While not quite as frontal an assault on Nazism as Before the Fall, a 2005 movie about a young German boxer rejecting the system, the 2008 Nordwand (German for North Face, like the outerwear company) also uses athletics as a kind of portal into the twisted world of the Third Reich.
The athletics in this case is mountain-climbing. Based on actual events, this superb fictional film tells the story of Toni Schultz (Benno Fürmann) and Andreas Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas, the star of Goodbye Lenin), two soldiers who tried to climb the north face of Mount Eiger in the Alps in 1936. For the Nazis, this attempt to “solve the problem of the Alps” became part of the national zeitgeist in the same fashion as the politicized Olympics that year. The two German climbers are eventually joined by a pair of Austrians, who are understood to be symbols of the coming Anschluss, or incorporation of Austria into the Third Reich. None of the climbers has the least bit of interest in politics. When in uniform, Toni and Andreas always respond to “Heil Hitler” with a simple “hello”. Like most German youth, they just got caught up in the totalitarian web. Their first love is mountain climbing, not fuehrer worship.
Most of the film is taken up with their incredibly daring venture and is filmed on location. Although movies about mountain climbing are not exactly my métier, I would say that no other movie has ever conveyed the terror of such a climb. In some respects, it has the tension of a horror movie with the mountain itself standing in for a killer. At one point a climber says that an evil spirit lurks in the mountain. This rings so true.
The other two major characters help to put the movie into a social and political context. One is a young reporter and erstwhile lover of Toni named Luise Fellner, played by Johanna Wokalek, who starred in The Baader Meinhof Complex. She joins her boss at the newspaper, a cynical Nazi supporter named Henry Arau, as correspondents at the base of Mount Eiger. They stay in a luxurious hotel that becomes an ironic counterpoint to the depredations occurring on the north face. Arau is played by Urich Tukur, the villainous baron in Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon. At one point he comments to Luise that the climbers will only make the front pages if they make it successfully to the top or if they die on the way up. If they decide to abort the mission midway up, they will only earn a brief mention on page three. This kind of reporting is obviously common to both the Nazi and the “free” press. In the course of her first reporting assignment, Luise becomes disillusioned with Nazi values and eventually leaves the country. In the final scene, we see her photographing a Black jazz musician in the USA, an apt commentary on her evolution.
Nordwand is now available from Netflix and is highly recommended.