There are plenty of human characters in North Face, a new German-Austrian drama opening this coming weekend at the Shattuck Cinemas. Unfortunately, none of them are particularly interesting characters, but the film does include one larger than life presence that will keep your attention throughout North Face’s two-hour running time: Switzerland’s Eiger Mountain.
Previously Clint Eastwood’s co-star in 1975’s The Eiger Sanction, the mountain soars to an imposing 13,000 feet, and its Nordwand (North Face) was long considered unassailable. That changed in 1932, when the first attempt to scale the North Face was made, but no one actually reached the summit until 1938. The film tells the true story of a failed 1936 expedition, and though the mountain climbing scenes are truly spectacular, frequently breathtaking, and occasionally vertigo inducing, it doesn’t quite gel.
Florian Lukas and Benno Furmann star as Andreas Hinterstoisser and Toni Kurz, two German soldiers goaded by the Reich into attempting the climb. There’s much talk of solving ‘the last problem of the Alps’, but the primary impetus for the attempt is to provide the world with pre-Berlin Olympiad proof of Aryan manhood’s superiority. The film sets up a race to the top between our heroes and a team from Austria, but bad luck, accidents, and a terrible snowstorm intervene, leading to tragedy on the slopes.
Other than establishing their anti-Nazi—or, less charitably, apolitical—credentials (which are pointedly contrasted with the Fuhrer-worshiping Austrian climbers), the film barely develops the characters of Hinterstoisser and Kurz. Perhaps the pair were as boring and stoic in real life as they are in North Face, but the supporting characters fare little better and are cut from similar, archetypal cloth: there’s the spunky gal pal (The Baader-Meinhof Complex’s Johanna Wokalek), the heartless newsman (Ulrich Tukur), and an overweight (and quite possibly Jewish) businessman (Erwin Steinhauer) with a ditzy wife (Petra Morze).
Director Philipp Stolzl’s apparent disinterest in his film’s characters perhaps reflects his background in music video, but it’s not North Face’s only problem. Christian Kolonovits’ score seems partly influenced by Ralph Vaughan Williams’ incomparable music for 1948’s Scott of the Antarctic, but it also reflects the baleful influence of the syrupy and bombastic compositions we normally associate with the Hollywood blockbuster. The use of subtle piton-echoing percussion during the film’s tensest moments, however, is effective and most welcome.
Ah, but the mountain is something else entirely: huge, imposing, and awe-inspiring, the Eiger shares the film’s best and lengthiest scenes with some truly awful weather. Partly shot mountainside, partly shot in a refrigerated warehouse, and wisely lensed in 2.35:1 widescreen, North Face is an astonishing technical achievement that looks incredible on the big screen. Unfortunately, its screenplay—cooked up by a team of four writers, a warning sign in itself—never helps the audience make an emotional connection with Andi and Toni, and invests too much time in dull ski-lodge scenes of dining, piano playing and telescope peering. The result is a decent entry in the man-versus-the-elements genre, but a missed opportunity for something far better.
The Shattuck Cinemas also have some Oscar treats in store for us this weekend. In addition to the East Bay premiere of Best Documentary nominee The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, the Shattuck has also programmed a full slate of Oscar-nominated live action and animated short subjects. This may be your only opportunity to see the new Wallace and Gromit film, A Matter of Loaf and Death, on the big screen, along with nine other shorts. Cracking!