How can ordinary, otherwise good people be seduced by evil?
That was one of the frightening questions in Hitler’s rise to power and the Holocaust. The German film Before the Fall examines the less-remembered other half of Hitler’s racist plan, that in addition to eliminating people he deemed “undesirable,” he planned to cultivate another group, an elite “master race.” Before the Fall focuses on a na ïve young German teen recruited to attend a Nazi military school, one of several designed to created this new elite.
These schools were called Napolas, an acronym for “National-politische Erziehungs-Anstalt” or “National Political Education Institute.” The 40 Napolas were the military school part of Hitler’s training system for his new Nazi elite. These schools were designed to create leaders and soldiers who would have unswerving loyalty to Hitler and be devoid of pity or scruples. Through the eyes of this innocent young man, the film shows how ordinary people who do not look beneath the surface of things can be seduced and led, step by step, to do evil.
In 1942 Germany, 17-year-old Friedrich Weimer (Max Riemelt) and his family are so poor that he is forced to leave school to join his father in factory work to support themselves in their small town. His liberal parents (Alexander Held and Sissy H öfferer), who despise the Nazis and their hate-filled policies, have not done well under fascist rule. Yet the apolitical Friedrich dreams of going to college and sees his skill as an amateur boxer as his ticket out of poverty. When he defeats a boxer from an elite Napola school, a recruiter from a rival Napola approaches him with the offer of a scholarship. When his horrified parents refuse to give their permission, he forges his father’s signature and runs off to the school.
Friedrich is a decent person but he is non-political, ambitious and eager to escape poverty. At the Napola school, officials and teachers greet him like a star, for he is not only a talented athlete but the tall, blond, blue-eyed physical embodiment of their “master race” ideal. Surrounded by all this attention, Friedrich readily embraces their descriptions of Nazi “noble ideals.” He befriends another boy, Albrecht Stein (Tom Schilling), the son of the powerful and wealthy local governor, whose friendship helps shield him from other students who tease him about being a country bumpkin. As Friedrich trains as a boxer, he is urged to show no mercy in the ring, for only the strongest and most ruthless can win.
The friendship between the two boys continues to grow, but it becomes clear that there are profound differences between them. Albrecht, the son of the elite, does not measure up to the Nazi ideal that Friedrich appears to embody. Albrecht is short, thin and dark-haired, but worse, he is an intellectual and a boy more skilled at writing poetry than athletics. While Friedrich is willing to accept the ideas of the Nazis, Albrecht is much more willing to challenge them, despite his father’s exalted position in the Reich. As the Nazis’ brutal philosophy increasingly surfaces in the school’s teachings, and in the teachers’ actions, its soul-deadening, underlying evil comes to dominate the boys’ experiences.
Director Dennis Gansel also co-wrote the screenplay of this film, which has won several awards at film festivals around the world. The Napolas and Nazi elite schools were real, and the director was inspired to make this film in part after discovering that many graduates of these schools were in prominent leadership positions throughout Germany, something generally not talked about.
Although the historical underpinning of the story is fascinating and the moral dilemma it explores is worthy, the fictional story of the two boys is more conventional and predictable than one might hope. Still, the film is very polished, with high production values and moves briskly. Although the director includes a scene in which the adolescent boys spy on the private quarters of a pretty maid at the school, there is a bit of underlying homo-erotic element in the film. The film is visually beautiful, with fine pacing and editing, with some nicely composed scenes. The young actors do a fine job, particularly Max Riemelt, who is in nearly every scene and has to reflect the conflicting emotions his character goes through.
While the friendship of the boys follows a more predictable arc, the film does a better job of highlighting the underlying cruelty and cowardice in the Nazis, along with the moral failure of those who know their message is wrong but go along anyway. While some of the adults at the school are true-believers in the Nazis’ survival-of-the-fittest rejection of humane behavior, others merely urged Friedrich overlook those elements, to go along in order to further his personal career.
While Before the Fall is a fascinating look back at a less well-covered piece of history, it is also a cautionary tale for any time, a reminder that we must be ever vigilant.
The film is in German, with English subtitles, and represents another worthy attempt by modern German filmmakers to come to grips with their past. The title might refer to the gripping film Downfall, with the excellent Swiss actor Bruno Ganz, about Hitler’s last days in his bunker. Before the Fall is set to open at the Tivoli Theatre on Friday, March 31, for a one-week run.