Toni and Andi are passionate mountain climbers. There's one mountain in particular that fascinates them: the Eiger North Face, the most dangerous rock face in the Alps, which has yet to be scaled. Being the first means not only a longed-for boost of their social standing, but also Olympic gold. As they get ready for their climb, they meet Luise, Toni's childhood sweetheart, a journalist who has been sent to report about the conquest of the mountain with her fellow reporter Arau, a Nazi follower. While a dramatic struggle for survival unfolds on the North Face, Luise sets out to save her lover.
Every bit as gripping as Touching the Void and twice as terrifying as Vertical Limit, German writer-director Philipp Stölzl’s film scales yet another impressive peak in the mountaineering drama genre. It’s based on the true story of the two Germans who aimed to be the first to conquer the North Face of the Eiger in 1936, spliced with a fictional romance.
Encouraged by the Nazi Party, which needed heroic figures for propaganda purposes in the run-up to the Berlin Olympics, patriotic young soldiers Toni Kurz (Benno Fürmann) and Andi Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas) set out to conquer the Swiss mountain known to climbers as the 'Death Wall." Toni had refused initially, declaring "I only climb for myself," as he reasoned that even the best climbers can be defeated by the vicissitudes of the weather or a sudden rock fall.
Ominously, it’s explained that Eiger means ogre, and, according to legend, there’s a monster on the mountain which devours climbers. Someone observes that some mountaineers arrive by train and leave in a coffin. Indeed, the previous year, two German climbers had frozen to death trying to scale the near-vertical North Face.
The Germans find they’re in a race to the top with Austrian pair Willy Angerer (Simon Schwarz) and Edi Rainer (Georg Friedrich), who are intent on trumping the Nazis and are travelling via a different route, although they later join forces.
Reporting on the assault are Berlin newspaper editor Henry Arau (Ulrich Tukur), a Hitler supporter, and office secretary-turned-aspiring photographer Luise Fellner (Johanna Wokalek), an old flame of Toni’s. She had accused him of being a coward when he initially baulked at taking on the challenge. It’s clear they still harbour feelings for each other, although he blames her for ending their romance.
The director adroitly switches between the perilous ascent, and the party, including Arau and Luise, who watch events from the comfort and safety of an opulent mountain hotel. The embodiment of the cynical journo, Arau tells his young colleague that he craves nothing less than a 'glorious triumph or a horrible tragedy," as anything else will merely merit a few lines on page 3.
Without giving away any spoilers, suffice to say the climb is fraught with danger and the tension becomes almost unbearable. The director seamlessly integrates location shooting in Switzerland with stunt doubles, and scenes with the actors shot in a refrigerated studio: the effect, as with Touching the Void, is frighteningly realistic. You’d swear you were on the mountain in a blizzard with the protagonists, and it feels bone-chillingly cold. This is a true white-knuckle experience.
Fürmann and Lukas bring the requisite intensity to their roles after establishing a very good, easygoing rapport in the early going as mates on a mission. Wokalek touchingly plays a woman who initially sees the assignment as a chance to make her name, but increasingly views it in very personal terms.