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North Face

In early February, an editorial-note preview in the New Yorker magazine misidentified Philipp Stölzl’s North Face as a documentary film. The magazine never published a review of it so probably it never had to confront the error, but the film is indeed a work of fiction, even though it chronicles a story from German history. In 1936, in the months prior to that year’s Berlin Olympics, Hitler’s Germany became focused on what seems an unrelated national obsession, but one that the German government linked to the games: making a German team the first one to conquer the dauntingly dangerous North Face of the Eiger Mountain. Hitler promised an Olympic gold medal to any men who succeeded that year. Stölzl relates the story of two young rural mountaineers, Tony Kurz and Andi Hinterstoissen (Benno Furman and Florian Lukas), whose personal pride and ambition motored their attempt on the unconquered North Face. (They biked 700 kilometers to get to the base!)

The film is most successful at capturing—and imaginatively creating where necessary—the almost unimaginable difficulties and hardships that the climb entailed; the depictions are sometimes excruciatingly pitiable. The technical cinematic achievement here is very high. The climbing shots and portrayals must be among the very most accomplished and thrilling ever made.

Stölzl has framed the climb with the side story of an uncertain romantic connection between Kurz and a girl from his village who’s helping to cover the ascent for a Berlin newspaper. What’s problematic for the filmmaking is the meaning of what’s being recreated. Neither of the men seems to have had any political ideology and an anti-fascist, after-the-fact framing isn’t very convincing. Stölzl doesn’t seem to have settled on a larger meaning to assign to this eventually very sad story of extraordinary heroism.

george sax

Watch the trailer for North Face

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