North Face is the English title of the film Nordwand, originally released to theaters in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland in 2008. It is based on the true story of two German mountain climbers, Toni Kurz and Andreas Hinterstoisser, who in 1936 braved the dreaded north face of the Eiger. The only one of the film’s stars who may be familiar to American audiences is Benno Fürmann, who appeared in The Princess and the Warrior (Der Krieger und die Kaiserin, 2000). A few may also remember him as Siegfried in an absorbing German television re-telling of the Nibelungenlied, released on DVD in the U.S. as Dark Kingdom: The Dragon King (worth seeing, despite its many flaws).
North Face came and went in America, released to a few theaters but mostly direct to DVD (and now Blu Ray). However, it has picked up something of a cult following. The film was sold and accepted as a mountain climbing thriller, like Cliffhanger (1993) and Touching the Void (2003). But it is actually much more than this. Read the glowing reviews on Amazon or Netflix and you will see that this film has struck a real chord with people (and I would bet anything that almost all of those people are white).
In fact, North Face is a conscious, deliberate revival of a genre of German cinema popular in the 1920s and 30s, called the Bergfilm or “mountain film.” These films are fascinating, because they are so quintessentially Nordic. It is impossible to imagine another people ever having given rise to them. They thus offer us a unique glimpse into the Nordic, Germanic soul. The purpose of this essay is not just to offer readers of this website an introduction to a very fine film (one which – trust me – you must see). It is also an introduction to the German mountain film genre itself. Indeed, this essay is the first in a multi-part series, examining the philosophical and cultural significance of the mountain films. The subsequent installments will deal with four classic German mountain films, currently available on DVD. Before we come to the details of the North Face and why it is such an extraordinary film, some brief background on the mountain films seems in order.
The central figure in the German mountain film genre is Arnold Fanck (1889–1974), who was born in Frankenthal, a town in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, in southwestern Germany. He earned a Ph.D. in geology (publishing several works in the field) and was forever after known as Dr. Arnold Fanck, even on the opening credits of his films (a charming and typically German idiosyncrasy). An avid sportsman, in 1920 he established the Berg- und Sportfilm GmbH Freiburg in Freiburg im Breisgau, along with collaborators Rolf Bauer, Odo Deodatus Tauern, and Bernhard Villinger. In 1920 they produced their first film, a documentary entitled Das Wunder des Schneeschuhs (The Miracle of the Snowshoe). This was followed in 1921 by a more significant documentary, Im Kampf Mit dem Berge (The Struggle with the Mountain), for which Paul Hindemith wrote a superb score.
It was not until 1924, however, that Fanck would release his first dramatic (i.e., fictional) mountain film, Der Berg des Schicksals (The Mountain of Destiny), starring the great Luis Trenker (who later became a very successful director in his own right, making his own mountain films). Fanck would cast Trenker again in 1926’s Der Heilige Berg (The Holy Mountain), opposite his newest (and greatest) discovery, Leni Riefenstahl. There are fascinating stories to be told about Fanck, Trenker, and Riefenstahl and the crews that worked with them (like cinematographer Sepp Allgeier, who went on to shoot Triumph of the Will). Stories about their personalities, personal philosophies, and political convictions. I will save these for subsequent essays, however.
The mountain films exhibit the following distinctive characteristics:
1. A “mystical” treatment of the mountains, which serve as symbols of spiritual aspiration.
2. A “spiritual” interpretation of mountain climbing as “self-overcoming,” remarkably close to Julius Evola’s treatment of the subject in Meditations on the Peaks: Mountain Climbing as Metaphor for the Spiritual Quest.
3. A critique of modern, urban life as decadent and effete – contrasted to a more authentic, traditional form of life lived in close proximity to nature.
4. An understanding of the sexes as metaphysically different, and an ultimately tragic view of their relations.
5. An ideal of masculinity as spiritual virility.
6. A Teutonic ideal of the courageous, action-oriented woman (à la Brunnhilde or Kriemhilde) who comes to the aid of her man.
7. A Romantic celebration of solitude – juxtaposed with a Romantic celebration of comradeship between men, and self-sacrifice for one’s comrades.
8. A breakdown between reality and fantasy involving a quasi-documentary style in which parts are played by non-actors (identified on screen, as in The Holy Mountain, by their real names and occupations), who perform their own (sometimes quite dangerous) stunts. Individuals often play themselves (e.g., pilot Ernst Udet).
9. A Romantic fatalism.
These elements are all readily apparent in the Fanck films (especially the silent ones), and are present in more muted form in North Face. (I will discuss all of these elements at length in subsequent essays.)
The mountain films have never been well-known in America, but in Germany North Face was immediately accepted by critics and knowledgeable movie-goers as a revival of the genre. This has been openly admitted by the filmmakers. The director Philipp Stöltzl (in the “making of” documentary on the DVD) states “Initially, one of the reasons for making this movie was to pick up from the classic mountain movie, a genre that was extremely popular in the 20s and 30s.” Stöltzl is actually a rather interesting character. He got his start in the 90s directing music videos for the German group Rammstein, who have long been accused of harboring fascist sympathies. Stöltzl courted controversy in 1998 with his video for Rammstein’s “Stripped,” which featured images lifted from Riefenstahl’s Olympia. More than one German review of North Face made mention of this, accusing Stöltzl of having a fascination for the “fascist aesthetic,” and criticizing North Face as a revival of a “contaminated genre.”
Surprisingly, however, Stöltzl attempts to distinguish North Face from Fanck’s films by making some problematic claims. He states that the Fanck films were “stylized,” whereas his film aims at a semi-documentary style. While it is true that Fanck’s silent mountain films are highly stylized (especially The Holy Mountain, which is essentially a fable), one of their most memorable features is their up-close photography of dangerous stunts, from often dangerous vantage points. Indeed, it was from Fanck that Riefenstahl learned the art of the dramatic, semi-documentary, put to memorable use in Triumph of the Will and Olympia. (A further irony here is that while Fanck’s actors and cameramen frequently took great personal risks, Stöltzl apparently took comparatively fewer risks with his actors and crew, accomplishing a great deal with the use of stunt doubles and CGI.)
It is nevertheless clear that those involved in North Face were filled with a nostalgic love for the mountain films and – dare I say it? – a certain national pride. In the “making of” documentary the most eloquent and moving statement about the film, and the mountain film genre in general, is made by the actor Ulrich Tukur. At a certain point in his interview, Tukur becomes very animated and begins almost to rhapsodize:
Those clothes, those self-woven hemp ropes, the cheap and primitive equipment, those beaming eyes, those weathered and brown faces, those cropped haircuts – all those things reminiscent of [Luis] Trenker. All in all I really loved all that because it was so berserker-style, and wasn’t based on any technical sophistication. On the contrary, it was purely based on muscle power and determination, which propelled these people rather idiotically to such great heights, and caused them to climb up such mountains. It is this lust for, this longing for the unknown, and for this adventure that cuts very close to death.
Tukur gets it exactly right. This genre touches something deep in the Nordic soul. The obvious and sincere Romanticism of Tukur’s comments is rather ironic because in North Face he plays the film’s most negative character, an extraordinarily cynical newspaper reporter.
The opening credits of North Face play over shots of an old, leather bound journal, and a female hand turning its pages. On the desk surrounding the journal are rolls of film, suggesting the hand belongs to a photographer. On the cover of the journal (glimpsed for only a second or two) are several metal edelweiss pins. Inside we find page after page of notes, all dated in the 1930s detailing mountain climbing expeditions. Small black and white photos are stuck between the pages, one depicting the three principal characters of the film: the friends Toni Kurtz, Andreas Hintersoisser (referred to as Andi throughout), and Luise Fellner. The photo appears to have been taken on a climb, and shows the three friends close together, happy and beaming. The hand lingers over a page marked 1936, after which the entries stop.
Next we are in a crowded movie theatre. It is 1936, and a German newsreel is playing, informing us about the search for two mountain climbers missing (presumed dead) after attempting to scale the Eiger north face. (This appears to be an actual German newsreel of the period; if not it is an exceedingly clever fake.) We see pilot Ernst Udet in a small plane flying dangerously close to the rock face, looking for signs of the missing men. (This is Udet’s cameo appearance in the film! A deliberate nod to his frequent appearances in Fanck’s productions.) The camera gives us glimpses of the audience in the flickering light. We see an SA man in uniform sitting in the middle of one row, establishing for us that this is Nazi Germany. And we are introduced to the heroine of the film, Luise Fellner (Johanna Wokalek), to whom belong the hands we saw earlier. She is a rather mousy brunette; pretty, in a kind of girl-next-door way, but not beautiful.
The newsreel informs us that on account of the deaths of the climbers (who were by no means the first to die attempting the Eiger), the city of Berne has forbidden anyone to climb the north face. The newsreel announcer asks, however, “Will this piece of paper hold back the German youth?” The Olympics are coming up (to be held, of course, in Berlin). “We must conquer the last problem of the alps,” the announcer intones.
Luise works as a cub reporter at the Berliner Zeitung, where her primary activity seems to be making coffee for the other (male) reporters. The film perfectly re-creates the décor of a mid-thirties newsroom, right down to the antique coffee press. The reporters meet to discuss stories in progress, and the current hot topic is the race to scale the Eiger. There’s a two-man Austrian team who intend to make the attempt, both of whom are NSDAP party members (however this was, we should note, prior to the German annexation of Austria). Needless to say, there is general agreement that a German team should make the attempt as well. As it happens, there is such a team: two young men from Berchtesgaden. No one can remember their names until Luise, sitting meekly in a corner, decides to speak up. They are her childhood friends Toni and Andi.
Also present at this meeting is one of the newspaper’s star reporters, Henry Arau (Ulrich Tukur), a witty and charming man, but also glib and cynical. He takes a shine to young Luise and sends her on a mission to Berchtesgaden to interview her old friends and see if they really do intend to make the climb.
When we first meet Toni (Benno Fürmann) and Andi (Florian Lukas) they are on their hands and knees, scrubbing out a trough-style men’s urinal. They are members of the volunteer Mountain Brigade, and are being punished because of failure to observe curfew (the result of a local mountain climbing expedition that ran on a bit long). Both actors are very Nordic in type, Fürmann looking like he’s just stepped out of a Waffen-SS recruiting poster. Both have had their hair cut in a style that was extremely popular then, especially in the German military: very close cropped midway up on the sides and back, longer up top. (Fürmann looks like his hair has been deliberately styled to resemble Luis Trenker’s.)
We see some views of lovely Berchtesgaden, but there is very little in the film to suggest that it was Hitler’s home-away-from home (there are, however, a couple of brief references to this in deleted scenes). As soon as they are released from the day’s duties, Toni and Andi again go climbing. This is as good a place as any to mention how the climbing scenes were accomplished. Stunt doubles were used, but the actors did do some of the climbing themselves – always suspended, however, from safety cables. Much of what you see on screen was accomplished using CGI. I am typically very critical of the use of CGI in films, but here I must say that it is truly remarkable. I guarantee, in fact, that you will be convinced throughout the film that everything is real!
On this particular climb, we get the impression that Andi is the more reckless of the two men, who are portrayed as the closest of friends. At one point a piton comes loose and Andi falls a short distance – the first of many scares this film will subject you to. At last they reach the top and give each other the traditional greeting of “Berg Heil!” At the top of the mountain is a large cross. Toni and Andi sit under it and think and dream in silence. Toni writes in his journal. Andi’s forearms are scraped and bloody from the climb, but he doesn’t seem to notice. He’s dreaming of the Eiger, a subject he broaches with a reluctant Toni, who thinks the climb is just far too dangerous.
Later, when they return to town they encounter Luise. It is apparent immediately that Toni and Luise are (or were) in love. She chose a career in the big city over that love, however, a fact which becomes a key plot element later on. The inclusion of a love angle is a conscious nod to the mountain films of Fanck, which usually featured a love story, in one form or another. (Says director Stöltzl, “In [including a love story] we tie in with the classic mountain dramas of Fanck and Trenker, where a love story is always part of the whole.”)
There follows a charming scene set in a beer hall, complete with authentic Bavarian costumes, music, and décor. (I suppose most of this is now all lost – or reduced to a campy pantomime put on for the tourists.) Luise tries to convince Toni to attempt the Eiger, while Andi dances with some local girls. Toni is adamantly opposed to the idea, pointing out that it is with good reason that the north face of the Eiger is called “the death wall.” One minute it’s sunshine, the next minute a blizzard. Avalanches are a constant danger. “You can be the best, but it’s still a lottery.” Making it up the north face is only partly a question of skill – much of it is luck, and when it comes to the Eiger you need a lot of good luck. He is wise to say no. And we have to be more than a little critical of Luise’s motivations here. She quite frankly tells him that if he attempts the Eiger, the story will make her career. Of course, Toni will have to risk death in order for that to happen!
We see that there are several men in the beer hall wearing the black uniforms of the SS (no doubt members of the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler division, charged with protecting Hitler in Berchtesgaden). At one point, one of these men comes over and greets Luise, Toni, and Andi, who seem somewhat uncomfortable in his presence. This is one of only a very few occasions in North Face where the filmmakers deliberately draw our attention to the Nazis or Nazi ideology, in order to show that our heroes are not comfortable with it. Such moments seem to be thrown in almost as afterthoughts, and are not essential to the plot.
This is not, however, what some reviewers and publicists would have us believe! Some people actually seem to think that what this film is about is the Nazi exploitation of men like Toni and Andi for propaganda purposes. In fact, this forms a very small part of the plot. For the most part, the Third Reich is treated merely as a back drop to the story. Henry Arau, the most negative character in the film, mouths some Nazi-sounding ideological prattle in one scene – but the film makes clear that what really makes him contemptible is not his Nazism but his cynicism. It is rare that one finds a German film set during the Third Reich that does not make evil Nazis the central issue. The makers of North Face have felt obliged to toss in a few anti-Nazi “statements” here and there, just so that everyone understands that they have the “right” politics. But for the most part this film, like the classic mountain films, is blissfully free of politics.
Luise goes back to Berlin to report that her friends will not be making the climb after all. In a later scene, Andi accuses Toni of cowardice. He tells Toni that “getting to the top” is what it’s all about (curiously, the same attitude Luise seems to have adopted). Toni replies that he climbs “only for myself.” In Meditations on the Peaks, Evola writes that “the mountain empowers one to act, to perform without spectators, and to display a heroism that shuns rhetoric and grandiose gestures.” Evola speaks of the “Mediterranean type” who always needs an audience, implicitly contrasting him to the Nordic type who knows “the joy of being alone, of being left to one’s self amid the changelessness of things, alone with one’s action and contemplation.” Toni is very much like the character Luis Trenker plays in The Holy Mountain who, when asked what one seeks in the mountains, replies “One’s self.”
Andi will not be deterred, however. When the Mountain Brigade refuses to give him leave in July to go to Switzerland and climb the Eiger, he resigns. And Toni resigns along with him, telling Andi that he lied: “I don’t just climb for myself.” In truth, Toni did not lie, but he is too good a friend to allow Andi to go off and recklessly attempt the Eiger on his own. (Here we see the traditional mountain film theme of comradeship.) Next we see Toni and Andi making their own pitons in a forge, Siegfried-like. Then we see them planning the climb, back at Toni’s grandmother’s house. The domestic situation here is reminiscent of Trenker’s home life in The Holy Mountain. In both films, there is no older male presence (scenes with the grandfather were deleted from North Face). Though the old woman in Holy Mountain is identified as Trenker’s mother, she looks old enough to be his grandmother. And in both films, the old women believe that their son’s/grandson’s mountain climbing is somehow psychologically misguided. In a deleted scene from North Face, the grandmother asks Toni “Why are you going up there? You have everything here.” Significantly, he responds: “Perhaps I just need to see it from above.” In Holy Mountain, the mother tells Trenker “You go seeking gods – when it’s people you truly need.” Both the mother and the grandmother speak from a woman’s perspective. The mountain films continually set up a contrast between the Eternal Masculine and the Eternal Feminine.
While Toni and Andi make the 700 km trek from Berchtesgaden to Berne by bicycle (!), a train is headed to Berne bringing Luise and Henry Arau. The newspaper has sent them there after all, as the two Austrian NSDAP members, Willy Angerer and Edi Rainer, are set to make their attempt on the north face. Also on the train are two new characters, the married couple Emil and Elisabeth Landauer. While Emil is an Austrian Jew, Elisabeth is portrayed as a beautiful, blond Aryan exemplar. We now see the north face of the Eiger, rising some 3000 m (9,800 ft) above us. It is truly sublime. The passengers are all in awe, except Emil Landauer, who seems to take no interest. Though Landauer is a likable character in the film, it is more than a little amusing that the filmmakers continually portray him exactly according to the Jewish stereotype: indifferent to nature, focused on money, and averse to risk-taking. Elisabeth is the diametrical opposite, thrilling to the mountain views and heights, and to the stories of the climbers.
In Berne, Luise and Arau head for a luxury hotel with spectacular views of the mountain, while Toni and Andi head for the foot of the mountain itself, and pitch a tent along with the other climbers (from Italy, Austria, and other countries). Luise is not yet aware that Toni and Andi are there. That evening, Luise and Arau dine with Landauer and his wife in the elegant hotel restaurant, as Schumann’s Kinderszenen plays in the background. Arau is holding forth: “That’s the spirit of the German conqueror, manifested in the battle against the mountain. Bound together in life and death. . . . The German soldier dreams of when, having fought to the summit, the world shall lie at his feet and above him shall stretch infinity.” (Non-German speakers take note: while the English subtitles in North Face are never wildly wrong, they do contain many inaccuracies and are insufficiently literal. For example, in these lines the subtitles translate Unendlichkeit, “infinity,” as “the limitless sky.” Accordingly, I have corrected the translation here and there.) These words ring hollow and disingenuous, issuing from the mouth of the cynical Arau. We are supposed to feel a sense of foreboding here, as Arau’s words seem to foretell the coming war. The Jewish Landauer is unimpressed, and there is a tense moment — broken by the ebullient Elisabeth, who cries “I adore this sort of thing!” Landauer, clearly a very indulgent husband, beams at her and says wryly “You also adore Richard Wagner.”
But the tension continues when Landauer asks Arau if his sentiments are “race specific”: “What does the Austrian dream of?” Arau thinks for a moment then responds, wittily, “A greater Germany” (i.e., a Germany that comprises Austria). But then he adds: “At least the Aryans among you [dream of this]. I wouldn’t know if this applies to you.” Those who have been worried that eventually North Face would subject us to the usual pious, obligatory lessons about Nazi racism can now relax: this is all there is in this film. Like Wolfgang Peterson’s great film Das Boot (1981) the focus here is on heroism, with political sermonizing kept to a minimum.
The following day, this unlikely quartet takes the train into the Eiger: yes, literally into the mountain. Their guide explains that it took fifteen years to cut through the mountain and lay the track. Landauer asks what it cost. Sixteen million Swiss francs is the answer, and Landauer shakes his head as if to say “what a waste.” The train passes several “galleries” where spectators can stand behind rather flimsy railings and gaze down from the mountain’s great height. It stops at the “Eigerwand Station” and the passengers make their way to the gallery showing no fear whatsoever. Luise starts taking pictures with her Kodak Retina, and Elisabeth is particularly enthused. Landauer, however, hangs back, afraid to approach the railing. (Again, if the filmmakers are trying, through the Landauer character, to make a comment about the falsehoods of Nazi race theory, they’ve picked a strange way to do it.)
Later, Luise and Arau venture to the campsite at the base of the mountain – and discover Tony and Andi. Arau offers them a drink in the hotel, if they change their clothes first. In a virtual duplication of a shot in The Holy Mountain, the camera pans down Andi’s body to show his rustic leggings and hiking boots (identical to those worn in the Fanck films). The point here is to contrast the rough, unpretentious garb and manner of the climbers, with the slick and effete appearance and sensibilities of city folk. Over dinner later on Toni, Andi, Arau, and Luise are joined by the two Austrian climbers, Willy Angerer and Edi Rainer. The Landauers are present as well. Elisabeth asks one of the Austrians, “Isn’t it terribly lonely up there?” He responds, touchingly, “No, I have my comrade with me.”
Arau is, as always, the irrepressible raconteur. At one point, he touches Luise’s hand – and Toni takes notice of this. It is made clear in several scenes that Arau is attracted to Luise, who finds him charming and is flattered by his attention (and belief in her potential as a reporter). After dinner, Toni announces that he and Andi must be off, since they have to make an early start. Luise implores him to stay, as the fun is just beginning (Arau is now at the piano, entertaining the company). Toni looks at her solemnly and says “We each make our own decisions in life.”
In scene when he is left alone with Luise, Arau shows us a rare sign of sincerity. Thinking of the adventure that will begin the following day, he remarks “We’ll always be deprived of the real drama. What really takes place out there is something we can only guess at.” He is the observer of life – the wry, detached commentator. He is not a participant, and certainly not a man of action. The mountain films continually set up a contrast between the decadent urbanite, far removed from all that has the potential to bring out the best within us, and the spiritually (and physically) virile man who yearns to test himself.
Later that night while everyone sleeps, Toni quietly enters the hotel, finds Luise’s room number in the unguarded register, and knocks on her door. He wants to give her his leather bound journal for safekeeping. “Everything I’ve ever done is in there,” he says. Toni claims it’s too heavy to take on the climb, but we know it’s because he is not certain that he’ll make it back. It is at this point that we begin to suspect that we are in store for the worst, as we think back to the hands of Luise thumbing through the journal at the beginning of the film. They kiss, and Toni returns to his campsite. (I should add that it is in this scene that I first noticed the excellent, evocative music score by Christian Kolonovits.)
(Please note: At this point I feel I owe it to readers to warn them that what follows will reveal the details of the most exciting parts of the film, as well as its ending. If you do not want these events spoiled for you, you should consider not reading beyond this point.)
Toni and Andi begin their climb at 2:10 am on Saturday the 18th of July. They soon realize that the Austrians are close behind, following the same route up the mountain. When the dawn comes, the terrace behind the hotel is filled with spectators and the world’s press, watching the progress of the climbers with binoculars and telescopes. At one point, Toni hammers in a piton and inadvertently causes a small rockslide. One of the Austrians, Willy, is hit hard on the head by a chunk of rock. It is a serious blow. He screams in pain and blood gushes from the wound, but his comrade cannot convince him to turn back. The spectators can see enough to know that there’s been some kind of accident. Landauer remarks dismissively, “It’s like a gladiator fight, Gruesome.” Elisabeth, however, is thrilled.
It is at this point that film’s most extraordinary climbing sequences unfold and, as I said before, you will swear that all of it is real, and that the actors are really there. After many false starts, Andi manages to make a dangerous traverse (a sideways move across a rock face), and pulls the rope across so that the others can follow (at a certain point, the two teams effectively become one). Once they’ve made it across, however, Andi insists on pulling the rope out, as they may need it later. Toni doesn’t think this a wise idea, but he allows Andi to reel in the rope. As we shall see, this turns out to be a big mistake. The climb is going very slowly, and the weather forecast is grim.
As darkness approaches, they stop and create a bivouac. The wound on Willy’s head continues to bleed, and he begins to show signs of dementia. Down below, the guests at the hotel dine in style. At a certain point, the lights are dimmed and a huge cake is wheeled in. Shaped like the Eiger itself, the cake is festooned with sparklers. Elisabeth receives a piece with a tiny toy climber on it, complete with swastika flag. These intercuts between the stark, dangerous conditions on the mountain, and the plush elegance of life below are strongly reminiscent of scenes in The Holy Mountain.
The following morning the climbers awake, having slept literally fastened to a narrow ledge. Edi tries to convince Willy to go back, and Willy now becomes violent and deranged. “There’s nothing below,” he yells. “Up there is all.” Later on, as the climb continues, it seems that Willy is slipping in and out of consciousness. Toni and Andi find the body of one of the missing climbers mentioned at the beginning of the film. They say a prayer over him, wrap his body in canvass, and then let it fall to the ground far below. This experience seems to bring the four men closer together.
This solemn interlude is followed by disaster, however. While climbing, Willy slips and plunges down the mountain face, catching his leg in a crevice. He screams in agony, his leg broken, part of the flesh ripped away. (At this point the film began to remind me of a German Deliverance.) The others get to Willy and apply a tourniquet, but it is apparent that the climb is over: they have to get Willy back down the mountain or he will die. Andi wants to go on, but Toni manages to talk sense into him. Things are getting desperate. A snowstorm has arrived, with terrible winds. Toni loses one of his gloves, and he stares at his hand, knowing that soon frostbite will make it useless.
They have now been climbing for two days. Although they are anxious to get back down again, night comes and they must make camp. This time they can’t fall asleep, however, or they will freeze to death.
Down below, Arau coldly announces that there is no longer any story here, and that they ought to be leaving. He changes his mind, however, when he senses that tragedy is approaching. The deaths of the climbers might make an interesting story. The others – Luise and the Landauers – regard him with contempt. On her way up to her room, Luise passes photographs of dead climbers on the stairs and is filled with foreboding.
Not content to allow matters up above to simply take their course, Luise springs into action. She literally follows the railroad tracks on foot into the mountain. She returns to the Eigerwand Station, seen earlier, and goes out onto the lookout platform and into the blizzard, calling for Toni and Andi. Surprisingly, this turn of events is also very much in keeping with the traditional mountain film format. Again and again in Fanck’s films, the woman comes to the rescue of the man, often at great risk to herself. (This is quite significant, for reasons I will discuss in subsequent essays.)
The stationmaster finds Luise and takes her in. She implores him to help her and they go to another of the gallery doors. This one opens onto a narrow rocky ledge – with no railing. Luise again shouts for her friends, struggling to be heard over the deafening wind. Suddenly, miraculously, we hear them answer her! To get to the gallery, however, they need to make it across the rock face Andi traversed earlier. But, alas, they removed the rope! Now the four men begin to panic, death having become a reality to them. Andi tries to make the traverse again, but one of his arms has gone completely stiff. They decide to climb down and across to the gallery – their only hope.
Meanwhile, resigned to the fact that they can only wait, Luise sits in the stationmaster’s hut and has tea. Down below, Arau has discovered her absence, and panics. Following his instincts, he climbs up the tracks and finds Luise. He misinterprets her actions as the sign of a budding reporter’s intrepidity, and tells her that she will now be able to take the pictures of a lifetime! Luise now, finally, tells him off: “I’m not here to take pictures,” she says. Arau is seemingly oblivious to the fact that she is concerned for her friends.
The climbers are now trying to make their way down and across to the gallery, but suddenly the worst possible thing happens: avalanche! Pelted with ice, snow, and rock, they slip, and Edi hits his head hard against the rock face. He is killed instantly. Willy, whom they have been carrying in a kind of canvass stretcher, shows no signs of life. Andi is hanging from the end of the rope, unconscious. Toni calls to him, until at last Andi wakes up. He must crawl over the body of Willy in order to rejoin Toni. As he begins to climb, however, Toni sees that the piton holding them up is beginning to slip out of the rock. Toni implores him to hurry, and tries in vain to hammer the piton back in. Andi realizes that it is hopeless, and that his weight will pull both men to their deaths. He takes out his knife, and cuts the rope, plunging into oblivion.
Toni is overcome with grief, but there is no time to mourn Andi. As the last living member of the team, he now realizes that his situation is absolutely dire. Pitifully, he calls out to Luise, “You must come to me!”
In desperation, Luise and the Stationmaster return to town and plead with a group of local rescue climbers to come and save Toni. It is established earlier in the film, however, that in fact these men are not legally obligated to rescue climbers from the most dangerous parts of the mountain (and for a very good reason: no one can be legally obligated to commit suicide!). They listen to Luise sympathetically, but then flatly refuse to help. “We all have wives and children.” But one of the younger men asks her, “Is the man up there with you?” There is a long pause, and Luise answers “Yes. He’s with me.”
We next see the train approaching the Eigerwand Station. In it are Luise, the Stationmaster, and the rescuers from below. They have agreed to help after all! They climb out onto the ledge, and see Toni, who calls to them. But it’ll be dark soon. The rescuers take stock of the situation and shake their heads: “It’s no use.” They go back inside. Toni screams “I won’t last much longer! You can’t leave! I don’t want to die!” “We’re sorry,” they say to Luise. “No one can get to him in this weather.” Toni stands rigidly, his back against the rock, like Trenker in the final moments of The Holy Mountain.
At around 9:00pm, Luise crawls out onto the rocky ledge amidst the terrible storm. “Toni! Toni!” she cries. “You won’t die!” His face and hands are now black with frostbite. (I have to admit that I found these scenes incredibly difficult to watch, they were so unbearably suspenseful and moving.)
Incredibly, the next morning (Wednesday, July 22nd) Toni is still alive, and the storm is gone. Luise has been waiting on the ledge all night, keeping a vigil. The rescuers reappear, filled with hope. They tell Toni that he must rappel down to them, but Toni can barely reply. They need him to tie the strands of a rope together, so that they can then tie a rope to the strands and he can pull it up. Toni can barely move, but he manages to do this. He pulls the rope up . . . but it is too short! The rescuers tell him that he will have to jump the rest of the way, which simply seems impossible. Nevertheless, Toni winds the rope about him and then lets himself down slowly, inch by inch, with the end of the short rope dangling over the abyss. Suddenly . . . he simply collapses. At this point, on the soundtrack we begin to here the slow, rhythmic tapping of a hammer (the kind used to hammer in pitons). We realize that this represents Toni’s heartbeat. The tapping slows down. “Try again!” Luise calls out. He revives for a moment, “I’m so cold,” he says. And then he goes completely limp. The tapping stops. Toni is dead.
We next see Luise seated in the train car, at the Eigerwand Station. Arau sits down with her and tries to apologize, sincerely it seems, for his insensitivity. “Germany will never forget these men. Let me take you back to Berlin.” He puts his hand on hers, but she pushes it away. “I’m not going back. There are too many people like you there.” (With this line, the traditional mountain film commentary on the degeneracy of modern life reaches a degree of explicitness seldom found in the older films.)
The film now flashes forward a number of years. Luise is living in New York, working as a photographer. In voice-over she says, “All I know is that death spared me, and that Toni went away forever. . . One has lived if one has loved.” The final commentary here, which goes on a bit, is rather banal – but after the events leading up to it, all words seem empty. Luise appears to be a bit older in this final scene, but not by much. Perhaps the scene takes place in the late 40s. Are we meant to draw the conclusion that she fled Nazi Germany? Amusingly, the scene involves her photographing a black saxophone player. (I could not help thinking here of the cartoon black saxophone player that the Nazis used to symbolize entartete Musik! After all that heartbreak, some comic relief was certainly welcome.) Is the fact that Luise photographs black people supposed to signal that she has rejected National Socialism? Well, no one was convinced when Leni Riefenstahl tried it with the Nuba of the Sudan, and I don’t think it’s going to work for Luise either.
The epilogue to the film tells us that the north face was finally conquered in 1938 by a German-Austrian team, following the trail blazed by Toni and Andi. The Nazis declared this a symbol of the German-Austrian alliance. “The last great problem of the Alps had been conquered.”
I cannot recommend North Face strongly enough to readers of this website. In spite of its few minor blemishes, the film’s heart is very much in the right place. It is a worthy successor to the classic mountain films of the 20s and 30s, and it is one of the most visually spectacular and emotionally moving films I have ever seen. Throughout this essay I have frequently referred to ways in which North Face picks up major elements from the Fanck mountain films. In subsequent essays, I will examine the Fanck films themselves, and discuss those elements in detail. Although visually they are now quite dated compared to North Face, I believe that they are unique and profound pieces of cinema, which hold up a mirror to the Nordic soul. Though on the surface they appear to be nothing more than entertaining, romantic adventures, I believe that they communicate a profound philosophy of life – and that this was a conscious intention on the part of the filmmakers. I believe that they also provide us with a unique sociological insight into their time period, and into the rise of National Socialism.
1. Julius Evola, Meditations on the Peaks: Mountain Climbing as Metaphor for the Spiritual Quest, trans. Guido Stucco (Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 1998), 34. These lines appear in a chapter titled “Race and the Mountain.”