In the 1930’s, after Adolf Hitler came to power in Nazi Germany, and started his campaign to develop a superior race, a system of schools were set up for the best of the best. The brightest, strongest, most well-connected young men went to these Napola (Nationalpolitischen Erziehungsanstalt), and were taught German culture, weaponry and the attitudes of the Third Reich. These men were then to go on and become the governors and leaders of the conquered cities and countries taken over by Germany at the winning of the war.
Gaining entrance to a Napola, therefore, was like winning the lottery – it ensured financial security, position and power. By living together in a boarding school environment, and sharing triumphs and failures, networks were formed that would serve well in later life. These were the attractions. The catch? Boarding house life in a Napola was not friendly or encouraging – it was abusive and violent, and only the toughest could thrive.
There is much to like in this film. Its portrayal of the horrors inflicted on these boys in the name of their education is both moving and informative. Ritual torture, the denigration of the spirit, and the forced experience of the nature of war all combining to harden most, and break some. The relationships between the boys formed the only support, unless one decided that falling in line and believing whole-heartedly in the propaganda was the only way to get by.
There are many similarities with the recent prototype in the boarding school genre – Dead Poet’s Society – with a son disappointing his father, the pressures to conform, and the effect that a single act of defiance can have on a society built on structure and rigidity. The themes of betrayal of one’s own ideals by a loved one, and the liberation one might feel by taking the route less easy but more true to oneself, are powerfully played out.
Unfortunately, there are several moments that are telegraphed by the director, either through the dialogue in the worst case, or the music and momentum otherwise. This is disappointing, as the film is otherwise very good indeed. The casting is excellent, with Max Riemelt and Tom Schilling particularly good, and the cinematography, although falling into the trap of using too much hand held camerawork in some scenes, manages to show the beauty of the landscape set against the awful acts being played out upon it.
Napola is showing in Melbourne as part of the Festival of German Films 2005, but hopefully may win a broader release given the packed house it played to at my session. I can highly recommend it.Rating: