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Rise and fall of a young man in the Third Reich

November 18, 2005|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

Sixty years after the end of World War II, Germany's Third Reich continues to inspire remarkable films that are both of their time and timeless. A potent example, Dennis Gansel's "Before the Fall" commands attention from its very first frame and never lets up right through the fade-out. It is a splendid example of classic screen storytelling with no false steps, and Gansel's understated approach pays off with resounding emotional effect and meaning.

In the late summer of 1942, the boxing skill of teenager Friedrich Weimer (Max Riemelt) catches the attention of an officer attached to Allenstein, one of Hitler's prestigious National-Political Academies, or NaPolas, designed to mold promising youths into the leaders in a world conquered by the Third Reich. Naive and poor, Friedrich is thrilled at the opportunity and defies his strongly anti-Nazi parents to go off to Allenstein.

Friedrich seems a perfect fit, rugged, self-confident, clean-cut and blond -- the ideal young Aryan. Physical and military training is rigorous, but Friedrich is up to the demands. In the classroom he's indoctrinated in Darwin's theory of the survival of the fittest, used to buttress Nazi master-race beliefs -- just as the teachings of Martin Luther are used to justify an implacable anti-Semitism. The strong thrive at Allenstein, while those who have trouble living up to its rigid, brutal standards are given plenty of reason to wish themselves dead.

In the meantime, Friedrich strikes up an unexpected friendship with Albrecht Stein (Tom Schilling), the son of a high-ranking gauleiter, Heinrich Stein (Justus von Dohnanyi). Albrecht is slight but no wimp. He is cursed with superior intelligence, acute awareness and writing talent -- all of which are lost on his father, whose ruthless nature propelled him to the top ranks of the Nazi hierarchy.

At heart, "Before the Fall" is the story of Friedrich's coming of age and how Albrecht, a youth of moral imagination and conscience, will have an inevitable but unpredictable effect on Friedrich. Gansel's ability to inspire actors to unsparing portrayals borders on the mesmeric. A work of exemplary craftsmanship, crisp and forthright yet modulated by subtle nuances, "Before the Fall" ranks high among the year's films.

*

'Before the Fall'

MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Considerable but non-exploitative brutality, adult themes. Far too intense for children.

A Picture This release. Director Dennis Gansel. Producers Molly von Furstenberg, Viola Jager, Harald Kugler. Screenplay by Gansel and Maggie Peren. Cinematographer Torsten Breuer. Editor Jochen Retter. Costumes Natascha Curtius-Noss. Production designer Matthias Nesslauer. In German, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

At the Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500; Laemmle's One Colorado, 42 Miller Alley, Pasadena, (626) 744-1224; and the Edwards University Town Center 6, 4245 Campus Drive, Irvine, (949) 854-8818.

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