“Before The Fall” is a Holocaust film – even though there are no scenes set in a World War II concentration camp.
The 2004 German film is set during the war in 1942, but there are no scenes on the battlefield. Jews are never mentioned in this movie, which takes place inside an elite high school, located in a castle on a mountain in the regional government of Allenstein (territory that is today part of the Polish Warmian-Masurian Voivodeship.) We follow a group of teenage boys attending the all-male school.
“Before the Fall,” which was written and directed by Dennis Gansel, seems more like a German version of “Dead Poet’s Society” than a movie like “Schindler’s List.” But make no mistake, this is a movie about the Holocaust, and a deeply disturbing one, despite the fact that it offers a mostly casually-paced, quiet storyline.
The movie is about Friedrich Weimer, a small town teenager whose father is a blue-collar factory worker. Friedrich would seem to be headed for the same path in life, when he gets a lucky break. He demonstrates great skill and promise as a boxer, and gets noticed one day by a boxing instructor at the National Political Academy, the high school that trains teenage boys in the creed of the Nazi Party – and literally serves as their entryway into the Nazi elite. It’s a highly prestigious school, and for a working class boy like Friedrich, it seems like an exciting, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to aim for something better.
His father, though, despises the Nazis and refuses to sign the papers granting permission for Friedrich to enroll. Friedrich rebels and forges his father’s signature on the enrollment papers, then hitches a ride to the academy, where he shares a room with several other boys – all equally excited about the opportunities they’re given at this highly regarded school in a historic castle.
At this point, the film seems miles away from cinematic dramas about the horrors of the second World War. The castle is spectacularly beautiful, as is the mountain setting, and the boys pass their time playing jokes on one another and spying on the local girls.
Only in a quiet, and subtly insidious way, does the grim realities of what’s happening all across Europe slowly intrude on this pleasant existence. The school actually endorses a very rigid form of discipline, demonstrated early on as it gets inflicted on one boy, Siegfried Gladen, who can’t stop wetting his bed at night. He’s forced to endure a series of cruel public humiliations meant to “cure” him.
Siegfriend’s plight demonstrates not only the school’s harsh philosophy, but more importantly, the Nazi Party’s overall view. The boxing trainer who got Friedrich accepted into the high school trains him to be ruthless and vicious when he’s fighting – to literally go in for the kill and punch another student unconscious when he’s down. It isn’t an easy transition for Friedrich, who doesn’t have a natural killer instinct.
That’s something Friedrich shares with another student, Albrecht, who is smart and enjoys writing and the arts. But Albrecht is the son of the local governor, Heinrich Steiner, who is a strong believer in the Nazi Party and shares its disdain for any signs of weakness in men.
Friedrich and Albrecht find themselves increasingly alienated from the Hitler philosophy that “Survival of the fittest” is the natural way of life – the very viewpoint that marked Jews as the true enemies of the state, inferior beings who needed to be crushed, wiped out like vermin. Compassion is a sign of weakness; so is any kind of empathy.
As the movie progresses, Albrecht and Friedrich realize they’re in a hostile environment – one where bullying is encouraged as a way to make a man out of you, and where the desire to crush those who seem vulnerable is actually a virtue. In an effort to make future Nazi soldiers and political leaders out of these boys, their ability to feel the pain of others in ruthlessly stomped out.
Not even two shocking tragedies at the school prompt its headmaster or educators – or, for that matter, Albrecht’s father – from questioning their commitment to this brutal worldview.
There’s virtually no violence in “Before the Fall,” except in the boxing ring, and the film moves at a leisurely pace that doesn’t aim for quick or shrill dramatic highpoints. When the first tragedy occurs, it’s all the more shocking when it does.
But more importantly, even though “Before the Fall” never takes us into the concentration camps that extinguished the lives of millions of Jews, it offers one of the most chilling glimpses into the mindset that the Nazi Party employed so vigorously to transform the nation’s youth into a heartless killing machine. The fact that the school would so quickly pounce on any of their students who strayed from this worldview by acting “weak” in any way is equally scary to watch.
In this way, “Before the Fall” is a fascinating, depressing and sobering look at how a nation can so successfully create the environment for a slaughter-filled Holocaust.
Michael Freeman in an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..