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Going Nutz Over Nazis…

Ah, Nazis. The most typical of Hollywood villains. It seems that whenever you want the audience to cheer at what your morally ambiguous hero is up to, just stick his opponent in a Nazi uniform and you can guaruntee that the viewers will know which side they’re on. It used to be in the old days that simply putting a villain in a Nazi uniform was a regular past time for any big director. You didn’t need characterisation or complexity. If they’re German between 1941 and 1945, they’re a bad guy. Well, at least that used to be the way. In recent years it seems that we have accepted that things may be slightly more complex than those black and grey uniforms that they wore. There are many shades. So much so that the ‘thoughtful Nazi flick’ has pretty much become guarunteed Oscar bait. Given the minor furore which surrounded the release of Inglourious Basterds, is the time of the one-dimensional cardboard cutout passed into history? And has political correctness gone too far?

Don't make a song and dance about it...

Don't make a song and dance about it...

We get it. The Nationalist Socialist regime that dismantled the Weimer Republic and let the German people to war not only against Britain and France but also its own people arose from a complex set of social and political circumstances which are difficult enough to explore in a 2,000 page book, let alone a two hour movie. Their actions were truly horrific, almost acheiving genocide. To paint them as cardboard cutouts or convenient stand-ins for evil severely over simplifies things. I can see that point, and it’s a fair one.

It seems to be the line that more than a few (but admittedly not a lot) of film critics are walking with Tarantino’s newest film. They make the accusation that his work lacks the necessary complexity and detail to set up the Nazi villains as bad guys who need to be taken out. They also state that it ignores what was really happening in Germany at the time. For example, Jonathan Rosenbaum suggests:

It’s amazing to me that some fellow Jews who were so indignant about Sophie’s Choice (by which I mean the Styron novel — arguably his best — and not the hollow Pakula movie) can give Tarantino a free ride on this one, presumably under the theory that this boy should be allowed to enjoy every last drop of his all-American fun, even at the expense of real-life Holocaust victims.

Or David Denby:

Inglourious Basterds is not boring, but it’s ridiculous and appallingly insensitive—a Louisville Slugger applied to the head of anyone who has ever taken the Nazis, the war, or the Resistance seriously. Not that Tarantino intends any malice toward such earnest people. The Nazis, for him, are merely available movie tropes—articulate monsters with a talent for sadism.

At the heart of such criticism is the idea that it’s somehow incorrect to display Nazis as ‘articulate monsters with a talent for sadism’. Perhaps they should be real and complex individuals only presented after a careful portrayal of the environment that produced them. It’s a fair comment that perhaps villains in general (and Nazis in particular) should be more than two-dimensional – though I’d suggest Tarantino offers a lot more exploration than most give him credit for (humanising the soldiers, but not hiding the cruelty of the institution), but I concede that his isn’t the picture to watch if you want a holistic view of the Third Reich.

There’s a subtle sense from such commentaries that using Nazis as cannon fodder is gross and insensitive and I’d suggest that those viewers completely missed the point of the film’s ending. It was clear that Tarantino wanted to find the most easily recognisable visual shorthand for evil and then use it to subtly (for him) point the finger at the audience. Do we relish the mayhem and death reigned down upon the Germans? Do we enjoy it because we’ve been taught that that uniform is an aberration and we’ve been reflexively and unquestioningly been taught to hate it? If so, are we any better than those conditioned people who lived under Hitler’s regime for so long – if we were so conditioned, could we too turn on our friends and neighbours? Using Nazis – the last bogeymen that really exist in this politically correct world – was really the only way for Tarantino to illustrate his point, yet he manages to treat them like more than a simple device. Admittedly, not too much more, but still more.

When those film critics suggest that Tarantino mishandles these historical figures (and implicitly suggest that all other similarly undeveloped portrayals do the same), the critics seem to implicitly suggest that there is a better way to explore Nazi-ism. They are undoubtedly talking about Schindler’s List, and they are indeed correct to point to it. It is a masterpiece. However, I don’t think that they talk about Schindler’s List exclusively. I think they refer to Oscar-friendly (to say the least) fare like Good or The Reader or The Boy in the Stripped Pyjamas. All films attempt a nuanced portrayal of life under the dictatorship, to varying degrees of success.

The key thing that the films do is that they seek to humanise the people involved in these decisions. And it is important to remember that the people who guarded the camps, who ran the trains, who rounded up the detainees were all human beings. Some of these films even attempt to offer explanations. The worst of them attempt to offer justifications.

The problem is that such actions can never truly be justified. To attempt to do so implies that there is an acceptable explanation for what occurred.

It’s a frequent misconception that by humanising an issue we immediately offer it some more moral complexity. We don’t. Sometimes, even after we’ve adjusted the colour on our televisions, black is still black. The reason that the uniforms so frequently stand in for the forces of evil is because they are the very symbolism of evil. Sometimes the evil and lunacy of a regime can be legitimately expressed in such simplistic terms – because sometimes in our search for complexity we obscure the sharp contrast that exists.

It has been suggested that Tarantino does himself a disservice by glossing over the holocaust in the film, for example. I’d suggest that films attempting to explain or justify the genocide are those that do a disservice to themselves and to cinema. What happened was unjustifiable. And it was evil. And I think that Tarantino does deal with the holocaust implicitly in his conclusion – one which makes no sense unless the audience is aware of the monstrous actions of the Third Reich. He just flips the question around and poses an interesting question to the audience, rather than lecturing or rationalising or conjecturing.

However, is it possible (or fair) to look at the Nazis without discussing the holocaust? Certainly it has become harder, though therer are exceptions – it is worth noting that ‘serious’ Nazi movie Valkyrie did it, but didn’t draw half the flack that Tarantino did, maybe because it was couched in that moral complexity that critics like. Stephen Spielberg famously stated that one of the reasons he used the Soviets as bad guys in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is because he couldn’t go back to using cartoon Nazis after making Schindler’s List. I can certainly understand his position – it’s very hard to reduce them to simple foils when you’ve seen the consequences of their historical actions. I have no problems with an approach to that period of history which attempts to analyse or explain what happened – my problem begins when explanation merges into excuse. I am happy to have films that do look at the complex factors, but I don’t buy into the logic that this is the only way that Nazis can or should be used. I also don’t buy the logic that using them without delving deep into their atrocities reduces their impact.

Even when watching them as villains in somewhat lighter fare – for example, The Sound of Music – there is a darkness that surrounds them even if issues like the holocaust aren’t explicitly mentioned. Indeed, in that movie the Nazis are about as two-dimensional as they come – politics only really creep into the film tangentially and there’s a lot of implicit darkness (what do you think the Nazis did after the nuns sabotaged their cars?). Still, the very image of the soldiers carries a lot of weight (as does the Swastika). We don’t need to see the depths of the violence that they can commit on screen (it is a family film), but they can still be portrayed as insidious and dangerous – which they undesputedly were. The audience fills in a lot of the evil and the menace.

What’s odd is that we used to be relatively comfortable with that idea. Many of the same critics who scoff at Quentin Tarantino for giving us Nazi foils were among those clapping loudest when Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade gave us undeveloped Nazis as villains. If anything I believe that Tarantino’s Nazis are more humanised – they certainly have more dialogue. When did it become passé?

Part of me wonders that if – having not appeared before – Mel Brooks revealed The Producers today what the reaction would be. The central play – Springtime for Hitler – has become a cliché in its own right, so it has lost the power to truly offend as the movie has crossed formats again and again and again. When initially revealed, the musical was shocking and sparked a fair amount of debate. I doubt he’d get away with it in today’s politically-conscious culture. He’d be lucky to find a financier.

At this point I feel the need to preemptively defend myself. Yes, there have been more than a few bad films featuring cardboard cutout Nazis (Bulletproof Monk springs to mind), but certainly nowhere near the number of bad films not featuring cardboard cutout Nazis. There will be terrible films that use every storytelling device ever (from non-linear storytelling to a three-act structure), but that doesn’t mean those devices are inherently flawed.

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I have my theories about where this new sensitivity and quest for complexity comes from, but I don’t really want to venture into the realm of political comment. I’d just suggest that this quest for complexity defines intellectual understanding of the modern world – perhaps as a result of an attempt to explain away the unexplainable. Terrorists of all nationalities have their own reasons for what they do – that much is obvious – but their actions are unequivicably evil. It might seem to make more sense to attribute their actions to a variety of reasons which can be placed at our own feet (because then we can do something about it), but discussions that go down that path tend to lose sight of the most obvious point: those actions are still monsterous and evil and beyond the realms of what can or should be justified.

Most simply: evil does exist. Black isn’t a shade of grey.

As such, it’s not unreasonable for movies sometimes to look at that shade of black as what it is. I am not suggesting that we are wasting our time exploring the complex facets of the culture and those variety of factors that brought the country to where it was. I just suggest that we also accept that the end consequence of those factors (whatever they might be) were very certainly evil.

Hmm… maybe now I’ve let me feeling on the use of Nazis as stereotypical villains be known (and that is, for those not really paying attention, that I don’t mind), I can have a look at the portrayal of Nazis that we’ve seen over the past two years or so and how that’s somewhat different from the portrayal up to that point.

One Response

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