Sport is a proxy for war in "North Face," a nerve-snapping account of German mountaineers' assault on the Eiger, an impregnable 13,000-foot spike in the Swiss Alps.
The North Face is a vertical mile considered climbing's ultimate challenge, "the last great problem of the Alps." It was finally conquered in the 1930s by a German-Austrian team whose success was touted by Nazi propagandists as proof of Aryan courage and stamina. Only climbing buffs are likely to know in advance whether the men featured in this fact-based account were the ones who mastered the mountain. For the rest of us, the suspense is too harrowing to spoil, a literal cliff-hanger.
The film puts us on the cruelly beautiful mountain alongside the climbers as they inch up treacherous limestone crags and unstable ice fields. The fear of falling is palpable. German writer/director Philipp Stölzl overloads his pack with a hokey romantic subplot, but the climbing sequences are sensational.
"North Face" opens in 1936, three years into the Nazi regime. Hitler's Berlin summer Olympics is intended to present an image of vigorous Nordic vitality to the world. So when the Bavarian team of Toni Kurz and Andi Hinterstoisser sets out to conquer the Eiger's North Face, German newspapers cover the quest with chauvinistic pride.
The climbers are modest, apolitical sportsmen who hand-forge their own pitons and conquer mountains for themselves, not the greater glory of the fatherland. We meet Toni (Benno Fürmann) and Andi (Florian Lukas) as apathetic army grunts assigned to latrine duty after returning to base late following an ascent. They quit the military at the first opportunity; they love climbing, not marching.
In a posh hotel at the foot of the mountain, Berlin reporter Henry Arau (Ulrich Tukur) covers their assault on the peak through a telescope. His assistant, photographer Luise Fellner (Johanna Wokalek), is a mountaineering buff and Toni's childhood sweetheart. She is on hand to add love interest and wrinkle her nose in disapproval as the ghoulish Arau twists their heroism into a narrative that serves the Nazi cause and his publisher's interests. He doesn't care whether their adventure ends in triumph or tragedy. Either will put a patriotic lump in readers' throats.
As Toni and Andi, joined by a pair of Austrian also-rans, make their way up the harsh rock wall, temperatures drop and fingers go black with frostbite. We're right there with the climbers as they grasp for each handhold, freezing wind blasting and fatal chasms yawning below. It's tempting to think of the frigid struggle as a symbol of Germany's looming winter warfare in Russia, but "North Face" works fine even without historical metaphors.