by Kristin McCracken
In the latest addition to the adventure genre, North Face (Nordwand), director Philipp Stölzl tells the story of Toni Kurz (Benno Fürmann) and Andreas (Andi) Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas), two Nazi climbers who in 1936 made a daring attempt to ascend the north face of the Eiger. Known as “the last problem of the Western Alps,” this treacherous route seemed to defiantly challenge climbers near and far. Was it insurmountable? Who was brave enough even to try? Kurz & Hinterstoisser’s story is very well known in Alpine regions of Europe and in certain mountaineering circles, but the film is gripping—perhaps even more so— to those of us unfamiliar with their fate.
To a certain point, the Eiger was mastered earlier—and more visibly— than its Alpine peers: a train route was blasted through the mountain as early as 1912, allowing thrill seekers without any athletic ability the chance for breathtaking views from stomach-dropping heights. The film makes great use of these (and higher) vantage points, and depicts life both on the mountain and in the hotel nestled above the treeline just below the north face. In the summer of 1936, tourists at the hotel were afforded a front-row seat to the drama of the climb, attempted by both the German duo and their two Austrian challengers. In the film, one of these spectators is Kurz’s childhood sweetheart, and as we watch the events unfold through her eyes, we are kept in nail-biting suspense, rooting for these (Nazi, and thus unlikely) heroes. The film evokes such notable depictions as Kevin Macdonald's Touching the Void (based on Joe Simpson's marvelous book) and Jon Krakauer's Everest epic Into Thin Air.
Tribeca Film talked with Stölzl (also credited as one of the film’s writers) about the German mountain films that inspired him and the many challenges in bringing this story to the screen: developing the backstory, hunting for financing in the European market, making his Nazi characters endearing, and conquering the Eiger in his own unique way.
Note: It’s kind of tough to do an interview about the film without giving away the ending; to that end, what's posted here is spoiler-free. More of the story (with spoilers noted) is posted with the full article on TribecaFilm.com.
Tribeca Film: Please tell us a little about the old German climbing films that were your inspiration.
Philipp Stölzl: The climbing films were thought of as sort of a blockbuster genre in the 1920s and 30s. In Germany, people didn’t really travel far—the mountains were the main place for people to go, so they walked and they climbed. Because the more famous climbers were stock heroes, the admiration for climbing was reflected in the movie theaters; thus there were a lot of mountain movies in these years, starting in the 20s and ending during WWII.
TF: How did the Nazis get involved with these films, and with climbing?
PS: The Nazis loved mountain climbing. The whole idea of climbing fits into the way the Nazis saw death—dying for an ideal was a metaphor, that you could become a willing hero in the war against the rock. When you look at the early mountain movies, they are very symbolistic, with a visual type of language. They were connected to a German Romantic vision of nature, with the mountain as a character. The Nazis really, when you look at the Leni Riefenstahl’s [the Nazi propagandist] documentaries, clearly liked the powerful, visual language. After the war, people had to look for new images, since the mountains were loaded with the whole terror of the Nazis.
Spectators' view from the chalet/hotel at the foot of the Eiger
TF: Is the chalet at the foot of the mountain as it was in the 1930s, or has it been more built up? How realistic was its portrayal in the film?
PS: [The hotel] is still [virtually] the same [today], and would have been a prime location to shoot, but we couldn’t afford it. The historic part of what happened at the hotel is pretty realistic. The hotel itself has 60-70 beds, and given the timing [summer], it was sort of a tourist hotspot. The special thing about the Eiger is that there is a public arena—the hotel is at about 2300 meters [up the mountain, above the treeline], which is a very, very high spot for a tourist hotel. The train [through the mountain] was finished in 1912, very early—people were starting to make money off of nature; it’s sort of an early mass tourism place.
TF: The cinematography was breathtaking. How did you technically pull off the climbing scenes in blizzard conditions? Were they a combination of actual locations and sets? How grueling was the shoot on the mountain?
PS: The whole mountain stuff takes forever and forever—after a long, exhausting day, we would get one or two good shots. Then we shot a lot of documentary-style stuff: a couple of weeks in a mountain cabin, below the face. Then we shot using doubles [on the mountain], and then more main drama with the actors in a refrigerated set. We had a hall, normally meant to cool down vegetables, 15 degrees, and we just did our work inside, with rented snow machines like the ones ski resorts use.
TF: It still sounds brutal.
PS: It’s actually more brutal than shooting on a mountain, because at least there you are moving a lot. In the fridge set, you just stand around a wait, and you don’t need to haul everything, so you get cold.
TF: You are a mountain climber yourself. Can you identify with the need to conquer big challenges?
PS: I am familiar with it. I come from Munich, close to the Alps, and as a boy, I went climbing and walking easy routes. We went to all these locations, and I became sort of a more higher-level mountaineer. (I am far from climbing the North Face, but I spent a lot of time with professional mountain climbers.) After we finished the movie, a group of us climbed the Eiger—the actors, the producers, the cameraman, and me—but not the north face. It’s a two-day route. Because there is a train inside the mountain, you can get out on the backside. It’s one day through the glacier, and then you stay in a hut on a ridge, and then you start climbing up the ridge. It’s a beautiful route.