Sunday, May 30, 2010

Game Mode: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Impossibly acrobatic Prince Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal), the former street urchin who is adopted by the king. Luscious-lipped Tamina (Gemma Arterton), guardian of the magic time-warping dagger. The magic time-warping dagger – the worst prop since the crystal skull in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) – with its cheesy glass handle, magic sand, and jeweled button you press to reverse time. The evil Jafar, I mean the so-bald-you-know-he’s-bad Nazim (Ben Kingsley), who wants to turn back time so he can be king. These are some of the characters involved in a conflict over said magic dagger in Mike Newell’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.

Now, I’m good for any mindless adventure that transports me to another place and time, but this adaptation of the popular video game never goes beyond video game mode. It’s an endless blur of superhero leaps and bounds and a constant flash of swordplay that never constitute any distinctively memorable action scene. One scene with potential involves the duel between the knife-throwing expert, Seso (Steve Toussaint) and a spike-shooting Hassansin, but even that scene, with all its flying projectiles, feels like merely a higher level in a game.

The lackluster acting and minimal characterization also keep Prince of Persia in game mode. Gyllenhaal as Dastan reveals a glimmer of Errol Flynn dash, but for the most part he just smirks wryly at the next impossible predicament and makes big goo-goo eyes at Tasmina, whose tanned skin, huge eyes, and voluptuous upper lip are the most interesting details in the movie. Frustratingly, the movie never explains why Dastan can leap so high! Meanwhile, Toby Kebbell and Richard Coyle blandly play Dastan’s bland brothers, and Ronald Pickup is whiny as King Sharaman. Alfred Molina injects character and elicits some laughs as the garrulous Sheik Amar, a conniving, opportunistic entrepreneur who runs an ostrich-racing racket. But at the point at which Dastan remarks that Amar talks too much, I was feeling the same way.

CGI renders vast Persian cities, but there’s neither majesty nor whimsy to them, and the Moroccan locations employed are mostly bleak terrain with lots of sand – it’s a very sandy movie. In a few scenes, Moroccan ksars provide real atmosphere, but the mise-en-scéne comes off as half-hearted and unimaginative, as routinely superficial as some Disneyland ride settings. CGI also depicts what the credits bill as “sand time” – kind of cool, but the scene involving the effectively chilling sand vipers happens too fast to enjoy. In the end, there seems to be no rhyme or reason to how the sandy thing works. I thought it was supposed to cause an apocalypse. How is that supposed to make Nazim king?

Prince of Persia borrows heavily from Disney’s own Alladin, as well as from just about every Errol Flynn adventure, but it never achieves the joy, exuberance, and memorable action of one of those classics. I just felt like the time I made the rare purchase of a PC game: The Fellowship of the Ring, and I could never get out of the first level. I wandered around Hobbiton for hours and hours. (I much later read that the game was defective.) And that’s the defect here. We get the repetitious action, the CGI, the leaping heroes, but we never get liberated to a cinematic level of escapist adventure that takes you away to another place and time where delightfully memorable things can happen.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

I vant to suck your blood substitute!: Daybreakers (2010)

The other day I Netflixed Daybreakers, directed by the Spierig brothers. I had toyed with the idea of seeing it at the movies when it came out, but I rented it mostly because I wanted to compare notes with my 10th grade girls at school – who love anything about vampires. They thought it was a fun movie (though they acknowledged its ridiculous aspects) and they have crushes on Ethan Hawke, who plays Edward Dalton, a vampire hematologist who is working to find a cure for a vampire plague that threatens to deplete sources of blood and cause global starvation.

I’m not a fan of vampire movies, but I love science fiction, so I was entertained by a number of elements in the film. I liked the totalitarian society allusive of Fahrenheit 451 and THX1138 - with black-clad policemen wielding rods with electrified collars used to subdue vamps rioting for blood or to capture members of the starving poor class of vamps turning into quite scary bat-monsters. When Dalton is taken in by human resistance fighters and encouraged to develop his cure, I enjoyed the gothic Frankenstein elements of his experimentation. I enjoyed the film’s gloomy, film noir look, with vampire businessmen in trilbies and overcoats ordering shots of blood with their Joe at the local coffee bar. In addition, there’s an outrageous moment with an exploding head that fills an operating room with blood that was a hoot.

The film entertained, I always enjoy Ethan Hawke, and the plot moved along expeditiously, but what I found frustrating was aspects of this sci-fi world that seemed illogical or, at least, caused confusion because they were not explained clearly enough. If a writer has enough imagination to dream up an alternate world, he should have sufficient imagination to iron out the inconsistencies in logic. Maybe I’m not well versed enough in vampire lore, but it seems that each new movie about vampires reinvents the way vampires work. Afraid of garlic or not afraid of garlic. Sparkles in sunlight or bursts into flames in sunlight.

Thus, I have a few questions I’m going to ask my vampire experts at school on Monday, but I thought I’d note them here for everyone else. (I have one 11th grade girl in my Drama Club who is truly an expert on Greek mythology as well as the lore of vampires, angels, devils, witches, zombies, and werewolves, and she has read widely about these topics. She recently encouraged me to watch The Craft (1996), and she admitted that I was right when I surmised, “I bet you’ve tried witch spells, haven’t you?” She said, “With all I’ve read about this stuff, do you think I haven't?” I didn’t ask her if her spells had worked.)

Anyway, here are some of the unclear aspects of this vampire world that bothered me. I also include a question or two for any expert who can help me.

1. In the first shootout between the vamps and the resistance fighters, the humans are shooting bolts from crossbows and long bows. Cool. Can’t kill a vampire with a bullet. But in an extreme long shot we see vampire cops exploding. I was thinking that some of the bolts carried bombs. Can you blow up a vampire? That’s what I thought until much later in the film when it is clearly shown that a bolt to the heart causes the vamp’s heart to explode. Okay. Nice. But make this clear in the beginning, not towards the end. Also, the vamp cops have body armor, but I guess it's not impervious to bolts to the heart. What use is the body armor if it doesn't protect the heart?

2. This concerns the above-mentioned exploding head. Said exploding head comes from a vampire who’s being tested with the cure. Do vampires have blood? Do vampires bleed? These vampires bleed - and yet when Dalton gets a bolt in the arm, he doesn't bleed!

3. SPOILER ABOUT OPENING SCENE: I liked how this movie rebels against Twilight skin-sparkling-in-sunlight absurdity. In the striking open scene, a little girl writes a suicide note, says she can’t cope with immortality, and goes out to sit in front of the house to wait for the sunrise. Sunrise comes and whoosh! She bursts into flames. As it should be! But the fine line between bursting into flames and not seemed ridiculous. A vampire can avoid burning up by standing in the thin shade of a tree? I thought not.

4. SPOILER ABOUT FATE OF SAM NEILL AS THE EVIL CHARLES BROMLEY: Sam Neill plays the villainous blood tycoon. With his normally dark features, he looks sinister with vampire contact lenses and fangs. Of course, he wants to prevent the discovery of a cure because that will kill his profits from dealing in the farming of human blood. When he gets his comeuppance, he is tied to a chair and ripped apart by vamp cops who seem to be sucking his blood? If, in this world, vamps have blood, then why isn’t the starving populace cannibalizing each other in a mad frenzy?

5. Dalton is also trying to develop a blood substitute to stave off starvation. Well, what about animal blood? As shown in the poster above (The Matrix!), humans are tapped for their blood. What about deer or dogs or cows? There is no mention in this film that animals have died out.

6. I thought vampires had to hang upside down like a bat or lie in a coffin during the day. Although most activity in this vampire society happens at night - and it's cool how the streets a vacant during the day and then everybody comes out at night - they seem to be quite active during the day, driving around in sunlight-shielded cars driven by means of video screens, or executing vampire criminals by dragging them out into the sunlight.

7. Do vampires have fun? Do they read? Go to movies? Keep a movie blog? Bromley loves his immortality, and he enjoys a brandy snifter of pure human blood, but where does the fun come in?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

"These desert-loving English": Khartoum (1966)

In Lawrence of Arabia (1962) Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness) scrutinizes the young Englishman standing before him in his tent: T. E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole). “I think you are another of these desert-loving English – Doughty, Stanhope, Gordon of Khartoum.” (Charles Doughty was an 19th century writer who wrote a travel book about the Sahara that inspired Lawrence. Lady Hester Stanhope was a 19th century writer who dressed as a male Bedouin to travel across the desert.) Feisal goes on, “No Arab loves the desert. We love water and green trees. There is nothing in the desert. And no man needs nothing.” This is beautiful writing, and also very true. The Arabs don’t understand Lawrence’s masochistic love of the desert, an aspect of his enigmatic character that makes him so intriguing. Similarly, Charles “Chinese” Gordon, as played by Charlton Heston in Khartoum (1966), is at home in the desert, and the depiction of his enigmatic character is the best part of this epic film.

As a boy going to the movies in the 1960s, I had a great passion for the huge historical epics of that decade, and I still hold a fondness for them today. One of my favorites is Khartoum (1966), directed by Basil Dearden, the stunningly visual account of the Mahdist Revolt in the Sudan in the 1880s, the fall of Khartoum, and the death of Charles “Chinese” Gordon (Charlton Heston). The film also stars Ralph Richardson, Laurence Olivier, and Richard Johnson.

Filmed in Ultra Panavision 70 (and exhibited in 70mm Cinerama for premiere engagements), Khartoum fills its expansive frames with the Sahara Desert, the Nile, desert hordes, and a sprawling assault on Khartoum by hundreds of extras, as it depicts the efforts of British soldier of fortune Charles “Chinese” Gordon to hold the city of Khartoum together during a siege by the forces of the Mahdi, Mohammed Ahmed (Laurence Olivier), a Muslim crusader who declares holy war on the infidels of the Sudan.

After an opening scene in which a large British-led Egyptian army is ambushed in the desert and massacred by a Mahdist horde, the action moves to London where the British public cries out for vengeance. Unwilling to commit England a war in the Sudan, Prime Minister Gladstone (Ralph Richardson) wonders what to do. He can’t send an army, but he’d like to send a gesture, and one of his advisors suggests, “Send Charles “Chinese” Gordon,” a hero to the Sudanese for working to end the slave trade. It’s a good idea, but Gladstone is wary of Gordon, fearing he will supersede his orders (which he does).

A fervent Christian, a brave adventurer who led a Chinese army into battle during the Taiping Rebellion carrying nothing but a cane, thus earning the nickname “Chinese,” Gordon is an egotistical oddball. Putting on a commendable British accent that might remind you of Ronald Colman, Heston shows us this hero’s quirks. Addicted to brandy and soda, he sips his drink while reading the Bible. But he is at home in Arab culture. He appreciates a good cup of arak and can ride a camel.

Gordon reads the Bible and says his prayers, but he’s a tough customer. During the siege, he sentences a friend to the firing squad for selling vital stores of grain. Fittingly, Gordon is up against another tough customer, Mohammed Ahmed, the Mahdi. His face covered with what looks like shoe polish, Laurence Olivier shows the Muslim crusader’s fanaticism in conflict with his appreciation for Gordon, this “desert-loving” Englishman who is also fervent about his religion. With a thick accent and operatic hand gestures, Oliver overacts, but he still creates a formidable foe whose passion for ridding the Sudan of infidels comes up against a similarly driven man with a passion for saving the Sudan. The Mahdi might ruthlessly slaughter infidels in the name of peace, but he points out that Gordon also used ruthless methods to bring peace to the Sudan. “Whisper to me, Gordon Pasha, is there a difference?” But the Mahdi doesn't want to turn the Englishman into a martyr. He realizes the truth of what Gordon says in a later visit. "If you, as a servant of your God, must use one hundred thousand warriors to destroy me, a solitary servant of my God, then whisper to me, Mohammed Ahmed, who will be remembered from Khartoum, your God or mine?"

While Khartoum focuses on an intelligent characterization of Gordon, it also presents the battle scenes expected of 60s historical epics. While one set piece battle in the film’s middle is nothing more than ranks of firing infantry and horsemen biting the desert, three of the battles stand out. My favorite involves a Nile steamboat trying to run the gauntlet past a town full of ambushing Mahdists. In the opening ambush, masses of spear-wielding Mahdists pour over the bluffs surrounding the doomed Egyptian army. But in this scene, and in the climactic final assault on Khartoum when hundreds of extras spill over a desert ridge and swarm the city, the action is not always extreme long-shot masses of indistinct combatants. The camera takes time to zero in on more immediate action: Mahdists aiming a threatening cannon, only to be taken out by a direct hit; attackers attempting to blow up the gate; Gordon firing his revolver down from horseback and then suddenly lurching to the side as his horse is shot. Sometimes the camera follows charging horsemen toward a bridge that suddenly blows up in your face. Or bomb-carrying spears sail through the air and explode right in the camera’s eye.

Another formidable foe so wonderfully filmed is the Sahara desert. Khartoum is surrounded by a vast wasteland, and this will make it hard for the British relieving force to come to the rescue. By means of the confluence of the White and Blue Nile, and a moat, Gordon turns Khartoum into an island in the desert. But the Nile will fall, and Gordon knows that the Mahdi and the desert will defeat him. He has always known his destiny lies in the desert. Ominously, this comes to him in the curse of a bitter sheik whose son he had executed for slaving. “Get thee from my house and may ye die in the desert untended. May vultures consume thy flesh, sands thy blood.” And that's good writing too.

Poster art by Frank McCarthy - who also did the poster for The Great Escape (1963)

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Best Thing About Robin Hood (2010)

The best thing about Robin Hood is that it casts Léa Seydoux as Isabella of Angoulême.

We first see Isabella in bed with King John (Oscar Isaac), at which point I paid no attention to King John. (Not the best shot of her in this scene.)

Later when she's queen, she's relegated to extreme long shots.

Much better!

Born in France on July 1, 1985, Léa has appeared in a number of French films. In 2009she appeared in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds as Charlotte LaPadite.

I hope to see her in upcoming films!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Teaching Watching

After teaching American history to 8th graders for a number of years, I learned that my restless middle-schoolers needed a change of pace toward the end of the school year as hormones ran wild and thoughts of summer vacation on Cape Cod caused incurable daydreaming. That’s when I got the idea of introducing American film history, which started with showing clips of 1950s science-fiction movies as background for our studies of the Atomic Age, McCarthyism, and the Cold War. Year after year, the film history unit grew into what it is now – a spring-term-long look at American film history from the silent era through the 1970s, with a focus on presenting iconic images and a full viewing of at least one film released in each decade from the 1920s through the 1960s.

I introduce the unit by telling my students that I hope I have taught them good reading and writing skills, and that now I want to teach them to be good watchers. I want them to develop viewing patience in an era of MTV-style short takes and fast-paced editing.

I start with a watching exercise. I show them the opening minutes of There Will Be Blood (2007). Other than a few muttered words, there is no dialogue, but we learn what kind of man Daniel Plainview is. I tell my students that good films show, so don't take your eyes off the screen. You might miss something. I tell them that when I watch a movie, I never take my eyes off the screen. They find this incomprehensible. “You’ll hurt your eyes," they say. I laugh.

(What kind of man is he?)

My task is daunting. I’m asking teens who text and talk and get up for popcorn during a movie to sit, watch, think about questions and themes I have set up for them, and never interrupt the viewing with a comment. But I am very proud of how they adhere to these rules and how they become very perceptive watchers.

Our first complete viewing is of Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925). Most teens have never seen a silent movie. I tell them it will take patience, but I am always very pleased as they laugh out loud when Big Jim thinks the Lone Prospector is a big chicken, or when our heroes get trapped in the tilting cabin. It’s rewarding that teens still see the humor in Chaplin’s visual gimmicks when present-day comedies rely heavily on raunchy dialogue. Besides examining the comedy in this film, we also look at the juxtaposition of comic scenes with images of isolation and alienation.

Before leaving the silent era, I show key scenes from City Lights (1931) and it impresses me how touched the students are by the film’s climactic reunion. Last year, one girl remarked that she liked City Lights better than the broadly comical The Gold Rush.

(What other images in the film suggest loneliness and alienation?)

After covering background history – the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression – we read about Hollywood’s Golden Era. It amazes the students that in the 30s you could see a program including newsreel, cartoons, and double feature, and then you could sit through the whole program again if you wanted to.

We watch Stagecoach (1939), paying attention to how John Ford presents the division between characters visually and how these characters change toward the end. The students need to work on their patience during the first half of the film. Stagecoach probably has more dialogue, delivered more rapidly, than most movies they see. But they are hooked once the tension rises and the Apaches attack the stagecoach. It’s great to see them riveted by a rousing action scene that does not employ CGI. They are impressed by Yakima Canutt’s stunts. The tension builds again during the darkly atmospheric Lordsburg sequence. There’s the final shootout and the happy ending – and they like that. Every year, as the Ringo Kid and Dallas ride off toward the rising sun, the class applauds enthusiastically.

(Does the Ringo Kid know what Dallas has been doing for a living?)

I taught film history a number of years before I attempted to show Citizen Kane (1941), and when I did, I presented it as an experiment. At the time, it was not one of my favorite movies, but I admitted that many critics considered it the best American movie ever made, and I said our task was to determine where these critics were coming from. The result amazed me. They loved it. They came to it as “Rosebud” innocents, and they loved the mystery and the climactic revelation. The more advanced students love the symbolism and beautiful dissolves. Over the years, I also discovered that I was feeling different about a film that I had first viewed with indifference. Now I am quite passionate about "the best American film ever made." With my three sections of history, I watch Citizen Kane three times a year, one viewing after the other, and I never get tired of it. I was learning too.

(Why are they in the dark?)

(Is Kane as big as he thinks he is?)

(What does this image say about Kane?)

(What does the canted frame suggest?)

(What are the characteristics of film noir?)

(What's going to happen?)

After a look at film noir by viewing key portions of The Third Man (1949), we move on to the 1950s, a major focus in our studies of the 20th century. After a PowerPoint presentation of nuclear bomb tests in the Nevada desert, I show clips from The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953). Then we move on to a full viewing of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).

That my students find this classic science-fiction thriller scary is a tremendous tribute to the film’s clever use of simple devices such as backlighting, close-ups, images of running, and images of confined spaces. For students who think that movies are all about CGI, students who come into the course believing that early silent films did not employ special effects (because in their minds the only special effects are CGI), this movie is a significant lesson to them.

(What were people afraid of in the 1950s?)

(What simple techniques are used to instill fear in the viewer?)

When I added The Searchers (1956) to the curriculum five years ago, I did so with great trepidation. It’s one of my top five favorite movies, and I was afraid the students wouldn’t like it. But each year I am relieved by how much they love it. They love the color, the action, and they are gripped by the plight of Debbie Edwards. After six or seven weeks of film history, they are turning into sharp, perceptive watchers and they pick up on the suggestions that Ethan stole the gold coins he is carrying, that he left Texas before the war because he and Martha were in love, and that Martha is raped by the Comanches. And as young teens for whom home is still important, they identify with the scenes of family and are happy when Debbie is spared by Ethan and brought to the safety of the Jorgensen ranch.

(What's going through Ethan's mind?)

(Why can't Ethan be part of the family?)

Our last complete viewing is The Graduate (1967), and we look at how the film reflects the disillusionment and alienation of the troubled 1960s. Right away the students realize they are watching a very mature movie, and they love it. They understand montage accompanied by contemporary music, and they readily identify with Benjamin’s portrayal of confused, defiant youth. It was three years ago that one of my students commented on the film’s ending without being led by me. Ben and Elaine get on the bus. They sit in the back. They look straight ahead. The student asked, “Is the ending ambiguous?” Yes, I said, and we linked it back full circle to the ending of The Gold Rush. The Lone Prospector kisses Georgia. It looks like a happy ending, but has Georgia ever done anything to show that she’s in love with the Lone Prospector?

By the time we finish The Graduate, the school year is nearly over. I show the “Dawn of Man” sequences from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) until the cut from the bone to the satellite, as well as the “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” chapter. After discussing and interpreting the first chapter, I ask them to write an interpretation of the ending. Some of them just can’t handle the white room, the black monolith, and the fetus floating in space. For some the film takes more patience than they have, and I enjoy some of their humor in connection with it. One year, while starting the final chapter, one student braced herself in her chair, turned to her neighbor, and said, "I can do this." Others love the movie and write brilliant interpretations. Finally, we take a brief look at the 1970s Directors Revolution, mention films that are more familiar to most of them, such as Jaws, and watch clips from Star Wars. I usually ask them to identify the allusion to The Searchers.

(How does Ben feel?)

(What does it mean?)

At the beginning of the unit, I teach the students basic film terminology and ask them to list the elements of filmmaking. Invariably, “CGI” is their first response, and then we go on to learn that a film is made up of more than CGI. Looping back to this beginning, I show my favorite CGI sequences, often ending with a clip that represents the current height of CGI technology. Last year I showed parts of WALL-E. (Strangely, I thought, none of them had seen WALL-E during the previous summer. They had considered it a kid’s movie and stayed away. After showing the opening, they all went out and rented it.) This year I’ll show them clips from Avatar.

Summer vacation, inevitably September, and most of my 8th graders come back as 9th graders. They often stop me in the hallway and ask me if I’ve seen a particular summer movie. They tell me the movies they liked and disliked, often expressing some specific criticism of a summer blockbuster. This past September they expressed criticism of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. They’ve lost their viewing innocence, and I feel sort of guilty. But they’ve learned to look closely and to interpret, and I feel like I’ve done my job, teaching these watchers how to watch.

(What kind of guy is WALL-E?)

Sunday, May 2, 2010

"This is it!" - North Face (Nordwand) (2008)

For a Bavarian, climbing is in the blood. Growing up in Bavaria, my grandfather and his brothers answered the allure of that uncanny adrenaline high that comes with summiting, and they climbed the peaks of Bavaria and Austria before World War I. When climbers Andi Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas) and Toni Kurz (Benno Fürmann) set out in 1936 to conquer the previously unclimbed north face of the Eiger, in Philipp Stölzl’s North Face (Nordwand), I paid very close attention to the focus on the comparatively primitive equipment they would rely on – boots without crampons, hand-forged pitons, hempen rope, woolen pants, and a small canvas rucksack. I shuddered to think of them – and my grandfather – relying on ropes like that, knowing that even the steel or fibre-reinforced nylon ropes used today can break!

Using such basic equipment, these climbers were part of a special breed. From experience, I know that Bavarians are mad about mountains and rock climbing. Back in the 80s, I hiked over the Wilderkaiser Range in Austria with my wife (then my girlfriend) and my German friends Hermann and Ina. Ina’s father, Wolfgang, was in command. Our tough-as-nails leader was well suited to his name. On one little sandwich and a small bottle of water with lemon, this middle-aged man with heart trouble led the way up the steep switchbacks, clambered up the talus, climbed through the notch as it began to snow, led us down an ice field, and beat us all to the climbing hut where we would spend the night. As we slogged up the last steep switchbacks to the hut, he stood on the veranda of the restaurant and encouraged us, or teased us, by holding up a mug of beer. Thus, watching North Face, it was easy for me to believe the toughness of the two Bavarian climbers, Andi and Toni, and their two Austrian competitors.

Making you feel like you are clinging to the mountainside with the climbers, North Face is a film so tense and frightening that I felt exhausted by the experience. When one of the Austrians declares, “My arm is frozen hard,” Toni says, “It will thaw out.” Uh, okay! Tied to the cliff face at night, covered with canvas sheets, they sleep through a snowstorm. They negotiate ice fields without crampons. When Toni loses a woolen glove, he can only embrace the suck and hold onto the ropes with his bare hand. Finally, when one of the Austrians is injured, they wrap him in a canvas sheet and lower him down the mountain, pitch by pitch.

The story starts with the Nazi propaganda drive, as seen in a UFA newsreel that will remind you of Inglourious Basterds, to ensure that German climbers defeat the Eiger’s Nordwand, thereby adding glory to the Reich in the upcoming Olympics. But erstwhile soldiers Andi and Toni aren’t interested in furthering the glory of the Third Reich. They want to climb the Eiger for the challenge, and for each other, and once they start the climb, the film is a gut-wrenching depiction of raw survival.

Superb cinematography establishes the daunting expansiveness of the northern wall and the vertigo-inducing plummet of the sheer face. The rhythmic tapping of hammer on piton accents the musical score as the dangers are intensified by injuries and a snowstorm. In the film's most gripping scene, Andi needs to execute a crucial traverse during the swirling snowstorm. This means trusting the strength of a rope attached to a single piton as he swings like a human pendulum toward a point beyond a sheer wall that offers no holds or ledges.

In striking contrast, high-society spectators make a pastime out of following the climbing from the Hotel Bellevue in the valley below. While the climbers freeze on the mountainside, the spectators dine in an opulent restaurant that serves a cake shaped like the Eiger. Among these spectators are Luise Fellner (Johanna Wokaleka), Andi’s childhood friend and now an aspiring photo-journalist covering the story, and her storymonger editor, Henry Arau (Ulrich Tukur).

An astonishing irony is that tourists are able to take a tram into the mountain to a cavern opening with a railing where they can look down the sheer drop or try to locate the climbers. (Remember Clint Eastwood dangling near that railing in The Eiger Sanction (1975)?) Later, in an effort to encourage the beleaguered climbers, Luise and a guide walk out onto a ledge during the snowstorm from another cave opening. I don’t doubt Luise’s Bavarian toughness, but her presence there momentarily robs the film of its suspense and grueling realism. Similarly, the film doesn’t know how to end, and we see Luise working as a photo-journalist in New York City.

I have always loved climbing dramas, starting with Third Man on the Mountain (1959), with Michael Rennie, and The Mountain, with Spencer Tracy and Robert Wagner, which I saw at the movies and on television in the 60s. I also enjoy the melodramatic but gripping movie The White Wall, with Lloyd Bridges as a mountain-climbing Nazi. Stallone’s Cliffhanger (1993) has its thrills as well. The gripping docu-drama Touching the Void (2003) tells the true survival story of an injured, abandoned climber, and achieves the realism these older climbing films lack.

But North Face easily stands out as the best film about climbing I’ve ever seen. You understand the allure of the climb when Toni looks up at the mountain one morning at 2:30 A.M.. The mountain seems to call to him through the clear air. He wakes up Andi, telling him it is time to start. "Gehts los!" In an American film, the line might be, "This is it!" Yes, this is it: a totally engrossing film of man's often futile contest with nature that you will not easily forget.