An intermittently gripping story about an idealistic young boxer who becomes disillusioned with the Third Reich during his elite training, “Napola” is finally KO’d by an overdose of Nazi fetishism. Story spars with a number of plot directions, including a pugilism saga, homoerotic love story and war movie; varied results suggest pic will play different ways to different auds, without completely satisfying any one camp. Provocative subject matter and tech polish point to fest rounds, with action possible in select theatrical situations and more spirited bouts in ancillary.
Director/co-scripter Dennis Gansel was inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, Peter Fritz Gansel (to whom pic is dedicated), who was among the 15,000 young men in one of some 40 National-Political Institutes of Learning — the “Napola” — training to become what Adolf Hitler dreamed of as a “ruthless, commanding, fearless, savage youth.” These future fuhrers were to govern the envisioned Nazi acquisitions of Moscow, Washington, London, Cape Town and other capital cities under the imagined “Thousand Year Reich.”
Cloaked for years following WWII in a secrecy born of shame, these brutal academies turned out a slew of graduates who subsequently became captains of industry and celebrities in German society (actor Hardy Kruger, for one, has spoken of the “scars on his soul” inflicted by the training regimen).
Eyed in the summer of 1942 at a Berlin boxing club by trainer Heinrich Vogler (Devid Striesow) for enrollment at the Napola in Allenstein, promising 16-year old pugilist Friedrich Weimer (Max Riemelt) skips out on his resigned mother, adoring young brother, and disapproving father, who furiously reminds the boy “Hitler’s Youth are bad enough, we won’t have anything to do with these people.”
In short order, he becomes a proud cog in the military machine, undergoing intense physical training and intellectual indoctrination alongside other boys with varying degrees of commitment and skill.
Temporarily losing interest in the athletic angle, story intros slight and soulful cadet Albrecht Stein (Tom Schilling), an aspiring writer and poet being groomed for the Waffen SS by his high-ranking military father, Heinrich (Justus von Dohnanyi). As young Albrecht struggles alongside other trainees, he develops a friendship with Friedrich that borders on something deeper but never commits. (Similarly, the trainer’s strongly suggested fondness for his young charge also peters out.)
Pic detours once again to put a clutch of boys in the field to track down and kill some escaped Russians, who turn out to be defenseless kids. Increasingly troubled by the opportunity he initially embraced, the young boxer anguishes over a tragedy involving Albrecht and makes a statement by dropping his guard in the ring.
Pic too often luxuriates in Nazi trappings and rituals, when the tale would have been given a more satisfying dramatic impact by narrative bridges that more accurately establish the Friedrich/Albrecht relationship and by story arcs with more follow through. Two promising subplots that are broached but then dropped involve one of the few femmes on view and Friedrich’s insubordination during the search mission for the Russians.
Still, solid blows are landed on themes of blind patriotism and calculating human flaws that undermined Hitler’s ghastly goal; Gansel clearly has a lot he wants to say and does his best to say it within a conventional running time.
As Friedrich, Riemelt’s square-jawed hunkiness fits the role, and the remainder of the almost entirely male cast bring various degrees of “Heil Hitler” zeal and nastiness to their perfs. Best sequences all involve Schilling, alternately wistful and resigned as the doomed young Albrecht.
Tech credits are sumptuous, with Torsten Breuer’s lush widescreen lensing and Normand Corbeil’s pulsing orchestrations of “music themes” by Angelo Badalamenti creating a slick surface gloss somewhat at odds with the often gritty subject matter. Riemelt previously worked with Gansel on “Girls on Top,” helmer’s wildly successful 2001 German teen-sex comedy.