Category: Eurovisions (Germany) / In category: 9 of 10 / Overall: 84 of 100
As part of my month-long Clint Eastwood fest in May I reviewed ‘The Eiger Sanction’, concluding that “for all of its earlier deficiencies, the last half hour is jaw-droppingly impressive, every frame of it shot for real. No matte backgrounds, no studio mock-ups, no compositing or special effects or trick photography. Bruce Surtees, Eastwood’s regular lensman, captures the vertiginous dangers of the Eiger, his camera appraising the treacherous slopes with an all-too-believable wariness … ‘The Eiger Sanction’ is solely about visual spectacle. And when Eastwood breaks out the pitons and the guide rope and starts climbing, the film delivers.”
I hadn’t seen ‘North Face’ when I wrote that.
The climbing sequences in ‘The Eiger Sanction’ are still pretty impressive but sweet Jesus, ‘North Face’ takes it to another level. It’s like watching ‘Cop’, a perfectly good James Ellroy adaptation with James Woods on form and a memorably blunt ending, then sliding ‘L.A. Confidential’ into the DVD player.
My interest in ‘North Face’ was piqued when I discovered that director Philipp Stölzl had made the video for Rammstein’s 1998 cover of Depeche Mode’s ‘Stripped’ – a video, compromising footage from Leni Riefenstahl’s ‘Olympus’, that was banned following accusations that it was little more than Nazi propaganda. I’d always interpreted Stölzl’s aesthetic choices as an ironic commentary on the nature of propaganda and the manipulation of the image, particularly in the way the lyric “let me hear you make decisions / without your televisions” is married to incredibly heavy-handed fascistic imagery.
Fast-forward a decade and here’s Stölzl making a film about an attempt to conquer the north face of the Eiger under the edict of the Führer. Interesting, I thought; a man once accused of Nazi propaganda making a film with a backdrop of, well, Nazi propaganda. I missed ‘North Face’ on the big screen (it played for a couple of nights at a local arthouse cinema), but picked up the DVD for £4 last week. Best £4 I’ve spent in ages!
The only character in the film who has any vaguely National Socialist leanings is newspaperman Henry Arau (Ulrich Tukur) and that’s mainly because he’s just received instructions from the press office that he needs to run a big feature on the triumph of Aryan fortitude yada yada yada in conquering the north face of the Eiger because this will be seen as an exemplar of the indefatigable German athlete yada yada yada yeah whatever at the forthcoming Olympic games.
Arau, conscious that the news of Karl Mehringer and Max Sedlmayer’s fatal attempt at finding a route to the summit, is still a part of the public consciousness (their bodies, at this point, have not been recovered) latches onto his secretary Luise Fellner (Johanna Wokalek)’s recollections of growing up in Berchtesgaden with talented climbers Toni Kurz (Benno Fürmann) and Andreas Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas). Arau, encouraging Luise’s ambitions towards photojournalism, despatches her to seek out Kurz and Hinterstoisser (currently serving in the army) and sound them out on whether they’re ready to tackle the Eiger for the greater glory of the Fatherland.
Ah, this’ll be where the Stölzl propaganda controversy comes marching in, then? Not so. Stölzl cuts to a chocolate box scene of Alpine perfection, all brightly painted buildings and cozy chalets. Nazi troops are marching in precise formation in front of a barracks. But before you can hum two bars of ‘Deutschland, Deutschland über alles’, Stölzl cuts to our heroes, on latrine duty, scrubbing out the piss-stained channel of a urinal. Their punishment, apparently, for ignoring curfew to go off for a bit of extra-curricular mountain climbing. Not that it deters them. Next pass they get, they’re off again. Cycling out of the barracks, the sentries snap the Nazi salute and chorus “Heil Hitler”; Kurz and Hinterstoisser chorus “Auf wiedersehen” by way of response.
Propaganda? None here, freunde.
Although Kurz and Hinterstoisser agreed, after some prevarication on Kurz’s part, to undertake the attempt on the Eiger, they do it for themselves not for the Party. They even quit the army in order to do so. From this point on, the Nazi propaganda background is purely that: background. As soon as our heroes start to scale the north face, all considerations of politics, history and national identity are firmly backgrounded while a tense and vertiginous drama of man vs. the elements – which segues into a drama of desperate survival when the elements very quickly prove the victor in said contest – unfolds, Stölzl documenting every harrowing moment with chilling realism.
Moreover, he reduces Arau’s sloganeering to so many pathetically empty words, cutting from Kurz and Hinterstoisser’s ordeal on the Eiger, to a bow-tied and verbose Arau holding court in the restaurant of the plush hotel he and Luise are booked into. Wine flows and fine meals are consumed, the contrast with the climbers’ meager rations as harsh and immediate as a slap in the face.
Stölzl is absolutely in control of his material. He structures the film effectively, the cuts back to the hotel always demonstrating a purpose – whether a juxtaposition or a subtle reminder, during Arau’s conversations with a pensive Austrian businessman, that events are playing out as Nazi Germany maneuvers Austria into annexation – and the battle for survival on the mountain depicted without recourse to histrionics or false heroics; depicted, authentically, as an ordeal.