Nazis, Nazis, Nazis. Boy, do we Americans ever love Nazis! Okay, maybe we don’t love them love them, but we sure love watching them in the movies. And we love rewarding them. Play a Nazi, shoot a Nazi, be shot by a Nazi. Oscars for you, my friends! Oscars all around!
This year might be the year of the Nazis. We Americans are sick of morally ambiguous wars and complicated world problems like “global warming” and “the economy.” Give us a good black and white morality tale set in 1940s Germany! The main character can be a lovable child, a sexy but illiterate concentration camp guard, or even Tom Cruise in an eyepatch. I don’t care, as long as there’s Nazis!
But the reviewing establishment is getting a little sick of the Holocaust, and I can understand why. A.O. Scott says recent movies of this sort are just rehashing clichés: emaciated, bald women in showers; evil tow-headed men speaking in clipped German tones as they toss another naked child onto the pile; a single echoing gunshot as the main character meets his doom. “Remembering” the Holocaust the same way over and over and over, according to Scott, is just another way of forgetting, of replacing historical memory with recycled Hollywood visuals and simplistic themes. Based on Manohla Dargis’s (rather hilarious) reviews of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and The Reader, I think she agrees with him.
Hey, I’m nominally Jewish, and I happen to agree, too. Enough with the Nazis already! (But then, I was the girl in high school who read Night by Elie Wiesel and, dry-eyed, said, “So the moral is the Holocaust was bad?” I’ve hardly read every Holocaust movie or book ever written, but Maus is the only one that said something new to me, and I recommend it wholeheartedly if you’ve never read it before. Otherwise, I can take or leave the genre.)
So we’ll do away with Nazi movies. Fine. But what A.O. Scott’s article fails to answer is what we’ll replace them with. Lucky for you, I have some ideas.
I disagree slightly with A.O. Scott’s article. Nazi movies aren’t all alike. Producers of such films have different goals and want to express various themes. Yes, I happen to think the implicit moral of most Holocaust movies is “Dur, the Holocaust was bad!” but I’ll admit their makers probably had different ideas in mind.
Anyway, if we want to replace Nazi movies, we need to figure out why they were made and what other kinds of movies can fill each niche. Below, I’ll list sub-genres by theme, point out some examples, explain why we enjoy that kind of film and why we maybe shouldn’t, and try to figure out what other movies can fill the gap when after Hollywood makes the Fuhrer go kaput.
Thematic sub-genre: Surviving through hard times
Examples: The Pianist, The Counterfeiters
Why we like ‘em: I guess for the same reason we like post-apocalyptic movies. It’s nice to see good people survive horrible things. Maybe it’s comforting to think we would, too. I remember reading The Diary of Anne Frank and Numbering the Stars in elementary school (my hometown is very Jewish) and thinking, you’d survive that. Yeah, suuuuure you would, ten-year-old Shana. Sure you would.
Why maybe we shouldn’t like ‘em: Of course, there’s always the accidental moral that those who didn’t survive the Holocaust just weren’t awesome enough…
Replace ‘em with: Movies about the zombie-apocalypse. Movies set after the real apocalypse. Movies about living in the wild with bears. Movies where aliens hunt people for sport. Alive.
Thematic sub-genre: Being moral in hard times
Examples: Schindler’s List, Au Revoir Les Enfants
Why we like ‘em: These movies can actually be interesting if they actually pose real moral questions. “Is a concentration camp guard still guilty if he was forced to do it under penalty of death?” “Is it okay for a camp prisoner to steal food from a prisoner who’s going to die of illness, anyway?” “What’s your choice, Sophie?” Interesting questions, all.
Why maybe we shouldn’t like ‘em: Sometimes they don’t ask the hard questions. I’m going to get in trouble for criticizing Schindler’s List even a little, but, really, was there anything challenging about that film at all? Inspiring, yes. Complex, not so much.
Replace ‘em with: More Christopher Nolan directed Batman movies. Same questions, more explosions.
Thematic sub-genre: Loving life during hard times
Examples: Life is Beautiful, Jakob the Liar
Why we like ‘em: It is nice to enjoy life during hard times. Plus, I get to feel good about myself for watching a Holocaust movie and laugh at hilarious jokes at the same time.
Why maybe we shouldn’t like ‘em: One the one hand, I do think there must have been some humor in Nazi Germany. It’s not like a whole country can turn off its funny bone for so many years. On the other hand, these movies can be unrealistic. I mean, wouldn’t you expect Roberto Benigni to be shot in the first five minutes of the film?
Replace ‘em with: Funny Vietnam movies (also starring Robin Williams). Movies about laughing through your terminal illness (also starring Robin Williams).
Thematic sub-genre: Never forget
Examples: Every Holocaust movie ever made
Why we like ‘em: Because once we figure out the moral of the movie, we don’t have to even do anything! Never forget? ‘Course I won’t. I just watched a Holocaust movie!
Why maybe we shouldn’t like ‘em: Read A.O. Scott’s article.
Replace ‘em with: Movies about holocausts we Americans actually have forgotten about: the Armenian genocide, the genocides in Africa, the killing fields, the disappearances in South America, the genocide of the Bajorans by the Cardassians, etc, etc, etc…
Thematic sub-genre: Never again
Examples: Every Holocaust movie ever made
Why we like ‘em: It’s fun to think that watching a movie can allow me to wash my hands clean of the genocides and human rights violations happening today under the U.S.’s watch. Never again? ‘Course it won’t happen again. I’m watching a Holocaust movie!
Why maybe we shouldn’t like ‘em: The genocides and human rights violations happening today under the U.S.’s watch. Oh, I get it now. We meant “never again” in Europe. My bad.
Also, “never again” is really easy to say but less easy to enforce. What are you going to do to stop genocides and human rights violations? You gonna declare war on every dictator in the world? Tell me how that goes when you’re done. (Long story short: Holocaust movies don’t usually acknowledge the complicated, real world trade-offs that “never again” entails.)
Replace ‘em with: I was going to say movies about the genocides and human rights violations happening today under the U.S.’s watch, but that might get Hollywood into trouble. I know; controversy is hard. Fine. Then how ‘bout more sci-fi? Dystopias are great at getting at the same ideas, plus you can have robots! It’s like they say in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Judgment Day: Never Again.
Thematic sub-genre: Wars are good when they involve killing Nazis!
Examples: Almost every WWII movie ever made; this year, Defiance and Valkyrie
Why we like ‘em: It’s fun to think about WWII as “the good war.” Referring to Hitler makes it easier to justify current wars. Uh oh. I think I just double-Godwinned. Sorry about that.
Why maybe we shouldn’t like ‘em: Referring to Hitler makes it easier to justify current wars. Godwinned again, bitches!
Replace ‘em with: World War I movies. You lose the knee-jerk “grr, Nazis!” reaction, but, on a positive note, you can still see Americans killing Germans!
Thematic sub-genre: Anyone is good when they’re killing Nazis!
Examples: Hellboy, Indiana Jones
Why we like ‘em: Nazis. I hate those guys.
Why maybe we shouldn’t like ‘em: Having Nazis as pulp villains used to be cool, but isn’t it a little passe by now? I love that TV shows are bringing back Russian bad guys; let’s do that. Evil Redcoats aren’t as fun ‘cause they’re more foppish than dastardly, and I know we can’t do over-the-top Chinese villains ‘cause that’s racist. Evil Napoleanites? Evil Italian/Spanish fascists? Evil Eastern Europeans?
Who am I kidding? When you need a villain, no one beats a good Nazi. I guess they’re here to stay…
*Disclaimer: This post has been written with earony. (See this post’s comments for details.) If anything in this post offended you, bear in mind that it was not meant to be taken seriously. Or it was. I don’t even know anymore.
Well, I think the “bad guys” in movies tend to go with the times. When WWII first ended, I have a feeling there was a much, much higher (I’d say concentration, but…) amount of WWI AND II movies being made. There were a lot more bad Russions twenty+ years ago because of the Cold War. Using Nazis as a sort of fall-back now that Reagan single-handedly ended that conflict* is a safety net for the film industry because, like you said, it’s pretty black-and-white when they’re involved. Right now, with terrorism on the rise, it’s still difficult- like you said, controversy is hard. But, more and more movies about terrorism have been coming out, and I’m sure they’ll keep coming.
I say more sci-fi movies, too. More Borg, using them as allegory for Stalinistic Russia.
Vietnam? C’mon, didn’t you see _Tropic Thunder_?
*Why hasn’t anybody (in general, not just OverthinkingIt) drawn up a comic or script called _Super Gipper_ or something yet? THERE’S your big war movie. And it would be cross-genre: superherowarmovieromance. Rar.
Ah, I haven’t seen Tropic Thunder yet. Need to get on that.
You didn’t point out the main reason why Nazi films continue to be made: the snazzy uniforms. Someone from Versace or one of the other major fashion houses was on Hitler’s payroll, that’s for sure. I remember seeing a documentary on HBO about Hitler and the main Nazis possibly being gay, and the whole leather fixation they had seems to verify that. Not that being gay is a bad thing, but being a Nazi is.
@Trevor: Thanks for pointing that out. Actually, the main reason I said we should replace Nazis with evil Napoleonites (is there a real word for them, by the way?) is because their clothes are HAWT. Mmm, buttons.
@Trevor: Not sure whether you intended to joke or not, but you’re right. The Nazi uniforms were made by Hugo Boss.
How about some movies about Stalin’s Soviet Union. The guy was a proficient mass murderer, sociopathic mad man, evil to his core. What’s not to like! And he probably put more people in their graves than Hitler. Of course he was supposed to usher in a left-wing utopia that duped many Western left-wing “useful idiots.” Hmmm, maybe that’s why Hitler is Hollywood’s favorite genocidal maniac. Stalin brings back too many bad memories.
Choosing the villain for your big budget epic because of the photogenic uniforms? Could be scarily true. Stalin and Mao Zedong (out anyway for the obvious reasons e.g. the merchandising spin offs wouldn’t be allowed to leave the factory) might have killed more people Hitler but after you’ve paid n million dollars for you oh-so-pretty leading man and his oh-so-pretty nemesis why have them dress like a sack? Unless you’re going to get them to take their shirts off … a lot.
@Mike & Chris – It is hard to make heroic historical epics about Stalin and Mao because Stalin and Mao won.
That’s why Trey Parker and Matt Stowe had to put Alec Baldwin in as a proxy for Kim Jong Ill in _Team America: World Police_ – because they needed somebody to lose who didn’t, you know, humiliate the forces of good by defying them for his entire life and rubbing their noses in it. Baldwin was a much easier target, because of, well, _The Shadow_ and such.
Villains in historical epics aren’t about demonizing evil, they’re about defeating it.
It’s the difference between _Behind Enemy Lines_ and _Hotel Rwanda_. Both are about ethnic cleansing. Both of them are about journeyman character actors looking to make breakthrough performances by facing impossible odds in the territory of a genocidal regime.
One grossed $60 million domestic. One grossed $20 million domestic.
You know which one won the hearts and wallets of America?
There one where we got to _win_.
_Rambo: First Blood II_ made _three times_ as much money as _First Blood_ did.
There are a lot of reasons for that. But of them is that when people choose to remember history, they strongly prefer it to be framed as an unambiguous victory.
Netflix also recently had a survey that showed that Hotel Rwanda is the film most rented but least returned, meaning people feel they should watch it (so they rent it), but they never actually WANT to watch it (because they already know it ends badly).
I kept “The Deer Hunter” from Netflix for 18 months.
The issue is whether you want to watch a movie or whether you want to have watched a movie.
Fenzel, good points. I just saw, please don’t hold it against me, another Nazi movie – in German, The Counterfeiters – and lo and behold it ends with the Nazis running away like little girls. We win. But I still think Communist brutality of the Stalinesque kind could be better served.
Now…this is the latter half of what’s called a “shaggy dog” bit called “The Fuggedabuddies,” so to really get the full effect, I suggest actually watching part 1 first. But I promise it is relevant, even if you have to wait until approximately minute 8 to see why.
@Mike – It would be truly excellent if Stalinist brutality got served.
Preferably by time-traveling B2K, featuring a bilingual freestyle battle between Ludacris and Gorky.
Seriously through, the historical epic I’d really love to see would jump back and forth between the story of the Katyn Massacre and the life of Tadeusz Kościuszko.
In service to the new spirit of Hollywood, all the actors would be Chinese, and Kosciouszko would give a speech at the end about how it’s important that he dies so that Catherine the Great can end Poland’s reckless bloodshed lead Russia to centuries of peace and prosperity. Then he would get hit by a whole crudload of slow-motion CGI musketballs.
(yeah, the first paragraph was serious, the second one, not so much)
There really aren’t enough movies about the Russo-Japanese War, though.
Are there ANY movies about that conflict?
Two seconds after I posted that, I came up with a better obscure war to make into a movie: the War of Jenkin’s Ear. Who the fuck knows what that was about (besides Jenkin’s ear, obviously)?
I feel like Fiji and Sweden should go to war over Footsie Pajamas and then make a movie about it starring an actor that looks like Howard Stern and Pinky from Pinky and the Brain
So who would be pro-Footsie and anti-Footsie? Choose wisely, the implications in that answer are staggering.
And dont forget The Bridge On the River Kawai-one of the best anti-war movies ever made.
Bring back more Nazis, people need to remember these things we live in an age where we easily forget and thus we end up making the same mistakes. How about a movie about Waldo in WWII Gemany? We can call it Where’s the Waldorf!
If a Hollywood ending is needed then the defeat of Nicolae Ceausescu would be perfect. You also get an excuse to make your protagonists young and attractive and your antagonist old and ugly, location shooting would be cheap as well. The only downside is cold would limit the amount of bare chested hero shots that could be forced out of the star.
This is actually a really well (over)thought-out classification, and of course suitably earonic. I don’t really have anything to contribute other than praise, but I felt bad leaving it unsaid.
but you got love these Nazi´s:
valkiyre is coming to sweep the oscars get ready :D
@yaang: We talk about Valkyrie on the latest podcast episode; you should check it out:
Also, I don’t know if you’re being facetious our not, but I highly doubt that Valkyrie will do well in awards season. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it a lot, but I think that A) there really is some Nazi fatigue among the movie elite and B) Nazi fatigue aside, the movie had too much of a slick, heist movie feel to it to be considered Oscar-great. Was I the only person to be reminded of Ocean’s 11 by this movie?
Actually, Holocaust theme #3 being moral in hard times, was transferred to an equally atrocious historical event in Hotel Rwanda and it worked quite well. You don’t need Batman for it.
Actually, holocaust sub-genre #3 (people being moral in hard times) was transferred quite effectively to an equally atrocious historical event: Hotel Rwanda.
I don’t believe that Batman is an adequate replacement
Nothing much to add, just that, reading Manohla Dargis’ reviews, it seemed as though her main problem with both the films was daring to (gasp) portray Nazis as anything but diabolical monsters. After all, surely Nazis can’t be human.