Do you believe in past lives? I don't, or, if I do, it's only with the same self-serving selectiveness that always seems to fashion empresses and Anastasias out of gum-popping manicurists and warrior chieftains out of timid investment bankers pounding their bongos with Iron John encounter groups.
I am sure I was never a mountain climber. I'm terrified of heights, for one thing. I could live a grand life without climbing anything taller than a stepstool to get at a book about mountain climbing. Only I'm not even that interested in reading about mountain climbing, only its side-effects: the anecdotes about oxygen-deprived climbers hallucinating Marilyn Monroe appearing through blizzards on the final ascent to lead them to the imaginary cable car down to base camp, and things like that.
But if I was anybody else at all during the first 71 years of the 20th century, it was somebody somehow involved with making the first movies about mountain climbing in southern Germany in the late 1920s—gorgeous movies with towering titles like The Holy Mountain and Mountain of Destiny. But not as an actor, let alone a stunt double (most of the actors did their own) or a cameraman, only as a model-maker or perhaps as an extra holding a torch in a nighttime ski cortege on an intermediate slope. Even more likely is that I spent the whole time indoors: I was the waiter squinting up at the actors battling the elements on the real-life mountain while polishing silverware.
It's the period interiors, more so than the admittedly ravishing exteriors, of director Philipp Stö¨ltzl's North Face that made me feel like I'd been hit with about a thousand caps of alpine acid for the whole first half of the movie, eyes rolling into my head with each new marvelous visual packet of retro-Alpenkitsch. If it weren't also a terrific action-suspense picture, North Face would still be a triumph of production design, starting with the sleekly Moderne 1936 Berlin newsroom in which it opens. All those windows! Today's journalist can only imagine. And oh, the haircuts!
The truth is that my feeling right at home in this movie has nothing to do with past lives and everything to do with North Face being a barely updated update of my favorite silent movie genre—a genre I've been hanging around in longer now than the genre itself hung around. In the 1920s and 1930s, "mountain films" were to German audiences what Westerns were to the American ones: mass entertainment of a very revealing sort, and with hindsight, a target-rich environment for national myths and stereotypes.
It's not much of stretch to say that Bergfilm captured the lighter side of proto-Nazi forces gathering in Germany in the 1920s: the national emphasis on athleticism and duty, general outdoorsiness and a quasi-mystical bond with nature—German nature. Before the Hitler Youth, millions of young Germans belonged to hiking and wandering clubs suffused in a similar Teutonic mysticism. Not that all this was deliberately encoded in the movies themselves, necessarily. In an era of meticulously controlled studio productions, these movies also simply offered German audiences authentic outdoor adventure with attractive young role models.
The father of the genre was director Arnold Fanck, its most significant actress his young protégée Leni Riefenstahl, whose path to Triumph of the Will began with a poster for one of Fanck's movies she saw while waiting on a train platform in Berlin. Fanck and his camera operators—including, eventually, Riefenstahl—captured it all superbly. Not just the heroic action but the poetry of cloud-swirled peaks that portrayed German nature in rarefied images that strongly appealed to German viewers—an ascendant Adolf Hitler among them.
Right down to the last detail, North Face is an homage to the mountain film. The eternal plot is the same: People climb a mountain. Whole scenes seem torn straight from White Hell of Pitz Palu or Mountain of Destiny, only filmed in color and with sound. The horsing around in lighter scenes seems practically scripted for the silent camera, so easy is it to imagine the intertitles. And even in leisure, the chiseled actors strike heroic poses. Simply amazing.
And then there's the actual mountain climbing, which dominates the second half of the movie. If only between spasms of ecstasy, I was dimly aware that the first half of North Face is a little silly, a bit too pleased with itself, some of the acting a little over the top even for something made in the spirit of a genre not known for restraint. But all this changes abruptly when the climbers start up the mountain: You are there on that North Face of the Eiger, and how.
For me it was like two amazing experiences in one: a retro fantasia and a killer action-suspense movie. Not everyone is going to bring the same cinematic baggage to North Face, but if the rough hostel lodgings and trainmaster's quarters give you a special past-life tingle you can't quite put your finger on, I've got a list that just might help.
North Face continues at the Wilma Theatre.