The portrait of a German in 1936 is not often painted in shades of courage and heroism; in American cinema we're far more comfortable with "brainwashed zealot" or "Jew killer." However, Nazi Germany is only at the periphery of Philipp Stölzl's film North Face; instead, the movie takes a breathtaking look outside the rising fascism to the equally destructive forces of nature in the Swiss Alps. More gripping than any mountain-climbing film that's come out in recent years, North Face re-enacts the failed expedition of four Austrian-Germans trying to summit what the Nazis called "The Last Problem of the Alps" (they just loved to identify problems): the near-vertical north face of Mount Eiger in Switzerland.

Rock slides, avalanches and bitter cold are the foes that face Toni Kurz (Benno Fürmann) and Andreas Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas), two adventurers who leave the army to scale Eiger in a competition to promote Aryan superiority. Kurz and Hinterstoisser, who refuse to answer to greetings of "Heil Hitler!" are in it for themselves. Stölzl weaves a few fictional threads into the film—chiefly the character of Luise, a journalist who follows the climbers to cover them, but also to be near Kurz, with whom she has a romantic history. Though not historically accurate, the love interest is subtle enough to intensify the heart-racing tension, with extraordinary cinematography from Kolja Brandt that will leave mouths agape through the last 45 minutes of the film.

North Face

opens Friday at Cinema 21.