The German-language mountain climbing epic paints the Swiss Alps circa 1936 its looming antagonist, quietly intercutting the narrative with restless shots of the mountain’s dark wall; alluring, beautiful, and mortally dangerous—And this is before our heroes plant so much as a single piton in its cliff.
“North Face” excels as a visceral experience, but the palpable atmosphere is played almost to a fault. Maybe it was the blasting AC unit, but I found myself zippering up my sweatshirt and pulling over the hood as the alpine ascent unfurled. Director Philipp Stölzl batters his audience with the sheer relentlessness of the frigid conditions, which makes on one hand for an uncommonly authentic portrayal, while on the other, renders the film a difficult watch. Overtaking the two plus hour running time is a feat in itself.
It doesn’t help that “North Face” is historical fiction. The true story never squeezes quite comfortably into the confines of screenplay structure, and in juking audience expectation, robs the film of its potential impact. Without giving too much away, the first half of the film is about climbing up the mountain, and the second half is about climbing back down; happy ending or no, when the credits roll, it’s tough to walk away feeling entirely satisfied.
Maybe a part of that is that we don’t get to know the characters very well. German climbing duo Toni Kurz (Benno Fürmann) and Andreas Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas) serve as our reluctant protagonists, renowned for their climbing prowess but whom must be coaxed into scaling so formidable a foe as the Eiger. They seem like two normal enough chaps—Maybe too normal. Scraps of personality are scattered across the first act, and despite a half-hearted attempt at a love interest, we never concretely understand what’s at stake for the characters on a personal level—That’s a huge hurdle to overcome in terms of caring what happens to them.
But if there’s one area in which “North Face” doesn’t disappoint, it’s in its cinematography. It’s a gorgeous film, with tremendous visual verve and an uncompromising aesthetic. Through camerawork, Stölzl portrays better than most the perilousness of the journey his heroes endeavor to undertake, underscoring the concessions made and the consequences of even the slightest misstep or equipment fault. It shows in key sequences that radiate suspense, with careful manipulation of the frame and superb audio editing.
“North Face” is not without its faults; for every technical achievement and beautifully captured moment, there seems to be an underdeveloped character or bit of perforated plot standing in its way. It’s an occasionally tense, exciting movie, though more often it’s an exercise in atmosphere, which it has in spades. From the whipping winds to the whiteout sheets of ice and snow that ceaselessly buffet Kurz and Hinterstoisser, “North Face” is a film that’s practically tangible.
Comparatively, its pacing and characters may sometimes feel uninvolving, but the most important character, the Eiger itself, is perfectly realized. And it’s one harrowing look.
"North Face" is available on DVD and Netflix instant queue.