Before The Fall (Picture This!, NR)

While the film is well acted and shot, American audiences have seen much of this before: Nazi cruelty, the monotonous grays and blacks of the fascist state, trauma awakening the conscience in the heart of the strong, etc.

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Before the Fall is another attempt by the German cinema to come to come to grips with the Second World War and aspects of Germany’s Nazi past. For most of the second half of the 20th century, Germans were much more concerned with the trauma of the East-West division and carving out a new niche in the world than they were with honestly dealing with that awful time. Now, reunited and a few generations on, filmmakers are tackling the time head-on.

The plot is straightforward enough. As the war drags on, Hitler creates special schools (napolas, the film’s title in German) where the elite of the next generation are to be trained to serve the thousand-year Reich. Some are there because of their blood and rearing, like upper-crust Albrecht (Tom Schilling), the son of a Nazi official. Others are there because of their talent and tenacity, like boxer Friedrich (Max Riemelt).

Despite their differences, the boys become friends and do things Hitler and the school’s teachers would never expect. The privileged son rejects his inherited values and the Nazi mindset. The boxer, chosen for his strength and good looks, starts to think and develop a conscience, rejecting the war as well. Both men have every reason to choose the Nazi ethic: the elite son to take his rightful place in the world of privilege; the boxer to forever escape his shoddy, lower class past. Also important is that this action takes place in the summer of 1942, before the war was lost for the Germans. Later on, with defeat inevitable, most Nazis were looking for a postwar strategy, trying to package themselves as secretly disloyal or resisting. By rejecting the Nazis at the height of their power, these boys risked rejecting the world power.

While the film is well acted and shot, American audiences have seen much of this before: Nazi cruelty, the monotonous grays and blacks of the fascist state, trauma awakening the conscience in the heart of the strong, etc. The direct and engaging performances of the two leads are what keep (or fail to keep) our attention. What is more interesting than the action on the screen is what it represents off screen. The director and co-writer, Dennis Gansel, has had a career all over the map: shorts, horror films, sex romps; so, too, has his co-screenwriter and many of the actors. It is heartening to see young, mainstream German filmmakers choosing to tackle the war with youthful, mainstream films. Hopefully, future efforts will bring greater innovation and fresh voices to tell the story with a unique German voice.

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