The mountain climbing genre has its fair share of examples, from “The Eiger Sanction” to “Vertical Limit” to the over the top “Cliffhanger.” There is a trifecta of innate occurrences in this particular genre. First off is the natural element of danger in these films as height and weather are the protagonists worst enemies. Also, inevitably there is always a man vs nature subtext whether it’s intended (forced) or not. Last, the geographical locations lend to some superb and breathtaking cinematography. Philipp Stolzl’s 2008 film “North Face” employs all three of those elements gloriously and it is further bolstered by the fact that it deeply rooted in historical fact.
Set in 1936, as the Olympics are closing in, the Nazis’ are looking to make a national statement by hoping to find two climbers to conquer The Eiger, the steepest north face of the Bernese Alps in Switzerland. Toni Kurz (Benno Furmann) and his climbing partner Andi Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas) are two of the most prominent climbers in the Germany. They have known each other since childhood and they share a love of mountain climbing. When they get time off while serving in the German Army they climb wherever they can. Their other childhood friend Luise Fellner (Johanna Wokalek) is working at the paper who is trying to make this story happen. It is her connection that leads her friends to be invited to climb The Eiger. Upon their arrival at the base of the mountain, they see other various twosomes camped out as well hoping that they can lead their respective countries to victory. As the climbers ascend the Eiger, circumstances arise that make the journey nearly impossible.
The film begins with some very authentic looking old time newsreel footage of the mountain and its history. This establishes the importance countries felt to make this a national goal that would be historical and imperative hopefully showing who the more dominant country is. After that we are introduced to Kurz and Hinterstoisser as they are scale a rock face. This early rock climbing scene shows off some impressive set work as well as some thrilling moments and it a good base for what is to come. Even though the pair are best of friends they do share some differences. Hinterstoisser does get caught up in the glory and fame of potentially winning the Eiger competition while Kurz only feels he needs to prove his climbing skills to himself. There is nice scene at the base of the mountain involving a conversation the pair has with two other climbers. There is a lot of pride talk and the feeling that the success of whoever wins will have a major effect on the war and their country’s place in the world.
The construction of various scenes shows a lot of juxtaposition of the climbers and the reporters and big wigs down below watching them. There are many cuts of the climbers enduring the brutal weather with the others down in the main lodge below are drinking and hanging inside near warm fires. You get a clear sense of the disparity between the people who are actually doing the work and the people that want to report the news and get credit for it. Love is a central theme, love of climbing, love of a nation and a love between two people. The relationship aspect involving Luise and Toni was included in the story to heighten the emotional stakes and as it is a nice add on, however it is not essential to the story as the drama that unfolds on the mountain is plenty enough.
Music Box presents “North Face” in 2.35:1 using a 1080P AVC encode. As is customary when dealing with gritty, historical wartime pieces the color palette has been mostly drained, leaving a grayish sheen over the production. However, this works greatly to its advantage when melding the green screen effects with the actual film footage. When color does show up, it has a clear vibrancy which stands out nicely. Detail and clarity is impressive especially in close ups and establishing shots. There is quite a bit of shambolic weather involving snow and fog which adds natural grain to the picture however there is no crushing or image loss during these parts. It is all terrific looking.
The 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is as active as it gets. It begins subtly but from when the climbers get to the base of the mountain there is some explosive weather that envelops all the speakers. An early raucous thunderstorm shows off great fidelity and bass and a later storm on the mountains is full of wind and snow lashing and rocks tumbling prioritized into specific speakers creating an enveloping experience. As far as subtitles go, they are mostly legible until some of the snowier scenes make a little tougher to read.
First is a 15 minutes look at the “Making of North Face” in which Stolzl goes into the history of German’s past with making mountain climbing movies that were extremely popular in the 20s and 30s. Additionally he talks about fictional story points added to help deepen the already profound subject matter such as the female element. Next up is the “Visual Effects of North Face” which has no dialogue and uses music showing particular camera shots unaltered with the green screen behind it and then as the action is unfolding, it wipes showing the finished shot with the theatrical image. After watching this extra, I found out that I was tricked nearly every time it was used. There are several “Deleted Scenes” which all play out when you select the feature with no explanation. And last is the theatrical trailer in high definition.
“North Face” stands proudly on the summit of great mountain climbing movies. Alongside the fantastic green screen blending creating a vertigo inducing experience, the story jointly shows personal and national perspectives. The romance part of the story seems a little shoehorned for emotional reasons but it is not a hindrance. Both audio and video are marvelous and the extras are slim but interesting. Comes highly recommended to genre enthusiasts and a rental for others.