Nordwand – North Face (2008)

Maybe the German/Austrian/Swiss co-production Nordwand – North Face isn’t strictly speaking a war movie but it contains one of my favourite subjects, Nazi ideology and propaganda and therefore still qualifies. Plus it’s a stunning movie which had me glued to the screen until the end.

Before I start the summary, let me share a little anecdote. I remember when I was a kid we stayed at the holiday house of my parent’s friends in the Alps. The house was facing the Eiger. I was just 8 years old and scared. I found the mountain to look as if it was looming. I had the feeling it was moving towards me and just about to swallow me. I had no idea at the time that Eiger means ogre. Funny enough, my father, a typical big city person, had a similar reaction. He wasn’t scared but admitted to feeling uncomfortable. My mother who had been living in Switzerland much longer, didn’t mind that much but she didn’t enjoy it either.

When I saw North Face I was catapulted back to this holiday. I’ve hardly ever seen a movie capture how scary those mountains are. The Eiger’s North Face (Nordwand) was called “Mordwand” (murder wall) for a reason.

The movie is set in 1936. Until then nobody had managed to climb the north face of the Swiss massif the Eiger. Athletism was an important pillar of Nazi ideology and propaganda. Athletes incorporated the Nazi ideal to perfection so naturally there was a lot of interest in Germans being the first to manage what nobody else had managed before. At the same time as Germany was about to annex Austria and the Olympics were imminent, a win on the Eiger would be good for the reputation of the Nazis.

Luise Fellner is a young woman trying to become a journalist. She grew up with Toni Kurz and Andi Hinterstoisser who are some of the best climbers at the time. When her boss, an eager journalist, finds out about the connection he sends her to her home village to try to persuade them to climb the North Face and give her the chance to prove herself as a photojournalist. Despite Andi’s efforts to convince his friend, Toni, the more thoughtful of the two, is reluctant. He thinks climbing the Eiger is by far too dangerous. Only when Andi finally decides to do it on his own, he follows him.

Luise and her boss travel to Switzerland and stay at the hotel in front of the Eiger. Meanwhile it has become a real competition. There are climbing teams from Italy, France and Austria. In the end only two teams, the German and the Austrian team, will start the climb.

Nordwand is an amazing movie. The cinematography is stunning. This is as close to climbing as you can get without actually doing it. It’s also a love story and the story of an emancipation as Luise faces a lot of prejudice and sexism in her profession. Furthermore it is a story of a unique friendship and one of the most tragic true stories I’ve ever seen.

The movie also shows nicely how the media contributed to the success of nazism, how people already then were keen on sensationalism, how they were hungry for drama and tragedy without thinking of the human pain and loss this meant. There are some interesting secondary characters who illustrate this well.

Another aspect which certainly contributes to the movie’s success are the actors. They  are outstanding, Ulrich Tukur plays the overeager older journalist, Johanna Wolkalek stars as the young photojournalist and the two mountaineers are played by Benno Fürmann as Toni Kurz and as Florian Lukas as Andi Hinterstoisser.

North Face is one of the best mountaineering movies, certainly a great war themed movie but most of all an incredible and really tragic true story.


21 thoughts on “Nordwand – North Face (2008)

  1. nem baj says:

    Sounds interesting !

    I presume it refers to the period mountain-climbing movies like Arnold Fanck’s The White Hell of Piz Palu (1929, abundantly mentioned in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds), Avalanche (1930) and SOS Iceberg (1933), all starring none other than WWI flying ace Ernst Udet and… Leni Riefenstahl ?

    • It’s well worth watching, I think. I’m sure it does refer to the movies you mention as well. I suppose from a purely cinematographic point of view this movie must be more impressive. Plus it has the advantage of being a true story.
      This reminds me an excellent German double biography has just been published, comparing Marlene Dietrich and Leni Riefenstahl. It looks really good.

  2. the war movie buff says:

    Are you familiar with the Clint Eastwood movie “The Eiger Sanction”? I have not seen it since I was a kid. Not a good movie, but it was filmed on location.

  3. Guy Savage says:

    I don’t know that I’ll see this as the previews had me wincing. Many years ago I saw this husband and wife climber team being interviewed for some documentary. She’d been a climber first when she met him and then he started climbing when they began their relationship. I’ve never forgotten how he came across as petrified while she had all the confidence in the world. It came as no surprise to discover that he was killed in a climbing accident.

    Anyway I have—as Mel Brooks says–High Anxiety, so I probably won’t be able to stand watching this without chewing the seat cushions.

    • I totally understand that. While I have no altitude anxiety, I find those mountains really oppressive and am glad that I live far away in a non-mountainous region.
      On the other hand, it’s an excellent film.

  4. Scott W. says:

    You’ll find Nordwand at the front of “Why am I not a mountain climber” file – but I did think it was impressive, one of the best mountaineering films I’ve seen (The Eiger Sanction, by contrast, rates as one of my least favorite films of any genre, a kitsch, misanthropic mess).

    • How nice of you to visit me here!
      I thought it was extremely impressive. I could never be a mountain climber or live near those mountains.
      I’m not going to chase The Eiger Sanction, thanks.

  5. nem baj says:

    Worth watching indeed it was.

    There is, as you were certain of, a reference to the Fanck/Pabst movie of 1929 in the fake Ufa newsreel at the beginning (showing Udet’s plane trying to locate the bodies of Mehringer and Sedelmayr, something he actually did at the beginning of september 1935, whereas in The White Hell of Piz Palu he fictionnally located lost climbers as well, only this time they were alive). There’s another reference in the musical score throughout the whole movie, which most of the time mimics Ashley Irwin’s 1998 work for the restored version of Piz Palu.

    Now, as I’m not an alpinist I won’t comment on the technical accuracy of the climbing techniques shown in the film, or on the weather conditions… I’ll just say the mountain scenes were frightening enough, which is obviously a good point for a thriller called North Face. I was not that much impressed with the cinematography and editing of those scenes, quite common in todays action flicks, but the director certainly made up for it by filming in extreme conditions. Brrr!

    *** you may want to stop reading here ***

    Now comes the ambiguous part: the ‘context’ scenes and outer subplot. The good guys are as pure and selfless as the mountains themselves, and the bad guys are shameless exploitative propaganda makers. Of course, the good guys neither willingly salute the bad guys (if they are men) nor do they sleep with them (if they are women). No way.

    The main problem here is the character of the journalist, however endearing the actress may be by today’s standards. When i mentioned above that the Ufa newsreel was a fake, I meant that Udet’s flight over the Eiger didn’t make it to the national news: instead, this particular week the subject was… the Nuremberg Laws and the blood purity of the aryan race.

    So Fräulein Fellner is introduced in this scene as a genuine lover of sports (no problem with that of course), sports which were a strong theme in nazi propaganda (true of course). But how can she, working her way up in a national newspaper in Berlin, escape the rest of it ?

    On the same line, the subplot beetween her and her boss plays on dangerous grounds: will she be corrupted by her journalistic ambitions, and sleep with the seasoned big-city slicker? Or will she remain true to her bavarian village values and youthful love… the Berchtesgaden spirit?

    Even further, there’s the subplot of the newspaper story. Obviously Ulrich Tulkur’s character is only interested in fabricating a propaganda story about übermenschen solving the ‘last problem of the Alps’. Bad, bad media people. Rich, and highly skilled, too. Will they succeed?

    All these mysteries, of course, are solved in the movie. They are solved by the Eiger itself. Nature as a moral ground, nature against all the lies and seductions of the big city, nature as the place to reveal your true self…

    I’m afraid that North Face delivers the exact same message it supposedly tries to give a bad name to.

    • nem baj says:

      I’ll add something about the bergfilme (German mountain films) genre, which started under the Weimar Republic in the middle of the 1920’s, but whose origins are much older.

      The use of Nature as a multi-purpose metaphoric ground for the human soul is a foundation of German Romanticism. A symbol of purity as well as a terrain for the expression, and even the resolution of moral conflicts. Now, it would be grossly improper to say that the bergfilme were ‘nazi’, unless you’re ready to apply the qualification to, let’s say, Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings, which would be senseless.

      These movies (and books, and brochures about alpinismus) were simply representative of feelings that were very pervasive in Germany at the end of the 19th century, even more so after the defeat of 1918 and the 1923 economic crisis, when the aspect of Nature as a source of solace became obvious. The nazis built upon these foundations, yet they did not retain the whole spectrum; actually, there were far more bergfilme produced before they took control of the Ufa than after they did.

      What they kept was mostly the Boden: the soil, both in its historical permanence and its comforting aspects. They also kept the extreme character of the experience. This you can find, almost intact, in North Face. They added an ‘achievement’ side inherent to their vision of sports in general (and ours today), and their usual ‘problem solving’ rethorics – North Face is very accurate in that regard.

      What they totally ditched was the love stories, the visual flamboyance and… the eroticism that derives from it all. Riefenstahl (who played the female alpinist in so many bergfilme where she is torn beetween two men / where men compete for her attention) was at the end of her acting carreer nicknamed by critics ‘the crevasse of the Reich’. Surely not of the utmost elegance, but then visually suggestive, as the movies were, including The Blue Light which she co-directed herself with Béla Balázs.

      Riefenstahl appeared in her last bergfilm in 1933. Of course, there are other reasons why she changed directions, but nazi-produced mountain films would never be the same as they were at the artistic climax of the genre (of which The White Hell of Piz Palu is a fantastic example).

      North Face has the distinguished merit to make a direct connection beetween the ideology of the original bergfilm and its historical context, even if the results are, in my opinion, highly ambivalent.

      After I watched it, I couldn’t help wonder why someone would, nowadays, stress so much Nature as solace, coupled with the thirst for extreme sensations. Of course, this is not the only movie of the last decades to do so; think 127 Hours for instance, and the whole bunch of ‘extreme survival in the wilderness’ flicks. Being part of a wave, even a new genre, makes it even worse…

      We live in highly urbanized societies facing serious economic and social challenges. If the Boden is back, what’s the next Blut going to be?

      PS : this is much, much too long for comments. I apologize for blog squatting, won’t do it again! 🙂

      • Interesting, thanks for sharing it. What is actually interesting is that hardly anyone who saw North Face thought of it as anything else than a mountaineering movie that’s why I thought it would be great to include it here and to look at it from the Nazi propaganda angle.
        Touching the Void is another of these “extreme” mountaineering movies, not bad, but no war theme there.
        I have a feelig I’m slightly more pessimistic than you, I think that the “Blut” was never really gone.
        Bitw. The Ogre thematized another importnat element that the Nazi’s got from romanticism – the forest.
        I’ve read an interesting philosophical analysis of the ecological mouvenet in France -or his almost non-existnece – which the author explained was too a large extent a French reaction to the Nazis’ love of nature. Maybe an easy explanation but some of it was interesting.
        Don’t worry about comment squatting. Should you ever feel like writing more, you could always write a guest post on a topic/movie of your choice. 🙂

      • nem baj says:

        Thanks, it’s very kind of you.

        The essay you mentioned sounds interesting. From a cinematographic point of view I guess France had its own issues in the 30’s and 40’s when it came to Nature (Pagnol’s adaptations of his own novels or Giono’s, Renoir even), issues which sometimes re-surface. And these years are also the beginning of a movement in French mountain literature and mountain films, but I haven’t seen the latter and my memories of the former are too distant now.

      • Any day, just let me know.
        It’s an interesting essay. I had to go dig to fin it again. It’s by Luc Ferry “Le nouvel ordre écologique”.
        The only mountain book that comes to mind is Ramuz’ Grande peur dans la montagne but he’s actually Swiss French.

      • nem baj says:

        Thanks for the book reference. I was thinking about the novels of Frison-Roche (Premier de cordée was published in 1942 and the film was shot in 1943) and the films of Marcel Ichac.

        Mountain fiction bloomed later in France, probably because the real French equivalent of the bergfilme in the 20’s and early 30’s were the colonial movies. The mostly North African settings and indigenous populations were assigned the part of… the mountains. A ‘natural’, exotic, dangerous environment that could be conquered but also where men – Frenchmen, that is – could face their personal issues.

        The Weimar Republic couldn’t make colonial movies, since they had lost their territories in 1919 at Versailles. Not surprisingly, the nazis started to produce many ‘exotic adventure films’ in the late 30s, as they were planning to build an empire of their own (plus, they could bash the British… on screen).

      • I’m not sufficiently familiar with these aspects of cinema history.
        I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of those French movies set in Northenr Africa in the 30s.

      • nem baj says:

        Well, the colonial genre was progressively contaminated by ‘poetic realism’, a fusion which gave some great films like Duvivier’s Pépé le Moko, Chenal’s La Maison du Maltais or Feyder’s Le Grand Jeu. Yet most of the production wasn’t that poetic, and quite straightforward when it came to the civilizing mission – see for example this excerpt of L’Homme du Niger (no subtitles, sorry).

        However to stay focused on our subject there were some noticeable ‘military’ – though seldom ‘combat’ – movies, whose main themes were:

        1) French-colonial-officer-seduced-by-a-mysterious-woman, as in La Châtelaine du Liban (see posters of the 1926 and 1934 versions), and L’Atlantide (in particular Feyder’s 1921 masterpiece, Pabst’s later version being more European than French).

        2) Troopers of the French Legion, from silent dramas to comedies with Fernandel, too many to list but I guess La Bandera stands out.

        Of course the French were not the only ones to make French Legion movies, it’s almost a subgenre in itself whith, besides La Bandera, Hollywood classics of the 30’s like Sternberg’s Morocco or Wellman’s Beau Geste.

      • Don’t worry about the subtitles, French happens to be one of my native languages. 🙂 It’s sadly eloquent that excerpt. Bah.
        I’ve got Pépé le Moko here as I’m a Jean Gabin fan.
        I’ve heard Beau Geste was worth watching, I should do that. I also think I’ve seen Morocco.

    • I’m not entirely sure I got your point. I didn’t find it ambiguous. The Eiger did help her, that’s for sure. You mind if the outcome would have been different, the movie could have only been filmed as a praise but since it went wrong, she never really had to decide whether she was pro or contra. Maybe, yes. Maybe it also wanted to show how easily you were dragged along by te whole Ûbermensch frenzy and that she was lucky. It’s more an ambigous story than an ambiguous movie.
      When I say I liked the cinematography I really menat the picures not the filming technique as such that’s quite conventional really.

      • nem baj says:

        The mountain climbing scenes themselves seem luckily devoid of any moral signification, and even the friendship disappears before the complexity of the tasks and the obstacles they have to deal with. I have no doubt the director wanted to show that the two unwilling candidates for propaganda were, in fact, just men. And perhaps he should have sticked to that.

        For since the subplots around the young journalist consume a considerable length, it is inevitable that a large part of the audience will try to identify with her. And what happens is that we see her quit a possible career in the nazi-controlled national press, to emigrate to New-York and photograph African-American jazzmen. Wow.

        She is ‘saved’ (in terms of retrospective political correctness) by the Eiger, or more accurately by her own Eiger experience. Nature becomes the place where she cleaned her soul of all things presented as impure: here, the big media, sexual harassment and State ideology.

        To paraphrase a famous French leader of the era, « the mountain doesn’t lie », which makes North Face a bergfilm without the sex and visual flamboyance, something which for reasons stated in my previous comment I find quite ambivalent – and not ambiguous as I improperly wrote (you’re right again).

        As counter-propositions to this wave of new ‘wilderness’ fictions, I’ll suggest two recent films with a radically different approach to Nature: one is actually a war movie, Jerzy Skolimovski’s Essential Killing, and the second is a ‘documentary’, Grizzly Man by Werner Herzog, a German director who in my opinion is at the same time a true Romantic and the best visual critic of the ambivalence I’m writing about.

      • Herzog has made a lot of impressive movies on similar topics. I don’t review any documentaries or hardly ever but watch them sometimes. I thought he made one of the best POW movies I’ve ever seen, Rescue Dwan, nature is very important in it.

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