Fact 1: Movie theaters are cold.
Fact 2: Philipp Stölzl’s “North Face” gives Fact 1 a new meaning — it is impossible to ignore the feeling that your blood temperature, too, is lowering to an alarming degree.
This film beautifully depicts the fight of four climbers to survive while trying to descend the 3970-meter Eiger peak in the Swiss Alps after failing to reach its top, and it has “Titanic” potential for making you tear up. And the film really puts you in their boots: clad in ’30s mountaineering gear, you can almost feel the icy rock face numbing your hands as the Most Intense Blizzard Ever (MIBE) threatens to kill you in at least 15 different ways.
The subplots may be crippled and ultimately unnecessary, but “North Face” wins simply because the point of the movie is not reaching the summit.
Based on a true story, the film asks you to sit and witness the slow demise of four people, and recalls the 1936 attempt of two German climbers, Toni Kurz (Benno Fürmann) and Andi Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas), to scale the Eiger’s then unconquered “Nordwand” (north wall).
Preceding the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, the climbing of the wall, a.k.a. “the last problem of Europe,” would have been the perfect propaganda piece for the ruling Nazi regime. Admittedly, it is a little weird, but mainly refreshing to see swastikas all over the place in a non-holocaust movie.
Kurz and Hinterstoisser are portrayed as the opponents of Austrians Willy Angerer (Simon Schwarz) and Edi Rainer (Georg Friedrich) in the race for world recognition. Such rivalry did not exist in reality — the four climbers were part of a single team. But this evidently conscious adaptation only adds excitement to the plot.
The German pair, enlisted in the army, are introduced cleaning latrines. Hinterstoisser is obsessed with being the first one to defeat the toughest side of the Eiger, but Kurz disapproves — two talented alpinists had recently died in their attempt.
From Berlin, newspaper editor Henry Arau (Ulrich Tukur) knows there is a story in the Alps. Luise Fellner (Johanna Wokalek), close friend of Kurz and Hinterstoisser and journalist wannabe, is sent to persuade the German duo. Then Kurz, victim of a lame love subplot with Fellner, succumbs, and the climbing begins.
There is drama and there is adventure, yet “North Face” is more about a (slowly built) tension that only reaches a disconsolate, frustrating zenith after the climbers abandon their mission and decide to descend together — misery ensues. Trapped in the near-vertical, deadly north face of the Eiger, everything goes wrong as soon as the MIBE strikes.
Pain: a climber is left to handle his ropes with a bare hand after losing a glove.
Madness: the climber that previously got hit in the head after a rockslide becomes delirious.
Frostbite: a third climber realizes he can no longer feel his left arm.
Agony: equipment is lost and pitons become loose.
Setting and story aside, the real reason to see “North Face” is for the masterful cocktail of emotions that nobody wants to feel.
And the cold.