2004 - Germany - 110 minutes
Writers - Dennis Gansel and Maggie Peren
Director - Dennis Gansel
My Rating - 5 of 5 Stars
This film's title, NaPolA is the acronym for "National-politische Erziehungs-Anstalt" or "National Political Education Institute" - a group of boarding schools established in Hitler's Germany to mold the elite of the future German grand society. It is stated in the film that the young men who attend these schools will be the future governors of such places as London and New York. For some reason, those "in the know" have chosen to give the film the mundane title Before the Fall for its existence here in the United States. NaPolA is a fairly predictable coming-of-age story, but its story's location in history, excellent acting, and superior production values give it five stars in my mind.
The film begins in 1942 where we meet Friedrich Weimer, a young boxer of extraordinary talent who seems destined to follow in the footsteps of his working-class father and slave away his life in the factory. His boxing talent is witnessed by an official of a NaPolA, and he is given the opportunity of enrollment in the school. Friedrich is thrilled with the prospect of attending such an elite school, but his father is as dead set against it as he is disdainful of what the Nazis are doing to Germany. Friedrich forges his father's signature on the application and leaves for the school.
The scene in which Friedrich is getting his physical for entry into the institute made my skin crawl. You see, Friedrich - played by Max Riemelt - is a perfect physical specimen by Nazi standards. His facial features are measured, and his hair and eye colors are compared to numbered standards. As these features are recorded, we see his mentors in the background slyly smiling at their perfect super human - creepy. The director, in this understated scene, expertly portrays the racial evil that was Nazism.
Friedrich meets another student, Albrecht Stein - played by Tom Schilling - who is a sensitive writer. Albrecht has been enrolled by his father, the governor of the institute, and is not as enamored of the system as is Friedrich. These two opposites form a deep friendship. Needless-to-say, events occur that cause both boys - especially Friedrich - to examine their attitudes toward the system.
As stated before, the plotline of the film is fairly predictable but the overall quality of the film causes it to rise far above that plotline. The boxing scenes in the film are superior. In the extra feature on the DVD, the director states that Max Riemelt is a boxer and was instrumental in making those scenes so powerful. The director's quest, inspired by his grandfather who actually attended a NaPolA, was also to make the events in the film as accurate as possible. In that quest, he hired a technical advisor who had attended one of the institutes. It is interesting to see the advisor putting the actors through their paces demanding unquestioning performance from these young men of today much in same way it was required of the actual young men some sixty-plus years ago.
Striking, distinctive uniforms and the thoughts of honor and glory are so very alluring to young men in their late teens. NaPolA effectively reminds us of how that allure can be directed for the benefit of evil. This is one of the many excellent German films that shatter us with the harsh reality of what was Nazi Germany - truly effective use of the lessons of history.
June 22, 2006