A homegrown attempt to confront the fanaticism that gripped Nazi Germany during the early 1940s, Dennis Gansel’s Before the Fall exhibits neither the maniacal dramatic intensity nor assured filmmaking acumen of Downfall. However, unlike Oliver Hirschbiegel’s portrait of Hitler’s final days buried in a Berlin bunker, Gansel’s tale of emerging moral consciousness amid blind, fervent conformity also refuses to pull its punches in unsympathetically portraying the Nazi elite’s unmitigated, irredeemable loathsomeness. Friedrich Weimer (a persuasive Max Riemelt) is a small-town factory worker whose potential as a boxer gets him admitted to one of the Fuhrer’s Napolas, a prep school for the cream of the future Nazi crop where students are brainwashed with Darwinian “survival of the fittest” eugenics, anti-Semitic history, and unswerving devotion to the cause of German world conquest.
The handsome, athletic Aryan is quickly seduced by his elders’ promises of impending renown, and through Friedrich’s indoctrination into the boarding school’s cultish community, Gansel’s film astutely taps into the way in which the Nazi regime sought (as all such autocracies demand) compliance and complicity through either guarantees of greatness or abject humiliation and cruelty, the latter of which is suffered most terribly by Friedrich’s bed-wetting roommate. After befriending the decent, intellectual son (Tom Schilling’s Albrecht) of the region’s iron-fisted governor (Devid Striesow), Friedrich increasingly becomes torn between his boxing coach’s ethos of erasing within himself “pity and false modesty” for the weak, and his new friend’s disgust for the inhumanity of the government to which they’ve sworn allegiance.
Especially in the latently homoerotic relationship between pugilistic he-man Friedrich and feminine, poetry-writing academic Albrecht, Before the Fall unerringly captures the national socialist movement’s merciless groupthink and the Nazis leaders’ abhorrent intolerance and brutality. Yet Gansel, to his modestly impressive film’s detriment, has neither a striking visual eye nor an overly subtle directorial touch. And his conveniently structured tale of youthful rebellion against a rigid, repulsive culture—frequently bogged down by predictable plotting—ultimately feels like little more than a polished, German-tinged Dead Poets Society with budding SS automatons subbing in for privileged Vermont WASPs.