Germany’s mountain film, or bergfilme, gets a semisuccessful modern update with North Face, which focuses on a failed, purportedly factual 1936 ascent of Switzerland’s treacherous Eiger peak by alpinists Toni Kurz (Frmann) and Andi Hinterstoisser (Lukas). The movie features an abundance of melodramatic, emotion-stoking cues, most of them courtesy of Toni’s old flame Luise (Wokalek), who’s not about to let the mountain take her man. But it’s also colored, detrimentally so, by 20/20 historical hindsight.
Cleverly playing on the genre’s propagandistic ties to the Third Reich, the film reflects the tragic arc of National Socialism in each ominous crevasse and in every grandiloquent gesture. Yet all the retroactively enlightened symbolism gets monotonous, and reaches an absurd apex with the introduction of a party-line newspaperman played by that scowling emblem of Teutonic depravity, Ulrich Tukur (see also The White Ribbon).
Yet the visual splendor—a seamless mix of practical locations and refrigerated studio sets—cannot be denied. Avatar’s swoop-’n’-slide digital fakery has nothing on the vertigo-inducing set pieces cooked up by director Philipp Stlzl and cinematographer Kolja Brandt. These range from the tried-and-true (those faulty carabiners are Pavlovian suspense generators) to the poetically inspired (a go-for-broke rescue mission is filmed to evoke Toni’s literal tethering to the heavens). And never doubt the ability of creakily frostbitten fingers to elicit an empathetic spine shiver—or a “Damn, son!” face crinkle. Indeed, it’s easy to ignore North Face’s ill-conceived sociopolitical allegory whenever the mountain, a truly merciless antagonist, takes center stage.—Keith Uhlich
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