If you're looking for a probing, harrowing analysis of how ordinary young men became sadistic puppets of the Third Reich, you won't get it from Before the Fall. This German import bills itself as a sobering look at "Napolas," the Aryan training centers where impressionable boys were once indoctrinated into the evil ranks of the Hitler Youth. But really, the movie is more like a Nazi version of an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog, serving up weirdly romanticized military-training movie clichés and an anti-conformity message that's straight out of Dead Poets Society. Occasionally, director Dennis Gansel makes some salient points about sadism and the horrors of group mentalities, but ultimately, his worldview is too shallow for the subject material.
It's clear early on that Before the Fall isn't particularly interested in the sinister ways in which the main character, the amateur teen boxer Friedrich (Max Riemelt), could be seduced by the SS. The film begins like a typical rebellious-youth picture, only here the youth's idea of rebelling against his anti-Nazi father is to just join the other side. The conflict between father and son isn't well-dramatized; it seems like Friedrich just wants to escape his poor family's dull hovel of an apartment. In a line of dialogue too naive to be believed, he tells his little brother that he's going to "a really special school in a castle." Recruited for his brute-force skills in the ring, Friedrich is soon put through the full Nazi training regimen: bed-making, rifle-loading and brutal humiliation by his superiors. Through it all, the hunky Reimelt acts bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, even when he's having his head measured with calipers.
The most fascinating aspect of the film is its emphasis on the "one for all" never "all for one" philosophy that's drilled into the recruits' heads. In the best scene in the film, Friedrich's meek, constantly shameful, bed-wetting classmate is so determined to prove himself that he throws himself on a live grenade to save his comrades. It's the most violent image in the film by far, and it's the one scene where Before the Fall shows how eerily successful the methods of the Napolas could be.
Far less profound is a subplot involving Friedrich's relationship with his bunkmate Albrecht (Tom Schilling), a sensitive boy who's grown increasingly skeptical of his father's role in the Nazi party. We're talking about one of the darkest mass-brainwashing experiments in history, and Gansel has time to work in a vaguely homoerotic romance between a headstrong Hitler Youth and the son of an SS lieutenant? Soap-operatic touches like that may be fine for other historical epics, but it's more than a little distasteful when you're talking about boys being trained to exterminate entire races and take over the world. Like so much of Before the Fall, it's a subplot that's entirely beside the point, and suggests the work of a filmmaker working with a fatally limited scope.
In German with English subtitles. Showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.