As you watch Philipp Stölzl’s gripping survival drama, “North Face,” it is impossible not to put yourself in the boots of the mountaineers clinging to a sheer, icy rock face during a blizzard that threatens to send them into oblivion. The sight of the exhausted climbers fighting to stay alive after failing to reach the summit of the Eiger, a 13,000-foot peak in the Swiss Alps, is transfixing in the way that well-told life-and-death adventure tales inevitably are. It is the film’s more mundane elements — an awkward, under-nourished love story and half-baked politics — that are problematic.
The film, based on a true story, recalls the attempt of two German climbers, Toni Kurz (Benno Fürmann) and Andi Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas), to scale the Eiger’s 5,900-foot near-vertical north wall, then unconquered, in mid-July 1936.
At that time, climbing the north wall, called “the last problem of the Western Alps” by Alpinists, was something of an obsession for the Nazis in the weeks leading up to the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. (The Eiger’s summit had been reached by other routes as early as 1858.) Scaling the “death wall,” as it was nicknamed, would be a perfectly timed propaganda coup.