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Two Returns

MOUNTAIN CLIMBING, of all dangerous sports, has always seemed to me the silliest. Auto racing, almost equally dangerous, is inane enough; still, anyone who drives a car can at least understand the thrill of hugely amplified power in human hands. But the tree climbing and rock climbing that many of us know have no connection with true mountain climbing, those ascents and descents of vertical icy faces with axes and crampons and the linkage of ropes.

The very word “sport” seems fraudulent. Other risky pursuits have some grace in them, some sense of competition, of victory or defeat: mountain climbing has none. Worse, what we may take for admiration of the climber’s courage is— admitted or not—a decline into degeneracy. Death is what we are watching for. Auto racing gives us all a touch of the ancient Romans. Indianapolis is not the Coliseum where blood was essential, but a crash on the racetrack is, if we want to be candid, gratifying: it certifies that all drivers all the time are gambling with their lives, and one or two of them have proved it. A climber’s accident on an icy slope is just as fatal but not as theatrical. 

Further, mountain climbing, more than any other risk-taking, is wrapped in vacuous philosophy, even theology, flourishing out of its physical aspects. The very title of an alpinist film called TOUCHING THE VOID is a flagrant instance. These men climbed, it implies, to approach metaphysical vastness. We can think otherwise. In an earthbound picture called My Dinner With André, Wallace Shawn says, “Why do we require a trip to Mount Everest in order to be able to perceive one moment of reality? Is Mount Everest more real than New York? ... I think if you could become fully aware of what existed in the cigar store next door to this restaurant, it would blow your brains out.” 

Only a certain kind of schlemiel, Shawn implies, would need Everest in order to apprehend the void through mountain peaks and snowy immensity. In Touching the Void one alpinist says that “freedom from clutter” is what he prizes up there. This is too simple to be anything like the whole truth. George Mallory said that he wanted to climb Mount Everest because it was there. The line is often quoted as a percept of vision and grit. Possibly it was just gilded vanity. 

Touching the Void, though, is interesting in itself rather than in its subject. It tells the true story of two Englishmen, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, who climb a fearsome icy face in the Peruvian Andes in 1985. The ascent is tough, the descent even tougher. At one point Simpson, who is lower at the moment than Yates, breaks his leg. The rope that ties him to Yates keeps him from free fall, but of course his weight is endangering his partner above. Yates decides that it is better to lose one life than two and cuts the rope. In fact both men survive. (No death for the fans, just a close call.) In a work of art, that decision and its aftereffect on both men would be meaty material. In this re-enactment it is only the high point of an adventure. 

But the film, directed almost with fierceness by Kevin Macdonald, is a wondrous recreation of that physical adventure. The most profound element, the moral crux, is skimped, but I kept wondering, not so much about the actors who were playing Simpson and Yates, as about the cameramen who were photographing them on that icy face, possibly suspended while they were doing it. The Simpson actor and a crew had to drop into a crevasse that is, we are told, larger than the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral. There was heroism, and to some purpose. 

Simpson wrote a popular book about the climb. Macdonald interviewed both Simpson and Yates recently, and he intercuts bits of those interviews with the freezing hazards. Macdonald manages to blot out—white out—our foreknowledge of the happy ending much of the time, less with the duo’s activities than with the risks taken by himself and his crew. He shot the film in the Peruvian Andes and in the Alps, with actors and stunt doubles and with a cinematographer, Mike Eley, who makes the snow look sinister. All of them are so expert and daring that at the finish they are the ones, not the original climbers, whom we admire. 

Possibly this is because these men did what they did for tenable reasons, which is more than we can say for Simpson and Yates. 

Another film about the Holocaust—wretched though it is to say this—needs a reason to exist other than its subject. No one who would now see such a film lacks general information. Some new approach or fresh insight is essential, if only to avoid the dreadful tag “one more Holocaust film.” Menachem Daum and Oren Rudavsky succeed. Their documentary HIDING AND SEEKING: FAITH AND TOLERANCE AFTER THE HOLOCAUST is, of all things, timely. It is also courageous. 

Daum, a Brooklynite, has spent much of his film life interviewing Holocaust survivors. He was spurred to this new project when his wife came home one evening very upset after hearing a rabbi’s lecture that called for hatred of the non-Jewish world. Daum, equally upset, knew that this view exists among some Jews, often among the ultra-Orthodox, and he also knew that his father’s life had been saved by Polish farmers who hid him from the Germans for two years. Daum’s two sons are yeshiva students in Jerusalem, where they live with their wives and children, and were apparently exposed to this anti-Gentile prejudice. Daum visited his sons and persuaded them to accompany him to Poland. 

Earlier documentaries have shown Jewish survivors meeting and thanking those who had helped them. The Daum family’s visit to Poland included gratitude, but its purpose was more to enlighten the sons—and other Jews—who, as a result of the twentieth century, want to live on an island of Jewishness. This film broadens views, but it has its wry side. The only two people left on the farm who were there in the Nazi days are a gaunt toothless old man and his wife, now bent double. They are not emotionally wrought by the reunion. They remember the Jew whom they hid, but they are a bit miffed that, after the risks they had taken, they had never heard from him afterward. There is also a suggestion that, in time, they expected some sort of recompense—had been led to expect it by Daum’s father. 

These touches of anti-sentiment help to verify matters. It is not until the Daum family’s second visit, along with the Israeli ambassador to Poland and formal recognition, that the farm folk warm up. Some justice has been done; and of course the Daum sons have been enlightened. Through the film-making fluency of Daum and Rudavsky, and through Daum’s own warm presence in the picture, Hiding and Seeking has substance and point.

This article appeared in the February 16, 2004 issue of the magazine.