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Set in 1936, centers around four mountain climbers who attempt to climb the north face of the Eiger Mountain in Switzerland and the tragic events that follow.
For more about North Face and the North Face Blu-ray release, see the North Face Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on June 20, 2013 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Starring: Benno Fürmann, Johanna Wokalek, Florian Lukas, Georg Friedrich, Ulrich Tukur
Director: Philipp Stölzl
» See full cast & crew
North Face Blu-ray Review
Cliffhanger, German style.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, June 20, 2013
The 1936 Olympics in Berlin are remembered largely for two disparate elements. First, they were meant to showcase the resurgence of German national pride and Hitler's achievements as well as the Nazi ethic. Second, they produced an unlikely hero in Jesse Owens, the African American sprinter and track and field athlete whose triumphs as the most successful Gold Medalist that year completely upended Hitler's planned scenario of a games proving so-called Aryan superiority. But there might have been another story appearing as at least a sidebar to the main Olympics coverage had a now not very well remembered attempt to conquer the Eiger's North Face been successful. While other legendary mountain climbing efforts like the conquering of Everest have entered public consciousness to a remarkable degree, few outside of Europe in general, and most specifically Switzerland, Germany or Austria, probably know much about the history of trying to ascend one of the Alps' most dangerous peaks. In fact, for many in the United States, the name Eiger probably will mostly only evoke memories of the Trevanian spy thriller The Eiger Sanction, which Clint Eastwood filmed in 1975. But the Eiger was seen as a sort of divine test the Almighty had placed smack dab in front of the German people, who in 1936 considered themselves genetically predestined to prove their athleticism and dominance over nature by placing the Nazi flag atop the mountain's 13,000-plus foot peak by way of the slab's treacherous North Face, which had already claimed two German climbers' lives in 1935. North Face takes the basic history of a quartet of climbers who were supposedly undertaking this probably insane task for the greater glory of Hitler and Nazism (more about that a bit later) and (as seems to be the trend for films "based on a true story") then fictionalizes quite a bit of the story to middling effect.
There are very few things that actually make me nervous while watching a film. I can easily make it through any suspense thriller or horror gore-fest without even a slight bump in my blood pressure, but for some reason films about mountain climbing just send me over the edge (pun probably intended). My palms have been more than a bit moist when I've watched dramatic films like Cliffhanger or quasi-documentaries like Touching the Void, and I've even been known to squint to avoid seeing scenes of climbers dangling precariously from sheer rock faces. And in that regard, North Face is spectacularly successful, offering some of the most convincing mountain climbing sequences ever caught on film, a truly stunning combination of location work and very artful green screen material. But this viscerally compelling element also points up what may be the film's central challenge—it keeps cutting away from the exciting climbing footage to include a bunch of subplots, some romantic, some political, that tend to suck at least some of the life out of the proceedings.
There really were two German climbers named Andreas 'Andi' Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas) and Toni Kurz (Benno Fürmann), two young Bavarians who had already proved their mettle in climbing some difficult territory. But North Face places these two in the (understandable) cultural milieu of a burgeoning Nazism, where Henry (Ulrich Tukur), a fanatical newspaper editor utilizes Luise (Johanna Wokalek), one of the men's childhood friends who is now a glorified secretary at Henry's newspaper, to convince the guys that climbing the Eiger will not only bring them glory, but her as well, if she gets to report the story. The two still aren't convinced, with Toni being especially uncertain of what good attempting such a patently crazy thing would do. Toni initially argues with Andi that a climber should only be climbing for himself, not for the publicity it engenders, but ultimately he agrees to accompany Andi on this mad quest, if only to "look out" for his buddy.
The film veers from the actual historical record, at least somewhat, once the ascent gets underway. In actuality, the two Germans were teamed from day one with two Austrians, Willy Angerer (Simon Schwarz) and Edi Rainer (Georg Friedrich), but North Face instead makes the two teams rivals, at least in the early going. A mishap changes all that, and the film then details the increasingly desperate efforts of the quartet first to attempt ascending the Eiger's nearly vertical North Face and then, in the face of certain defeat, trying to get back down in one piece. Meanwhile, Luise, whose once dormant romantic interest in one of the climbers has been reignited, and the editor are encamped at the mountain's base along with a gaggle of other civilians and press, wondering if German pride (which in this case means Nazi pride) will be fulfilled or dashed to pieces.
North Face becomes an excruciating experience as the climbers' precarious positions worsen. And here finally the film keeps its focus squarely where it should have been all along—on the climbers. An escalating series of bad decisions and natural catastrophes proves that in most cases Man is no match for Mother Nature, and there's an inexorable quality to the film's third act that is emotionally devastating. As much as the screenwriters and co-writer and director Philipp Stölzl try to link the story to a political and romantic subtext, it's actually the more basic element of adventurers trying to triumph over incredible odds that provides North Face with its most emotionally compelling content.
North Face Blu-ray, Video Quality
North Face is presented on Blu-ray courtesy of Music Box Films with an AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 2.35:1. This is often a spectacularly sharp and well detailed high definition presentation, especially with regard to both close-ups, where fine detail is commendable, to the many lovely (and, later, terrifying) location shots which provide some amazing depth of field. Colors are very robust and well saturated, and even when the film tends to drown in slate grays and whites as the weather turns foul in the late going, detail is never seriously compromised. There are no real stability issues here, either, even in the "busy" scenes with lots of snowfall or mist filling the frame. A couple of the green screened mattes looked just slightly artificial to my eyes, but otherwise this is a splendid presentation that has a lot of "wow" factor.
North Face Blu-ray, Audio Quality
North Face's lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is filled to the brim with immersive effects, though they tend to more fully exploit the side channels than the rear most of the time. Things start out relatively calmly, with little effects like a dog barking in what sounds like a far off left region of the soundfield, but as the film gets more and more into the climbing sequences, things perk up dramatically, with lots of well done moments that include everything from whipping winds and other foul weather to the distinctive "clink" of pitons being hammered into sheer rock faces. Dialogue and score are both presented very cleanly, always with excellent fidelity and with some appealing dynamic range.
North Face Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
North Face Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
As it stands, North Face is certainly one of the finest films made about mountain climbing that I personally can remember. But why didn't the filmmakers just stick to facts, rather than trying to introduce extraneous elements that not only don't add that much, they actually distract from the most interesting part of the film? The good news here is that the main story is so compelling that even the rather rote romantic aspect and the somewhat more salient political angle can't derail the film's momentum in any major way. Featuring breathtaking shots of some astounding cliffside moves and with a rather ominous sense of tragedy building moment by moment once the climb begins, North Face may well result in more than merely sweaty palms. It's a really unique, terrifying but weirdly uplifting film that comes Highly recommended.
North Face Blu-ray, News and Updates
• North Face Blu-ray - June 4, 2013
Music Box Films has announced the Blu-ray release of German Film Academy Award-winner, North Face. The critically acclaimed drama stars Benno Fürmann (Jerichow), Johanna Wokalek (The Baader Meinholf Complex), Florian Lukas (Good Bye Lenin) and Ulrich Tukur (The ...
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