Movie Review: Philipp Stölzl's North Face, starring Benno Fürmann, Florian Lukas, Ulrich Tukur and Johanna Wokalek (with trailer video)

Benno Fürmann stars as Toni Kurz, the best mountaineer in all of 1930s Germany, who, along with partner-in-climb Andreas Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas), attempted to scale the Eiger, the most dangerous rock face in all the Alps. Toni wasn’t blind to the dangers — early in the film he lists all the reasons not to do it, including treacherous terrain, horrific weather, rockslides and avalanches — but a quick tour of duty cleaning latrines in Hitler’s army convinced him that his talents were best used elsewhere.


After the burgeoning Third Reich makes scaling the Eiger a point of national pride, teams assemble at the base of the mountain and prepare for the ascent. North Face splits its time between following the climbers as they make their way up into the clouds, and on a self-important reporter (Ulrich Tukur) and a pretty, inexperienced photojournalist (Johanna Wokalek) keeping tabs on the expedition from ground level. The photog grew up with Toni and Andreas, and as the expedition is beset by all manner of difficulty, she soon loses all professional detachment and ends up on a rescue mission to save the man she loves.

Based on a true story, North Face is completely convincing from beginning to end. I assume the high-altitude scenes were created using a combination of clever camera angles and digital effects, but the technique is so seamless I never felt like I was watching anything other than a record of brave men attempting to climb one bitch of a mountain. This is also a testament to the performances (the actors really sell the material), highlighted by the terrific Benno Fürmann (picture an intense, Aryan Viggo Mortensen). Side note: This is the third film starring Ulrich Tukor to play Tampa Theatre recently, following Séraphine and The White Ribbon. No offense to Mr. Tukur (he’s excellent here, as usual), but is Europe running out of actors?

I can’t say that watching North Face is a pleasurable experience, per se. As you should have gathered from this review, the climb is long and difficult and not everybody is going to make it back to base camp alive. However, the movie is ultimately worthwhile, if only because it’s so well made and provides constant drama. Just don’t expect an uplifting experience at the movies.

[Editor's Note: North Face opens Fri., April 2 at the Tampa Theatre. (Check showtimes here.) For more reviews of the biggest new releases, check out the Daily Loaf Movie Review Index.]

There are only two kinds of mountain climbing movies: The ones where a bunch of people die before the triumphant survivors make it to the summit, and the ones where everybody dies — the end. I won’t tell you which category North Face belongs in, but you can be sure that the German import opening Friday at the Tampa Theatre is a harrowing experience. Directed by music video director Philipp Stölzl, North Face is also a terrific technical achievement that brings to the screen vertiginous sights that had me wondering how no one died during the making of this movie.

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