Nazis on screen: the villains we love to hate
History always has lessons to teach, if only we're prepared to listen. And whenever we're tempted to imagine that ours is the worst and most depraved of times, we need only look back to the Nazis for definitive proof that we're wrong. Woes comparable to those currently being endured by the unfortunate people of Aleppo rained down on countless European cities during World War Two, and few peoples (the Jews excepted, of course) suffered quite so much as the Czechs.
Abandoned by craven allies at the Munich Conference of 1938, Czechoslovakia was taken over directly afterwards by the Nazis, and things got really bad once Reinhard Heydrich swaggered into Prague. An SS Obergruppenfuhrer and Reich-Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, old Heydrich was a charming character: author of the Kristallnacht, chief architect of the Holocaust, he was also responsible for the Einsatzgruppen, a task force that followed the Nazi armies around eastern Europe gassing and shooting more than 1.3 million Jews.
He arrived in Prague in September of 1941 determined to "Germanise the Czech vermin". A small but stubborn resistance movement had been sabotaging output at vital munitions plants, and Heydrich quickly showed he meant business. Within six months of his arrival, 5,000 supposed subversives had been either killed, or sent to Mauthausen concentration camp, which was arguably worse. Soon the locals were calling him the Butcher of Prague, and in London the Czech government-in-exile decided that killing him was vital if national resistance were to continue.
Anthropoid, a gripping and worthy British film which was released here yesterday, tells the story of the phenomenally brave men who parachuted into Prague to assassinate Heydrich. Jamie Dornan and Cillian Murphy play Jan Kubis and Jozef Gabcik, military agents who overcame extraordinary odds to fulfil their assignment: seriously wounded in their daring ambush, Heydrich died of his injuries a week later; he would remain the only top-ranking Nazi to be assassinated during the war.
The Nazis, of course, fascinate us with good reason: what interests us most is not the mass murder and the race theories, which have happened elsewhere in different guises, but the weirdly organised, almost industrialised way, in which they went about their ghastly business. Like some demonic civil service, they dotted every 'i', crossed every 't': voluminous records were kept of all activities, no matter how depraved. All this bureaucratic flourish must have made what millions of Germans were doing seem almost normal: killing must be ok if everyone was doing it, and the state sanctioned it.
With their spanking uniforms, and stern iconography, the Nazis are also wonderfully cinematic: no one ever comes out of a movie complaining that there were too many Nazis in it. Our fascination with them has resulted in some truly memorable films, both silly and serious, trite and profound: here are a few of my favourite Nazi films.
In the early 1940s, before the implications of the Third Reich's race theories were properly understood, Nazis were the stage villains of a thousand Hollywood pictures, heel-clicking stooges who briefly schemed before being shown what's what by square-jawed American avengers.
The Hollywood heroes often made fun of them: in Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart's nightclub owner Rick Blaine wearily advised Conrad Veidt's Major Strasser that there were "certain sections of New York I wouldn't advise you to invade". Even after the liberation of the death camps, Nazis remained faceless villains, slaughtered by the hundreds in trashy war movies like Kelly's Heroes, The Dirty Dozen and Where Eagles Dare, in which Clint Eastwood slaughtered what looked like an entire battalion of the Wehrmacht.
In the 1960s, a few brave comedians decided it was ok to start using them as the butt of jokes. In The Producers, Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder had a lot of fun with the story of two Broadway chancers who hatch a scheme to make money off a musical about the Third Reich that they're sure will flop. Imagine their horror when it became a hit, despite such unfortunate lyrics as "springtime for Hitler and Germany, winter for Poland and France".
Woody Allen was always fond of Third Reich-inspired gags, and once joked about his ex-wife "cooking with her Nazi recipes - Chicken Himmler". But in spite of everyone's best efforts, all of this tended to make the viewer feel vaguely uneasy. Nazis might have been absurd, but they weren't very funny. And they got less funny the closer you got to mainland Europe.
Memories of German atrocities were fresh in the minds of many Italians when Roberto Rossellini released his neo-realist masterpiece, Rome, Open City, in the autumn of 1945. It studied the debasing impact of German oppression in the city.
While the SS bullied their way around the capital, hunting communists and shooting women in the back, two Italian heroes, a priest and a partisan, refused to succumb to torture. It's a very moving film, though it conveniently ignores that fact that Italy had entered the war as Germany's staunchest ally.
Reinhard Heydrich's Einsatzkommando units made hay in Belarus, and in Come and See, the Nazis are depicted in their most venal and unflattering light. Elem Klimov's gruelling 1985 drama told the story of a couple of youths who set out to defend their motherland by joining the Soviet partisans, and wander the countryside encountering depressing evidence of Nazi atrocities: razed villages, mass graves, the remains of villagers burnt alive in churches. It also conveniently forgets, however, what Stalin had done in the region a decade previously.
Though it's a much more conventional and melodramatic film, I've always enjoyed Anatole Litvak's 1967 film Night of the Generals, in which Peter O'Toole played a psychotic Nazi. Set on the eve of a plot to assassinate Hitler in the summer of 1944, it starred Omar Sharif as a German intelligence officer who finds more than he bargained for when he begins investigating the murder of a Warsaw prostitute.
It showed the amoral chaos that thrived in the upper echelons of the Third Reich, but Sam Peckinpah's highly original 1977 war film Cross of Iron reminded us that a lot of Wehrmacht soldiers were not ideologically aligned to the Nazis at all, but were just ordinary men who thought they were doing their duty. It was set on the Russian front in 1943 and starred James Coburn as a battle-hardened sergeant who doesn't even bother to conceal his contempt for the cowardly Prussian officer who commands his unit.
The unspoken subject haunting the edges of all these films was, of course, the Holocaust. For a long time, it seemed too vast and horrifying a topic to be approached directly, outside of austere documentaries by people like Marcel Ophuls and Claude Lanzmann. The Pawnbroker (1964) was the first American film to tackle death camps head on, and starred Rod Steiger as a Harlem pawnshop owner whose daily life is infected by memories of his time in a concentration camp.
His memories were glimpsed in hazy flashbacks that seem mild indeed when compared to Steven Spielberg's 1993 Schindler's List. Not everyone was pleased when they heard that Spielberg would be directing a film about the camps, given his previous work as the maker of clever but saccharine mainstream entertainment, but they underestimated his commitment to a subject close to his heart.
Liam Neeson played Oskar Schindler, the Sudeten industrialist who became the unlikely saviour of thousands of Jews, but Ralph Fiennes stole the film playing perhaps the most frightening screen Nazi of them all, Amon Goth, a concentration camp commandant who used to stand on his balcony in the mornings taking potshots at any unfortunate inmates who happened to be passing.
And what of Nazi number one, the prissy monomaniac at the heart of this most odious of all regimes? In Oliver Hirschbiegel's 2004 masterpiece Downfall, we were given a telling glimpse into the final days of Adolf Hitler (Bruno Ganz), who wanders the reinforced concrete corridors of his Berlin bunker demanding counter-offensives from non-existent armies, and happily imagining that his entire country is about to perish with him.
If you watch one film…
A kind of contemporary western set in the badlands of west Texas, Hell or High Water stars Chris Pine and Ben Foster as brothers from a bad home who embark on a life of crime. Tanner Howard (Foster) has just been released from prison when his younger brother Toby (Pine) asks him to help him rob some banks. He has two sons he never sees, but is determined they'll avoid the poverty trap that has blighted his and Tanner's lives. So the brothers begin holding up small-town banks, taking only cash from the tills and leaving no trace of themselves.
On their trail is Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), a veteran Texas Ranger on the verge of retirement who's seen it all before and isn't terribly impressed. He soon figures out that the perpetrators are new to the game, and will surely slip up at one point or another. Hell or High Water's plot might sound old-fashioned, but Taylor Sheridan's brilliant script sparkles with wit and colour, David Mackenzie's direction evokes the dust-bowl photos of the Great Depression, and the scars of latter-day poverty and deprivation form a constant backdrop. Bridges is terrific as the grumpy law-man, while the bank robbers are just about sympathetic enough to root for.