For 33-year-old director Dennis Gansel, making Before the Fall (Napola) was as much about grappling with his own roots as those of Germany. Recently, German filmmakers such as Oliver Hirschbiegel (Downfall) have been exploring the German experience before, during and right after the fall of Nazi Germany.
The L Magazine: What kind of preparations did you make for this film?
Dennis Gansel: We read about [the special elite schools in Nazi-era Germany, The Napola] and we saw some films and met an advisor who was actually there. He was 14 when he attended the Napola schools. He knew everything.
The L: Have you looked at other films about the same period?
DG: Yes, but it didn’t help much. The overall goal was to make a real, authentic film. We did a lot of research in archives and we spoke to a lot of people. We made really long interviews with people who attended this school. A lot of these scenes were based on what we heard, like diving under the ice. The hand grenade scene is the only one not based on their accounts. This is actually a scene that happened to my grandfather when he was a teacher.
The L: Was there a sense of foreboding as you were making the film?
DG: I think so. After a while, when you read about a lot of these kind of things, you can really feel and smell what it meant to these kind of kids. I kept on wondering, “What would I have done in these times?” I had a lot of discussions with my grandfather who was a teacher in a military base in Napola. He said that it was pretty tough for him. He was wearing his first uniform and he always wanted to be an architect, but there was no money in the family. But after bearing the uniform, they gave him something to rule for — endless opportunities. That was the real psychological reason why he was so engaged with the Nazi era.
The L: What did your grandfather say about you reading the history books they used in Napola?
DG: He was very right wing until he died 12 years ago. He always wanted to be an architect, but instead he was a soldier and kept on going higher in the ranks. He had three sons who denied going to the military service, so he was raging about that.
The L: Was the concept of not fitting in always in the screenplay?
DG: Yes. Yes. We heard about Napola students who were writing for magazines. I heard of somebody who was writing a thesis and he peed in his pants all the time because there was too much pressure. He killed himself with a little knife in the park. It really impressed me, so we decided to put it in the script [through the character of Tom Schilling].
The L: Do you hope to make films in the U.S.?
DG: If they offer me scripts like Traffic or The Constant Gardener, I would cut off my right hand for it.