The thrills and spills on the rock face are more convincing than the human drama back at the hotel during "North Face," an often grippingly staged mountain movie that's good but not great.

The thrills and spills on the rock face are more convincing than the human drama back at the hotel during “North Face,” an often grippingly staged mountain movie that’s good but not great. Pic closely follows the true story of a 1936 attempt by two Germans and two Austrians to be the first to scale the eponymous side of the Eiger, but an invented romantic subplot undercuts an otherwise tense finale. Business in German-speaking territories (and other countries with mountain cultures) should be OK for this October release; elsewhere, it will likely be more of a curio item beyond the festival circuit.

In May 1936, the Nazi Party needs Teuton heroes in the run-up to the Berlin Olympics. The previous year, two German climbers froze to death trying to scale the Eiger’s near-vertical North Face.

Luise Fellner (Johanna Wokalek), editorial secretary at the Berliner Zeitung newspaper, knows two climbers who’ve always dreamed of the challenge, so she’s dispatched by her boss, loyal Party member Henry Arau (Ulrich Tukur), to convince them to go for it. Now serving in the military cleaning latrines, Toni Kurz (Benno Fuermann) and pal Andi Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas), are surprised to see Luise — especially Toni, with whom Luise once had something going.

Desperate to grab the chance to be a writer, Luise tries to convince them to take on the North Face for the glory of the Reich, but Toni proves obdurate. “I only climb for myself,” he says, adding that, however good a climber is, the vicarious weather or sudden rock falls can always kill you.

Pair finally decides to go for it in mid-July. They’re closely pursued and later joined by grizzled Austrians Willy Angerer (Simon Schwarz) and Edi Rainer (Georg Friedrich), as Luise, along with Henry and other celebs, observe from the comfort of a hotel terrace in the valley below. Remaining 70 minutes minutely reconstruct the actual climb and its nail-biting setbacks.

Decision of the four scripters (working from an original screenplay by Benedikt Roeskau) to shuttle between the mountain face and the hotel initially seems interesting, bringing a broader social and political context to the climbers’ purely personal obsession. But the cutaways from the mountain deliver progressively fewer returns as the main drama mounts.

Still, sophomore helmer Philipp Stoelzl, a former set designer, certainly seems to know his Bergfilme — especially the classic mountain movies, such as “The White Hell of Pitz Palu,” made by Arnold Fanck and others in the 1920s and early ’30s. With d.p. Kolja Brandt convincingly blending location work in Switzerland with doubles and studio shooting, the climbing scenes have real grit, plus a chill factor that reaches deep into the viewer’s bones (with no heroics a la “Cliffhanger”). Editing by Sven Budelmann, who cut Stoelzl’s first feature, “Baby,” is trim throughout.

Pic’s sense of period is much less filmy than many others set in the ’30s, partly due to the thesps’ faces. Fuermann makes for an authentic, driven climber and bonds well with Lukas, while Schwarz and Friedrich are colorful as the manic Austrians. A good actress in her own right, and with suitably offbeat period looks, Wokalek (“Barefoot”) makes the most of her fictional character within its believable limits.

As the cynical newspaper editor, Tukur, one of Germany’s most charismatic older thesps, radiates the same dangerous bonhomie he showed as the Party higher-up in “The Lives of Others,” and animates every scene he’s in.

Tech package, including visual f/x, is of a generally high order. Score by Christian Kolonovits initially has a misterioso alpine feel (with nods to Anton Bruckner) but later becomes more conventionally dramatic-romantic.

North Face

Germany

Production

A Majestic-Filmverleih release of a Dor Film-West production, in association with MedienKontor Movie, Dor Film, Triluna Film, Majestic Filmproduktion, Lunaris Film & Fernsehproduktion, Bayerischer Rundfunk, ARD/Degeto, Schweizer Fernsehen, SRG SSR Idee Suisse. (International sales: Beta Cinema, Munich.) Produced by Danny Krausz, Boris Schoenfelder, Rudolf Santschi, Benjamin Herrmann. Directed by Philipp Stoelzl. Screenplay, Christoph Silber, Rupert Henning, Stoelzl, Johannes Naber, based on a script by Benedikt Roeskau.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Kolja Brandt; editor, Sven Budelmann; music, Christian Kolonovits; additional music, Stefan Schrupp; production designer, Udo Kramer; costume designer, Birgit Hutter; sound (Dolby Digital), Heinz Ebner; visual effects supervisors, Stefan Kessner, Max Stolzenberg; visual effects, Trugfilm Visuelle Effekte; assistant director, Andi Lang; casting, Anja Dihrberg. Reviewed at Locarno Film Festival (Piazza Grande), Aug. 8, 2008. Running time: 126 MIN.

With

Benno Fuermann, Johanna Wokalek, Florian Lukas, Simon Schwarz, Georg Friedrich, Ulrich Tukur, Erwin Steinhauser, Petra Morze, Hanspeter Mueller-Drossaart, Branko Samarovski.
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