New York, NY, USA – For 33 year old director Dennis Gansel, making “Napola–Before the Fall” was as much about grappling with his own roots as those collective ones in Germany. Recently, German filmmakers such as Oliver Hirschbiegel (who directed “Downfall”) have been exploring the German experience before, during and right after the fall of Nazi Germany.
Since his grandfather had been an unrepentant right-winger and because he had come to loath the rightward shift happening in his country, Gansel made this film to understand — as much for himself as for the world — how people could drift towards such a repugnant philosophy. In “Napola,” he tells of a few teen-aged men swayed by such a baleful ideology.
G21: What kind of preparations did you make for this film?
DG: 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.
G21: Where did your knowledge of this history come from?
DG: I learned a lot in school and experienced documentaries on TV. Before this movie, I knew things on an intellectual level but, on an emotional level, I didn’t understand anything. It’s so easy to identify with characters in history that rebel against the system. But this film is about a character who is seduced by the system.
G21: 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.
G21: Was there a sense of foreboding as you were making the film?
DG: I think so. After a while, when you r ead 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.
G21: 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. All three sons became architects. I was witnessing discussions when they were yelling at one another. I wanted to make a movie that I would emotionally understand what it meant for my grandfather. Something in Freidrich’s character is my own grandfather.
G21: Were a lot of people in Germany surprised by this story?
DG: In Germany, a lot of people were surprised because I am so young to deal with such a subject matter. They never heard of the elite schools or the Napolas before, so they were pretty much into it.
G21: What about in the U.S.?
DG: In the U.S., nobody ever heard of these elite schools. There’s a famous speech in the film when the headmaster says some day we need more governors. People think I made it up, but it actually happened.
G21: Are you surprised at how much international attention “Before the Fall” is getting?
DG: Yes, I am. I did some casting in Los Angeles and in New York and I felt that it’s a pretty tough market.
G21: What have been some specific reactions to the film?
DG: I had one reaction from the audience at the premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. There was an old Jewish lady who said that she had seen many films, but this was the first that she could not only understand in an intellectual level, but from the belly, about what drove the German public so crazy. It stands for a lot of the American audience because they don’t know much about Germany.
G21: After you make a movie like this, is there a burden on your shoulders to be a spokesman?
DG: My second film was a teenage comedy, so that doesn’t mean I’m going to do comedy soon. [The same with what will follow after this one.] I am really interested in movies that deal with issues such as globalization and terrorism in an entertaining way. I was very disappointed when I saw “The Bourne Identity” because I read the book which discusses Africa. It’s perfectly done and very suspenseful, but it says nothing about what happened in Africa. I think there is a way to combine really interesting things and still make an entertaining movie.
G21: How long did it take you to write the script?
DG: Three years.
G21: What was your inspiration?
DG: I wanted to do a film about seduction. All the time, I asked myself, “Would I have gone in the same direction as my grandfather?”
G21: What did you learn from your own experience in developing Friedrich Weimer [Max Reimelt], your lead character?
DG: My interpretation is that he is very naive and is open to the world. I could easily imagine how the poor boy felt at this time when he gets material things offered like a uniform or flying in planes.
G21: Was the concept of not fitting in always in the screenplay?
DG: 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] [source].
G21: Did you ever consider an alternative ending?
DG: We thought a lot about the ending. I wanted to make a point. There are a lot of scenes that you feel how the system works. For me, it was an important point to make a clear point at the end. We also thought about an ending when Freidrich doesn’t change at all.
G21: Did you ever think that this film would take so long to make?
DG: No, and that’s a problem because I have so many film projects in my mind. In the next ten years, I will hopefully make three or four films and then I’ll be forty. There are certain themes that you can only do right now.
G21: When you finally saw the film, were you satisfied with the result?
DG: Yes. The film is nearly what the screenplay was.
G21: What were your influences in making this film?
DG: Boarding school films and films about the Nazi era. I was also influenced by Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Conformist.”
G21: Where did you grow up?
DG: In East Berlin.
G21: Where would you have been during the war?
DG: If they offered us a career, something to stand for and responsibility, I would be part of the Nazis.
G21: What are your future projects?
DG: I am preparing two projects that I am hoping to find financing for. After doing “Before the Fall,” I got a lot of screenplays. However, I want to do my own stuff. I want to do some comedy. I want to do something about terrorism in Italy. It will happen, but it will take a lot of time.
G21: How did you get started into filmmaking?
DG: I started when I was 17. I grew up in northern Germany and I worked in the festivals for film and television. I did my high school exams and then I worked with disabled people. During this time, I prepared myself for film school. I got a place at the Munich Film School where I studied for 5 years. I graduated with a feature film called “The Phantom” about terrorism.
G21: 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.