Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 7, 2005

Before the Fall

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 7:37 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on September 7, 2005

“Napola,” a searing tale about Nazi military schools, was renamed “Before the Fall” for U.S. distribution. Intentionally or not, this title resonates with “Downfall,” another recent German film that focused on Hitler’s last days. Both films are driven by a need to understand how Nazism arose and how it fell. As is the case in other films such “Das Boot” and “Stalingrad,” Nazism is accepted as a given. There is little of the lurid melodrama and central casting Nazi villains found in films such as “Schindler’s List” or “Seven Beauties.” Ordinary Germans operating within the parameters of the system find ways to challenge it, even if they accept many of its precepts. At least for this critic, this is a much more effective way of understanding history as well as creating drama based on complex characters.

Friedrich Weimer (Max Riemelt) is the teenaged son of a factory worker and a gifted boxer. After being spotted in the ring by a boxing instructor on the lookout for promising talent, he is invited to apply for membership at a mountaintop school and converted castle. This is one of a number of ‘Napolas,’ short for ‘Nationalpolitische Erziehungsanstalt’ (Institute for Political Education) that Hitler has mandated for the training of Nazi political and military cadre.

Friedrich is a simple youth whose main goal in life is to have hot showers on a regular basis, the chance to compete in the ring and escape from factory life. In his tenement apartment, bath water is shared on Saturday nights successively by each family member until it is his turn to dip into the by then mucky water. When he broaches the subject of going to a Napola with his father, the presumably class conscious worker forbids it. After Friedrich runs away from home to enroll at the school, his father smashes his bicycle in a blind rage.

He soon discovers that the school is not what he bargained for. Although it does offer an escape from blue-collar misery, it carries all sorts of penalties from humiliation by drill instructors to rigid discipline of the sort that is found in military schools universally. Since Friedrich is physically superior to the other students and endowed with ‘Aryan’ features, he manages to integrate himself into the daily grind and even flourish. He appears positively rapturous when soaring in a glider as part of his military training. In other ways he is a typical teenager, accompanying another youth to peep through the window at an undressed kitchen maid.

If Friedrich has any understanding of, let alone sympathy with, Nazi ideology, he certainly keeps it to himself. In the classroom, students are asked to identify the author of some anti-Semitic screed (it was Martin Luther) or use algebra to calculate how much fuel it would require to go on a bombing expedition over Bolshevik Russia. Except for such peculiarities unique to the Nazi system, the Napola seems pretty much like the typical military school—except with a higher level of blind obedience, cruelty and irrationality that became perfected under Nazi rule.

When one student, despite his best efforts, habitually wets his bed, he is forced to stand in the courtyard in full view of the other students with his soiled mattress on his head. After weeks of humiliation, he discovers the best relief from his personal hell. When a panicked student drops a live hand grenade in the midst of other students, he smothers it with his body. At his funeral, the head master extols Nazi virtues and points to his example. He lived a hero’s life.

Friedrich eventually bonds with Albrecht Stein, the slight and cerebral son of the local Nazi military governor who is the movie’s only real villain. When Friedrich and Albrecht go to the family estate for a weekend of fun and relaxation, the boy’s father drags them into the basement and orders them to put on boxing gloves and fight with each other for his own drunken amusement and those of his henchmen. When Friedrich pulls his punches, Albrecht screams at him to fight. The Nazi ethos will not permit mercy. After Friedrich beats his good friend into submission, he begins to question Nazi values for the first time.

The climax of the film involves an armed detachment of Napola students sent into the forest to track down and shoot runaway Russian prisoners who have commandeered weapons. When they ultimately discover that they have gunned down unarmed Jewish children no older then themselves, Albrecht makes a decisive break with his father and with the system. Although Friedrich was never a committed Nazi and never articulates any sort of thought-out political justification for his own turn against the system, he joins Albrecht but on his own terms as a star athlete.

Director Dennis Gansel began looking into the Napolas after learning that his grandfather was a teacher at one in 1940. He inquisitiveness deepened when he discovered that Alfred Herrhausen, the former director of Deutsche Bank, had been a student at the Reichsscule Feldafing. Guido Knopp’s “Hitler’s Children,” which provided the historical background for Gansel and co-writer Maggie Peren, reveals discloses the far-reaching influence of the Napola and the even more prestigious Hitler Youth schools:

“The list of names of those with a background of Nazi elite schooling, who subsequently achieved something in democratic Germany, is a long one: the banker Alfred Herrhausen (Feldafing), Count Maynhardt Nayhauss, the Bild newspaper columnist (Napola, Spandau) the film actor Hardy Kruger (Adolf Hitler student), the former East German politician Werner Lambertz (Adolf Hitler student), the former ambassador and spokesman for Willi Brandt, Rudiger von Wechmar (Napola, Spandau), the former Austrian Minister of Justice, Harald Ofner (Napola, Traiskirchen), the journalist Hellmuth Karasek (Napola, Annaberg), the artist and designer Horst Janssen (Napola, Haselunne) and the former editor of Die Zeit, Adolf Hitler student Theo Sommer. All of them had learned to be tough – tough on themselves and, if need be, on their fellow-pupils as well.”

One might legitimately ask whether it is likely that the son of a Nazi governor would break with his own father and with the Nazi system out of revulsion over the slaughter of Jewish children. We are so used to seeing wartime Germans as the embodiment of absolute evil that it might stretch credulity to see them as capable of acting humanely, especially if we accept the Goldhagen thesis as good coin. There are counter-indicators, of course:

“Twice, early in his political career, [Ernest] Mandel came close to his demise. Both times he escaped incarceration by the Nazis. The first time he was arrested for distributing anti-fascist leaflets to the occupying German soldiers. As a revolutionary and a Jew, Mandel was sent to a transit camp for prisoners en route to Auschwitz. Ernest was a strong believer in his own capacity to convince anyone of the merits of socialism. On this basis he started talking to his jailers. The other Belgian and French prisoners regarded their captors as hopelessly reactionary, even sub-human. But Ernest talked to them, soon discovering that some of them had been members of now-banned Social Democratic and Communist parties. He impressed them so much that they helped him to escape. This experience also deepened Mandel’s internationalism. He refused to write off a whole nationality because of the crimes of its leaders.”

In reality, the resistance of an Albrecht Stein was atypical. What is far more typical was a kind of passive resistance to mass murder as described by Christopher Browning in “Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland.” Ordered to round up and kill Jews, these cops found all sorts of excuses to avoid duty—not because of socialist beliefs but because they were would feel degraded by taking part in the murder of defenseless souls. Most often, the shirked their duties rather than standing up to authority. But there some like Adolf Bittner who stuck their neck out, as cited by Browning:

“I must emphasize that from the first days I left no doubt among my comrades that I disapproved of these measures and never volunteered for them. Thus, on one of the first searches for Jews, one of my comrades clubbed a Jewish woman in my presence, and I hit him in the face. A report was made, and in that way my attitude became known to my superiors. I was never officially punished. But anyone who knows how the system works knows that outside official punishment there is the possibility for chicanery that more than makes up for punishment. Thus I was assigned Sunday duties and special watches.”

Although “Before the Fall” is very much focused on a particular time and place, it does invite us to think more generally about the nature of fascism, especially as decisive sectors of the United States ruling class continue their headlong march into religious backwardness and authoritarian patterns of rule.

While watching Ganser’s film, I was struck about how connected Nazism was to militarism. One might even consider Hitler’s system as a universalizing of military values. Blending merciless competition, blind obedience to superiors, mystification of flags, banners and martial music, a willingness to die for the nation and other features found in armies everywhere in the world, Hitler’s insight was that the entire society could be restructured according barracks discipline and receive its marching orders to make war on inferior peoples everywhere. One finds this characteristic in contemporary Israel, apartheid South Africa and the United States under Republican Party rule. Unfortunately and seeming to obey certain historical laws that were manifested during Hitler’s rise to power, America’s liberals seem all too accommodating to our own rightward moving elements.

(“Before the Fall” opens in NYC and Chicago theaters on October 7th and in Los Angeles on November 18th. It is highly recommended.)

1 Comment »

  1. I really liked the story about Ernst Mandel.

    Comment by Curt Kastens — March 1, 2017 @ 9:42 pm

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