With the Nazis looking to assert themselves on the world stage in the lead-up to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, it became newly appealing for the Germans to conquer the infamous Eiger mountain face, alternately called “the last great problem of the Alps” or, more bluntly, “the Murder Wall.” In spite of an attempt that ended in tragedy less than a year earlier, two cocky Alpine mountaineers, Toni Kurz and Andi Hinterstoisser, were cajoled into scaling the wall, which among other things would earn them a significant honor at the Games. The shaky historical adventure North Face goes to conspicuous lengths to distance Kurz and Hinterstoisser from the Nazis, who obviously wished to exalt them as Aryan heroes. The men are shown brushing off “Heil Hitler!” salutes like dandruff on their shoulders, and they’re encouraged to climb the Eiger face by an underling of a friend of the Nazis—a full three stops removed.
While it may be true that Kurz and Hinterstoisser were apolitical thrill-seekers, the strained efforts to keep them above the fray speaks to North Face’s chief problem: It really just wants to get to the damned mountain. Every scene on the eponymous wall is tense and riveting, capturing the bruising physicality and constant danger of going straight up an unstable rock, helpless against the possibility of avalanches or sudden blizzards. Every scene off the wall, by contrast, is a plodding, graceless chunk of dramatic context, whether it’s a tacked-on romantic subplot involving Kurz and a junior photojournalist (Johanna Wokalek) or the umpteenth shot of bourgeois decadence at the four-star hotel at Eiger’s base. The historical backdrop is fascinating and an important part of this story, but there’s a pervasive sense that director Philipp Stölzl and his screenwriters soft-pedal it as much as possible in order to exalt their heroes. North Face might have been better served as a documentary with recreations, like Touching The Void. This way, Stölzl could have kept the expertly staged derring-do while relegating the rest to deep background.