The Eiger looms over everything in North Face (Nordwand). Stark and stunning, the mountain looms over fancy hotels and rugged vehicles near its base, over grassy flat fields and puny humans. The Eiger, whose name means “the ogre,” serves as literal adventure site and magnificent metaphor, a focus for ambitious young athletes and older politicians, as well as journalists determined to make use of its legend.
It was the 5,900-foot north face that resisted scaling longest. And in 1936, just two years after two German climbers died while trying, word went out from Nazi propagandists in search of some pre-Olympic glory: climbers reaching the top would be hailed as full-on heroes.
The contest serves as the basis of Philipp Stölzl’s film, inspired by true and disastrous events, as well as reviving, to an extent the German mountain film, or bergfilme. Set primarily on the mountain, where it follows valiant climbers, or at its base, where sightseers and reporters gather to hobnob, the movie tends predictably to celebrate the former and castigate the latter. Indeed, the climbers are real men, apolitical by definition and desirous only of historic achievement. Those who observe them, whether professionally or casually, appear to be shallow, exploitative and misguided, unable to fathom the significance of what’s happening — either the courage demanded of men pitted against nature or the beauteous wonder of that nature.
The climbers are grand men indeed — brave, inarticulate, and driven. For the film’s purposes, they come in two pairs, one German and one Austrian (in real life, they started together as a foursome, as they eventually become here, following a series of accidents and bad weather). Toni Kurz (Benno Fürmann) and Andi Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukacs), have climbed together since they were children in Berchtesgaden, and now they’re serving side-by-side in Hitler’s emerging mountain strike force. The Eiger contest seems made for them, though Toni, aware of the previous failed attempt, worries initially that it’s a bad idea. It’s only a matter of movie minutes before he’s convinced, however, and the Germans are biking to Switzerland in pursuit of their destiny on the Wall of Death. Little do they know it will be entangled with that of their Austrian rivals, Willy Angerer (Simon Schwarz) and Edi Rainer (Georg Friedrich).
It happens that Toni lies to his commanding office in order to secure their leave: he says he’s going to be married, and Andi is his necessary best man. It also happens that a girl does arrive at the hotel, the made-up character Luise (Johanna Wokalek). Toni’s childhood friend (and bearer of a large torch for Toni), she is now a secretary at Berliner Zeitung, whose editor, Henry (Ulrich Tukur) sees her “inside” access as a convenient means to get a scoop.
Even as the film affords some splendid views of the Eiger (and some staged climbing scenes, complete with wind and odious skies effects), its perspective on the observers — deemed “tourists” by the climbers — is exceedingly mundane. Arranged to represent class, race, and national antipathies, they debate for the sake of debating while the men on the mountain repeatedly look noble and fit. Henry is an especially unimaginative cad, an impeccably dressed, true-believing Aryan (who assumes the Germans will win the contest) as well as a crass entrepreneur. His cynicism contrasts with Luise’s faith. She remembers her own apparently idyllic past — scampering over rocky mountaintops with the boys — hopeful that Toni, even if he’s unable to propose to her properly (or even hold a decent conversation), will eventually return to her.
All this makes Luise partly the Damsel Left Behind and partly the Intrepid Sidekick, though Henry, terminally short-sighted, can only imagine her as his naïve protégée. Whether she’s following his orders or sharing her special knowledge of Toni’s skills, Henry acts out his superiority, as if his nonchalant support of Nazism needs to be made worse. While the climbers go forth in the wind and snow, he and the other tourists watch from the hotel balcony with telescopes, narrating the action.
When Henry, Luise, and an Austrian couple visit with the climbers the night before the climb commences, the tourists look callow and too political, while the athletes seem forthright, if stereotypically artless. “The mountaineers,” Henry asserts, “They are their own breed aren’t they?” Here the other civilians smile and nod, happy at least the manly men have agreed to entertain them. Luise is caught in between, Toni’s social clumsiness leaving her without the actual fiancé she wants, even as she puts off Henry’s own awkward advances. She’s particularly horrified by Henry’s lack of investment in the story they’re covering. To sell papers, he explains, “You either need a glorious triumph or a horrible tragedy. An unspectacular retreat is nothing, no more than a few lines on page three. There’s no need to stay for that.” Cut to Luise’s face, fallen.
Her challenge may not be so visceral as the once confronting the climbers, but poor Luise must bear the film’s emotional weight. Her hope and ardor, frustrations and anger more or less stand in for responses you’re never convinced to feel. At once too standard and too ineffective, she’s another girl looking for space and significance in a boys’ movie.