Once in a while a film comes around that is so challenging to make and the subject so difficult to capture on film that the mere fact the movie is made at all could be considered a triumph. But that being said, if the film is also completely captivating, tells a moving story and makes you believe that you are watching real events unfold in real-time, then you really have achieved something amazing on film. North Face is one of those movies, a triumph in acting, directing and story. What makes this film even more exceptional is the fact that it is based on a true story about four mountain climbers who attempt to climb the Eiger north face and the filmmakers were able to recreate that (without a body count) to pinpoint perfection. You can actually feel the cold air in the theater while you watch the frozen breath come off the character's mouths. With every step up the mountain you are completely enthralled with the characters' journey and are on pins and needles waiting to see what happens next.
Amongst the drama of the climb itself is a fascinating B-story about a childhood love of one of the German climbers, now a young reporter covering the event. Her relentless pursuit to see the man she loves return home from the climb allows the audience to relate to what she is going through and watch the events of the film unfold through her eyes. It is the heart of this film. Another fascinating character to watch is the reporter's boss who is more interested in drinking, making passes at her and getting a "good story" for Germany than he is at seeing the men return safely down the mountain. But it is the exchanges between the climbers and their journey up the mountain that makes this film special. Watching what the human spirit is capable of in the face of death. How these men try to survive under great odds is remarkable to watch and you will be heartbroken by the results. The level of friendship that is exhibited by the German climbers on the mountain is extraordinary, as is the breathtaking way that the extraordinary climbing scenes were shot.
The film begins by introducing us to German climbing team, Toni Kurz (Benno Furmann) and Andi Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas), while they are successfully climbing a mountain. Once at the top we can see the joy the two men take from being on top of the world as Andi smokes a cigarette and Toni writes in his journal while they both stare at the beautiful landscape. Toni and Andi are in the German military and seem to care about nothing except climbing, something that annoys their superiors. We are then introduced to a young girl named Luise Fellner played adorably by Johanna Wokalek. Luise lives in Berlin and works at the Newspaper there as an assistant photographer but dreams of being a real photojournalist some day. Soon, Nazi propaganda begins to urge German mountain climbers to conquer the unclimbed north face of the Swiss massif, Eiger, often referred to as the Murder Wall before a climber from any other country can. This is in 1936 just before Hitler declared war on the world, which eventually became WWII.
Luise overhears her boss, Henry Arau played excellently by Ulrich Tukur, discussing the challenge and how desperate Germany is to get strong climbers who can defeat the competition and get to the top first. Luise recommends her childhood friends, Toni and Andi, who all grew up in the same small town together. Henry thinks this is a wonderful idea and sends Luise on her first assignment, to persuade Toni and Andi to compete. Luise arrives home and is welcomed back by Andi but receives the cold shoulder from Toni. It becomes apparent that Toni and Luise had a relationship of some kind at one point and clearly still love each other. Luise tells the boys of her intentions and while Andi is excited to compete, Toni turns it down as he claims to only climb for himself and no one else. Disappointed that she could not complete her task, Henry invites Luise along to Switzerland with him to cover the climbing event. However, Toni has a change of heart and he and Andi ride their bicycles to the base camp at Eiger.
Delighted to see her friends arrive Luise begins chronicling the event with Henry as the climbers wait for clear weather to begin their climb. After continuously denying Henry's advances Luise starts to realize that she still harbors feelings for Toni. One night Toni goes to Luise's room and asks her to hold on to his journal incase he doesn't make it back. She is shocked that he would not take it with him but he says that he wants a record of his existence incase he doesn't make it back. After sharing a lasting kiss, Toni returns to base camp, gathers Andi and they begin their adventure. After a short amount of time Andi and Toni, along with two Austrian climbers, become the only men left on the mountain and are forced to work together in order to survive. With tragedy after tragedy occurring, the weather only getting worse and one of the Austrians badly injured, the men have no choice but to head back down the mountain before they can reach the summit. With Luise desperately waiting for Toni's return, she does everything in her power to help save him. But the journey down the mountain will be more difficult then the climb up for these men. What ultimately follows is a test of the human spirit to survive and of the human heart's capacity to love.
All the acting in the film is top-notch especially the four leads, Benno Furman, Florian Lukas, Johanna Wokalek and Ulrich Tukur. Furman is especially good as Toni, playing it quit and strong in the beginning but bringing the appropriate emotion in the end. Lukas played Andi with a playful boyish charm, which makes his sacrifice later in the film that much more compelling. Tukur possess a particular kind of pompousness that makes his character of Henry both reviled and intriguing at the same time. But it the excellent Wokalek that really shines allowing the audience to feel her excitement and concern for her friends during the competition. It is because of her that we really feel the pain of the tragedy that happens by the end of the film. Director Philipp Stolzl deserves much credit for delivering such a captivating and moving film, which is based on a true story. His ability to capture the attempted climb on film in such a dramatic and thrilling way is truly admirable, especially considering the harsh environments that he and his crew had to work in. North Face is a fascinating movie that will completely transport you to another place and time. I think, in the end, if you give this movie a chance you will be surprised at how captivating it is and how invested in the story of these German mountain climbers you become ... I certainly was.