Thomas Dirnhofer

  • Bio
  • Interview

The director, who was born in 1975, in Vorarlberg, was well-prepared to begin a project on alpinism. Since his youth, he has been an avid climber and mountaineer. In the movie world, the self-taught filmographer has become well known for his music videos and advertisements, for which he has taken on the roles of cameraman and director on the same assignment.

For his first documentary film production, Cerro Torre, he carefully studied and experimented with various interview techniques and different sports documentary film styles. After the first year’s expedition, he wanted to resign as a director out of embarrassment for being unable to complete a movie, "But I had to learn my lesson, that it is not possible to film scenes according to plan when making a documentary film. There is no script upon which one can base scene after scene, it's important to simply sit things out sometimes."

On the first attempt, the self-professed workaholic who calls himself ‘hyperactive’, was challenged by the weather-induced downtime that prevented almost all filming. In the third year, during the final and decisive week of the project, his background in working large films and multitasking skills as a cameraman, director, and logistician proved crucial for the successful completion of shooting.

What was it about the subject that intrigued you?

Initially, it was the challenge of making a movie in these harsh conditions, where someone like Werner Herzog had to give up. Obviously there is the attraction of the mountain itself plus the possibilities available when working with a partner like Red Bull Media House. Our ambitions did get us into a bit of trouble at first, though. It was also extremely exciting to get to work with a young climber like David who was so much less attached to the historical context of the climb than we were.

When movie director Soenke Wortmann, shot his first documentary "Deutschland - ein Sommermaerchen", he was very happy that he did not have to create story, only show it. Was it similar for you – with “Cerro Torre” being your first documentary film?

Yes, but only in the third year. The first year was incredibly slow and so we staged much of our filming. Our first rough cut versions were filled with many fabricated ‘going to bed’ and ‘waking up’ scenes that are common in many mountain films. By the third year, things were happening at such an accelerated rate that we didn't know how to shoot everything. At some points I was sitting in the cutting room with Philipp (Manderla), feeling super happy, and saying, “remember when we didn’t have enough footage to make a story and now we have so much we don’t even know how to tell the story”. Editing definitely took a little while…

How did you react to the failure of the first attempt?

I wasn't sure if I could deliver the film. I took an overly ambitious approach and I was extremely disappointed, even ashamed, that I couldn't make a movie on the first attempt. Reality meant I had to learn my lesson. Some things are not possible when making a documentary film. Because I am very bad at sitting still, I tend to tick off scene after scene of a movie, but because there is no script here I found it important to sit things out and be patient. This is clearly visible in the film.

In the film, you draw a parallel between the audacity of Cesare Maestri who drilled his way up the face and your own approach of 'full coverage', justifying why you installed fixed ropes on the mountain.

I obviously have nothing to hide. We all learned a lot and were able to show that we had learned our lesson during the first year. That's also why the story of us as the film team is such an important part of the film, because there was this awareness of how far we could fall from grace. I've always said that it’s lucky nobody made a film about me. I think I would not have been able to accept such a big transformation for myself as David did. He really impressed me. In the end, I definitely did develop as a filmmaker throughout the project. It was similar to the process that David went through during the time we worked together.

In which ways do you think Cerro Torre differs from other mountain films and sport documentaries?

There are many films which showcase athletic performance, but I haven't seen many films which provide an insight into the human character, emotions, successes and failures of the athletes involved. I want to provide that depth to the viewer; first and foremost into David, but also into Peter Ortner and incredible people like Jim Bridwell, Toni Ponholzer, Markus Pucher and the Argentinians. I hope that the film goes beyond the usual adventure film genre and that it truly exposes a bit of the lifestyle and spirit of climbing. I also wish to portray the potential one discovers when one is really willing to push the boundaries of their limits. That's what I hope comes across in the movie.

Thomas Dirnhofer