(Before the Fall)


NAPOLA (Before the Fall)
Made in: Germany
Language: German
Director: Dennis Gansel
Starring: Max Riemelt, Devid Striesow, Tom Schilling, Justus von Dohnanyi, Joachim Bissmeier, Michael Schenk
Year: 2004

Synopsis: Germany, 1942. Friedrich Weimer (Max Riemelt) is a good teenager who cares about his family, works hard at his father's factory, and is a talented boxer. One day his boxing skills catch the eye of Heinrich Vogler (Devid Striesow), a dignified-looking representative of a prestigious academy. Vogler encourages Friedrich to apply to the nearby National Political Academy (NAPOLA), a military school known for producing Nazi elite.

Although excited by the possibility of having a future and leaving behind factory life, Friedrich's father (Gerald Alexander Held), who hates Nazis, adamantly refuses to let his son join the school. But Friedrich sneaks away early one morning and joins up anyway.

At first, Friedrich is thrilled to be at the academy. His boxing skills improve under the watchful tutelage of Vogler, and he befriends fellow cadet Albrecht Stein (Tom Schilling). Albrecht is the intellectual son of Heinrich Stein (Justus von Dohnanyi), the governor of the state where the NAPOLA is located.

But little by little, Friedrich finds his conscience tested as the Nazi indoctrination sets in. As the introspective Albrecht warns Friedrich that everything at this great academy is not as it seems, Friedrich struggles between doing what is right and obeying those who have fostered his talent.

The Good: NAPOLA is a story that stays focused and compelling throughout. Max Riemelt carries the film well as Friedrich Weimer, and his emotional struggle is convincing. Much credit should go to the supporting cast, especially Tom Schilling as the quiet but strong voice of reason that battles to keep Friedrich's conscience level.

With all the historical films out there detailing every facet of Nazi brutality, it's difficult to create a story that provides a fresh look at this time period. To me, the most effective aspect of NAPOLA was the way in which the Nazis turned the sense of right and wrong on its ear.

One of the most chilling moments, in my opinion, had nothing to do with the brutality of Nazi philosophy or the methods employed to turn youngsters into killing machines (although that was pretty frightening.) Instead, one of the most disturbing images takes place during the scene when Friedrich first enters the academy.

Around him are new cadets and their smiling parents, who all believe that the NAPOLA will guarantee a bright future for them all. Knowing what we know in the modern era, we feel like shouting, "don't send your kids there!" to the screen.

But director Dennis Gansel gives you a glimpse of what it was like back then to look upon the Nazi government's facade of dignified glamor and intellectual elitism. It's a reminder that Hitler's now-reviled regime, in its heyday with its promises of power and glory, had the ability to seduce many of Germany's most educated and respected families. As the viewer, against the bright and sunny images, you can't help but have an impending sense of dread knowing what awaits these youngsters.

In that regard, this is a film that does a great job warning us that a good education and high social standing will not always lead to a happy ending.

The Bad: Towards the end, you pretty much figure out how the final scenes will play out. And the film's final scene, which you can predict, doesn't offer a very strong sense of emotional closure.

Who would like this movie: NAPOLA is for you if you have an interest in the events of the Second World War. If you're new to international movies and more of a fan of mainstream commercial cinema, this one is easy to follow and should keep your interest. Although predictable in some respects, overall it's an effective character movie with some genuinely intense and moving scenes.

(3 out of 4 stars)

Review written by: Joe Yang

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