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Brandon Judell

Before the Fall
Before the Fall (Napola)

"Napola," the highlight of this year’s Palm Springs Film Festival, held in January, has turned out to be one of the best films of the year. In fact, if there was a god of celluloid, and sadly there isn’t, this feature would be garnering award nominations in this country up the old gazoo.

(It has though already won the Audience Award at the Hampton’s Film Festival and the Best Director Award at the Bavarian Film Awards, and who can argue with the taste of Hamptonites and Bavarians?)

There has been a title change, though, since that early screening. For American consumption, this feature has been renamed Before the Fall, possibly so you would think you were going to see a flick about Naples.

Napolas (National-Political Institutes of Learning), by the way, were military schools where German youth were trained to be superior Nazis, and at one such school, is where the action takes place.

If you haven’t got it yet, imagine The Dead Poet's Society meets Nazi youth. This image might seem incompatible, but it works beautifully.

The stunningly handsome Max Riemelt, if you respond to blond Aryan types, plays Friedrich Weimer, an impoverished young boxer invited to enroll in the elite Napola of Allenstein against his parents’ wishes. The boy thinks this is the chance for a solid future. He doesn't realize that the Nazis want to turn him into a fighting machine without a soul.

In his new dorm, among the many nice chaps, there’s Albrecht Stein (Tom Schilling), the overly sensitive son of a brutal German officer, who becomes Friedrich’s best friend and conscience. Albrecht is the brains and the poet. Friedrich, the brawn.

There are also the bed-wetter, the coward, the chubby son of a butcher, and numerous other types, that happily all transcend their labeling. We get to spend time with them all as they sleep, dine, learn German poetry, are instructed to despise Jews, throw live bombs, and give the “Heil, Hitler” sign to their superiors.

The film, which chronicles a part of the Nazi era that even most Germans don’t know about today, causes you to ask if you were a German lad back then, wouldn’t you have succumbed to the “magic” of the Nazi promise?

The screenplay was, in fact, based on the memories of Gansel’s own grandfather, who seemed to have few regrets about his training. According to Gansel, he was not alone. Many of Germany’s current leading businessmen and politicians were educated in a Napola.

The horror of that truth is realized here through spectacular acting, direction, camerawork, and screenwriting. And to borrow from Pauline Kael’s glowing review of The Conformist, this feature isn’t “so much a reconstruction of the past as [it is] an infusion from it.”

Director: Dennis Gansel
Screenplay: Dennis Gansel, Maggie Peren
Cast: Max Riemelt, Tom Schilling, Johannes Zirner, Alexander Held, Sissy Höfferer

This film will open in NYC on Oct. 7 in NYC at the Quad

Copyright © Brandon Judell 2005

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