At one time or another, many adolescents have accused their parents of being Nazis, but what if it were literally true? In writer/director Dennis Gansel’s Before the Fall, Albrecht Stein (Tom Schilling) is a sensitive kid in 1942 Germany whose father Heinrich (Justus von Dohnányi), a Nazi Party bigwig, doesn’t understand his dreamy-eyed son and is embarrassed, even disgusted, by his desire to be a writer rather than a warrior. When Albrecht stands up at Heinrich’s birthday dinner to read a poem he composed for the occasion, Heinrich is mortified; he insists the boy wait for a more appropriate time, which, of course, will never come. Like many fathers who have provided well for their children (the Steins live in a huge estate, which, it’s implied, was seized from Jews sent to the camps), Heinrich is incensed that Albrecht doesn’t appreciate how good he has it. He wants to send Albrecht off to join the SS so that they can make a man of him. This younger generation — this Hitler Youth — what a bunch of whiners!
Part of Albrecht’s supposed good fortune is that he attends a Napola, a military school that uses harsh discipline and public humiliation to prepare the cadets to be good soldiers and the future leaders of the Thousand-Year Reich. The curriculum focuses on glorifying Hitler, the Reich, and German expansionism while scapegoating Jews; even in math class the word problems are about how many bombs a plane traveling at a given speed can drop in a given time. Though he never appears onscreen, the spirit of Hitler is everywhere, invoked the way Christians sometimes invoke Jesus: “What if the Führer came and your room reeked of piss?” says an upperclassman to a younger boy who wets his bed.
The only person who understands Albrecht is his friend Friedrich (Max Riemelt), a poor kid who was recruited to the Napola for his boxing ability. Albrecht and Friedrich are both interested in girls, but Albrecht has a bit of Sal Mineo in him; he develops a boy-crush on the tall, athletic Friedrich, whose blue eyes, blond hair, and muscular build all but scream “master race.” Heinrich is perhaps as taken with Friedrich as his son is, showing the ideally Aryan athlete the approval and affection he withholds from his own too-delicate offspring.
For Friedrich, the Napola is a way out of poverty and ignominy, a way to escape the small Berlin apartment where his family must take turns in the same bathwater. Success in boxing could give Friedrich a future, a spot at the Reich Sports Academy and maybe even the Olympics. His father, who tacitly opposes the Nazis, is disgusted by the idea: “The Hitler Youth is bad enough — not an elite school, too!” Papa wants Friedrich to work in a factory and earn an honest, apolitical living, but Friedrich hasn’t absorbed his father’s attitudes and is more than willing to accept the role of Good Nazi if it benefits him. When he arrives at the school and first sees his cadet uniform laid out with its swastika armband, he smiles, puts it on, and practices the Nazi salute in the mirror. It’s a disturbing display of how easily the young can be co-opted by some flashy threads.
Friedrich is a good boxer, but he’s held back by his essential decency: He never wants to deliver the final, knockout punch. This, to me, is a strange sign of a gentle nature — he doesn’t mind repeatedly pummeling someone in the face and torso, but the blow that knocks his opponent unconscious somehow seems wrong? The boxing coach who recruited Friedrich doesn’t get it either; he warns him of the dangers of both fear and compassion. Overriding his own nobler instincts and blindly, unquestioningly following his superiors is the route to becoming a winner.
In their dormitory, Friedrich and Albrecht share a six-bed room with four stock characters: the smooth con man; the fat doofus; the shy, withdrawn kid; and the rowdy who holds the room’s farting record. For good measure, there’s a bullying upperclassman down the hall who picks on the weaker, younger kids and a comely mädchen who serves the boys’ meals and sparks many an adolescent fancy. In numerous and often strange ways Before the Fall is a retread of earlier boys-school films, particularly Dead Poets Society, subtracting Robin Williams and adding Nazis (which may seem a fair trade to the audience). Albrecht is the Robert Sean Leonard character, rebelling against a rigid, uncompassionate father, but Heinrich isn’t just a lousy parent; he’s also a corruptor of innocence and a cold-blooded killer. When a group of prisoners escape from a train that passes near the school, Heinrich rounds up Albrecht and his classmates to patrol for them. The boys wind up shooting several escapees, who turn out be Russian children, a few years younger than their killers. When a horrified Albrecht attends the wounds of one who’s still breathing, the Russian boy sputters, “Spaceeba, tovarisch” (“Thank you, friend”). The other boys are little affected, but Albrecht and Friedrich are traumatized by their complicity and begin to act out in ways that lead to predictable climaxes (Friedrich’s in particular is guessable after the first scene).
About 40 Napolas really existed during the Nazi era, along with a number of Adolf Hitler Schulen and Reichsschulen, and indeed a number of students from those schools went on to be successful, powerful people in business and politics in the postwar era. It’s a promising subject for a film, but Before the Fall examines it in a disappointingly rote way. The script, by Gansel and Maggie Peren, relies on easy ironies, such as making the kid everyone thinks is weak turn out to be the bravest of them all when he sacrifices his life to save the others. (Or do they intend us to see his death as a suicide, in which case the irony comes when he’s proclaimed a hero?) They don’t really offer any new insights into Nazism; we see the boys’ unthinking conformity, but Gansel and Peren don’t really seek to indict them for it — they’re teenagers; of course they don’t really think for themselves. They’re caught up in something much bigger than them and something that, in 1942, it was still possible for many Germans to believe was a pretty good idea. It’s the adults, particularly those higher up in the Party, like Heinrich, who are in a position to realize what’s really going on, but we’re not shown much about them or asked to understand how their pride and greed turned them into monsters.
The film’s young performers are engaging, particularly Schilling, who is painfully vulnerable without seeming weak or self-pitying, but the movie overall is a ticky little thing, terribly sad but rather frivolous at the same time. While I empathized with Friedrich and Albrecht, I couldn’t help feeling that the problems of two pretty Aryan kids seem pretty minor in comparison to the greater horrors of Nazism.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Film Reviews | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()