Here's a film about couple of world-class athletes from Bavaria who never give up. What's rather cool is that they don't ever triumph in the film, and that the footage on their attempts is all the more hair-raising and expressive of the challenges they face for that. In addition camera placement, whose details are never revealed, shows a level of daring comparable to the climbers' physical feats. Its invisibility is a measure of its accomplishment. A DVD with "making of" details about how the film was shot as well as more mundane information about the logistics of the climbs and the shoot would be particularly welcome here. What we do get is a lot of rumination and some of the most astonishing footage of rock climbing at the highest level you're ever likely to see.
Thomas and younger brother Alexander Huber are speed rock climbers and this film documents two attempts to set a record on "The Nose" of El Capitan in Yosemite, with an attempt to cross a stormy but beautiful pass in Patagonia in between. Accidents abort the "Nose" record attempts. The Patagonian pass can't be crossed, not surprisingly, because of the weather.
El Capitan is the gold standard of rock climbing, and "The Nose" is its 1,000-foot central sheer upright front, which at first seemed to climbers to be simply impossible. The first who succeeded in the attempt to scale it took 47 days in 1958. With modern methods and training it now normally takes those who succeed 2-3 days but the speed record is something under three hours. That gives you an idea of what kind of performance this is--the gap between "good" and "excellent" in this field. These climbers are in another world, moving at a speed so scary and at a level of adrenalin so high once they're on their way with a good start on a good day that they move beyond fear. Not so in the days and hours beforehand though, of course. And the El Capitan record attempts each begins with lots of dummy runs, some of which take many hours longer than the record.
Somewhat oddly, since Alexander and Thomas do plenty of talking to the camera, the film conveys little about their personal contexts beyond mounting climbing. Obviously this is disproportionately central to their world. But they do live in the real world, somewhere (actually quite near to each other). Clearly they're German-speaking (and that's about all we hear them speak), and they have a mother who cooks in a restaurant-quality kitchen--and objects to Thomas' continuing to risk his life though he's married with two children.
There's also a handful of American climbers and ex-climbers who talk to the camera about the sport and the Hubers. They provide interesting and sympathetic outlooks and a welcome relief from the obsessive intensity of the brothers. Obviously the Hubers have, when they're at work on the rock, a symbiotic level of coordination that is a key element in their ultimate success. But such bonding isn't without its element of psychodrama. Taking a break with other people helps make the film more relaxing to watch. The only serious misstep is the film's attempt to show a nightmare of falling one of the brothers has, with fudged blurry footage. It's unnecessary and doesn't quite work. Beyond that, one could only have wished for a little more personal context, perhaps from their mother.
You have to look somewhere else to find out a little about what else these guys do besides climb rocks. Alexander has a degree in physics but works as a mountain and ski guide and Thomas is also a mountain guide and plays in a band. This they themselves never mention. Rock climbing is their obsession, their greatest challenge. But among their many ruminations are the points that they need to gain satisfaction from working alone too--Thomas especially, since as a climber he is overshadowed by Alexander--and that bravery in this one activity doesn't guarantee equal courage in the everyday challenges of life.
It's a troubling paradox that Alexander was taught to climb by Thomas, but has outstripped him as an athlete. He is also more meticulous (as may befit a physicist), more the planner. Thomas is more emotional, more of a dreamer, more impulsive, and has this baggage, of being bettered by his junior, less celebrated in the press--and needing to chalk up some solid climbing accomplishments solo--which apparently he has done. The psychological complexity of the brothers' cooperation and competition is well depicted, even if their ultimate motivations--and how it feels to be them in the rest of their lives--are left unexplored.
When the brothers fail in their two "Nose" record attempts in this film, it's because of a pretty serious mishap each time. The footage can't show the full details, but it does convey through its coverage of these moments how close to death the Hubers are working. It also shows how demoralizing failure is when you're so close to spectacular accomplishment. But as they say to each other after the second aborted try, "Now more than ever." And, though the film doesn't show it, they did set the record. It's just not a part of Danquart's footage. This is only one of a series of lacunae, but we can't entirely fault the director for that: maybe this way we get closer to what it is to be at the top. You have to keep trying. It's isn't easy, even if you're the best, and peak performances skirt the edge of failure, nearly always. Darquart has caught the austerity of life at the top of the rock climbing world.
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