Every movie about the Holocaust should be this good, but few are. Heartbreaking and brutal, its tale of two boys training together at a Napola – an elite school training young Aryan men for service in Hitler’s Third Reich – is as intimate and truthful to its characters as it is powerfully topical and politically brave. The movie is a statement from a nation that is deeply remorseful for its complicity in an attempt to build a genocidal empire but is still struggling to understand how it became complicit. (This statement may well be heeded by the film’s American audiences, as well.) Yet as it explores such broad notions as the unraveling of compassion and the corruptive nature of nationalism, it is at the same time a love story about two young people who just happen to be positioned at a major crossroads in global affairs, and it is successful on both levels. Before the Fall
is a little unassuming; it’s not a slick European import (considering its festival raves, it should be traveling under the Miramax banner) and it partially takes the shape of a standard boarding-school romp. Students enter the Napola with rose-colored glasses – they are all educated equally, at least in theory, regardless of their origins – and the movie sheds its slight sepia sheen as reality sets in for Friedrich (Riemelt), the school’s newest recruit. Amidst the youthful hijinks and flouting of authority (the boys trade bratwurst and porn; they are equivalent commodities in wartime among teenage guys), there are glimpses of the systematic dehumanization of enemy and comrade alike. One unlucky cadet is humiliated for bedwetting (“No pity!” snaps an officer when the other students sympathize), while aspiring boxer Friedrich discovers that the Napola tournament is fought and won according to who’s left standing. But not even fascism can destroy love, and the movie makes an elegant, astonishing tonal shift into its last act to prove this point. The film is a nice slow burn; it becomes more provocative gradually and never loses sight of the important fact that these soldiers are children. Like 2004’s Downfall
it carefully considers the emergence of Nazism from Germany’s own specific culture (students at the Napola perform classical Teutonic drama in one period of the day, then learn to hurl grenades in another) but does not demonize its characters. Their motives and actions are worthy of investigation, and they are brought to life fully by Gansel’s restrained but focused direction and a stellar performance by Riemelt.