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.

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Der Stellvertreter aka Amen (2002) The Disillusioning Reaction of the Catholic Church to the Holocaust

In the beginning of Costa Gavras´ Der Stellvertreter aka Amen we see how a group of children with special needs is transported to an extermination camp and gassed. When this is being found out people are shocked and taken aback and, together with the Catholic Church, they fight these practices that are ultimately stopped.

This noble reaction of the Church is not repeated however when they are asked for assistance in stopping the extermination of Jews. Nor do the alerted Allies help. Der Stellvertreter explores the shameful failure of the Catholic church and the rest of the world.

The SS officer Kurt Gerstein (Ulrich Tukur), head of the Institute of Hygiene, is a chemist and the developer of the lethal gas Zyklone-B. He thinks that this deadly gas is used to free the concentration camps from vermin and must find out that it is actually used for exterminating Jews. He witnesses this with his own eyes and his outrage and revulsion are so intense that he decides to alarm the Catholic Church. Only one young priest, whose family is of great influence in the Vatican, Riccardo Fontana (Mathieu Kassovitz), feels the urge to support Gerstein, travels to the Vatican and informs the Pope. To no avail. The Church won’t act.

The Church fears many things. They are afraid that communism might spread and are grateful to the Nazis who stopped it. They are afraid that they might not be spared by the Nazis if they oppose too openly. And, as the movie seems to say, they ultimately don’t care too much about the Jews.

Gerstein and Fontana will go on fighting and trying to inform people, to make at least the Allies act. The Allies however don’t want to act as they don’t want to negotiate with criminals. Every time Gerstein and Fontana inform someone about the extent of the atrocities the numbers have risen. From an initial hundred thousand they are soon in the millions. These numbers are symbolized in the numerous takes of riding trains we see during the movie.

As an ultimate sacrifice and because he thinks it is his Christian duty the young priest joins a transport of Italian Jews to one of the concentrations camps.

Kurt Gerstein is a historical figure. After the war all the important figures of Nazi Germany were incarcerate. Gerstein, facing trial and before killing himself, writes a report on everything he has seen. Years later he is found not guilty and rehabilitated.

As interesting as the theme of this movie is I did not find it completely compelling. Maybe because it is based on a theater play (Rolf Hochhut’s Der Stellvertreter aka The Deputy)? I don’t know. I think you will have to find out for yourself. 4/5 stars but still valuable.