You've Got To Be Carefully Taught
A film may succeed in spite of a story that's predictable and, indeed, reminiscent of others, almost a sub-genre of plot types. In the case of Before the Fall (Napola), the historical facts that served as starting point are not commonly known but also not essential, in that other films have, from different situations, followed the same pattern. Two years ago, director Dennis Gansel’s second writing venture with Maggie Peren won a German award for the best unproduced script, and now it’s made it to the screen.
The work is dedicated to Gansel’s grandfather (1915-95), who had recounted memories of hardships and friendships while an instructor at Hannover’s 1940 War School (Reichskriegsschule). Later, chance and research turned up the names of numerous current public figures who came out of the National-Political Institutes of Learning (“Napolas”), Reichsschule, and even more selective Adolf Hitler Schools. Eschewing the adjective “elitist” in favor of the hypocritical “meritocratic,” these were the hard-nosed training grounds for National Socialism’s leaders-to-be. Including three for girls, forty of an envisioned hundred Napolas were operational, as combination boot camp-military schools and indoctrination centers of anti-Semitism, where classes were called Dienst (service) and, as “men make history, we make men.”
Apart from early minutes of central figure Friedrich Weimer’s (Max Riemelt) anti-Nazi working-class father, mother and little brother Hans (Alexander Held, Sissy Höfferer, Max Dombrowka), there is no soft-pedaling of the country’s past: teachers and many parents are Party members, officers or soldiers, with few qualms except that their offspring may disgracefully prove to be emotionally or physically weak. Among the cadets admitted, the Jungmänner (young men), some may be more queasy than others, but they toe the line and scramble to avoid the disgrace of expulsion.
Locally proficient amateur adolescent boxer Friedrich is recruited by trainer and teacher Heinrich Vogler (Devid Striesow) for the Napola in a bucolic hilltop castle at Allenstein, with talk about reclaiming past sports supremacy from Potsdam, about the legendary Reich Sports Academy, even eventual international Olympic triumph. Along with the demanding militaristic regimen, sadism, and smug upperclassmen lording it over neophytes, there are the not unusual private-school-movie hints of latent homoeroticism.
Balance is upset, however, and complications introduced, with the arrival of Albrecht (Tom Schilling), the physically slight, poet-souled only child of local Party bigwig and district governor, Heinrich Stein (Justus Von Dohnányi). Friedrich feels the newcomer’s sensitivity, and the two grow close over Albrecht’s writing and his editing of the student newspaper, Der Jungmann. Only a couple of others emerge at all as individuals, such as the doomed bed-wetter Siegfried Gladen (Martin Goeres), for focus is on the two friends, on Albrecht’s aversion to brutality and Friedrich’s dreams of glory.
The two are humiliated at the Governor’s birthday party, and most all the cadets are shaken by the snowy massacre of supposedly escaped Russian POWs, “these wild hordes” who turn out to be Jewish children even younger than they, leading to a catastrophe that, if not surprising, is definitely moving.
At an hour and fifty minutes, Before the Fall (Napola) may seem a bit long because, given the situation, the outcome is more or less a given. But the film is admirably unhysterical playing against the tension provided by hindsight. Unintrusive, tasteful direction and music (Normand Corbeil), Torsten Breuer’s darkish retro-look photography, and a quietly good cast, keep the film above many others of its ilk.
(Released by Picture This! Entertainment; not rated by MPAA.)