Before the Fall (also known as NaPolA: Hitler’s Elite; German: Napola – Elite für den Führer) is a 2004 German drama film written and directed by Dennis Gansel. It is centred around the National Political Institutes of Education or “NaPolA” schools created under the government of Nazi Germany. These military academies were designed as preparatory schools for the future Nazi political and military elite.
In 1942, Friedrich Weimer’s (Max Riemelt) boxing skills earn him an appointment to a National Political Academy (NaPolA), a high school that serves as an entry to the Nazi elite. His father, a skilled factory worker who despises the Nazis, flatly refuses to allow Friedrich to enroll. Friedrich, who sees the school as his ticket to university and a better life, forges his father’s signature on the permission form and leaves during the night. He makes his way to the town of Allenstein, where the school is located, getting a ride from passing cars or trucks when possible and walking the rest of the way. Friedrich’s forged papers are overlooked when he arrives. He is taken by fellow student, Christoph Schneider to be kitted out in the school Nazi style uniform. Friedrich is unaware of the true purpose of the school and is greatly impressed in his first day at Allenstein.
However, Friedrich’s idealistic view of Allenstein is soon tarnished by the harsh, rigid discipline that governs the school. Older students are able to bully younger students almost at will, since there is little interference from school officials, who not only encourage such behavior but actually participate in it themselves. One boy, Siegfried Gladen, endures repeated public humiliation for his tendency to wet the bed as he sleeps.
The school teaches the Nazi Party creed to its students, with sections of Hitler’s speeches and writings being analyzed in classes. “Survival of the fittest” is advocated as the natural way of life, and Jews and all other enemies of the state are presented as treacherous and by nature inferior. The boxing trainer who got Friedrich appointed works with him one-on-one, teaching Friedrich to be hard and ruthless in fights, dismissing any kind of compassion for the other boxer as “bullshit”. Back at his room, Friedrich receives a letter from his mother, informing him that his father has been paid a visit by the Gestapo.
Friedrich visits Albrecht one evening, finding him in a writing and mail office that the students use. Albrecht confides that his talents lie in writing and the arts, areas his father sees as unfit for men. His mother is more supportive but is ultimately just as disinterested. Albrecht begins writing for the school newspaper, taking advice and criticism from Friedrich. When Friedrich has his first competitive boxing match against another NaPolA school, he gradually overpowers the other boy, knocking him down into a corner. Urged on by the shouts of his trainer and other students and officials, he delivers a brutal knockout punch, winning the match. Friedrich is congratulated by staff and students alike, but Albrecht is far less enthusiastic.
One day, the seventh-year boys are taken to the trenches on school grounds, where the sports instructor demonstrates use of live stick grenades. Each of the boys in Friedrich’s year make the throw successfully, until one boy, Martin, panics and drops it. The sports instructor screams at him and flees the trench, leaving the boys to their fate. At that moment, Siegfried Gladen pushes through the ranks and dives on the grenade barely a second before it explodes. Gauleiter Heinrich Steiner arrives to make a speech at the funeral, praising Siegfried Gladen as a martyr of the Fatherland and posthumously awarding him the Lifesaving Medallion.
Albrecht invites Friedrich to come with him to the Steiner family’s home, a vast mansion in the countryside. Heinrich Steiner returns home for his birthday, treated to a special dinner by his wife and a group of friends from the Nazi Party, German Army, and Waffen-SS. He wastes no time criticizing Albrecht for his polite, artistic manner and lack of athletic talent. A boxer himself, Heinrich Steiner is far more interested in Friedrich than in his own son, and delights in Albrecht’s inability to even compete with Friedrich when the two are taken downstairs and forced to fight a boxing match.
During the winter, a group of military vehicles arrives at the school at night. The entire seventh-year class is called outside, where Gauleiter Heinrich Steiner informs them that a group of Soviet POW’s have overpowered their guards, stolen weapons, and escaped from the nearby village. The boys are armed with Karabiner 98k rifles and sent into the woods to search for them. Friedrich and Albrecht, assigned to the same group, end up deep in the frozen woods. Abruptly, a group of figures come out of hiding and try to run back over the crest of a nearby hill, ignoring the boys’ shouts to halt. The boys open fire, shooting each of the Russians. Moving closer, they are shocked to find that not only were none of the prisoners armed, but they were all young boys, no older than the German students. A horrified Albrecht vainly tries to bandage the wounds of one prisoner still left alive, but his father arrives with a search party and shoots the Russian. As the boys are taken back to Allenstein, they see the rest of the POW’s being rounded up and hear a long, rattling fusillade of gunfire in the woods.
In class the next day, Albrecht reads aloud an essay in which he condemns the execution of the Soviet POW’s as a criminal act and his own participation in it as “evil”. Outraged, school authorities summon his father, who coldly informs Albrecht that he will write a new essay, starting with an apology for his previous statements. Albrecht instead writes a second essay in which he condemns his father for ordering the POW’s executed. Learning that Albrecht is to be expelled from school and drafted into the Waffen-SS to fight on the Eastern Front, Friedrich asks what he will do next. Albrecht answers, “I don’t know.”
The next morning, the sports instructor wakes the boys up early and orders them out onto the frozen lake near the school. Two holes have been made in the ice, and each boy must dive in one and swim to the other, using a rope that the first pulls through as a guide. Friedrich makes the swim through the freezing water, but Albrecht dives in and doesn’t come out. Friedrich finds him halfway between the holes, having deliberately halted under the ice. Hearing Friedrich’s shouts, Albrecht looks up and gives a slight shake of his head. Touching a hand to the underside of the ice, Albrecht lets go of the rope, sinking deep into the freezing water and vanishing from sight. Deeply grieved, Friedrich writes an obituary for his friend and asks the headmaster to publish it in the school newspaper, but the headmaster refuses, stating that “Amidst people who have died for Fuehrer, Fatherland, and Nation, there is no place for suicides.”
The upcoming boxing match against the NaPolA school in Potsdam is a great source of interest for both schools. Friedrich, who has been accused of complicity in Albrecht’s death by his indifferent father, is told that his future at Allenstein is very much tied to the outcome of this match. Scouts from prominent German universities are watching, as well as Allenstein’s headmaster and Gauleiter Heinrich Stein. Despite managing to overpower his opponent, Friedrich now hesitates to strike a fallen opponent. The other boy gets back up and begins punching Friedrich, who does not retaliate. Friedrich stands impassively until he is knocked out, turning what nearly was a victory for Allenstein into a humiliating defeat. As the camera gradually blurs the scene out of focus, Friedrich, knocked out and lying on the floor, closes his eyes and smiles with relief.
Friedrich is expelled the next day. He is not allowed to speak to any of his roommates as he leaves, and is taken to the gates by the sports instructor with the same suitcase and summertime clothes that he arrived in. The instructor shoves Friedrich out the front gates and closes them in his face. A defeated Friedrich looks back at Allenstein briefly, then begins walking, soon disappearing into the falling snow.
A closing narration states:
Until 1945 there were in the German Reich around 40 National Political Educational Institutes with more than 15,000 students. When the war was finally acknowledged as being lost, they were sent out into the “Final Struggle”. Blinded by instructed fanaticism and insufficiently armed, they still offered bitter resistance in many battles. Half of them died.
Production & Filming Details
- Director: Dennis Gansel.
- Producers: Viola Jager, Harald Kugler, and Molly von Furstenberg.
- Writers: Dennis Gansel and Maggie Peren.
- Music: Angelo Badalamenti and Normand Corbeil.
- Cinematography: Torsten Breuer.
- Editor: Jochen Retter.
- Production: Seven Pictures.
- Distributor: Constantin Film.
- Release Date: 04 July 2004 (Karlovy Vary International Film Festival) and 13 January 2005 (Germany).
- Running Time: 114 minutes.
- Country: Germany.
- Language: German.