Thursday 25 April 2019

Nazis on screen: why they're the ultimate villains

Different tune: Roman Polanski's 2004 film The Pianist, made that point that all Nazis could simply be dismissed as monsters
Different tune: Roman Polanski's 2004 film The Pianist, made that point that all Nazis could simply be dismissed as monsters
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

Oskar Groening's conviction a few weeks back for complicity in the murders of over 300,000 Holocaust victims may be the last great Nazi trial we witness. Groening, the so-called 'accountant of Auschwitz', is 94, and even his youngest associates in the death camps would now be of a similar vintage. In other words, almost all of them must be dead, and soon there'll be no one alive, persecutor or victim, who remembers the horror of the Nazi regime.

But film-makers, no doubt, will continue to be fascinated by it all, because for almost 80 years the Nazis have been among the most popular and satisfying screen villains. They've been satirised, lampooned, demonised (if that's not a contradiction in terms) and occasionally humanised, but Hitler's dark armies retain a hold on the public imagination that shows no sign of diminishing any time soon.

And though Germany, for obvious reasons, was for a time less keen on portraying the war years than others, in the last decade or so the country's film-makers have memorably addressed the elephant in the corner in movies like Downfall, The Counterfeiter and Sophie Scholl: The Final Days.

Oliver Hirschbiegel's Downfall was a monumental achievement, a harrowing dramatisation of Hitler's last day in his Berlin bunker, as shells above boomed closer and the dictator's acolytes began to understand the true nature of the leader they'd been following. And in his new film, which opened at the IFI yesterday, Hirschbiegel returns to the wartime theme to tell the true story of a German hero.

In 13 Minutes, Christian Friedel plays Georg Eiser, a country carpenter who, having witnessed the misery Nazism has generated in his own small town, decides to plant a bomb at a Munich rally and cut off the serpent's head. His daringly simple plan to kill Hitler could have worked if the Fuhrer had not left the event early: and as this was 1939, success might have meant saving anything up to 50 million lives.

This was the tantalising possibility that haunted Georg Eiser for the rest of his miserable life, and in 13 Minutes we get a harrowing insight into the chillingly efficient Nazi solutions to torture and killing.

The Nazis, in ways, are the perfect screen villains, eminently hate-able, irredeemably evil, ripe for the killing and so seductively stylish. Charles De Gaulle, not a man known for his witty repartee, once said of the Third Reich, "no moral compass - but what a tailor!" And those natty uniforms and spanking jackboots have attracted thousands of film-makers for reasons good and bad.

Some have even found an erotic subtext in the absurd posturings of the SS and Gestapo, and in 1974 a rather revolting Canadian film called Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS launched a craze for Nazi-themed porno movies that took particular hold in Italy.

Attacked by academics for trivialising the horrors of the Holocaust, 'nazisploitation' movies did brisk business around the flea-pits of Europe before disappearing abruptly in the mid-1980s.

Nazisploitation aside, most directors down the years have used Nazis as faceless, humourless, disposable baddies, odious cannon fodder for the avenging Allied heroes. But some film-makers have attempted to dramatise the Third Reich in grimly realistic fashion in order to explore the darkest recesses of human nature.

When Nazis first began appearing in Hollywood films in the late 1930s, they were strutting peacocks soon given their comeuppance by American heroes. Conrad Viedt's Major Strasser in Casablanca (1942) is a perfect case in point: a tall, bitter, squinting fanatic who asks Humphrey Bogart's nightclub owner Rick Blaine how he would feel if the Germans invaded his beloved New York. Bogart grins and says, "well there are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn't advise you to try and invade".

By the time Casablanca came out America had entered the war, and it was open season on the Nazis in film.

A lot of the wartime Hollywood propaganda films were made by Europeans who'd fled the Nazi jackboot. Noir master Fritz Lang left Germany in a hurry in 1933 when he realised that having a Jewish mother might be his undoing. So there was real feeling to his 1943 drama Hangmen Also Die!, which was loosely based on the assassination of the much-hated SS leader Reinhard Heydrich. Brian Donlevy played a Czech patriot who shoots the top-ranking Nazi in Prague and goes on the run while the furious Germans unleash a bloodbath. Ernest Lubitsch was a Berlin Jew, and though he'd been working in Hollywood since 1922, had plenty of reasons to dislike Hitler's regime. His 1942 comedy To Be or Not To Be brilliantly satirised the Nazis' nonsensical philosophies, and starred Jack Benny as a Polish ham actor called Joseph Tura who becomes an unlikely hero.

In a wartime play the company are rehearsing, an actor playing Hitler keeps saying "Heil myself", and at one point a German officer says he saw Tura on-stage before the war, adding "what he did to Shakespeare, we are doing to Poland". The Americans, of course, could lampoon the Nazis in comparative safety, never having been invaded or even bombed. But for the embattled film-makers of Europe it was a different matter.

Robert Rossellini began filming his neo-realist masterpiece Rome, Open City just two months after the advancing Allies had driven the Nazis out. It honoured the brave Romans who had risen up against the Germans in 1943, and hinted at the revolting methods the Gestapo used to make rebels talk.

After the death camps were discovered in the spring of 1945, cinema's attitude to the Third Reich seemed to change. The truth, perhaps, was too painful to be confronted head on, and maybe that's why so many post-war movie Nazis were risible and unthreatening pantomime villains who clicked their heels ineffectually while the war movie heroes got ready to strike. The dunderheads in Where Eagles Dare are typical of the stooge Germans that populated thousands of post-war B movies. They march around and make wild threats but are absurdly distracted by rank and protocol, and die by the hundreds once Clint Eastwood gets his hands on a machine gun.

But by the 1970s these pantomime Nazis had pretty much worn out their welcome, and a more realistic approach began to emerge. In John Schlesinger's magnificently edgy 1973 thriller Marathon Man, Laurence Olivier played one of the most odious screen Nazis of all, a former concentration camp doctor who comes to New York to retrieve a stashed fortune and will kill anyone who stands in his way. In the 1990s, however, Steven Spielberg would summon forth a far more terrifying war criminal (see panel).

In recent years, film-makers have felt freer to delve deeper and deeper into the darkest recesses of the Third Reich. In Bryan Singer's Apt Pupil (1998), a Nazi-obsessed Californian teenager discovers that his elderly neighbour (Ian McKellen) is a German war criminal, and blackmails him into recounting death camp atrocities.

Stephen Daltry's The Reader (2008) was similarly themed. Kate Winslet played Hanna Schmitz, an illiterate tram conductor who begins an affair with a teenage boy 20 years her junior in 1950s Germany. Years later, the boy has become a lawyer, and discovers that Hanna was a concentration camp guard and is being tried for her crimes.

Winslet's character was vexingly human, and The Reader raised the old question of how ordinary people had been persuaded to participate in a carefully organised genocide. And in his semi-autobiographical 2004 film The Pianist, Roman Polanski made the point that not all Nazis could safely be dismissed as monsters. Thomas Kretschmann played a music-loving Wehrmacht officer who helps and feeds a cornered Jewish pianist.

But the stooge Nazi isn't entirely a thing of the past. In his 2009 war film Inglorious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino played ironic tribute to films like The Dirty Dozen and Where Eagles Dare by portraying the Third Reich's legions as dense goons who are easily outwitted by Brad Pitt's band of avenging Jewish-American assassins.

It was wishful thinking, of course, but Tarantino's tongue-in-cheek orgy of revenge was hugely enjoyable all the same.

Because as Indiana Jones pithily put it in The Last Crusade when confronted by a roomful of German soldiers: "Nazis - I hate these guys!"

A truly chilling Nazi

Steven Spielberg was so daunted by the prospect of making a film about the Holocaust that he tried to pass Schindler's List on to Sydney Pollack, Martin Scorsese and Roman Polanski before eventually taking it on himself. The story of a German industrialist who saved the lives of thousands of Jews would prove controversial, but no one could dispute the chilling authority with which Ralph Fiennes portrayed the story's villain.

Amon Goeth was a real man, an SS officer and commandant of the Krakow-Plaszow concentration camp. He oversaw the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto, and was one of the most vicious and unpredictable camp commanders of them all. Fiennes put on 30 pounds to play him, and made a man who behaved like a monster seem disconcertingly human at times.

When Schindler (Liam Neeson) befriends him for his own ends, Goeth tries and fails to understand the industrialist's apparent concern for the Jewish inmates, and assumes it's an angle. He stands on his balcony in the mornings taking pot shots at inmates, a sociopath whose impulses have been made acceptable by the Nazi regime. The real Amon Goeth was tried and executed in Poland in 1946. His last words were "Heil Hitler".

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