In 1936, two young Germans – experienced climbers and members of Hitler’s mountain patrol — decided to try their luck on the Eiger , the Swiss peak notorious for rebuffing (if not killing) every man who attempted to scale its formidable north face.
Philipp Stölzl’s  North Face  is an outdoor adventure based on real-life events. By turns hauntingly beautiful and flat-out terrifying, the film’s depiction of agonizing hardships should persuade any sane person to approach mountain climbing carefully.
With the Berlin Olympics  soon to begin, the Nazi leadership thinks it would be a fine thing if climbers representing the Reich conquered the North Face. Despite the deaths of two countrymen on the mountain just months before, Toni Kurz  (Benno Fürmann ) and Andi Hinterstoisser  (Florian Lukas ) decide to take on the Eiger.
It’s not so much about national pride (these two are indifferent Nazis and soldiers) as their borderline crazy love of climbing, of going where no man has gone before.
Basically North Face is a mountain climbing procedural. The film dwells on the primitive equipment and clothing, the magnificent vistas, the terrifyingly unpredictable weather. It puts us on the mountain with Kurz and Hinterstoisser – threading ropes through eyelets, hammering pitons into the rock wall, sleeping vertically on a narrow ledge while strapped into place by ropes.
There’s no subtext and not much character development, but those aren’t really missed. North Face puts us in the middle of the action as few films do, and the struggle of these two young men becomes our own.
Common sense tells us that these scenes were achieved with a high-tech blend of real outdoor photography, soundstage fakery, and plenty of computer enhancement. No matter – watching this film we become absolutely convinced that Furmann and Lukas are on the Eiger.
Other films in the series “Where the Air is Thin”
On July 28 the Library debuts the new documentary Nawang Gombu: Heart of a Tiger , about one of the world’s great mountaineers. That documentary, produced by Kansas City filmmaker Bev Chapman, inspired this film series about life and death at high altitudes.
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- July 6: K2  (1991) Rated R
- July 13: Vertical Limit  (2000) Rated PG-13
- July 20: North Face  (2008) Not Rated
- July 27: Touching the Void  (2003) Rated R
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler  is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com . He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.