I like to consider myself a climber. I have scaled Mont Blanc, with some difficulty I must admit. But this achievement is a walk in the park compared to the Eigers infamous North Face. This is at the extreme end of mountaineering and is the preserve of an elite few at the very pinnacle of their sport. I have stared in awe at the "Nordwand" and marveled that men could summon the physical strength and courage to dare to take on this challenge. The mile high great Face dominates the little resort of Kleine Scheidegg like a malevolent black tooth. It is an incredible force of nature close up. It was long considered impregnable. But in the 1930s a special new breed of climber cast eyes on the unclimbed face and dared to take it on. Many died trying. They climbed with equipment that is primitive by todays standards. Hand made hemp ropes, woollen clothes and studded boots. They had basic iron pitons and wore no helmets. But they had youth, strength and an unwavering belief in their own abilities. This film is about some of those men.
"North Face" is based on perhaps the most famous true story in mountaineering history. Yes, even more so than the Mallory and Irvine story on Everest. It concerns the story of two young Germans, Toni Kurz and Andreas Hinterstoisser, and two young Austrians Edi Ranier and Willy Angerer, and their heroic attempt to climb the unconquered Eiger North Face. At a very early stage Angerer is badly injured by falling rocks. This slows them down and the problem is exacerbated when the weather changes for the worse. Suddenly their concern is not about a first ascent, but about a grim battle for survival. Bravery and deep camaraderie come to the fore.
Those that know their mountaineering history will know how it ends. The story has been told in some detail in Heinrich Harrer's 1959 book "The White Spider", a legendary volume in the annals of mountaineering named after a distinctive icefield near the summit. It is a story that fascinated and influenced the famous British climber Joe Simpson. It is a story that has fascinated me. It is one that is deserving of a very special film, and it is one that has got it. Make no mistake this is the finest mountaineering film ever made. Better even than "Touching the Void" which took the genre to new heights of realism. Much better than nonsense like Clint Eastwood's "The Eiger Sanction". In this film you suffer vertigo just watching. You feel the cold creeping through your body. It feels almost like you can get frostbite watching. You are with the climbers willing them on. It is mesmeric viewing.
It is fitting that the Germans should make this fine film. They have a long and distinguished history in mountain films, especially in the halcyon period of the 1930s. Arnold Fanck and Louis Trenker both made fine films that are watched today. That other force of nature Leni Riefenstahl acted in a number of these. "North Face" follows in that tradition. It shows wonderful attention to detail in the equipment of the day and the period feel. This is a very accomplished film in all respects. A word of warning. This is a harrowing story and not for the faint hearted. Blu-Ray is about as close as you will get to experiencing the andrenalin rush you get from climbing on the very edge, without taking the risks. But if you have the stomach this is a tremendous film. A comfortable five stars