If you faint in the day of adversity,
your strength being small;
if you hold back from rescuing those taken away to death,
those who go staggering to the slaughter;
if you say, “Look, we did not know this” —
does not he who weighs the heart perceive it?
Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it?
And will he not repay all according to their deeds?
Director Philipp Stoelzl’s fictionalized story of the 1936 attempt to climb Eiger Mountain’s North Face shows the mixture of nationalism and sport that still dominates international athletics competition.
Adolph Hitler regarded the race to be the first to ascend the man-killing Eiger’s north face as a warm up to what he perceived would be a German sweep of the Olympics he was hosting in Berlin that year. The Austrians, Italians, and French had each sent teams to the base of the mountain, so the Nazis were eager to join in the competition and prove their superiority to “inferior races.” However, the two German climbers most likely to succeed were not very interested in politics. They were two army draftees, Toni Kurz (Benno Feurmann) and Andi Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas), closer to the two cartoon grunts who would emerge in the coming war, Bill Mauldin’s Willy and Joe, than to any of the heel-clicking, high saluting Nazi warriors beloved by the Fuehrer. In fact, we first see the pair doing K-P duty as punishment for returning late from their latest mountain climbing excursion. At first Toni refuses his buddy’s suggestion that they enter the competition, partly because the cautious climber is impressed by the recent deaths of a party attempting the climb.
Meanwhile, in Berlin Luise (Johanna Wokalek) is a would-be reporter serving as a Girl Friday for the male reporters. While serving the men their coffee she hears them talk about the Eiger and the need for Germany to enter the fray. She mentions two childhood friends, Toni and Andi, as the best candidates, so the editor equips her with a camera and dispatches her to the village to persuade the men to make the climb, and, of course, to bring back the story.
Luise and Toni had once been sweethearts, but had gone their separate ways. Although glad to see her, Toni still is reluctant to change his mind, so she returns sadly to Berlin. Toni at last changes his mind, telling Andi that he will make the climb for himself and not for others. The pair make camp at the base of the mountain, along with those of the Austrians, Italians and the French. It is still very cold, but they all subsist in their canvass tents. In great contrast to this are the conditions at the luxurious resort facing the Eiger where an international elite has gathered to witness the climb through telescopes and binoculars. Among the gathered spectators are Luise and the Nazi reporter Henry Arau (Ulrich Tukur).
Rain delays the beginning of the climb, with one team even deciding to give up. Then early one morning before dawn, with good weather predicted, Toni and Andi start up, with the latter deciding to traverse a dangerous cliff shunned by others. They discover to their chagrin that the pair of Austrians are also out, some distance below them but following their path.
Soon the Eiger lives up to its name, meaning Ogre, with fierce winds blowing in snow that reduces their visibility and making every step dangerous. Avalanches are now a danger, as well as the subfreezing temperatures they must endure as they bivouac each night on the side of the mountain. Their predicament is worsened by some bad decisions they make, and by one of the Austrians being injured by the debris from an avalanche. Should the two parties split up, the Germans continuing the ascent and the Austrians attempting to go back down?
After several days it becomes clear to those on and below the mountain that a rescue attempt must be made. But with the storm continuing to rage, the locals, who fear and respect the Eiger far more than the outsiders, debate whether they should risk their own lives to rescue those whom they regard as foolhardy.
With its breath-taking photography, the film is a gripping, suspenseful study of people under pressure and of the courage and motivations of the various characters—from the two climbers to Luise and the Nazi journalist. The latter, when he decides to leave prematurely because it looks like the two Germans will fail, reminds me of the cynical journalist played by Kirk Douglas in the 1951 film Ace in the Hole. Henry changes his plans when it looks like the Germans will perish on the storm-swept mountainside: a mere failure, he explains to Luise, is not big news, and would be relegated to page 3. But if Toni and Andi die, then they are news, easily transformed into martyrs for the Nazi cause. Luise’s decision at the end of the film will be one that is pleasing to today’s audiences.
1. What do you think of the various characters? What motivates the two climbers? Luise? Henry Arau?
2. How do some of the decisions made, such as to take down the rope which the climbers had used to traverse a vertical section, have serious consequences?
3. What do you think of the politicizing of international sports? How do all the major nations do this?
4. What do you think of the local’s view that some men needlessly endanger the lives of others by the risks they take? How has this often been the case with adventurers who become stranded by injuries or by sudden storms, requiring others to risk their lives to rescue them?
5. What do you think of Luise’s decision at the end? How could this have serious consequences for her in the following years?
6. The old Kirk Douglas film mentioned above, would be a good one to watch and compare to this one. Though the circumstances are very different, Douglas playing an ambitious reporter who exploits the predicament of a man trapped in a New Mexico cavern, the two reporters, as well as the large crowds gathered to watch, show that human nature does not change through the ages. The 1951 Ace in the Hole was also known as The Big Carnival, an apt name for the hoopla surrounding both the mountain climbers and the trapped man in the cave.