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'Fall' dares to sympathize with misguided Nazis

Friedrich Weimer is a model young man -- handsome, hard-working, intelligent, athletic. In most coming-of-age boxing movies he'd be the Great White Hope. But in ''Before the Fall" Friedrich is the blond-haired, blue-eyed Aryan model you're not allowed to cheer for. And that's what makes this film unusually compelling, even if it's treacly enough to be ''The Chorus" in goose step.

''Before the Fall" takes place in 1942 Germany, where Friedrich (Max Riemelt) may be a nice enough kid, but he's also a poster boy for Adolf Hitler's master race. Directed by Dennis Gansel (''Girls on Top"), who co-wrote the screenplay with frequent collaborator Maggie Peren, the movie starts off curiously: Friedrich is defeated in the ring when he can't finish off an opponent, yet he's subsequently recruited for an elite Nazi training school known as a Napola (National Political Academy). His poor Fuhrer-bashing father rejects the Third Reich-sponsored free ride, so Friedrich forges a signature and runs off to claim his place, lured as much by the school's impressive facade as he is by naive nationalism and Olympic dreams.

From there on, it's easy to compare the Napola's assemblage of sensitive boys and cruel instructors with everything from ''Dead Poets Society" to ''Full Metal Jacket." Since boxing is little more than a convenient slow-motion metaphor for war in this movie (''Forget your humanity," the young pugilist's trainer instructs him ominously), most of the action happens in classrooms and military drills, and most of it is predictable. But that's what ultimately grabs you, too, because it's hard to believe that Gansel can make something both routine and perversely heroic out of young men being shaped by Nazi ideology. And he does.

Friedrich's roommates include a bed-wetter (Martin Goeres) and a world-class farter (Leon A. Kersten), and his best friend is a pacifist writer named Albrecht (Tom Schilling), whose powerful father (Justus von Dohnanyi) is made in the image of Herman Goering. The teens are all far too sensitive for the battlefront deeds they're being groomed to carry out, which should make you sympathetic, even if you can't root for them to excel in their anti-Semitic education. Just don't get too attached, because Darwinism and dramatic convention dictate that tragedy awaits the weakest of the litter.

''Before the Fall" has far too many stock characters and contrived scenes with homoerotic overtones, but it also has genuine performances, haunting photography shot on location in Prague, and a rare point of view. The young misguided Nazis are presented as mostly good, often proud, and, ultimately, victims. You don't have to agree. The best thing about Gansel's film is it doesn't ask you to absolve anyone; it only tries to make everyone a little more human.

Janice Page can be reached at

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