Philipp Stölzl :: Germany, Switzerland, Austria :: 2008 :: 2h
Two young provincial army recruits in an early Nazi Germany, are challenged to climb up the Eiger. The mountain had never before been successfully scaled from the north face (Nordwand) and it would have been the perfect introduction for the showcase 1936 Nazi Olympic games in Berlin. While the propaganda machine waits in a five star hotel next to the mountain, the competing teams go up.
The advancement of the climbers Toni (Benno Fürmann) and Andreas (Florian Lukas) dangling from the icy rock is cut-up with scenes from the extravagant hotel down below, where we also find Toni’s childhood love Luise (Johanna Wokalek), as the aspiring (photo-) journalist. She is there with her Berlin boss, who oscillates from charming to Nazi and back again throughout the film. The contrast between the ostentatious luxury of the hotel life and the harshness of the mountain works beautifully, most of the time, although the real strength of the film is mountain photography.
Not only is the daunting steepness of mountain wall impressively portrayed, the unpredictability of its ascent is too. The men against the elements, with their frozen woollen mittens and home-made pegs give a taste of realism to mountain-climbing. The movie gives a taste of the excitement and immense difficulty of climbing, even if here it is enveloped in an air of rashness.
Bizarrely enough, for this day and age, the story has the feel of a Nazi propaganda film. The film is dominated by the heroism of the climbers. The subtle difference is perhaps that one of the two, Toni, is not in it for the glory but for the love of climbing. But even if they are not both climbing for their medal from Hitler, it is their courage and “noble savage” spirit which shines – not only doing their national duty of serving the Führer in his army but also having that unbreakable masculine outdoor courage in which the party prides itself.
When they accept the challenge, going to Switzerland by bicycle (700km!), we are shown two other teams which conclude that the weather conditions make the trek up impossible. It is curious that different teams of experienced climbers would have such divergent opinions on whether or not you can go up, but there you have it. It could have been dismissed as a tension builder, if it was not that the two teams which considered it reckless were the French and Italian teams, and those which considered it feasible were the German and Austrian teams. And then we discover that the Austrians are bungling amateurs. It all sounds painfully like a Nazi plot, but there is one other message which finally leaves the after-taste as you walk out: the futility of the pursuit of glory.
In the end, Duel au Sommet is about a mountain and a group of climbers. And it is there where the film excels. If you’re ready for icy rock and avalanches, you can not get much closer to the climbers than in this one. But be warned, the tip of your couch will seem like too close to the edge.