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Originally published Thursday, February 4, 2010 at 3:01 PM

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Movie review

'North Face': a gripping climb up Eiger mountain in the Alps

"North Face," Philipp Stölzl's film about a 1936 pre-Olympic Games attempt by two German climbers (Benno Fürmann, Florian Lukas) to scale the forbidding Eiger in the Alps, is perfectly cast, well-written and almost excruciatingly realistic at times.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3.5 stars

'North Face,' with Benno Fürmann, Florian Lukas, Johanna Wokalek. Directed by Philipp Stölzl, from a screenplay by Stölzl, Christoph Silber, Rupert Henning and Johannes Naber. 121 minutes. Not rated; contains tense mountain-climbing scenes. In German and Swiss German, with English subtitles. Egyptian.

MOVIE REVIEW 3.5 stars

While Leni Riefenstahl's "Olympia" dealt exhaustively with the 1936 Olympics competition in Berlin, Philipp Stölzl's "North Face" impressively dramatizes a lesser-known event that led up to the Games.

Germany was in the market for sports heroes in the months before the big event, and mountain-climbing looked like a promising route to fame.

Whether the outcome would be triumph or disaster, the climbers would have the world's attention when they scaled the difficult Eiger mountain in the Alps.

Sometimes described as the Wall of Death, the North Face of the Eiger proves irresistible to a couple of German climbers, Toni Kurz (Benno Fürmann) and Andi Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas). Their childhood friend, Luise Fellner (Johanna Wokalek), becomes a photojournalist assigned to cover the event.

Her rugged friends turn out to be just what her Hitler-adoring editor needs for a photo spread. While Toni and Andi make a meal of barley soup in their tent, tourists and the media dine in a luxury hotel built into the mountain and reached by train.

What begins as a tourist's spectacle turns complicated when an Austrian team joins the Germans in their assault on the mountain. After a climber is seriously injured by falling rocks, the film's adventurous tone shifts drastically.

"Come in a train," notes one observer, "leave in a coffin."

Stölzl makes the smallest details loom large. The loss of a glove is like a death sentence. Toni and Andi's pre-Eiger army status is established when they're introduced cleaning latrines. When Luise chooses to smoke, it's clear she's imitating Toni, the man she worships.

While the movie doesn't make a big deal out of the characters' political leanings, it's obvious where they stand. A simple reaction to "Heil Hitler!" (or non-reaction) tells us all we need to know.

Perfectly cast, well-written and almost excruciatingly realistic at times, "North Face" gets especially high marks for its physical production. Kudos to cinematographer Kolja Brandt, editor Sven Budelmann and the rest of the technical team. This is simply one of the best mountain-climbing movies ever made.

John Hartl:

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