04 December, 2007

The Beckoning Silence. TV/DVD review

Even seen from a safe distance on a benign summer day, the North Face of the Eiger (the great dark rock face on the left of the photo) has a sinister look. In Switzerland’s Berner Oberland, this was last of the great North Faces of the Alps to be climbed, and the attempts on it gave the mountain a legendary status. Officially named the Eigerwand (Eiger Wall) or Nordwand (North Wall), newspapers of the 1930s took to calling it by the ghoulish pun of Mordwand (Murder Wall). Even now, in these days of high-tech gear and helicopter rescue, the North Face retains its brooding aura of peril. Here be, if not dragons, 6000 feet of near-vertical rock and ice, subject to rockfall, avalanche and sudden fierce storms, sufficient to test the skill, nerve and luck of any climber.

In this 90-minute documentary film, climber Joe Simpson tells the moving story of the four young Austrian and German climbers who attempted the Eigerwand in July 1936. Joe Simpson is best known for his astonishing feat of self-rescue in the Peruvian Andes in 1985, when he survived a 100-foot fall into a crevasse and crawled for three days across a glacier with a badly shattered leg to reach safety. The episode is recounted in his book Touching the Void. Aspects of his Peruvian experience have some eerie parallels with the 1936 Eigerwand expedition, making Joe Simpson uniquely well-placed to tell the story.

The documentary has three main strands:

  • Re-enacting the 1936 climb, with four young Swiss mountain guides playing the four climbers;

  • Joe Simpson demonstrating key parts of the climb at the exact locations on the Eigerwand;

  • Joe Simpson’s personal reflections on climbing and why people do it.

The photography is superb. Even if you’re not interested in mountaineering, you could watch the film for the breathtaking scenery alone. But it’s the insights into mountaineers and mountaineering that lift the film above spectacular travelogue.

The whole tone of the documentary is refreshingly understated, with none of the breathless high-adrenaline commentary that can be so irritating. This seems to me to suit the subject matter admirably – the straight facts of the 1936 expedition are dramatic enough to require no embellishment whatsoever.

Joe Simpson’s technical demonstrations of the crucial sections, using modern equipment, are an excellent way of bringing home the extraordinary technical skill required for the climb. I had read about the Hinterstoisser Traverse, a 100-foot section of ice-polished rock wall above a 2000-foot drop, but understood it far better after seeing it for real with an expert explaining the difficulties. Simpson’s personal reflections on his own experiences give some insights into the lure of the high mountains and probably come as close as you’re ever likely to get to explaining why people – usually, but not always, young men – risk their lives for such an ephemeral and irrational goal.

All this is seriously worth watching, but the real star of the show is the reconstruction of the 1936 climb. I defy even a non-mountaineer not to get drawn in to the gripping story of Andreas Hinterstoisser, Toni Kurz, Willi Angerer and Edi Rainer battling rock, ice, frostbite, rockfall, avalanche and storm first for glory and then for their lives on five fateful days in July 1936. I’m not going to tell you what happens – you could Google for it easily enough anyway – though in truth I think the story is so moving and so well-told that it would have you on the edge of your seat even if you did know the end. I knew the outcome and I was still hooked from start to finish.

Heinrich Harrer said of his successful 1938 ascent of the Eigerwand, “We had entered another world, and we had come back.” This powerful documentary brings a glimpse of that other world into your living room. If you have even the slightest curiosity about high mountains and the strange breed of people who climb them, don’t miss it.

Has anyone else seen the film? Or read the book?


virtual nexus said...

Sounds stunning - presumably DVD out there for sale?

Indirectly related, but I came across a plaque to Robert Falcon Scott at Lauteret Alpine Garden near Grave some time ago - he trained there before his ill-fated last voyage; surprise at the time.

Just called in to say I'm doing a few very general posts on old English houses etc if anyone's interested in following the links.

Carla said...

Hi Julie - Amazon UK lists the DVD for sale or rental.

I didn't know Scott trained in the Alps before attempting the South Pole, but it makes sense now you mention it. I wonder why there and not in, say, North Norway or Arctic Canada?

wil said...

I saw Touching the Void and loved it. I'd love to see The Beckoning Silence if/when it becomes available here in the US.

virtual nexus said...

Thanks - will consider that as a Xmas gift.

Scott had young son/family in Britain?? Cost?

Scott of Antarctic in widgets on mine for brief info.

Carla said...

Wil - Welcome back! Touching the Void was stunning, wasn't it? This is different but just as gripping. I'm sure it will be available in the US eventually.

Julie - ideal Christmas present for the mountaineer in your life :-) The British have had a love affair with the Alps and Alpine mountaineering since at least the mid-19th century, maybe Scott was following in a long tradition.

Gabriele Campbell said...

I haven't seen that one, but Alpine topics are quite popular in Germany, all the way from documentaries to reruns of those cheesy old movies with Luis Trenker. Oh, and there's a series, Der Bergdoktor (Doctor in the Mountains) and lots of yoodle music. :)

Carla said...

Gabriele - I guess the interest may reflect the Alps being partly in Germany? Is the area seen as romantic, as the Scottish Highlands tend to be seen by the rest of the UK?

Kathryn Warner said...

Echo Julie's comment that this sounds stunning. I'll have to look for the DVD.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Perhaps not as badly as the Highlands, but there is some romanticising going on. :)

Carla said...

Alianore - stunning is a fair description. It may come round on TV, but if not the DVD is on Amazon and may be available from libraries.

Gabriele - well, mountains are romantic :-)