Saturday, April 24, 2010

North Face - ***1/2

When it comes to films that are based on true stories, people often have a hard time distinguishing between a great story and a great film. This is why bullshit movies like The Blind Side become big hits. The 2008 German film North Face, which was just recently released in America, certainly tells an amazing story, but it took me a while to realize that it was also an incredible film. Many things are done right; director Philipp Stozl knows when to drag out tension, like when a near-frozen man is dangling from a rope twenty feet above a team of rescuers and is trying to summon the strength to untie it while his girlfriend, who has climbed up the side of the mountain so she is parallel to him, and is reaching out to him, desperately begs for him to lift his arms. The scene lasts forever and he dies at the end of it... it's awful. It's about two steps away from being a horror film, and walking out of it I felt that it unfairly manipulated viewers' expectations of what kind of film they were in for, but now I'm not so sure that it does.

The film tells the horrific story of two competing teams of mountain climbers who hope to be the first to ascend the north face of the Eiger Mountain. Louise, a newspaper reporter hoping to get her first by-line, convinces her lover Toni and his partner Andi to make an attempt. About a day's climb from the top, one of their competitors breaks a leg and they decide to help him back down, instead of leaving him to die. In the process all of the men die, while Louise looks on from below, hoping to see Toni again.

Not knowing the story going in, I wrestled with how I felt about this radical turn of events. I think that people, myself included, get caught up in rooting for characters in films and are easily swept up in heroism and incredible acts of strength and will power. In North Face, this caused me to lose sight of who the film is really about, which is Louise, who anxiously awaits Toni's return from a four-star hotel, while listening to her reporting partner expound on how a rescue wouldn't make for a good story, but men dying in the attempt would be front-page news. I should have known earlier that this wasn't going to end well, because with any other outcome cutting between brutal mountain blizzards and cozy hotel fires wouldn't work, but here it's effective. As you lose more and more hope for the cause, Louise's patience only heightens the suspense of the descent in a way that even the amazing score, which beautifully blends in what sounds like a hammer hitting rock, cannot. The film has some faults, sure, but the sheer unrelentingly brutal experience of watching it is enough to overwhelm just about anything.

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