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The Swiss Machine

DirectorNick Rosen & Peter Mortimer
Producer Sender Films
Format20 mins
Reviewed byEd Douglas
DateSaturday, 26 February 2011
Rating 3.5 out of 5


You may recoil on instinct from a film entitled ‘The Swiss Machine’, just as you would from one called ‘German Bureaucracy’. Life in Switzerland may go like clockwork, but how exciting can that be? As it turns out, as exciting as it gets. Although, while the alpinist Ueli Steck may be Swiss, there’s little automatic or predictable about what he does. He does have a ferocious training regime, and clearly prepares thoroughly for his astonishing solo climbs, but you would, wouldn’t you? Otherwise you might die. And as this film makes clear, he's about as close to the edge as you can get.

Sender Films is perhaps the best climbing film production house in the world right now, and The Swiss Machine doesn’t disappoint. As a portrait of one of the greatest mountaineers of our era, however, it’s a little two-dimensional. Steck comes across as likeable, but also half cracked. There’s a memorable scene in Yosemite that takes place soon after Steck takes a huge fall while simul-climbing up El Capitan with Alex Honnold. The young American, you’ll recall, is the bloke who soloed Half Dome – and by solo, I mean solo, not fooling around with self-belaying – so presumably is not inexperienced when it comes to extreme personalities. But even Honnold is looking askance as he bids Steck farewell.

The film is short, and never slows down long enough to ask Steck any meaningful questions. There are some glowing encomia from his pals. We get some shots of his family when he was a boy, and some rather contradictory chat about how he’s been brought up short in the past, realising how marginal it all is, before giving us some more confident chat about how he’ll give it all up soon before he goes too far. I hope he does, because he seems like a genuinely nice guy, and the world can’t have too many of those.

Where The Swiss Machine really stands out is in the raw power of its climbing footage, particularly that of his record-breaking sprint up the North Face of the Eiger. Breaking his own record to set a new benchmark of two hours forty-seven minutes, Steck is simply running up the thing. And to be honest I was shocked by how sketchy some of it looked. I would assume that a climber several thousand feet off the ground without a rope would want to make sure each placement is solid. Not Ueli. He is the ultimate man in a hurry. There’s one gripping moment when his crampons are skating off the rock at the end of the Hinterstoisser traverse, which Steck is determined to do free, avoiding the fixed rope most parties now rely on.

Watching this, I could help but think of Leo Dickinson’s portrait of Eric Jones soloing the Eiger some thirty years ago. That was a more longer, more measured film, with a sense of the huge psychological pressure of the North Face. The history was given its due. But these days, everyone’s in more of a hurry, especially Ueli Steck. We’re shown a few seconds of some historical shots and then it’s back to the star doing some more vertical jogging. If you want to see just how good, and how fit, today’s alpinists are, you have to watch it. In fact, you just have to watch it. I just wish it had gone on longer and dug a little deeper.

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