North Face opens Friday in select theaters (see times below)
North Face is a German mountain-climbing drama based on a true story about two best friends, Toni (Benno Fürmann) and Andreas (Florian Lukas). The year is 1936, and these two want to scale the Eiger, a peak of the Swiss Alps that no one had ever climbed via the Nordwand, or north face. Part conventional sports drama, part Nazi apologia, the debut effort of music video director Philipp Stölzl is intermittently successful and entertaining.
Perhaps surprisingly, the better bits of North Face take place on the ground. Coaxed by Nazi propagandists and the promise of worldwide fame, a gaggle of rough mountain men gather at the foot of the alpine tower in the beginning of the film, staking out their planned routes up the foreboding north face of the mountain. Watching them gather, taunt each other and huddle around campfires lamenting their cruddy dinners has elements of great caravan westerns like Bend of the River and sports dramas like Downhill Racer.
Once Toni and Andreas get moving upward, North Face goes south. While it's impossible not to get involved in the life-threatening journey of Toni and Andreas up the mountain, the compositions of the film are woefully ineffective. Stölzl shoots in an unfortunate widescreen, which flattens imagery that should be heightened. The mountaineering scenes would work much better in the old-fashioned academy (1:1.33 aspect ratio, also called 4:3) frame, which allows images to run vertical, something that wider aspect ratios (1:1.78, commonly called 16:9; and 1:2.35, also called CinemaScope or anamorphic) conclusively prohibit. While it's not conventional, and surely many studios and financiers might nix the possibility, it's not unheard of for modern-day filmmakers to shoot in academy. Stanley Kubrick used it throughout his career (including his last film, Eyes Wide Shut), and Gus Van Sant continues to work in the squarish frame.
This framing problem does not hurt the scenes on the ground. While Toni and Andreas attempt to summit the Eiger, an unofficial summit of reporters takes place in the hotel that's located at the base of the mountain, where journalists have gathered to cover the climb. In a storyline that dovetails quite nicely with the journey up the mountain, we follow a successful journalist from a German paper and his photographer, Luise, as they track the journey of Toni and Andreas—who, by the way, happen to be childhood friends of Luise—with the telescopes provided on the hotel deck.
Because the climbing scenes are basically a bust, the success of North Face depends almost entirely on the arc of Luise's character and the actress who plays her. Johanna Wokalek, so sexy and dangerous in The Baader Meinhof Complex, buttons herself into the role of Luise, a dowdy (if persistent and ambitious) aspiring photographer. Wokalek's role offers plenty in the beginning as she asserts herself to chase her first big story. But the script shortchanges her in the last act of the film, when Luise rejects her journalistic assignment as exploitative (the most confusing element of Luise's story is the way the film equates journalism with Nazism) and becomes a woman in waiting, hoping for the safe return of Toni, whom she's in love with.
This element of the narrative is merely unfortunate and conventional on paper, but it's gag-inducing when you see Wokalek, a dynamic actor with astounding transformative ability, forced to settle for it. (By the way, Triangle viewers were criminally deprived of a theatrical release of The Baader Meinhof Complex and should take note that the DVD comes out March 30.)
But to end this review at the beginning of the film, before we ever get to Switzerland and the mountain, we meet Toni and Andreas in Germany cleaning latrines at a Nazi military base and mouthing off to their superiors. When they leave the base and the guards on duty raise their arms in a "Heil Hitler" salute, Toni and Andreas only hold their hands up high enough to say bye. "See," the movie stage-whispers to us, "these guys aren't real Nazis. They're just climbing enthusiasts who happen to try to scale the mountain that the Nazi Party wants some Germans to tackle in the name of Aryan superiority." Stölzl, working from a script he co-wrote, continues to sprinkle in little moments like these that attempt to soften this queasy aspect of the story.
Suffice it to say that apologizing for the story you're telling doesn't make for a very confident film. While a movie like Das Boot makes some similar mistakes, too often backing out of showing the swastika that its protagonists are fighting for, that film is self-conscious about the Nazism of its characters, and it purposely lets fascism haunt the story and unsettle the viewer. In North Face, we are told to ignore it, which is pedantic at best, repugnant at worst. Stölzl is surely not an active Nazi apologist, but he doesn't have a good enough grasp of film grammar to prevent his film from servicing such a repugnant viewpoint.