Directed by Philipp Stölzl
North Face is a surprisingly good action film disguised as a throwaway middlebrow import dumped into Manhattan art houses during January's annual pre-Oscar black hole. Breathe in the air: Philipp Stölzl's based-on-a-true-story debut feature, an uneven but often thrilling nail-biter, concerns a doomed mountaineering expedition undertaken three weeks before the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
Two Bavarians and their archrivals, two Austrians, attempt a simultaneous ascent of the Eiger, a vertical Swiss peak referred to by the Reich, ominously, as the "last problem of the Alps" and by the climbers themselves as the "Murder Wall." Eventually, of necessity, these four men will have to work together to survive. No wonder Hitler's propagandists and the state media, watching this feat from the shelter of a four-star hotel at the Eiger's base, are eager to exploit the climbers. Stölzl portrays these sweet country bumpkins as bronzed Aryan gods—handsome, intelligent, blondish and borderline mad. (He also portrays them as apolitical, even though they've grown up in a hotbed region of Nazism, but whatever.)
The race to the top—which due to nasty weather soon becomes a race to the bottom—oozes suspense, but Stölzl keeps interrupting the high drama of the ascent with a Titantic-derived combination stupid love story and frame narrative. Still, the climbing scenes are positively gorgeous—many of them shot on location in the Alps by former Italian TV newsman Kolja Brandt. Favoring close-ups over vistas, Brandt's camera schools us in the logistics of high-altitude mountaineering, the little things that can keep a man alive.
Opens January 29