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This Week: “North Face”

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“Dress warmly,” the e-mail read, “It gets cold watching the ascent up the Eiger!”

It was a reminder from a publicist for a screening of “North Face,” a film about a 1930s race to climb the infamous, treacherous peak in the Bernese Alps of Switzerland. It was the kind of thing a publicist might write for any movie, but this time it turned out to be an accurate plug.

The 2008 film, coming to DVD May 11, opens in Berlin in 1936, where aspiring reporter Luise (Johanna Wokalek) gets the plum assignment to cover the race to scale the dangerous north face of the Eiger. The only catch: Her boss (Ulrich Tukur) wants her to talk her childhood friends, Toni (Benno FA┬Črmann) and Andi (Florian Lukas), into making the attempt, a morally hazardous example of enterprise journalism given the extreme danger of the peak. Toni and Andi are experienced climbers, but the Norwand, as the North Face is known in German, has drawn many such young men to their doom. Toni and Andi balk at first, but the lure of national celebrity and personal accomplishment eventually compels them.

“North Face” is based on a true story, but do yourself a favor and don't Google anything about it until after you've seen it. Director Philipp StAlzl, who also co-wrote the screenplay, smartly divides the movie between the thrills and setbacks of Toni and Andi's climb (which gets tangled up with a competing team's) and a chateau of bourgeois spectators ogling the historic attempt from a perch below.

“North Face” doesn't have much subtext, and develops its characters just enough to make them believable (a lot for a contemporary film, actually). But StAlzl establishes a sturdy rhythm and has an eye for detail — a few moments going over handmade equipment here, anguished cries from the spectators there — that helps the anxiety and fierce chill of the climb increase steadily up the mountain. Although you'll come to care what happens to Toni, Andi and Luise, the title character is the most important one here, whose danger you'll feel to your core. Definitely bundle up. (NR) 121 min.

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