The icy but affecting German drama Before The Fall takes place largely in a "Napola," a rigorous academy for Nazi Germany's elite soldiers and athletes, designed to train the country's next generation of political and military leaders. The Napola school seems equally designed to single out and punish freethinkers and the weak, to ferret out poets, bed-wetters, and sensitive, delicate souls who let their consciences get in the way of blind obedience to authority. It's a system so ruthlessly efficient and efficiently ruthless that it doesn't even have to go about the dirty business of destroying non-conformists directly. All it has to do is create an appropriately unbearable climate of fear, shame, and intimidation, then provide those who either can't or won't get with the program with the means to destroy themselves. A sort of cross between A Separate Peace and Full Metal Jacket, Before The Fall is a coming-of-age story about a working-class boxer who over the course of the film evolves from a blind follower to a man of conscience.
The strapping Max Riemelt stars as the pugilist, a plucky youth who defies his father to attend a prestigious academy in an old gothic castle. There, he befriends Tom Schilling, the small, fair-featured, poetry-writing son of a brutish Nazi officer. Schilling awakens within Riemelt a growing sense of horror at the unyielding, inhuman brutality of the Nazi mindset, and that sense takes on a new urgency after the students are ordered to hunt down escaped Russian POWs who turn out to be mere unarmed children.
Before The Fall is filmed largely in epic long shots that emphasize the fascist focus on brute collective will over individual needs and emotions. It's an emotionally chilly movie with a blank, inexpressive protagonist, but it gains cumulative force en route to a viscerally moving climax in which Riemelt learns that being weak and unworthy in the eyes of the Third Reich paradoxically requires enormous strength and conviction.