Reinhold and Günther Messner grow up in a village in South Tyrol. Reinhold likes to take risks, whilst his brother is more conservative. In 1970, they set out to climb the Himalayan peak Nanga Parbat, the world's ninth highest mountain, with tragic consequences.
FESTIVAL OF GERMAN FILMS: For sheer spectacle, nerve-tingling tension and breathless excitement, Nanga Parbat doesn’t scale the heights of the two most outstanding mountain climbing sagas of recent years, North Face and the drama-documentary Touching the Void. Not even close.
And key aspects of director Joseph Vilsmaier’s account of the 1970 expedition up the 4,500-metre high Rupal face of the mountain in the Western Himalayas have been slammed as inaccurate and slanderous by some of the participants and their descendants. Thus it’s difficult to assess the merits of movie whose fundamental veracity has been questioned.
What isn’t in dispute is that two brothers, Reinhold and Günther Messner, reached the peak – the first men to do so after many died trying – but only Reinhold survived.
Florian Stetter plays Reinhold, who was 26 at the time, and Andreas Tobias is 23-year-old Günther. The film gives Reinhold’s version of events, portraying him as a brash, courageous and heroic figure who was helpless to save his sibling. Two other members of the expedition claimed Reinhold abandoned his brother.
There’s a very slow build-up in the first half hour, establishing that the brothers wanted to become mountain climbers when they were kids and how they teamed up with the expedition’s leader Dr Karl Maria Herrligkoffer (Karl Markovics).
The narrative finally develops a degree of suspense when the Messners ascend the summit and endure a hellish night without shelter. Aware of their plight, Herrligkoffer surmises, 'The only likely outcome is death." One brother slips – it’s impossible to tell which in the gloom-triggering a mighty avalanche.
Without ropes – a mistake by Günther – and cut off from their original route, the brothers set out to try to find a path back down the treacherous Diamir Face.
Reaching the deserted summit later that day, Felix Kuen and Peter Scholz, climbers who were despatched by the doctor, find a glove. 'The Messners are dead," declares Felix (Steffen Schroeder) without a hint of sorrow as he embraces Peter. 'They always had their own agenda." Were they really so callous towards their comrades?
The scene where an avalanche engulfs Günther is curiously and poorly staged. The exhausted Reinhold watches as the snow cascades down the mountain, then the director switches to him on a rocky outcrop calling out for his brother. What could have been a powerful and moving passage is grievously underplayed to the point of being emotionally uninvolving.
The film depicts Herrligkoffer, who was on his seventh expedition to Nanga Parbat, as dictatorial, egotistical, stubborn and insensitive, willing to blame the brothers for departing from the route he’d planned. That view is hotly contested by his son. 'I don't recognise my father as he's been portrayed in the film, and because he's dead he cannot defend himself," Klaus Herrligkoffer told the German magazine Spiegel.
One member of the expedition, Gerhard Baur, told Spiegel the film is a 'constructed story, and is not the truth about Nanga Parbat "¦ it is presented as if it were a documentary when it doesn't reflect the facts. I still don't accept (Messner’s) version of events."
The leading characters are one-dimensional, much of the dialogue is banal and the ending is overly melodramatic and heavy handed. A postscript notes that Reinhold went back to the mountain a dozen times to look for his brother. Günther’s remains were discovered in the Diamir glacier in 2005.
The aerial photography is impressive but the close-ups of the climbers are nowhere near as well integrated with the panoramic shots as in North Face and Touching the Void, diluting the dramatic impact.
The soundtrack is dominated by what sounds like heavy metal guitar, a jarring and inappropriate counterpoint to the images.