northface.jpgWe all knew that mountain climbers were a different breed. We just didn’t know how different. Now we do, thanks to North Face, which opens next week at The Nick.

Never before have adventure junkies gotten so close to the testosterone-drenched thrills of alpine climbing. And the Eiger, so beautiful, breathtaking. The film is a jaw-dropping recreation of a tragic assault on the Eiger’s north face. So help me I can’t understand how they got this footage. Even if most of it was somehow staged for the camera, it is still rife with the sorts of punishing handholds, rappels and traverses that jumpstart the adrenaline of extreme climbers and masochists.

At this point I have to stop. One of the most startling things about this scenery-driven film was my physical response to it. I was bored and impatient. What a silly story, what stiff acting. And yet as the climbing began, I found myself physically engrossed and unsettled. I flinched at each failed attempt to find a handhold, I had to close my eyes as rocks gave way under their feet. It was literally painful to watch.

And then there was the agonizing suspense. Would Toni be able to save the bleeding Austrian? Would Toni’s partner ever regain the feeling in his right arm? (This sounds like a SNL skit, but it was riveting, riveting, riveting.)

The story is thin—a limp love story between a reporter covering the attempt to climb the Eiger, and her former sweetie, Toni (who happens to be the finest climber in Germany), this story is draped over the brewing world war and quest for domination by the nascent Third Reich on the eve of the 1936 Olympics. (Now that I think of it, of course the love story is limp. Toni’s saving all of his precious bodily fluids — remember Dr. Strangelove? — for the mountain.)

More backstory: Hitler has promised a gold medal to the first climbers to successfully scale the north face of the Eiger. Okay, so we get that this is high-stakes cojones time. And while the wealthy gawkers gather to drink champagne and load up on schnitzel from the comfort of the hotel at the foot of the mountain, teams of climbers from several countries begin their ascents.

You know things aren’t going too well when halfway up, a member of the Austrian team suffers major head injuries and a broken leg. Our heroes, the lads from Garmisch-Partenkirchen, offer to help out and bring the wounded climber back down the mountain. Bad idea.
The weather deteriorates — and things get brutal as the three remaining climbers try to rest on jagged cliffs while avalanches rain down boulders the size of Bayreuth. Internal bleeding, frostbite, bad luck, bad decisions, worse weather—it is excruciating to watch, and yet — like all disasters — utterly mesmerizing.

Forget the “plot” – North Face is aerobic viewing — a dramatic visual lesson in courage, arrogance, and the amount of punishment the human body can endure.