A spectre is haunting Europe. It wears jackboots, a swastika and a delicate tear-stained expression of angst-ridden introspection. And it's called the Touchy-Feely Nazi. It can be found in your local multiplex in a quartet of high profile movies - three of which are coming soon, one is already out - that take a fresh and sometimes bold new look at the Second World War almost exclusively and often sympathetically from the Nazi point of view. These movies are filled with stars (step forward Tom Cruise and Kate Winslet), they are primed for awardsseason kudos, and yet they speak of a profound and ultimately queasy shift in the way that we regard National Socialism, the Holocaust and Nazi Germany on screen.
Valkyrie is the biggest of these and stars Cruise as Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, the leader of the failed plot to assassinate Hitler in July 1944, and a kind husband and father who hates the Führer just as much as he loves Germany. He's a man of action and nobility who is surrounded by a cast of equally honest souls, played with convincing sincerity by quality British actors such as Terence Stamp, Bill Nighy and Kenneth Branagh. In fact, with the exception of Hitler himself, and a few surrounding cronies, it's hard to find a nasty Nazi among them.
Then there's The Reader, with Winslet starring as Hanna Schmitz, a German tram conductor who becomes a concentration camp guard almost by default. She is, naturally, haunted by her part in the Nazi atrocities - and indeed Winslet plays her internal trauma with sterling conviction - but through her new relationship with a younger man (played by David Kross) and her love of literature, she has the chance to be partially redeemed.
We've already had The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, which took a look inside the unfortunate family of the sensitive camp commandant David Thewlis, who nobly tried to shield his innocent son, Bruno (Asa Butterfield) from the horrors of the Final Solution. And still to come is Good, the story of a gentle German university professor, John Halder (played by Viggo Mortensen), who joins the SS simply because it's easier than remaining politically neutral. Naturally, when a close Jewish friend, Maurice (Jason Issacs), begins to feel the sharp end of Nazi rule John begins to regret his decision. But it's too little, too late.
What these films share is a common revisionist tone, and an urge to be taken seriously as morally mature storytelling. Indeed they were collectively applauded last month in Newsweek magazine for being “remarkable” and “more than black and white”, and for refusing to take an unambiguous stance on the ideological perils of living in Nazi Germany. “Look,” these movies seem to say, “being a Nazi wasn't that easy, and furthermore not everybody caught the bug.” Bryan Singer, the director of Valkyrie, was even more explicit when he announced recently: “Nobody wants to believe that all of a people are indoctrinated into evil, into murder and such hate. Nobody wants to believe that. So I think Valkyrie will be inspiring to people. I hope it will.”
And yet is there not a danger that this urge to redress the balance, and this desire to tell morally intriguing tales from the Nazi side, comes at a price? Richard Evans, Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University and the author of the definitive Third Reich historical trilogy, certainly thinks so. “There is a tendency, perhaps derived from the sources that film-makers use for these films, to show everyone as being very rational and reasonable,” he says. “Whereas only Hitler and just a few people around him - the top-level Nazis - are seen as absolute raving maniacs. And the fact is that Nazi ideology did go fairly wide and deep.”
Evans elaborates further, and points to plot holes in some of these movies - the child protagonist in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, for instance, would have been well-versed in Nazi ideology and not the innocent that he was on screen. Von Stauffenberg, though clearly an icon to Cruise, had characteristics that would have made him wildly unpalatable to a modern audience, namely he was an anti-Semite and someone who held, “a mystical belief in an eternal sacred Germany”. However, the von Stauffenberg whom we meet on film is unquestionably heroic, and someone who meets his martyr's end with near Christ-like dignity.
Trudy Gold, the chief executive of the London Jewish Cultural Centre and senior lecturer in Jewish history, says that this revisionism is more sinister than just fact-fudging. “Personally, I find this need to explain Germany away very peculiar,” she says. “Obviously, when it comes to the Holocaust, it is important to understand the perpetrators, and the fact that they were human. But when you start approaching this gradation of evil, it becomes morally dangerous.”
The film-makers, naturally, are sensitive about being described as Nazi apologists, and Stephen Daldry, the director of The Reader, has been careful to distinguish between the atrocious actions committed by Hanna Schmitz (she locks hundreds of Jews in a burning church) and the essential humanity of her character. Similarly, Viggo Mortensen, the star of Good, says that the film is actually asking you, at every narrative step, to question your own moral judgments. Cruise, for his part, simply announced recently with classic Cruise-like idiosyncrasy: “When I was a kid I always wanted to kill Hitler.”
Nonetheless, the intellectual subtlety of these defences is often lost in the mechanics of a medium that's at the mercy of visual iconography (the leather coats, boots and swastikas all carry a giddy primal thrill - part of what Gold calls “the human compulsion to go to the dark side of the moon”). More importantly, a mainstream movie's essential need for empathetic protagonists will inevitably render saintly what was once demonic. “The question of who you empathise with in a film that involves people who, historically speaking, are difficult to empathise with is a very important one,” Evans says. “It does involves a certain simplification of moral complexities.”
It is thus ironic that the very same quality that distinguishes these movies - their ostensible moral complexity - is actually responsible for their moral simplicity. Their 21st-century need to see both sides of the story has, taken cumulatively, resulted in an unfortunate Nazi whitewash. And though their intentions may be clear and honest, these films and their film-makers are ultimately, like Blake's description of Milton, “of the Devil's party without knowing it”.
NAZIS ON FILM The story so far
Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942)
Filmed while the outcome of the Second World War was very much undecided, Major Heinrich Strasser (played by Conrad Veidt, who himself fled Nazi Germany) is the model of eerie intimidation. “Do you mind if I ask you a kvestion?” he says, glaring at Humphrey Bogart’s Rick. “Vot is your nationality?”
The Young Lions (Edward Dmytryk, 1958)
Marlon Brando hams it up deliciously as the idealistic, blond-haired ski instructor with a penchant for the ladies who becomes a Nazi lieutenant stationed in Paris. He eventually asks for a transfer, is sent to North Africa and suffers a magnificent, spinning, rolling, bullet-ridden death scene.
Marathon Man (John Schlesinger, 1976)
Laurence Olivier is utterly sinister as Dr Christian Szell, a former concentration camp sadist, dubbed “the White Angel” of Auschwitz. In 1970s New York, he frets about his secret stash of diamonds, carries a retractable blade up his sleeve and can do terrifying things with a dentist’s drill.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981)
Major Arnold Toht (Ronald Lacey) is the giggling, leering, crazy-eyed SS hatchet man who calls women “Fräulein” and then tortures them with hot pokers. He meets an unfortunate end, however, when his
Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)
The banality of evil is masterfully underscored by Ralph Fiennes as Amon Goeth, a camp commandant who kills Jews for sport and because he can. Fiennes humanises Goeth with moments of eccentricity and doubt, but never once makes him sympathetic.