It’s surprising to see a movie about Nazis in which their being Nazis isn’t the main focus, since we’ve been conditioned by years of cinema to expect horrible atrocities to follow the mere glimpse of a swastika. Philipp Stolzl defies those expectations with North Face, a fact-based mountain-climbing drama that takes place during the early days of Nazi power in Europe (1936), but uses the Third Reich merely as context and background, a way of explaining the circumstances that drove four men to attempt to scale the north face of the Eiger, a mountain in the Swiss Alps.
Toni (Furmann) and Andi (Lukas), a pair of German soldiers, are there not only because of their lifelong love of climbing, but also because Hitler’s government has deemed the conquering of the Eiger a matter of national pride. Toni and Andi’s childhood friend Luise (Wokalek) is a budding photojournalist, and she accompanies her obnoxious boss to the base of the Eiger to document the race between Toni and Andi and a pair of Austrians to be the first to climb the Eiger’s north face.
It takes a little longer than necessary to get to the actual expedition, and the mostly unrequited love between Toni and Luise is underwritten. But once things start to go wrong on the climb, as they inevitably do in movies like this, Stolzl builds an atmosphere of tense anticipation that doesn’t let up until the film’s coda. The images of the Eiger are both majestic and harrowing, and the action is as exciting as in any mountain-climbing movie to date.
The political backdrop remains relatively unexplored, though, and the climbers themselves are fairly one-dimensional. Rather than use the events as an opportunity to say something about the time period and the spread of Nazi ideology, Stolzl opts merely to tell a gripping story, but for most of the journey, that’s enough.