A courageous German film showing how the origins of the neo-Nazi party are to be found, at least in part, in the repressive politics of former East Germany, “Fuehrer Ex” should get automatic attention from audiences tuned in to headline news. But far from exploiting the violence of its subject, director Winfried Bonengel convincingly dramatizes the way two East Berlin boys are drawn into the neo-Nazi camp. Their harrowing story is based on Bonengel and Ingo Hasselbach’s book “Fuehrer EX: Memoirs of a Former Neo-Nazi” (the memoirs are Hasselbach’s.) What cools pic off is its long central section set in prison, in which it turns into a familiar genre piece featuring male rape, solitary confinement, escape attempts, etc. Nevertheless, pic has sufficient strength to be one of the top German entries this year, with a ripple effect beginning at fests and spreading into theaters.
East Berlin teens Heiko (Christian Bluemel) and Tommy (Aaron Hildebrand) are best friends in 1986, three years before the Berlin Wall will fall. Soft-faced Heiko lives in comfort with his journalist mother (Luci von Org), who concentrates more on bringing home lovers than on him. Tommy, tougher and more aggressive, leads him into various types of hellraising. Heiko would prefer to have a nice, romantic relationship with spunky temptress Beate (Jule Flierl), but it’s not that kind of party. Caught burning a flag, Tommy is sent to jail; he comes back with a barbed wire tattoo encircling his neck and neo-Nazi contacts.
The boys next try to escape across the Wall to the West, but are again caught and thrown into prison. Tommy hangs out with a neo-Nazi clique led by Friedhelm Kaltenbach (played stony-faced by Harry Baer, noted for his Fassbinder roles), but sensitive Heiko at first keeps his distance. When he is brutally raped, Friedhelm’s bullies avenge him, bringing him into their circle.
The long prison section, though motivating Heiko’s descent into fanaticism, has a mechanical quality that puts the brakes on the story’s originality and, oddly enough, limits sympathy for the boys. The action only picks up when they are released after reunification, and the changes time has wrought become apparent. Final scenes inside neo-Nazi party headquarters revive interest in the film’s main subject and once more focus on the bond between Heiko and Tommy.
Bonengel, a documaker making his feature film bow, brings a strong measure of believability to the tale, which shows the research behind it. Aided by cinematographer Frank Barbian’s active camera and a noisy rock track, he creates a restless atmosphere of uncertainty, where the future seems completely unreal. In their different ways, young leads Hildebrand and Bluemel bring the concreteness of violence to this dreamscape, showing it as a reaction to their repressive environment.