In what may be the year of the boxing film, Picture This! Films brings us one with an interesting twist. Directed by Dennis Gansel, the film presents visions of often ethereal beauty even when the subject of the moment is grim.
Friedrich - a young boxer condemned to a working-class existence - defies his father and enters an elite Nazi Party training academy, or NAPOLA (the European release name of the film). Even as he grows as a boxer, his nascent morality increasingly grates with the ideology and cruelty of a system designed to produce fanatical killing machines. He is befriended by another student at the school who has come up against the system: Albrecht, the sensitive son of a local Nazi official.
It is a story easily transposed to many times and places - anyplace a warrior society comes at odds with the humanity of a people. The boys are our stand-ins in this world-theatre in microcosm, wherein the times dictate that, as one of the instructors reminds us, "our bodies are no longer our own." We defy this at our peril.
We are continually reminded of their true time and place: The formal military movements around them; The never-ending flurry of official death notices from the front. Through it all, the obligatory love story unfolds. That love (also with a twist here, as it is between two boys) goes unrecognized by the participants until it is tragically too late, and events have conspired to destroy them both.
In a telling scene which occurs after the youths have been tricked by their overlords into taking their first innocent blood, students are asked to write an essay on the winter landscape in Germanic literature. In one of the more operatic moments in the film, the poetic Albrecht reads his essay, weaving visions of stunning beauty intermingled with a truly Germanic death wish.
As Friedrich, Max Riemelt has more than solid physical acting - expected after all in a boxing film. Whole flurries of emotions cascade across his face in seconds like steam puffs on a mirror. To slow down this passing array, at critical moments the director stretches time; pulls us out of the frame, so we may observe and wonder.
There is a fight scene between the two protagonists that is heartrending; in several screenings all but the most hardened of observers were moved to tears. There is reason for the effect: in that moment, for those two on the screen (and simultaneously for us) the past, the present, even the future, all become known, all at once. When the soul is bared that quickly the effect is devastating.