It’s 1942 and young Friedrich Weimer (Charlie Hunnam lookalike Max Riemelt) is facing the prospects as an unremarkable and dreary future. A talented boxer, his skills are noticed by a couple of high-ranking Nazi officers during a match, and he’s offered a place at the prestigious National Political Academy (NaPolA), a private school which churns out the Hitler elite. His father is vehemently opposed to the idea (he insists on him starting an apprenticeship in the local factory) but Weimer rebels and takes off to the place he believes offers the best opportunities for him to make a go of himself.
The school proves to be a tough experience where he’s subject to fascist, dehumanising daily training rituals as he’s indoctrinated into the Nazi way of life, alongside being groomed to win the state boxing championship. He forms a close friendship with Albrecht Stein, a fellow student and roommate. Stein is the son of a senior Nazi governor, but he’s a mild-mannered pacifist who is more interested in picking up a pen than a gun.
The reality of war hits home one night when the students are asked to help participate in the hunt for a gang of escaped Russian POWs in the nearby forest. Given live ammunition and encouraged to show aggressive force, it’s an event which is the catalyst for a string of incidents which ultimately change Weimer’s perspective and makes him question the abhorrent and inhumane cause he serves.
Many of the tropes associated with school-based rites of passage dramas are present and correct in Before the Fall (a older, bullying hall monitor, the overly sadistic teachers and conflicted classroom ideologies) but it’s a well-made and convincing-acted film, which doesn’t hold back in it’s portrayal of the very real horrors of combat training under the Nazis (one of the tormented students meets his demise in a particularly horrific way). The intensive and cruel exercises the students embark upon on a daily basis are almost unwatchable at times and result in a number of incredibly intense scenes, where the lives of the young characters are constantly put into jeopardy.
Quite why the film has sat on the shelf for so long is a mystery (both director and star went in to greater success with 2008’s The Wave) as this is foreign language drama which offers the kind of subject matter and themes which are appealing to a universal cinema/small screen audience. It’s also acts as an important history lesson, and an audience of a similar age to the actually characters in the film will benefit from watching this.
Sadly, marketing-wise, what’s presented here is yet is another example of the DVD cover art betraying what the film is actually about, and instead opting to present something resembling a high-octane Hollywood war action adventure. It’s a great disserve for this thoughtful and sobering slice of history, told from a uniquely compelling perspective.