Mountain High

North Face overcomes its pedigree with climbing thrills. The Most Dangerous Man in America simply overcomes.

Why should the German mountain-climbing adventure North Face be such a guilty pleasure? Can’t we take the story of a pair of intrepid alpinists trying to scale the notorious North Face of Switzerland’s Eiger mountain at face value? What is there about filmmaker Philipp Stölzl’s relatively straight-ahead outdoor drama that gives us the willies?

Maybe it’s the Nazi thing. Everybody’s favorite symbol of ultimate evil in the 20th century has really never taken a break from movie screens since 1945 — but it should. Granted, World War II was the biggest news story of the past century, but we’ve digested that, and it’s time to move on. It’s far too easy to use Hitler and the Nazis as all-purpose bogeymen in everything from documentaries to spy potboilers, and frankly the motif has been overworked.

North Face has such a heavy Nazi angle that it’s tempting to view the presence of National Socialist mischief as the driving force behind the drama. The film begins in 1936, a few months before the notorious Berlin Olympics. The Nazi government is eager to prove the superiority of German athletes and has identified the “conquering” of the Eiger’s most dangerous face as a national goal. A prize is offered for the first mountaineering team to scale the North Face, and the Berliner Zeitung newspaper is devoting major space to the international contest. To have a German team climb it would be a propaganda triumph for the Third Reich.

All this is a matter of intense interest to Luise Fellner (Johanna Wokalek), a shy young Berliner Zeitung reporter who happens to be a childhood friend of two of the leading contenders for the Eiger crown, Toni Kurz (Benno Fürmann) and Andreas Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas). They all grew up together in Berchtesgaden. Toni and Andi, the epitome of ruddy-faced, athletic Aryan manhood, are members of the Mountain Brigade and expert climbers, but they’re not party members — every time they get “Heil-Hitler’d” they come back with a wisecrack. Nevertheless, the hopes of the Führer ride with them. Even though they’re not fervent Nazi warriors like the Zeitung‘s overbearing editor, Herr Arau (Ulrich Tukur), Toni and Andi look the part. We can’t help picturing them a few years later, torching villages in Russia.

North Face could make another kind of sense, nearly as dubious, as an anachronistic example of the German “mountain film.” Popularized in the Twenties and Thirties by producer-director Arnold Fanck with such on-location adventures as The White Hell of Pitz Palu (starring Leni Riefenstahl, who would go on to make Triumph of the Will), Fanck’s heroic tales of bravery and endurance on snowy peaks struck a strange, ritualistic chord with Hitler and his gang.

That disproportionate enthusiasm for climbing and mountain scenery in general eventually took a drubbing by French intellectual Roland Barthes. In his 1957 book Mythologies, Barthes ridicules the “old Alpine myth” of the “picturesque” mountains and its associated “Helvetico-Protestant morality” and “cult of nature and of puritanism” as hopelessly corny and bourgeois.

So North Face has a few cultural and political peaks to scale even before Toni and Andi leave their base camp before dawn to begin the Eiger ascent in the moonlight. The good news is that once the two men start their cliff-hanging on the treacherous vertical fields of rock and ice, all thoughts of Nazis, propaganda, and cornball health-regime belief systems get left far behind in favor of some of the most thrilling mountain action ever put on film.

Toni and Andi didn’t have the advantages of our present-day technology. Their equipment was basically wool, cotton, leather, wood, and iron. As a storm brews up and director Stölzl crosscuts between shots of men freezing on the mountain and hotel guests gathered around a cozy fire, we take a lesson in how to tie a knot when your fingers have turned black from frostbite. Forget Hitler, Fanck, and Barthes. North Face is the most exhilarating thriller of the season.

After the February 3 Express preview piece on the making of Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith’s The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and Pentagon Papers, there wouldn’t seem to be much left to say on the subject. But any documentary important enough to be seen as “the secret history of the Vietnam war” probably warrants comments from more than one point of view, so here goes.

The Cold War/Vietnam era of US politics appears in the hindsight of Ehrlich and Goldsmith’s film as simultaneously more brutal and more innocent than the present. American politicians and government officials were more nakedly arrogant and less self-consciously judicious in those days. The imperial mindset went largely unquestioned before Ellsberg, the Harvard-trained former Marine Corps officer and “war thinker” for the Rand Corporation and the Defense Department, began to have his doubts in the late 1960s. For Ellsberg, the beginning of the end came when he asked a fellow American in Vietnam: “Do you ever feel like the Redcoats?”

President Richard Nixon, in the role of King George III, comes in for a special roasting in the film, via the now-public “secret tapes.” His voice quavering, Nixon calls Vietnam “this shit-ass little country” and rails against The New York Times and the “son-of-a-bitchin’ thief” Ellsberg for “stealing” the 7,000-page top secret documents that blew the lid off the war effort. Which was the bigger lie: the Gulf of Tonkin incident or Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction? Particularly disheartening is the revelation of the real reason we were in Vietnam: partly to keep that country from “going Communist,” partly to thwart the Red Chinese, but mostly to save face. This means that more than two million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans died to ensure Nixon’s and Henry Kissinger’s credibility.

Ellsberg is still justifiably outraged by the Vietnam war and subsequent events. Now 78 years old and still publicly skeptical of American “freedom operations,” he admits he was disappointed when no one stepped forward and leaked information that would have stopped the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Perhaps times have indeed changed. But the cumulative moral power of The Most Dangerous Man in America is a bracing reminder of the days when a reporter would declare: “We can and will be independent from our government.”


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