Home Video Hovel: North Face, by Chase Beck

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Toni Kurz (Benno Fürmann) and Andi Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas) are ambitious, if poor, mountain climbing enthusiasts from the south German town of Berchtesgaden. It’s 1936. the Berlin Olympics are looming and there is a lot of pressure for them to make names for themselves. The movie leads the audience to the conclusion that the only way for them to break out from their lives of desperate anonymity is to successfully scale the heretofore unscalable north face of the Eiger. This forbidding piece of ice and snow-topped rock stretches 3,000 meters above a picturesque Swiss alpine tundra. Its immense and sheer face overshadows all who come to look upon it. For years, the mountain stood as a testament to the strength and danger of the Alps. So many mountaineers attempted to climb it and died that it became known as Mordwand, the murder wall.

From the beginning of North Face there’s very little doubt that it will end in tragedy. There are two obvious giveaways: the first being that this is a true story, the second being that it involves Nazis. Most true stories, notwithstanding the miraculous outcome of The Impossible, end in tragedy. Additionally, it’s a fair bet that, whenever Germans make a movie about Nazis, any characters associated with the Nazis are doomed to suffer. It’s sort of an unforeseen, and not altogether undeserved, consequence of that whole holocaust thing. The movie makes it very clear that if Andi and Toni make it to the top of the Eiger it would be a success for the German National Socialist party, and we can’t have that can we?

For North Face, the attention to detail is impressive. Every set and prop imbues the film with a sense of time and place as well as inspiring a feeling of nostalgia for that era. The steel pitons, the canvas tents and jackets, the wool sweaters, and hemp ropes all lend a sense of realism, and thus danger, to the climbing scenes. The movie is filmed in such a way that you are there with the climbers on the face of the mountain. Director Philipp Stölzl weaves such tension into all of the climbing scenes as to have me perpetually teetering on the edge of my seat. The film surpasses its simple premise as a movie about scaling a mountain and instead serves as a vertigo-inducing reminder of the hubris of man. Perhaps no scene captures this better than the removal of the rope after the mountaineers successfully create the Hintertoisser Traverse. The camera lingers, almost sorrowfully, on the now empty carabiners and for the first time the audience begins to realize that things might not go as planned.

If I have one complaint with the film, it’s that the writers/director felt it necessary to shoehorn in a romance subplot. This character is handled with expertise and nuance and well-acted by Johanna Wokalek. But, in my opinion it is entirely extraneous to the story. While intriguing in the first acts, by the end of the film the love interest only functions to yell Toni’s name blindly into the snow-filled night, or wring her hands fretfully in the corner.

I was interested in viewing the Blu-ray transfer because I had seen the movie previously, on Netflix’s Watch Instantly streaming service. The visual quality of the main film is quite impressive. The blacks and whites of the forbidding rock ledges are displayed immaculately. I was afraid that the computer-generated and digital composite shots would become obvious at such high resolutions. When I originally viewed the film, highly compressed so as to facilitate speedy transfer over the internets, the scenes were breath-taking, even on a small screen. Backed by 1080p, the scenes are that much more powerful. Unfortunately, such high resolutions begin to show the contrivance and artificiality of some of the physical sets. The film is presented in the original German with English subtitles. This Blu-ray includes an eighteen minute “making of” that is essentially the director, several actors, and the some of the crew answering questions about the film. Also, there is a seven minute, unnarrated segment on the effects shots of North Face. There are also a few deleted scenes on the Blu-ray that did not make it into the released film. These shots are really just extended scenes and, while interesting, focus more on character development during the first act of the film.

To sum up, The visual impressiveness, acting, story and directing make North Face a worthwhile purchase especially if you enjoy period, mountain climbing tragedies…with Nazis.

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