For a German boy in 1942, there were few greater honors than being invited to attend one of the National Political Institutes of Learning (NaPoLA was the German acronym), which were essentially military schools designed to turn teenagers into soldiers. Hitler was on the march throughout Europe, and the Fuhrer needed all the able Aryan bodies he could get.
“Before the Fall,” a touching and beautiful film, takes us into one of those schools through the eyes of Friedrich Weimer (Max Riemelt), a ridiculously handsome blond-haired boy who, were he American, would be described as “all-American.” He’s athletic, humble, easy-going and friendly, the sort of mythical figure who would be both captain of the football team and star of the school play.
Friedrich’s family is far from elite, but he’s invited to attend the academy on the strength of his prowess in the boxing ring. (Hitler loves a guy who can beat the crap out of someone.) Against the wishes of his father, who quietly disagrees against Hitler’s youth program in general, Friedrich runs away to school and quickly adjusts to the rigorous life of a Nazi soldier-in-training.
Having a less easy time of it is Albrecht Stein (Tom Schilling), a quieter, more sensitive lad who would rather write poetry than fight. He’s there because his father (Justus von Dohnanyi) is the governor and because Dad wants to turn Albrecht into a respectable German soldier.
Friedrich and Albrecht become best friends. The pairing seems unlikely, except that Friedrich is the sort of smiling, broad-faced guy who can be friends with anyone, and Albrecht is the type to cling to a friend he perceives as superior to himself.
Both boys are alarmed by the way boxing is handled at the school: You keep fighting until someone is unconscious, even if it means hitting your opponent when he’s already on the ground. Still, the brutality of their leaders (and, by extension, their government) doesn’t fully dawn on them until a group of cadets is recruited to search for escaped Russian POWs in a forest and ordered to shoot them on sight.
Perhaps you are wondering: How much similarity does “Before the Fall” (directed by Dennis Gansel from a screenplay he wrote with Maggie Peren) bear to “Dead Poets Society” and “A Separate Peace” and all the other dramatic stories about all-boys boarding schools? The answer is: a lot, but it’s not a problem. The problem is in some of the plot details, most notably the way certain characters place such incredible significance on Friedrich’s final boxing match. It feels contrived, as do several other story elements that pop up here and there.
I’m not going to quibble about that, though, because the two lead performances are endearingly natural, and the relationship between Friedrich and Albrecht rings remarkably true. You can see homo-eroticism in it if you want to, and there’s no denying that idea is played up by the movie’s gaytastic poster. (The original German poster did no such thing.) But that sullies the real point, which is that the boys have a pure, fraternal love for each other, a genuine friendship, and it’s the only thing keeping them alive as the realize the full horror of their nightmarish circumstances.
German filmmakers have been open about their nation’s infamous past, perhaps surprisingly so, and “Before the Fall” is the latest no-holds-barred look at that shameful period. Gansel is to be commended for finding a way to tell a beautiful story simultaneous with indicting his countrymen for their ugliness.
B+ (1 hr., 55 min.; German with subtitles; )