The German-made North Face, opening in limited release Friday (1/29/10), is exactly what the magic of movies is about: using the medium to transport you to a time and place you can't or wouldn't want to experience in person and giving you a risk-free front-row seat that still manages to make you feel like you're caught up in the action.
Directed by Philipp Stolzl and based on a true story, the film is about that innate need that some men (and women) have to test themselves against the natural world's most rugged challenges. In this case, it's the story of a pair of German soldiers who, in 1936, attempted to become the first men to climb the previously insurmountable north face of Switzerland's Eiger in the Bernese Alps.
The soldiers -- Toni Kurz (Benno Furmann) and Andi Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas) -- were just a couple of rural lads who, in their spare time, had developed their passion for rock-climbing and mountaineering. Indeed, as the film shows in the beginning, they're frequently in hot water with their commanding officer for casually going AWOL to polish their skills on the local peaks.
But the Eiger beckons, with the promise of glory and fame associated with being the first to reach its summit, urged on by Nazi propagandists who want a German to be the one to solve "the last problem of the Alps." Though unfunded, with only the roughest equipment at their disposal (rope, rock-climbing hammers, pitons they forged themselves), Kurz and Hinterstoisser join a crowd of would-be heroes, attracted by a promised spate of good summer weather.
Their attempt is chronicled by a jaded Berlin newspaper reporter Arau (Ulrich Tukur), who is accompanied by a novice photographer, Luise (Johanna Wokalek), who is a childhood friend of the two soldiers and has an unspoken crush on Kurz.
Stolzl gets his camera into some amazing places up on the mountainside, though one has to assume that, when events (and then the weather) turn ugly, the actors are actually on a convincing-looking soundstage somewhere. But that's something you realize intellectually; viscerally, you're right there on the mountainside with them, trapped by the mistakes of others and then by the elements.
In this case, it's another pair of climbers, Austrians who look down their noses at the less sophisticated soldiers and their minimal equipment. But it's the Austrians whose mistakes ultimately put them all in danger.
And it's Luise, who grows increasingly angry with Arau's cynicism, who watches diligently from the ski lodge below -- and then organizes the rescue party when it becomes apparent that the climbers are in trouble.
North Face is a story of both physical and mental courage and the sort of daring that banishes mortality from the mind while confronting deadly challenges. While Stolzl makes his points about the media's cynical relationship with such events (even 70-plus years ago), his real focus is on these men, the purity of their dream and the sheer guts it takes to survive when things go drastically wrong.
It's told with nail-biting gusto that will keep you clenched with suspense for the final hour. The icy tension created by this film is enough to induce frostbite.