December 21, 2008

The new spate of Nazi films

There is a disturbing tendency in recent films to offer a sympathetic portrayal of servants of the Third Reich

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. Remember,“Is it safe?”

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 screamingface is melted away by a floaty blue spirit from inside the Ark of the Covenant.

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.

Times Online


Jim Jay said...

Two films you've missed off your list are the James Coburn Classic "Cross of Iron" and Richard Burton as Rommel (although I can't think of the title - it could have been "Rommel" for all I know)

Both were about "good" non-Nazi Germans who still fought for their country. Coburn remains unpatriotic and surly througout, until his death which is as much the fault of the Nazis as the Russians, whilst Burton ends up the enemy of the regime and being instructed to kill himself by the SS.

Both films show fascism as the enemy of ordinary German people rather than just Jews, communists, etc.

You could see this as normalising the period and I think your point about only a few mad people at the centre of a rational society is well put - but I think there is a progressive edge to this too.

These two films (I've not seen the new lot so wont comment on those) had the advantage of turning the war from a national conflict against Germans to an outcome of a political problem and that Germany was not a single society.

I think this was very important at the time when the history of German resistance to the Nazis was lost and that it was the "German character" rather than a politcal movement that was to blame for the rise of the Nazis.

An understanding of fascism that shows the fissures in society is both historically accurate and helps us to understand how to fight them now. I think a film that showed everybody as Nazis and accepting Nazi ideology would, of course, have an element of truth, there was a widespread normalisation of the Nazi propaganda/ideals - but it would also paralyse people in fear - as if Nazism was a whirlwind that could not be resisted.

It could, it should and we will resist time and again.

Bones McCoy said...

It's funny how the mainstream is starting to go with revisionist fascism. There was that recent cabale-sattelite only channel More Four (Channel Four) documentary featuring Irving, and even worse, I read that Irving had been considered for an extremely popular reality television documentary with contestants in the Australian jungle.

Maybe it's the Boris Johnson attitude that the "battle has been won" against racism because of the Obama victory, and an attidude is prevailing that we can brush all evidence of race hate under the carpet.

The way that Hollywood has gone in a big way for such an apologistic nazi film demonstrates the hypocrisy of sites such as Stormfront, VNN and even Northwest Nationalists for painting the picture of Hollywood as some sort of Jewish state, and yet, Hollywood is quick to offend the sensitivities of Holocaust survivors through allowing such crap as this latest movie staring Kate Winslet.

Another one of Hollywood's darlings is of course Mel Gibson, who's own anti-semitism has earned him a criminal record, and let, he's still very much the flavour of the month of the main Hollywood studios.

It seems that the far right is quick to generalise when things are not going their way, tagging life with racial stereotypes, however whenever film and television executives start to philosophically drift towards far right standpoints, the silence of hypocrisy is indeed deafening.

Sadly, when you brush piles of crap under the carpet, the mound created will be enough to trip up the householder, causing dangerously unforseen injuries, which is why nobody should ever be complacent about a popular return of racism and far right attitudes.

The main worry of Obama winning the election, wasn't that Obama would be an Uncle Tom, but rather, that he would be used as a puppet by a mostly white establishment to deradicalise society, hence returning race relations in the US to the dark ages.

Until the time comes that American (and British) politics fairly reflects the demographics of the multicultural landscape, there will always be a danger that the quietly ultra-conservative jockeying of members of the Establishment will be used to turn black and ethnic minority leaders against the very communities which such leaders had sought to empower.

No wonder many white conservatives worldwide strangely approved of Barack Obama's "time for change"!

Calum said...


Firstly, not that it matters a great deal, I think that David Irving was considered for Celebrity Big Brother.

Also, and perhaps I'm quibbling over semantics, Mel Gibson is not, as you say, a Hollywood darling. I think that phrase has certain connotations, i.e. that he's a Hollywood favourite, which he is not. Hollywood is not a Jewish cabal and Gibson is certainly not being prevented from making films, although I believe (perhaps erroneously) that Passion of the Christ was largely self-funded.

(Strangely, I have discovered on IMDB that he was executive producer/producer on 'Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man'.)

Nor has his anti-semitism earned him a criminal record. Subsequent to his DUI arrest he made anti-semitic remarks. I do not want to play these down; they were not acceptable, and would certainly suggest that he is fundamentally anti-semitic. But I believe (and, again, I may be wrong) that he was not charged for these.

My point with all of the above is that accuracy is important, and that exaggeration and error weakens one's case.

On the same subject, but perhaps more significantly, I take issue at your use of certain phrases:

(a) "the very communities which such leaders had sought to empower"

This seems to imply that Obama is seeking to empower the black community. His position is rather more nuanced than that (the issue of race is perhaps most famously and beautifully discussed in his 'A More Perfect Union' speech). To be fair to you, I think that you intend to suggest that the establishment tends to dilute the agenda of reformists. I agree. But tagging Obama as 'a black [or] ethnic minority leader' is divisive - somewhat akin to using the phrase 'you people', whether or not you're on 'their' side.

That said, the demographics are a concern. (Feel free to fall asleep during this statistical interlude.) Obama received a 2% greater share of the overall white vote than Kerry and achieved a 5% swing in the conservative vote. This translates to about 3.16 million extra white votes and around 2.7 million extra conservative votes. Given that roughly a third of the (slightly less than) 9 million extra votes (compared to 2004) were white voters, it would indeed seem that Obama made little impact on the significant core of conservative white voters. McCain had only 115,000 fewer conservative votes than Bush in 2004.
On the other hand, that's what 'core' means, and the fact that most of the growth in white/conservative voter numbers went into Obama's account can't be discounted entirely. (It's incredible what Wikipedia, a calculator, and an obsession add up to.)

(b) "revisionist apologistic nazi film"

Really? Who in the mainstream has tried to give a positive reassessment to the doctrines of either fascism or national socialism?

The point is that the issue is, in that tiresome way that issues are, more complex than one might like.

It's not sufficient to draw a mental line round Germany, or German-controlled territories 1933-45 and say that every non-Jew in there was 'evil'. It is not sufficient to rope the Holocaust off from the rest of history and make it a zone where the good-evil dichotomy is clearly realised and where 'doing one's duty' is a defence which is not only illegitimate, but irrelevant.

It is true that a Hollywood film is perhaps not the ideal locus for the pursuit of subtlety and grey areas. However, it is difficult to see why the tale of a plot to assassinate Hitler should offend Holocaust survivors, unless it is their cinematic sensibilities that have been offended, or they object to scientology.

As commenter Jim Jay realises, a more subtle appreciation is constructive, and ultimately a tool with which to work toward social harmony and justice:

"An understanding of fascism that shows the fissures in society is both historically accurate and helps us to understand how to fight them now."