When the Winner Looses

in 39th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

by Martin Thomas Dahlström

The most curious thing about German director Dennis Gansel’s second feature Napola, is not that it had its international premiere in the competition selection of the 39th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, nor that it tells us about the elite Nazi school, Napola (Nationalpolitische Erziehungsanstalt), in 1942 where many strongly influential men in the later Democratic Bundesrepublik Party got their education (such as banker Alfred Herrhausen and politician Rudiger von Wechmar). Nor that the film is destined to have a long and successful life on the international movie scene – a nomination for the Oscar in 2005 seems even likely, for example in Karlovy Vary the film was given the highest mark by the Los Angeles Times’ influential film critic Scarlet Cheng (5/5). Gansel and co-writer Maggie Peren’s script for Napola got the German Film Prize for best script yet to be produced as early as 2003. No, the most curious thing about Napola is that the film from its beginning until its end seems like an extremely well thought out objection and correction of the Swedish Oscar nominee Evil (Ondskan) 2004.

Napola tells the story of a 16 year old German boy Friedrich, who gains the Nazis’ admiration through his successes in the boxing ring. Therefore, he is offered an exclusive education at Napola, a school in a castle in Sonthofen. All in all, Napola had 15 000 pupils during those years. Only one out of 40 of these schools in 1945 was for girls. The school’s main focus was drills, military discipline and physical training and to pass on the Nazi ideology. In other words; Friedrich is offered a secure future. He feels deeply flattered and accepts enthusiastically, against his father’s prohibition. Friedrich forges his father’s signature and starts at the school.

If you are familiar with Evil you will recognize the harsh jargon, at Sonthofen the worst bullies are found among the commanders. In Evil the bullies reign with physical violence over the students and the pedagogues keep silent. The two pictures also are photographed, edited and told in the same determined, dramatic style.

Evil that takes its story from Jan Guillou’s internationally acclaimed novel about the author’s days in a notorious boys’ boarding-school in Mid-Sweden during the late 50’s. The director Mikael Håfström’s adjustments while adapting it into a movie got considerably Hollywoodized. Mostly noted, however, was the fact that none of the boys in trouble got hurt in any significant way, and Erik finally had a total victory over the evil school; over bullies amongst pupils, teachers and the administration – and over his brutal stepfather. Erik’s victories often depended on himself being the toughest pupil through his fighting fists. The Hollywoodizations where clearly dubious both from a realistic and moral point of view.

Napola has more insight than its predecessor, being faithful to the testimonies of the survivors from the school that were interviewed during research for the script, telling about how many boys that would not or could not take the pressure from the fascists committed suicide. Director Gansel tells me that both of the film’s suicides are close to real life; the boy sacrificing himself by acting as a living shield over a fatefully dropped hand-grenade, another kid voluntarily loosing his grip on a rope.

In Evil it is the stepfather’s aggressions that leads Erik into his career of fist fighting. In Napola we don’t know what led Friedrich (played by Max Riemelt, awarded as Best Actor in Karlovy Vary) to start boxing, but his victories in the ring steadily increases his number of Nazi fans. His initial pride over the attention his boxing skills cause, gradually becomes claustrophobic, increasing terror from the insight that he has been taken hostage by the Nazis’ narcissistic need for self confirmation.

Finally it becomes obvious; Friedrich can only win, regain his independence and slide out of the grip of the fascists, by loosing in the boxing ring, to be the one getting the punch in the head and unconsciously dropping to the floor, a similar conclusion to Evil.

Napola’s director Dennis Gansel claims he never saw Evil. He may well say so, and it may even be true (although not likely!). Either way it doesn’t make the dialogue between the two films less interesting. Napola is also a good reminder of the hysterical winning culture in sports. A valuable reminder to many of us.