The James Clayton Column: The Nazis Strike Back

Why Hollywood, in the search for good movie villains, is bringing back the Nazis...


It’s all well and good bringing out battalions of zombies, vampires, aliens or sociopathic serial killers to furnish your film with villains, but ultimately all are reduced to rubble when confronted by what I consider to be the finest type of cinema baddie. Meine Damen und Herren, I speak of the Nazis: those despicable inhuman agents of Aryanism that, despite World War II’s conclusion over 50 years ago, still command attention and captivate the popular consciousness.

Nazis represent – in fact, epitomise – absolute evil. A very dark mark on the pages of history, the regimented ranks of the Third Reich will resonate forever as the most deplorable architects of genocide and mass destruction. Forged by the disturbed thoughts and misanthropic ideologies of Adolf Hitler, the actions and mere existence of the systematic, sick-minded Nazi war machine is almost incomprehensible; how such extreme evil was engendered and the gross crimes actually are committed are beyond belief.

It’s no surprise then that such a malevolent force has been utilised in the movies when a truly dastardly enemy is required. Simply stick a Nazi on-screen and the immediate understanding in the audience is: “Ah, evil is going on”. Thus, from The Sound of Music to Raiders of the Lost Ark, from Casablanca to The Pianist, Nazis prevail in motion pictures across time and genre as the go-to-bad-guys. With their pristine uniforms, stereotypical Teutonic efficiency and glottal accents, Nazis have an iconic, discernable identity and are appealingly easy to understand as straightforward villains (viewers don’t like complex baddies with shades, multiple dimensions and ambiguities). Dehumanise them further and make them into masochistic mecha-hygiene freaks with bladed hands and a gas mask and you’ve the greatest cinematic super-nemesis conceivable (the outrageously awesome Kroenen from Hellboy, of course).We love to hate them and, in a weird way, it’s a comfort to see such nasty creeps crop up in a movie. All the audience’s self-righteousness is reaffirmed as utter wickedness is personified on screen and the ideal that “good triumphs over evil” lives on as the Nazis inevitably perish at the end.

In view of this, it’s a bit disconcerting watching Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie knowing that the characters kitted-out in Third Reich regalia are, technically, the good guys. If it wasn’t difficult enough getting to grips with the sight of great British actors (Bill Nighy, Kenneth Branagh, Terence Stamp and so on) in full-formal Nazi get-up, an eyepatch-wearing Nazi Tom Cruise is even more mind-boggling.

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Aside from the fact that I always feel that Eddie Izzard should be wearing high heels and makeup (would the Wehrmacht accept mascara on its leading men?), Valkyrie’s actors pull off the top-notch performances required to make what could have been easily been an anachronistic, ill-managed atrocity an intriguing, enjoyable war thriller.

More pressing than any problems of sympathising with Third Reich officials is the question: “Why Nazis?” Valkyrie came out in cinemas shortly after The Reader (Kate Winslet as a concentration camp guard) and Defiance (Daniel Craig as a vengeful Polish Jew). If you’re looking for more cinematic World War II action, then Quentin Tarantino’s long-awaited, lamely-spelled war flick Inglorious Basterds and Spike Lee’s Sicily-set Miracle at St. Anna will be in cinemas soon. A remake of The Dambusters, written by Stephen Fry and produced by Peter Jackson is also set to be filmed this year.

With so many Nazi-bothering blockbusters about, it feels a little like we’re living a repeat of the 1960s when ensemble war films were all the rage in Hollywood. With such classics as The Dirty Dozen, Kelly’s Heroes and Where Eagles Dare, to name a few, delivering tough World War II action there were Nazis in abundance and they were all opposed and annihilated by an allied force of famous faces. With their starry casts, Valkyrie and Inglorious Basterds could be considered a new millennium continuation of that ‘60s war-flick spirit, but what has instigated the revival of the battling ensemble movie?

With the end of the Cold War, Hollywood found that it could no longer rely on the token Russian baddie now that there was no need to bash communism. Likewise, now that the ‘War on Terror’ is extremely unpopular and is ebbing away, big action blockbusters that prop up vaguely Middle Eastern villains just look propagandistic, stupidly patriotic or just plain racially prejudiced. It’s understandable therefore why filmmakers would retreat to the archetypal much-loathed baddies of a bygone age to bring a credible amount of evil into their movies to fill that villain vacuum.

The return of the Nazis can also be accredited to another thing that’s weighing heavy on the minds and wallets of the world right now: the global recession and credit crunch. Even though the typical Nazi is more interested in gassing “undesirables” than greedily grabbing riches, with their systematic bureaucracy, sharp outfits and merciless mistreatment of minorities the forces of the Third Reich present a striking historical parallel to the financial institutions that rule the modern world with a vice-like grip.

In the current climate of catastrophe, the specific allure of war films that feature an ensemble cast can possibly also be interpreted as a sign of the times. For a long time, movies that stack up the stars have typically been light rom-com type material, but even though no one is really wishing for Ocean’s Fourteen, any such possibility is even less appealing in an age of abject economic despair. Instead of constructing ensemble flicks that feature George Clooney and his fabulous friends living an international, jet-set casino lifestyle, Hollywood has rightly recognised that spectators want to see squads of top stars embattled just as they are in everyday life.

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Rolling the camera on a cast of A-listers as they descend en-masse on the Jobcentre wouldn’t bring the desired escapism though, so the best bet is to go back to the front, dump the big names in a barracks and point them in direction of our old friends the Nazis. In such desperate times, movies that celebrate collective endeavour instead of individual prowess and pit the heroes against unambiguous enemies are perfect. Nazis may sit atop the hierarchy of horrific inhuman evil but, for the cinema at least, maybe we need them. No doubt: no screen-nemesis can compare to the hellbent, heartless Nazi.

James’ previous column can be found here.