Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
Dark and confined, the theater is an aesthetic isolation tank. Yet few filmmakers fully use cinema’s enveloping quality to transport the viewer, relying instead mostly on such timeworn audio ploys as musical crescendos and sudden bangs and booms from the rear speakers. Kevin Macdonald, however, can do better. His Touching the Void is a master class in simulating physical experience—and it’s a docudrama, not an action flick.
If Macdonald’s film doesn’t ape the thriller gambits of mountain movies featuring Clint Eastwood or Sylvester Stallone—or Leni Riefenstahl, for that matter—it’s not because the director is too genteel. Macdonald is fascinated by extreme circumstances, as he demonstrated with One Day in September, a documentary about the bloody Munich Olympics, and Donald Cammell: The Ultimate Performance, an account of writer-director Cammell’s singular suicide. And there are few first-person stories more intense than British climber Joe Simpson’s book about his misadventure on Siula Grande, a 20,800-foot Peruvian peak.
In 1985, Simpson and partner Simon Yates made a three-day ascent of the mountain’s almost-sheer west face, which was swathed in snows and clouds. It wasn’t until the third day, they remember, that “we actually saw what we’d been trying to climb.” They considered turning back but instead pressed on successfully to the summit. On the fourth day, as the hungry, dehydrated climbers descended in a whiteout, Simpson hit the side of the mountain hard, shattering his right thigh, knee, and lower-leg bones. Yates asked Simpson, the stoic product of a British boarding-school education, if he was OK. “I think it did occur to me to say, ‘I’m fine,’” he later recalled.
Yates tried to lower Simpson down the mountain, one 300-foot rope length at a time. Simpson would reach the end of the rope, tug on it, and wait for his partner to climb down to him. In zero visibility, Yates unknowingly lowered Simpson over an ice cliff. Unable to grab a hold or shimmy up the rope, Simpson dangled helplessly as Yates was gradually pulled from his perch. Finally, Yates cut the line, letting his friend fall rather than have them tumble off the mountain face together. Many fellow climbers have condemned Yates for this decision—one that Simpson supports. The controversy was one of the major reasons he wrote Touching the Void, which began a successful writing career.
Simpson and Yates both appear in the film, so it’s immediately evident—if nonetheless hard to believe—that neither died during their ill-fated expedition. That knowledge in no way undermines the film’s gripping, vivid evocation of Simpson’s struggle to get off the mountain and back to the base camp. Narrated by straight-to-the-camera interviews with the two climbers, the movie mixes footage of Siula Grande and its environs with climbing scenes shot in the Alps. Although the latter locations were at much gentler altitudes than the upper Andes, they were suitably frigid. And though Simpson and Yates are played by actors (Brendan Mackey and Nicholas Aaron, respectively) in most of the simulated Andean sequences, the two climbers did do some of the onscreen mountaineering themselves.
Macdonald and composer Alex Heffes are guilty of the occasional overweening crescendo, but the film uses sound precisely, surrounding the audience with ominous cracks and chilling howls. (There’s also a funny moment with Boney M’s “Brown Girl in the Ring” illustrating one of two eminently sensible epiphanies the semidelirious Simpson had as he slid and crawled to safety.) Cinematographer Mike Eley’s crisp imagery alternates between serene wide shots and feverish closeups, conveying the intimidating gap in scale between the mountains and the adventurers who would master them. The result is a small-room, widescreen evocation of near-disaster that is both claustrophobic and as big as all outdoors. Viewing Touching the Void is no riskier than watching a routine slasher flick, but it feels like the next worst thing to being there.
At the end of World War II, German scientist and Nazi resister Robert Havemann was liberated from a German prison by Soviet troops. Havemann had joined the Communist Party in 1932, a year before Hitler took power, and supported the rise of international socialism. It wasn’t long after liberation, however, before he and other leftist critics of the Soviet-backed German Democratic Republic found the new rulers to be no more democratic than their predecessors. Some of these dissidents, notes Hava Kohav Beller’s impeccably researched and assembled The Burning Wall, ended up back in the same prisons they’d occupied during the Nazi era, supervised by the same guards. Although a scientific hero of the new regime, Havemann himself eventually went back to jail.
Details like that tie The Burning Wall to Beller’s acclaimed 1992 documentary, The Restless Conscience, which surveyed internal resistance to the Nazis. The GDR wasn’t genocidal, didn’t invade its neighbors, and took its fundamental orders from Moscow. Still, in some ways it was a continuation of Nazi-style rule: Citizens were required to accept a mass ideology, Nazi atrocities were forgotten, and the United States became the new propaganda enemy. The Young Pioneers were dressed and trained much like the Hitler Youth. Anyone suspected of not swallowing the government line was investigated by the Gestapo-like Stasi, which had 1,000 agents and maintained files on a third of the East German population—a percentage that might awe even John Ashcroft.
Beller, a German-born New Yorker, includes interviews with Stasi agents who believed in their work until the end. For many of the GDR’s citizens, however, the honeymoon was over by the early ’50s. A workers’ strike was brutally suppressed by Soviet tanks in 1953—a prelude to what would happen in Budapest in 1956 and Prague in 1968. By 1961, nearly 3 million East Germans had fled to the West. That’s when the Berlin Wall went up.
The East German authorities continued to provide a split menu of propaganda for true disciples—the film includes a hilarious folk-revival ditty praising the wall—and repression for the rest. Ultimately, the decision to abandon communism was made not in East Berlin, but in Moscow. On the occasion of the GDR’s 40th anniversary, Mikhail Gorbachev arrived to tell Premier Erich Honecker that East Germany was on its own. By then, it was already possible to leave the country via Hungary or Czechoslovakia, so the gates to West Berlin were opened. Soon the chisels and sledgehammers came out, and the wall was converted into souvenir shards.
This is not ancient history, and The Burning Wall includes no revelations, so the film will probably most interest German-history buffs and those who know almost nothing about the period. Though Beller interviewed such luminaries as Günter Grass and Vaclav Havel, she uses Havemann’s life as the film’s connecting thread. Havemann died before the GDR did, but his widow, Katja Havemann, offers her commentary and proudly poses with the couple’s Stasi files, which fill a large room. Robert Havemann’s spirit also lives in the remarks of people such as anti-government activist and theologian Ehrhart Neubert, who laments that the two Germanys were ever reunited: When the wall came down, he was hoping to finally get the democratic socialism he’d always been promised. CP