Monday, January 20, 2014

The Pitiless Wall

In 1938, a German and Austrian team scaled the formidable north face of Switzerland's Eiger ("ogre") Mountain for the first time. 2008's North Face (Nordwand) is not about that historic climb but rather about one of the many failed attempts at climbing Eiger's north face, a 1936 attempt by two Germans and two Austrians. It's a grand, somewhat subversive movie about cold, meaningless failure.

The two German climbers were Toni Kurz (Benno Furmann) and Andi Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas). The movie unwisely invents a love interest for Toni, a young newspaper photographer named Luise (Johanna Wokalek). Her boss at the paper, Arau (Ulrich Tukur), is working to push Nazi propaganda about German racial superiority and so he sends Luise back to her home town of Berchtesgaden in the hopes she can convince Toni and Andi to climb Eiger. In the movie version of events, the three grew up together in Berchtesgaden.

Andi's established as being the more youthful, reckless, and motivated by the esteem of others. Toni is quieter, prudent, and established as being less influenced by promise of prestige. Both German climbers come off better than the somewhat broad and cartoonish Austrian climbers they're eventually forced to team up with. The movie somewhat unwisely lays much of the blame for the failure of the attempt on the selfish and short sighted actions of the Austrians.

I've heard there was some controversy about the film in Germany, that people were uncomfortable about a movie set in the 1930s, about presumably loyal citizens of the Third Reich, without being overtly critical of the Nazis. But I think one could argue Toni's point of view, which sees him mountain climbing seemingly out of a strong, personal love for life and nature rather than to compete or to diminish others by contrast, as fundamentally opposed to the Nazi philosophy. And as such, the movie conveys by contrast, manifested particularly in Arau, the very human motives that built the Nazi Party. The team's failure to live up to the athletic ideal, to be the German heroes the newspaper wanted them to be, shows up the hollowness of not just Nazi vainglory but self aggrandising ambition of any kind.

As I said (and apparently Roger Ebert held the same view), the introduction of a romantic interest was unwise. Particularly in the climax of the film which portrays the incredible circumstances at the end of the climbers' adventure with considerable accuracy--a fact which surprised me because what transpires is a series of incredibly unlikely and traumatic events. But the film, in adding Luise wandering onto a ledge on the North Face without any equipment to shout through the wind and communicate with her beloved somewhat diminishes the impact particularly considering, as Roger Ebert pointed out, "the reputed lovers got along perfectly well apart for 10 years."

The movie has some absolutely stunning location footage of the actual Eiger and surrounding countryside without reliance on cgi.

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