Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Two movies leave us out in the cold

If you need to be any colder this winter, two movies offer an excellent opportunity to feel the chill.


Climbing doesn't get more difficult than in North Face.

No denying there are thrills (and chills) in North Face, director Philipp Stölzl's movie about two German climbers who try to conquer the treacherous north face of the Eiger, a fabled mountain in Switzerland. Once you know that Eiger means Ogre, you pretty much get the idea. Reaching the top of sheer Eiger cliff walls is no easy task, and when the movie begins -- in 1936 -- no climbers have yet accomplished the task.

Benno Fürmann, as Toni Kurz, and Florian Lukas, as Andreas Hinterstoisser, play members of the Mountain Brigade of the German Army. An aspiring newspaper photographer (Johanna Wokalek) approaches this Bavarian-born duo at the suggestion of a reporter (Ulrich Tukar). Tukar's character is full of Nazi bluster, and thinks that the sight of two Germans conquering the Eiger would have enormous PR value. Germans, he argues, would be encouraged to believe they truly could scale any heights.

Stolzl faced a fairly large problem in making his movie. How could he glorify the heroism of two intrepid climbers if they were also part of the Third Reich propaganda machine? To take the political edge off his main characters, Stolzl uses the movie's reporter as a kind of foil. He also includes scenes in which an Austrian spectator of the climb -- folks watched from a hotel at the base of the mountain -- makes clear that he wants Hitler to stay out of his country.

Stolzl creates additional empathy for Kurz and Hinterstoisser by showing that they were apolitical outdoorsmen capable only of the most lackluster sig heils. An epilogue at the film's end boasts a shot that seems intended to demonstrate that one of the characters escaped the tarnish of Germany's racism.

Still, I couldn't help think that while I was white knuckling at the sight of two climbers engaging some very spectacular hazards, Jews were being persecuted in Germany's cities, and Hitler was cranking up his war machine. You'll have to decide for yourself how much such knowledge influences your viewing experience, how you feel about a movie that pushes history to its periphery.

Judging by the degree of difficulty, though, North Face is a superior example of the particularly German, mountain film genre. I can only imagine how hard it was to film scenes of Kurz and Hinterstoisser on the mountain, and once the action starts, the climbing segments keep us riveted.

Unfortunately, Stolzl waters down their impact by switching from the mountain to the posh hotel where the spectators have gathered. The hardship and heroism of the climbers contrasts with the comfort and safety of those who watch from a distance. The point is made early and often -- too often.

I don't know how much liberty Stolzl has taken with the facts. A love story between Kurz and Wokalek's Louise adds some poignancy, but what happens on the mountain keeps the movie percolating and us frozen with tension in our seats.


Three skiers have a very bad day.

Bring a sweater to Frozen, a thriller/horror movie that takes place almost entirely on the stalled chair lift of a New England ski resort. Having ridden lifts like the one in the movie – mostly at the end of summer at Telluride Film Festivals – I've felt what it's like to hope that you don't fall off or get stuck in mid-air. (The old Telluride lifts had straps that fit loosely across your lap.) The characters in Frozen, by director Adam Green, don't fair nearly as well as I did. I always arrived at the top. Decently acted by Emma Bell, Parker O'Neil and Joe Lynch , the movie strands three skiers in the middle of their ride. If Frozen, which played as a midnight movie at the recently concluded Sundance Film Festival, is a bit of a director's exercise, I'd give it a solid "B." Expect a few grisly sights and be prepared for a pack of hungry wolves, but know that Green and his cast make you feel both the cold and the sense of helplessness that confronts three skiers who face the prospect (never mind why) of spending a week suspended over a mountain with no help in sight. Of course, it takes a bit of contrivance to set the story in motion, but once he gets going, Green -- unlike his characters -- pretty much avoids getting stuck.

No comments: