No, this isn’t a documentary about The North Face, the high-end sportswear store that has become the life-blood of the upper middle class. Instead, it’s about a disastrous climbing attempt of the Eiger Mountain. It’s a good film, and worth seeing if interested, but for those who are in search of popcorn entertainment, Martin Campbell’s 2000 film, “Vertical Limit” is a better choice.
The film is divided into two parts. The first half introduces us to the characters, Toni Kurz (Benno Furmann) and Andi Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas). They are lifelong friends, and expert climbers. Also in the mix is Luise Feller (Johanna Wokalek), the childhood friend of the two men (who is secretly in love with Toni), and her weaselly editor, Henry (Ulrich Tukur). This part is interesting, but painfully slow moving. However, the film is ultimately redeemed by the suspenseful final hour, which details the climb. Bad injuries and worse decisions turn a publicity event for Nazi Germany into a hellish fight for survival.
Acting-wise, the film is on solid ground, but no one really lights up the screen. The actors do their jobs and generate sympathy for the characters, but that’s it. Director Philip Stolzl keeps the characters at a great distance, which is almost never a good idea. We need to see them as individuals, not as pawns in a script, in order for us to generate any real sympathy for them. Tukur is probably the best of the lot as the jerk editor whose interest in the mens’ fate is limited to the financial viability of the outcome. He’s a tabloid journalist ahead of his time.
Stolzl does some interesting things with his characters. For example, during the climb, Toni and Andi are neck and neck with their Belgian competitors, but when things start to go wrong, they help each other out. Additionally, the romance between Toni and Luise is very understated (even compared to everything else in the film; contrast that with how romances are done in the US). Using Nazis as protagonists always puts a film on shaky ground, but Stolzl deftly handles it by only having Henry acknowledge it. Since Henry is an intentionally unlikable person, his comments about “Nazi pride” come across as foolish and filled with hubris.
Whatever flaws Stolzl may have with character development, they don’t interfere with his imagining of the climbing expedition. For the last hour, the film is consistently suspenseful, using skillful cinematography (credited to Kolja Brandt) and energetic camera angles. It is also refreshing to see an action movie that doesn’t violently shake the camera in a desperate attempt to generate excitement.
This is one of those films that is on the line between “see it” and “don’t see it.” The first hour is adequate, but relatively uneventful, while the final hour is exciting. If interested, check it out, but it’s not a must-see. It should also be noted that this film is in German with subtitles (which sadly spells “avoid” in bright neon letters for many filmgoers).