Directed by Dennis Hansel. 2004.

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“In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.” – Aeschylus 

Involving rigorous physical activity and political indoctrination in total subservience to Hitler and his ideas of a German master race, Napolas (National-Political Institutes of Learning) were established with the purpose of training future political, business, and social leaders for the “Thousand-Year Reich”. In these schools, there was no room for debating opposing views or philosophical niceties like ends and means. The schools taught that only the strong survive. Anyone who showed any trace of independent thinking or sensitivity to human values were sadistically harassed and weeded out. 

Based on the recollections of his grandfather, Dennis Gansel’s Before the Fall (Napola —Elite für den Führer) is a riveting coming of age story about the training of one such Nazi elite in the Germany of 1942. The work transcends its limitations as a genre film to tackle a more universal theme - the struggle between external ideals and matters of inner conscience. Like Igor, the idealistic teenager in Dardenne’s La Promesse, Friedrich Weimer (Max Riemelt), a Nordic-looking, working class boxer must deal with issues of conscience in an environment that is anathema to the assertion of human values. 

Friedrich is only seventeen when he is approached after an amateur boxing match by a Nazi instructor at a Napola school. Seeking to salvage the athletic reputation of the school, he sees in Freidrich not only a boxing champion, but a blank slate that can be molded to fit the Nazi ideal. Friedrich, destined to follow his father as a factory laborer, sees the chance to both serve the fatherland and advance his own career and signs his own registration papers when his father refuses to agree. The boy is still very innocent but genuinely idealistic and possesses genuine warmth as shown in the scene in which he reassures his younger brother. Friederich’s mind is open to the Nazi indoctrination not because he is without conscience but because he simply hasn’t seen any reason to question the prevailing zeitgeist. 

Freiderich’s limited world experience suddenly expands, however, when he meets two other classmates: Siegfried Gladen (Martin Goeres), a boy who has a bed-wetting problem ruthlessly exploited as weakness by his fellow cadets and their sadistic teachers, and Albrecht Stein (Tom Schilling), the son of Heinrich Stein (Justus Vob Dohnanyi), a hateful Nazi governor. Albrecht who has the dangerous idea that people should consult their own conscience before blindly following orders is a boy of sensitivity and poetry, the embodiment perhaps of the true German spirit of Goethe and Heine. His father is revolted, however, by the boy’s perceived weakness and humiliates him by insisting that he and Freidrich engage in a very uneven boxing match when he invites his friend to his home. 

Albrecht begins to question the merciless Nazi training after he sees Freidrich deliver a blow to the head of a fighter when he is already down. He also recoils in horror and speaks out publicly after the cadets are marched out into the forest to track down and murder allegedly escaped Russian POWs, in reality unarmed children. This incident results in a break in the relationship of the two boys and a sudden but predictable tragedy that leads to Freidrich‘s realization of the true nature of the Nazi barbarity. Before the Fall is more than an accounting of the Nazi’s disregard for human values, a fact already well-established. It is a more profound statement of how people need to be educated to think for themselves and take a stand for what they believe to be right. Impeccably directed and beautifully performed, Before the Fall is one of the most powerful and disturbing films of recent memory. 


Howard Schumann
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