Touching the Void, 106 mins, rated M, opens in cinemas nationwide on 24 June 2004.

Safe,  118 mins, rated M, runs at the Palace Academy Twin Cinema, Paddington NSW from 20 May until late June, then travels interstate.

In the late 1920s and early 30s in Germany, the “Mountain film” was a popular genre.  In films such as The White Hell of Pitz Palu (Pabst & Fanck, 1929) and The Blue Light (Riefenstahl, 1932), film makers glorified open spaces, clean air and the clear light of the Alps.  These film became favourites of the Nazis, who seized upon their inspirational elements, using them to help sell the concept of Aryan supremacy.

Today, films about death-defying mountain-climbing feats still enthral us: for example, Cliffhanger (Harlin, 1993), Vertical Limit (Campbell, 2000) and Into Thin Air: Death on Everest (Markowitz, made-for-TV,1997).  Now we have Touching the Void, directed by Kevin Macdonald based on Joe Simpson’s 1985 best-selling book of the same name.

Touching the Void is a “drama documentary”.  It tells the true story of British mountaineers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, who successfully climbed the “unclimbable” 21,000-foot west face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes in 1985.  It was an “Alpine style” climb with no back-up, no communication with base camp, and no room for error.  Simpson and Yates made it to the top, but struck serious trouble on the way down.  According to statistics, 80% of  climbing accidents happen on descent, and so it was that Simpson fell and fractured the bones of one leg – seemingly a death-sentence under the conditions.

Director Macdonald painstakingly re-constructs this epic journey, using the real Andean (and some Alpine) locations and having actors play the parts of the young Simpson and Yates on the expedition.  We know they both survived the ordeal, because Macdonald also uses direct-to-camera interviews with the real Simpson and Yates (and their base-camp buddy Richard Hawing).  Thus the film is a combination of the real and the recreated.  Somehow, against the odds, it works.

This is partly due to the skills of the director and his team.  Kevin Macdonald is a director with an impressive documentary track-record.  Among other films, he made the Academy Award-winning documentary One Day in September (2000), about the terrorist killings at the Munich Olympics in 1972.  But this film surpasses it. By taking his camera to the Andes, Macdonald has captured on film the fierce beauty of Siula Grande, which has never before been filmed.  The risk he took by re-staging the climb (think of all the cheesy re-enactments we see on TV) pays off because he manages to make the landscape a character in the film: an eerie backdrop against which the climbers’ struggle takes place.

In addition, he has the advantage of the real Simpson and Yates.  These two men are utterly matter-of-fact and breathtakingly honest.  They have a gift for understatement.  When they begin to strike serious trouble, one of them says: “It seemed a bit dangerous…”  Then, after he has a terrifying fall down a “cornice” of snow, Yates tells us he reported it to Simpson by shouting:  “I’ve found a ridge, Joe”.  Their frankness in describing their feelings along the way is staggering.  So we have the stark contrast between the mystical beauty and menace of the mountains, and the straightforward, honest narrative of the men.

As the film’s name implies, this is more than just the true story of an amazing feat of courage and endurance.  It also has a spiritual, even existential, side.  Both Simpson and Yates come face to face with death and have to make agonising decisions which haunt them to this day.  Simpson’s journey in particular is both physical and metaphysical.  Like Kerry Packer, he stares into the void and declares that “there’s nothing there”.  It’s a white-knuckle ride to the very essence of humanity.

Also, a word about Safe,  which is finally getting a limited release in Sydney and, later, interstate.  Safe  was made in 1995 by Todd Haynes, who went on to make Velvet Goldmine (1998) and Far from Heaven (2002).  It was screened in Australia only once, in 1996 at the Melbourne International Film Festival, and never had a commercial release due to legal issues (now resolved) with the film’s financiers. Safe has been described as “a horror movie for the soul”.  It was voted “Best Film of the Decade” by New York’s The Village Voice critics. It stars Julianne Moore (The Hours (Daldry, 2002), Far from Heaven) as a housewife who inexplicably becomes allergic, it seems, to her own environment.  But this is more than a disease-of-the-week film, as Moore’s character comes to question everything around her, and, ultimately, her own sense of self.  Safe was ahead of its time in 1995, and it’s as fresh now as it was them –  although these days we have a little more distance from the alarming fashions and furnishings of 1987’s California, where the film is set.

Both Safe and Touching the Void are highly recommended.