Dir: Winfried Bonengel. Germany. 2002. 106 mins.

Winfried Bonengel has made neo-Nazis his speciality subject. The documentary Profession: Neo-Nazi (1993) was shown at 40 festivals around the world, while Fuehrer Ex , the book he wrote with former neo-Nazi militant Ingo Hasselbach, became a minor bestseller when it appeared in the US in 1995. The film of the same name is Bonengel's first fictional take on Hasselbach's life story. While buoyed up by strong performances from the two leads, the film lacks gravitas, coming on too often as an episodic, made-for-TV youth film. Indeed, if the film feels slightly dated, it is because it plays like a German version of 1970s UK TV features such as Alan Clarke's Scum.

In Germany, where it opens on Dec 5, teens and twentysomethings who were still kids when the Wall fell look to be Fuherer Ex's film's most obvious audience; older Germans on both sides of the former line may find the material too uncomfortable for a night out at the movies. The controversy may grab attention internationally (it played in competition at Venice), but the film will only make it in a few urban centres in the rest of Europe. In the US, where Hasselbach is something of a name, the film may have legs on the arthouse circuit, though direct-to-TV sales may be its easiest option.

Actor Edward Norton read and absorbed Fuherer Ex while preparing for the role of the US white supremacist in Tony Kaye's American History X. As with its close American cousin, the aim of the film adaptation is to get inside the mind of a neo-Nazi and show how a combination of social milieu and male bonding rituals can make the unthinkable not only thinkable, but attractive.

The film blasts in with a punk version of the East German national anthem. In East Berlin, a few years before the fall of the Wall, teen friends Heiko (Blumel) and Tommy (Hildebrand) are less interested in working towards the greater glory of the DDR than in girls, music and beer. Tommy does time in jail for burning the East German flag; by the time he comes out, he is a committed neo-Nazi.

He persuades a sceptical Heiko to follow him in an attempt to get across the Wall. Both are caught, and sent to prison, where the sensitive, reflective Heiko at first resists the power plays of senior prisoners like Kaltenbach (long-time Fassbinder collaborator Harry Baer), a veteran right-wing extremist. But Heiko earns respect among the elders when he attacks an abusive cellmate, and soon their rhetoric gets to him.

The double-helix relationship between Tommy and Heiko is pushed to its logical conclusion when they are released into the newly unified Berlin: the first becomes disillusioned with the neo-Nazi scene; the second, a poetic idealist, becomes a spokesman for a Fascist youth organisation: 'When I'm 40', he tells an incredulous Tommy, 'I 'll be Finance Minister of the Fourth Reich'. It is all a bit schematic, as when Heiko's former punkette girlfriend, now a belly dancer in a Middle Eastern restaurant, is beaten to a pulp in a raid on a squat. But both leads are strong, particularly Hildebrand.

Prod co: Next Film
Studiocanal Produktion, MBP Filmproduktion
Int'l sales:
Bavaria Film International
Clementina Hegewisch, Laurens Straub
Wiebke Toppel, Brooks Riley, Rainer Mockert
Bonengel, Ingo Hasselbach, Douglas Graham
Frank Barbian
Prod des:
Thomas Stammer
Monika Schindler
Michael Beckmann
Main cast:
Christian Blumel, Aaron Hildebrand, Jule Flierl, Luci Van Org, Harry Baer, Dieter Laser