's doing covering the exploits of her longtime friends is a little bit puzzling, but journalistic objectivity is of little consequence when you're dealing with a massive storm-engorged rock face and, of course, the rise of National Socialism. Wokalek admirably plays green but ambitious, but what really matters here are the lengths to which her character goes for love: She walks seven and a half kilometers inside a mountain (it's along railway track, but still) and takes up any perilous Eiger perch that allows her to be within shouting distance of Toni.
Luise's boss, Arau, is the film's most rabid Nazi, a man whose cutthroat reporting philosophy appears to have informed his entire worldview, to which Aryan chest-pounding is central. When, sensing he's lost his story, Arau plans to leave Switzerland while mountainside danger is still afoot and Luise is more distraught than ever, a fellow hotel guest pleads, "Are you not also human?" Of course, the answer, as it would have been in last year's The White Ribbon, in which Tukur played the presiding Baron, is an emphatic "No."
The soft-spoken, mostly apolitical Toni nonetheless looks extremely uncomfortable when Arau—who earlier speaks of "the German conqueror manifested in the battle against the mountain"—attempts over dinner to extend this athletic-political line of thinking; early on Andi pointedly refuses to return a "Heil Hitler" from a fellow mountaineer. The climbers' apparent distaste for these Nazi attempts to co-opt their physical feats for propaganda purposes do not constitute resistance so much as a nod of permission from the screenwriters to the audience: You can root for these heroes because they harbor no fascist inclinations. North Face's screenplay credits—Stölzl, Christoph Silber, Rupert Henning, and Johannes Naber are all listed as writers; Benedikt Roeskau gets the sole story credit—might help explain why this Nazi-snubbing is so transparent a device.
The primary drama here, though, involves a rescue mission--scaling down the icy crag rather than continuing up it. Toni and Andi help their endangered Austrian competition—Edi Rainier (Georg Friedrich) and Willy Angerer (Simon Schwarz), who becomes progressively crazier after getting hit in the head by a rock early on in the film—rappel down the mountain. Needless to say, they don't have an easy time of it. Weathered faces become fully frostbitten, and various appendages slam against the rock.
With its perfunctory attempts to show how Nazism gained traction in the public imagination (thesis: the media titans were early adopters! and they were actively seeking out stories through which they could sell their toxic ideas!) and all its deadly serious talk of ropes and pilons and crampons and bivouacs, North Face has a certain camp value. But it's also hugely suspenseful. And its vertiginous rock-scapes, photographed by Kolja Brandt, breathtakingly evoke peril and awe in equal measure. (Here's a movie I'd actually like to see in IMAX 3-D.) The film's many nighttime scenes may turn into indecipherable pixel patches when streamed instantly, but North Face is a cliffhanger of solid enough construction to weather any home-viewing format.