North Face is pitched as a sports movie – a stirring tale of determination in the face of adversity, or a Touching the Void-style outdoors drama. It’s both of these things, but with the story of two German mountaineers struggling to be the first to conquer the notorious north face of the Eiger in 1936, director Philipp Stölzl has done something really clever. Sometime around the hour mark, you realise that what you’re actually seeing is a brilliantly shot, heart-wrenching metaphor for Germany’s descent into fascism and World War II.
It all starts so innocently. Two fresh-faced young climbers, Toni Kurz (Benno Fürmann) and Andreas Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas), have devoted their lives to scaling mountains for the fun of it, and conscription into the German army is nothing more than an unwelcome distraction from their focus. With international interest in the Eiger and, specifically, which climbing team will be the first to scale the deadly north face, mounting, pressure is put on the duo by the government and their old friend Luise (Johanna Wokalek) – now desperate for her first feature at a national newspaper (and the secret object of Toni’s affections) – for a German team to win the race. Eventually they give in to the excitement, the thirst for achievement and personal pride, and set out to reach the top.
Until the pair arrive at the mountain, North Face is a simple film in familiar territory, with the somewhat corny machinations of unrequited love and the competitive buzz of a prize waiting to be claimed that are at the heart of many a sports drama. However, once they reach the Eiger and start their ascent, the film becomes something else entirely. Instantly we’re taken to a much more serious world as the brutality of the mountain punishes the climbers as they strive ever onwards. The Eiger itself becomes the silent star of the film. It’s a beautiful, violent and malevolent bruiser that relentlessly attacks Toni, Andi and the other climbing teams as they go – cutting off their escape routes and injuring them every chance it gets. The more time the climbers spend on the Eiger, the darker the film becomes, as you start to realise that the joyous moment of celebration at the end of the film may never come, that in fact, tragedy might be just past the next ledge.
This is exactly the point where the real message in North Face is revealed. Grand notions of national pride, a triumphant victory and showing the world the indomitable spirit of the German volk fall apart in the face of savage cruelty. Toni and Andi only understand the barbaric reality of the path they have taken when it’s too late to turn back. When the damage is done and grand idealistic talk is revealed to be nothing but empty rhetoric and naïve idealism. This is an engaging and exquisitely crafted film which has more than one face to be reckoned with.
Outdoor adventure from a time when men were men.
A perfectly shot tale of naivety and revelation.
A thoughtful and uncompromising look at the danger of national pride.