In Philipp Stölzl's thrilling new film, two climbers are seduced by the defiantly challenging Eiger. Move over, Krakauer! The movie quickly rappels its way right into the adventure canon.
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 more so?—even 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 thrillseekers 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 nailbiting 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, rest assured the first part of the interview is spoiler-free. Once you’ve seen the movie (or if you already know the story), come back and read part two. We’ll tell you when to stop reading.
Tribeca Film: Please tell us a little about the old German climbing films that were your inspiration. I’m not sure American audiences are familiar with them.
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.
Some of the stars of these climbing movies were really the superstars of their time. Luis Trenker was the biggest star, but also Leni Riefenstahl—[in the early days,] she was a dancer, but she started her acting career in mountain movies when she was discovered by Arnold Fanck, the biggest director of the genre.
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. (Her first movie—a fictional movie—is a fairytale mountain movie Das blaue Licht.) After the war, people had to look for new images, since the mountains were loaded with the whole terror of the Nazis.
TF: How familiar were you with these mountain movies?
PS: When we started thinking about doing North Face, we learned a lot about this genre. There are a couple of movies that everybody knows—The White Hell of Pitz Palu was a milestone. (If you have a little interest in film history—Metropolis, Fritz Lang—you know at least two mountain movies.) When I got on the project, I watched basically all the mountain movies that were available. There were some from the 60s, and then movies like Cliffhanger and Vertical Limit. I researched how people did this—how they made movies on mountains. It’s very difficult, and can pose a big risk to everybody involved.
TF: How did the story come to you?
PS: Some film producers and a TV station developed the script, and then they were looking for a director. They asked me to take a look, and we had some of the same ideas, so we then rewrote and rewrote and rewrote [together] as we financed the movie.
TF: Four of you are credited with the screenplay. How did that work? Did you collaborate the whole time? Or did you write different parts?
PS: Financing a movie in Germany is sketchy—you get a little money here, a little there. It’s basically all based on public government funding. Since this movie has such an Alpine theme, it was obvious that it should become a Swiss/German/Austrian co-production. It was released in all three countries, and it did pretty well. It sold more tickets in areas closer to the mountains, but even where I live in Berlin, people reacted just as strongly [positively] once they saw the film.
Writing it was a difficult process—so many production companies were involved, and three countries and two TV stations, [so] getting people to agree [was not easy].
TF: How long were you on location on the mountain?
PS: Well, I think we shot 45 days in the main shoot, and then 10 shooting days on the Eiger, but [the whole shoot] covered almost a year. We started in the fall, and finished the next June.
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 people who own the hotel are a little strange, but they let us shoot the exteriors there.
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. When we were on the mountain, on the Eiger, a big US production was also shooting. We were definitely the poor relative—they had four helicopters!
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: Did your actors have any experience with climbing?
PS: Some had, some had not. They all went into training. They are fairly well-known actors in Germany, so they are very busy, but they liked the sport challenge of this project so much that they spent a lot of time learning and studying, and now they are climbers. The guy who plays Andi (Florian Lukas) is very good at it now.
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.
PS: 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.
NOTE: The next few paragraphs contain SPOILERS about the film. Please do not read (yet) if you do not want to know how the story ends.
Toni Kurz (Benno Fürmann) Andi Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas) TF: Are Toni and Andi well-known in Germany today? (or were they before the film?) Were you aware of them? How much is known about what really happened on the mountain?
PS: The tragedy is one of the most famous in Alpine history, found in almost any book about historic climbing, although it’s told each time a little differently. A mixture of people saw what happened through binoculars [over several days], and during the final stage, when Toni was trapped on the rock and the Swiss mountain guards were trying to save his life, Toni shouted down a bit of what happened. But [he was out of it and] it didn’t make too much sense anymore. [The story has been pieced together based on] where they found the corpses and what they told people before the climb. It’s kind of a rough puzzle of what might have happened.
TF: You had to balance a tricky situation here, in that Toni and Andi were technically Nazis. Did that worry you? Or were you certain you could make them likable by showing their indifference to anything but climbing?
PS: We don’t know, in real life, really anything about Andi and Toni. They were pretty poor—they came from the town in the Alpine region where Hitler had his mountain house. [Hitler and the Nazis] robbed so much land from the farmers there, which did not make them very popular. Also, the Alpine region is very Catholic, and Catholics were not really the best Nazis—[the best Nazis] came from other areas. They cared about climbing, and probably about getting a mountain guide license, which they could get by being in the army.
For a while I was trying to give the whole film more like an anti-war type of storyline—so that you would see that their climb was [backed by] the Nazis, but that they weren’t really aligned with the Nazis. We gave Andi and Toni a sort of laconic Bavarian take on the Nazi ideology—it’s a little trick to maybe be able to show them as sympathetic. In the film [there are some scenes] when they leave the base, and the guards, say, “Heil Hitler!” [in a very formal way] and Andi and Toni’s response is more of a “cheers,” which is sort of a very loose way of saying goodbye. For a German audience, it says everything—the whole, “I don’t care about the Nazi thing.”
Luise Fellner (Johanna Wokalek) TF: Does the Luise character have any basis in reality, or is she simply a plot device?
PS: She was more or less a plot device. The movie had a higher midrange budget, 7.2M Euro—it’s a lot for Germany. The goal is always to reach a wider audience, [and] the producers thought you can’t just do a movie just about four guys dying. You need a female character. So it’s purely a kitschy part, but the character [provides] a connection between the climbers and the people watching from below at the chalet. And Toni Kurz did have a girlfriend named Luise.
TF: It’s also a little tricky to write about the film without giving away important plot points. How has the press handled that in other places where it’s been released?
PS: In Germany, the story is too well known. People know about the 1936 Eiger tragedy. What’s strange is that people would know about the ending, and still they would just hope for them to survive. I guess that’s the way film works.