Flash back to 1936, the year of the Berlin Olympics. Two young German mountaineers, alongside two of their Austrian peers, are attempting to scale the north face of the Eiger, the notorious Swiss peak. It is a lethal climb that no one has managed successfully before. For the journalists and spectators watching them inch up the mountain face, this is an enthralling spectacle: an example of two humble lads trying to bend nature to their will. For the Nazi officials following their agonising progress, however, the attempt represents nothing less than the demonstration of the superiority of the Aryan race...
This is the true story that a new film, North Face, has chosen to revisit. The account of Toni Kurz and Andi Hinterstoisser's audacious attempt on the most famous face in climbing, under the gaze of the Nazi party, is charged enough (ultimately, it was to end in tragedy – as so many attempts to climb the Eiger's north face did). Yet North Face is a German production and despite the success of mountain films – such as 2003's British triumph Touching the Void – it has been a long time since German cinema has returned to that most loaded of genres in its history.
This was a genre irrevocably tainted by its association with the Nazi regime. During the 1930s, as the Nazis prepared for war, the propaganda value in movies about rugged young Aryans conquering tricky Alpine peaks was self-evident. Indeed, the mountain movies' biggest star had been a certain Leni Riefenstahl. In the days before she directed Triumph of the Will and Olympia for Hitler, Riefenstahl had been obsessed by the mountaineering movies of Arnold Fanck, the great pioneer of this new cinematic form.
Fanck's Mountain of Destiny (1924) had bowled her over with its imagery of lone mountaineers stepping across chasms, its beautifully composed skyscapes and its slow-motion sequences of billowing clouds, pitting the heroic individual against the elements.
"I didn't know much about film but realised I was looking at a very special art-form on the screen for the first time," Riefenstahl later told the makers of the documentary, The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (1993). She had liked Fanck's movie so much that she had accosted its main actor, Luis Trenker, and told him that she was going to appear opposite him in Fanck's next film. Her behaviour may have been eccentric but she was very beautiful and very insistent, and Fanck quickly agreed to her proposition, fashioning a part for her in his next feature, The Sacred Mountain (1926). In no time at all, Riefenstahl was in the Alps, being buried alive in an avalanche or scrambling up glaciers in sub-zero conditions for the sake of her art. Soon, she was directing as well as starring in her own Wagnerian-style mountain movie, The Blue Light (1932).
German audiences loved Riefenstahl's movies. So did Hitler's propaganda chief, Josef Goebbels. When Hitler became Chancellor in 1933, Riefenstahl was soon recruited to direct films for him. Thus began the mountain movie's slow slip from grace.
Philipp Stoelzl's brave new film North Face is an attempt to drag the German mountain movie from this dark crevasse. One might have expected the young, Munich-born filmmaker – a keen mountaineer himself – to clamber as far away from the Third Reich as possible. Instead, the movie is set right in the middle of the Nazi era. Loosely based on the true stories of Kurz and Hinterstoisser, the film chronicles their ill-fated 1936 attempt to climb the Eiger via the north face. As is well known in mountaineering lore, after a ferocious battle for survival, Kurz ended up dangling from the mountain, just a few feet from his potential rescuers (the classic account of the ill-fated expedition is in Heinrich Harrer's history of the Eiger, The White Spider). It was the year of the Berlin Olympics and Hitler had promised medals to the climbers if they were successful. In the film, when it becomes apparent that the climb is going to end in tragedy, the Nazi flag-wavers and journalists who have been watching the men struggle on the mountain turn their backs and leave.
"The genre vanished at the end of the Second World War for good reasons. It had really become part of the Nazi propaganda machine," says Stoelzl, reflecting on why the mountaineering movie fell out of fashion. However, he argues, the genre in itself wasn't sinister.
"It's a question of whether the images were first and the Nazis second or whether it was the other way round. Dr Arnold Fanck, who made a lot of the movies in the 1920s, was not a Nazi. His stories weren't really very heroic. Most of the time, there's a love- triangle story or a story about friendship. Nevertheless, when we started working ' on North Face, we felt that the pathetic, very stylised language of the [Fanck] mountain movies was wrong for an audience today. When you look at the old movies, it's too stiff – too much opera, in a way."
North Face is likely to leave audiences feeling chilled and battered. Before beginning production, Stoelzl had visited Kevin Macdonald, director of Touching the Void, to consult him about the secret of showing mountaineering in a dramatic and realistic way on screen. During shooting, the director, his actors and technicians were really out there, high in the mountains. Stoelzl says he tried to give his movie the look of "war photography". Audiences are meant to feel as if they are with the 1930s climbers in the snowstorms, seeing the mountain through their eyes. Equipment back then – whether clothing or ropes – was far more rudimentary than it is now and the climbing was consequently far more dangerous. Climbers such as Kurz and Hinterstoisser were from relatively humble backgrounds. As the film shows, they turned up to climb the mountain on their bicycles.
"They were young men looking for some sort of challenge that would give their life a higher sense," suggests Stoelzl. "They just took their little rope, their wool sweaters, got on their bicycles and rode to Switzerland to find something that was important for themselves. That was something that moved me. It was a search that everyone has; to give their life some higher sense."
Arguably, North Face isn't quite as different from the old Fanck movies as its director claims: this, too, is a love story of sorts.
German publicists have been touting the film as a Teutonic Titanic. Audiences know at the outset that the heroes are going to die but the trick of the storytelling is to make them forget this knowledge and to will them to survive. A film about a man trying to climb a mountain is essentially very simple. As Stoelzl puts it, "Basically, the plot is you start on the ground and you aim to get to the top." Therefore, while staying close to the acknowledged facts about Kurz, the film-makers also graft a (slightly improbable) love story on to the material. It's this that takes North Face into the realm of the mountain melodramas in which Riefenstahl was often to be found embracing her lover during avalanches.
Kurz's story has long held an existential fascination for other mountaineers. Climber Joe Simpson, the author of Touching the Void, has written of his obsession with Kurz and the parallels between the German's predicament on the Eiger and his own gruelling experiences when he broke his leg on a mountain in Peru.
"I know what it feels like to die alone, and although my story had a happy ending, I feel that Kurz's outcome should have been mine... Kurz displayed phenomenal endurance, strength and mental stamina in his struggle to live. That was all it had become – a lone figure fighting for his life, able to draw on nothing but his willpower," Simpson observed.
Kurz was only 23 when he died. In the movie, the Nazi journalist (played by Ulrich Tukur, of The Lives of Others fame) appears disgusted by his failure. However, there is a sense that even in death, the young climber might have been a useful propaganda tool for the Third Reich: he was somebody prepared to risk his life in pursuit of an abstract idea of glory. As Stoelzl says, "For a country gearing up for a war, that is the perfect preparation."
Aspects of Kurz's story remain shrouded in mystery. He kept a diary which Stoelzl says his cousin would not allow him to read. Why not? "Some people say that maybe Toni Kurz was more a fan of the Third Reich than you would love to hear, but that is pure speculation. She has the book and she wouldn't show us," he says.
It remains to be seen whether North Face will revive the mountaineering movie. But the film has provoked huge interest in Germany, where Kurz's story is familiar, and international audiences, too, are likely to be curious about a film that not only offers vertiginous thrills but also probes away at an episode in German social and cinema history that remains contentious and uncomfortable. Somehow, German film-makers can't train a camera on a snowy peak without waking ghosts of the Nazi past.
'North Face' (12A) is released on 12 December
Call my bluff: The peaks and troughs of the mountain movie
'Blue Light' (1932)
Leni Riefenstahl, who also directs, plays a witch who is blamed for compelling the young men of a village to climb the local mountain and fall to their deaths
'The Conquest Of Everest' (1953)
A very well-crafted documentary chronicling Edmund Hillary's ascent of Everest, focusing on the entire expedition team, including sherpas
'The Eiger Sanction' (1975)
Action thriller starring Clint Eastwood as an art professor blackmailed into trailing a man up a the famous peak to assassinate him
A Sylvester Stallone action thriller that is big on stunts and special effects, but which real mountaineers scoff at for its sub-Bond storyline
'Vertical Limit' (2000)
A climber tries to rescue his sister from K2. "Not really a mountain movie. It's an action movie, all about bombs and helicopters," says Stoelzl
'Touching the Void' (2003)
An unflinching documentary based on Joe Simpson's book about the despair of being alone on a mountain with seemingly no prospect of surviving