Arts Listings

Moving Pictures: A Masterful Imitation of Hollywood Moviemaking By JUSTIN DeFREITAS

Friday March 10, 2006

If you thought America’s victory over Germany in World War II was only a political/militaristic one, check out Before The Fall, opening today (Friday) at Landmark’s Act 1&2 theater in downtown Berkeley. Apparenty we won the culture war, too. The film may be German, made with German actors speaking the German language, but it is a purely American film, from the opening shots down to the score’s final notes.  

The movie is set in one of Hitler’s napolas, the elite schools created to cultivate future leaders of the Third Reich. Friedrich is a boy from humble origins whose boxing talents grant him entry to the school. He is Aryan in appearance, strong, blonde and handsome, and his German schoolmasters delight in this perfect specimen joining their ranks. 

In a couple of nicely understated scenes, it is made clear though that the boy is something of a genetic fluke, for his parents have dark hair and dark eyes. It is not clearly stated that they are Jewish, and in fact it doesn’t matter whether they are or not; it only matters that they are distinctly not Aryan, making the point that the boy’s ascension to Nazi paragon is simply a matter of chance. 

This sense of opportunities that come and go quickly and arbitrarily informs one of the film’s central motifs: Doors open and slam shut abruptly throughout the film. Early on, Friedrich’s father slams a door in his face as he refuses his son permission to enroll in the napola. A similar moment concludes the film, bookending the story with mirror images of opportunity and denial. And tellingly, it is not Friedrich himself who opens and closes these doors; it is always another who ushers him through or shuts him out. 

Such straight-from-the-textbook symbols permeate the film. None of them are subtle or unique but all are used simply and efficiently to convey the film’s intended messages: freshly fallen snow to connote youth and purity; a red, sweltering cellar to demonstrate a descent into the inferno of violence and disloyalty; cold, icy waters signifying Nazi cruelty and detachment. 

Before The Fall is a coming-of-age film, distinguished primarily because of its dramatic setting and strong acting. Otherwise, it’s really the same old formula, with all its attendant devices: domineering fathers; quietly suffering mothers; and a young son determined to see the world, finding solace and growth in newfound frienships as his naiveté is shattered en route to the realization that maybe, just maybe, mean old dad was right after all. What is impressive about the film is how affecting it is despite its by-the-book structure. It is a testament to the skill and talent of the director and his cast that we still care, even when we know exactly what is coming.  

The film is essentially a collection of artfully rendered cliches, full of stock characters and stock devices. Which is not to say that it isn’t effective, entertaining and fully engrossing. It is all of these. Yet there is a certain dissatisfaction that comes from viewing a German film dressed up as a Hollywood production dressed up as an indie.  

It is in the craft of the film that we most plainly see its American roots. Director Dennis Gansel has apparently steeped himself in American mainstream movies. He employs well-framed compositions and lovely photography—photography that is, however, somewhat shallow. It’s lovely in the way that a Thomas Kinkade painting is lovely: Sure there’s light and fog and a well-sculpted garden, but what the hell does it say? Nothing, of course, but it looks good with the new drapes.  

Before The Fall is full of this sort of imagery; the shots are well-crafted and often beautiful, and though you really can’t find fault with them, you know there’s really nothing unique about them. There is no bold, new vision here. It is art for the masses; accessible and competent, but rote.  

The music too is straight out of the Hollywood textbook: that plaintive, poignant sound of a delicate piano with its tinkling, poignant notes followed by somber, sometimes soaring, strings. This is the soundtrack to virtually every Hollywood film made in the past 15 years, and if you haven’t noticed it yet it will drive you crazy once you do. Again, it’s hard to find fault with it; it is neither jarring nor innocuous. It is Kinkade put to music: pleasing enough, but ultimately meaningless.  

Too often, the film slips into ready-made Hollywood sentiment. For instance, there is a scene where the two boys talk and start to express their disappointment with one another. Words give way to violence as they start to punch each other and eventually wrestle each other to the floor, where the emotionally laden punches give way to tears and an embrace on the cold tile floor. You can see it coming, and you can predict easily enough how it ends: The camera pulls slowly back, framing the boys between shower stalls while the music swells, all to convey to you, as if you didn’t know already, that this is a Poignant Moment. Spielberg couldn’t have hit us over the head any harder.  

The film shows remarkable restraint in one instance: There is no love interest. At one point the boys focus their attention on a lovely young girl who works at the school, and it looks as though the film is about to step off the cliff into pure Hollywood inanity. But fortunately, nothing comes of it. In fact, the girl is introduced, given a name even, and then is gone, only appearing once more, as the object of the boys’ giggling voyeurism. It leaves the distinct impression that the film had in fact featured a romantic subplot, perhaps a love triangle, but that it was left on the cutting room floor, leaving just a few awkward scenes behind as evidence.  

Gansel and his crew have taken a familiar set of ingredients and created a clean, polished product by sheer skill and craftsmanship. It is well-directed, well-written and completely engaging. But it’s a safe movie, one that plays by all the well-worn rules. Gansel has made an all-American, paint-by-numbers Hollywood tear-jerker, and there’s nothing wrong with that, if that’s all you want to make. But paint-by-numbers won’t get you the artistry and agony of a Van Gogh, nor the bold, striking colors of a Matisse.  

But if you’re good—well, it just might get you a Kinkade.  



Director: Dennis Gansel 

Cast: Max Reimelt, Tom Schilling, Justus von Dohnanyi 

Rated R, 110 minutes 

In German with English subtitles 

Playing: Act 1&2›