More than six decades after the end of World War II, Germany is still trying to live down the Holocaust. Films like Fall can offer helpful cultural reportage on little-known aspects of Hitler’s regime, but they can also turn into maudlin soap operas (like 2003’s Rosenstrasse) and/or tiresome exercises in self-flagellation. For a German film about Nazism to be outstanding today, it had better tell a tale that goes beyond the obvious—unlike this one.
Set in 1942, Fall is fairly engaging as a coming-of-age story, though its protagonist, Friedrich (Max Riemelt, possibly the most Aryan-looking actor alive), isn’t exactly Mr. Charisma. The bland, blond aspiring boxer escapes from under the thumb of his anti-Nazi dad by forging the old man’s signature on an application for Allenstein, a boys’ academy where promising Hitler Youth are whipped into leadership shape. Soon Friedrich is palling around with Albrecht (Tom Schilling), the son of a high-ranking Nazi official, improving his pugilistic skills, and attending classes on Germanic racial superiority. What gives the film its initial bite is Friedrich’s sunny view of Allenstein. There’s an especially chilling cheeriness to arrival day; it’s as though parents are dropping their kids off at summer camp. But once we’re deep inside Fall‘s melodrama, and once the academy starts grinding perfectly nice young men into dust, looking at the world through Friedrich’s eyes simply means seeing Nazism for what we already know it is: deranged, sadistic, and extremely dangerous. Then we’re just marking time until his conscience catches up.
In the grand cinematic tradition of sidekicks, Schilling steals every scene he’s in. His Albrecht is a fey, delicate boy more interested in writing than shooting a rifle, and he uses his frail build and emotional eyes to great effect, adding a measure of pained rage to what could have been a stock character. But Fall‘s story isn’t as distinguished; too often, its take on Nazi horrors isn’t much different from what we’ve heard and read and seen before. (NR)