Nazis. I hate these guys.
The constant reinvention of the movie Nazi
At school in the early 1970s we sometimes played ‘Cowboys and Indians’ in the playground. But even as kids, we knew there was something unsatisfactory about it; not so much the racism, of which we were unaware, but the absence of a properly nasty antagonist. My grandmother liked a man in a ten gallon hat, read Zane Greys and watched John Ford movies. I had sat through enough revisionist Westerns with her to know that the only real villains in the Old West were Eastern carpet-baggers with their fancy ways. No, if we needed actual bad guys, we were going to need some Germans.
We were raised on stories of fighting the Nazis (or ‘The Naaazees’, in Churchill’s voice, with which we were weirdly familiar given that he was long dead by the time we came along). In history lessons we were taught about the Second World War by men who had fought in it. We read Commando comics; we watched Colditz on TV. Nazi soldiers were the universal cinematic cannon fodder. Films actually made in the 1940s - intimate stories about the realities of conflict and what it does to people, such as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp or Went The Day Well? - had given way to bombastic action movies like Where Eagles Dare or 633 Squadron, in which square-jawed Americans mowed down accident-prone ranks of German soldiers, using machine guns that never ran out of ammunition.
As time marched onwards, depictions of Nazi Germany began to incorporate nuance. Perceptions of Germany were changing dramatically with West Germany’s role as a bulwark of Cold War democracy and the cornerstone of the European economy, and ‘good Germans’ began to pop up. 1969’s Battle of Britain made sure to include the German side of the story, and Sam Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron (1977) focused on a single Wehrmacht platoon on the Eastern Front in 1943.
Cross of Iron shows a conflict between James Coburn’s moral Sergeant Steiner and Maximillian Schell’s Captain Stransky, an incompetent product of the famous Prussian war machine; but even the villainous Stransky doesn’t want to be associated with actual Nazis.
I'm an officer of the Wehrmacht. I've never been a party member.
I'm a Prussian aristocrat and I don't want to be put into the same category.
So we agree for once, good.
But he is still our Fuhrer
The sole Nazi Party member in the film, a soldier assigned to Steiner’s platoon, is warned to stay quiet about his politics. He turns out to be a rapist and a sadist, so Steiner leaves him, wounded, to the justice of a group of female Russian soldiers. Cross of Iron desperately wants to reassure us that most German soldiers were honourable men, and not Nazis.
All this was a little too complex for the playground, but in 1977 small boys were given a new set of Stormtroopers to play with. The Galactic Empire of George Lucas’s Star Wars is clearly modelled on the Third Reich, with Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin all starched collar and shiny knee-high boots. Star Wars was largely made out of bits of old Second World War films, in some places quite literally: the rough cut of the final attack on the Death Star used sequences from Battle of Britain in place of unfinished special effects, and Luke Skywalker’s climactic trench run is pretty much lifted wholesale from the finale of 633 Squadron.
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One of the FX geniuses who worked on that climactic sequence of Star Wars was a man named Joe Johnston. He would go on to win an Oscar for his effects work on Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) before directing his own ‘30s adventure movie, The Rocketeer (1991).
Both Raiders and The Rocketeer are infested with Nazis. In Raiders, Indiana Jones is attempting to beat the SS to the Ark of the Covenant (‘I am uncomfortable with the thought of this… Jewish ritual’ complains Colonel Dietrich), while in The Rocketeer, stunt pilot Cliff Secord is trying to keep an experimental rocket pack out of Nazi hands.
But in both films, although uniformed Nazis mill around in the background, the major antagonists are agents of the Nazis; they are at one remove. Jones is up against French archeologist René Belloq; the antagonist in The Rocketeer is Errol Flynn analogue and fifth-columnist Neville Sinclair (largely inspired by unproven allegations that Flynn was spying for the Germans). The actual literal Nazis are nameless goons, getting their heads knocked into propellers and their faces melted off by the Ark.
Johnston’s facility with two-fisted tales of Nazi-punching eventually earned him a place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe when he directed Captain America: The First Avenger in 2011. Captain America, as a superhero, actually pre-dates Marvel comics. He was created in 1940 for Timely Comics (which eventually became Marvel) by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, two Jewish creators keen to create someone who could take a pop at Adolf. The Captain duly fulfilled this promise on the cover of his debut comic, punching out the biggest Nazi of them all.
Captain America: The First Avenger recreates this origin story. Set during the Second World War, 4F weakling Steve Rogers is dosed with a ‘super soldier serum’ that turns him into the strapping, upright, Nazi-fighting Captain. But once again, ‘ordinary’ Nazis are too goonish and cartoonish to be sufficient antagonists; instead, Captain America is up against Hydra, a secret Nazi society run by The Red Skull (another baddie using the Nazi Party to get what he wants, like Neville Sinclair and René Belloq before him.)
In short, over the course of my lifetime the portrayal of Nazis in film and popular culture had already been on an odd trajectory, from matter-of-fact actually-existing enemies in the 1940s, to sinister pulp villains, to cartoonish cutouts. Now, as time and distance has revealed more about the Nazi state, more about the nature of the Holocaust, more about non-Nazi Germans and more about the experience of the countries who suffered, writers have become increasingly uncomfortable with generic ‘Nazis’ as catch-all action movie antagonists. Nazis have become increasingly unspeakable and unportrayable, avatars of ultimate evil; people who can only be alluded to, never interacted with, even when fighting them.
This increasingly sober and careful treatment of Nazism isn’t a ‘cancel culture’ thing (or, if it is, it’s proof that this sort of cultural sensitivity wasn’t invented in the last couple of decades); it’s been driven by Gen X creatives, people who have watched as the Second World War moved from terrifying living memory to difficult and contested history. We grew up captivated by fictional worlds that used fantasy as a way to explore fascism: we learned that fantasy can examine fascism - how it takes hold, what it does to people, how you beat it - without tripping up over difficult facts or grave sensitivities. Star Wars was one example of this, and Lord of the Rings is another; it is full of analogues for fascism, although Tolkien always swore they weren’t there. (They are). Full-blooded Gen X-er JK Rowling took these lessons into the Harry Potter series, a very detailed description of a fight between social democracy and fascism. A more recent case of fantasy analogues for fascism is Andor (2022), one in an apparently endless Disney series of Star Wars prequels.
[Spoilers for Andor follow.]
Star Wars has always been more of a space fantasy than science fiction. Andor is no exception; it features all the ludicrous settings and trappings you could wish for - starships that operate like flying cars, silly outfits, insane hairdos, squeaking aliens and rattling robots.
However, at heart the plot of Andor would work perfectly if it was set in Occupied France. It is the story of a small-time criminal - the eponymous Cassian Andor - who is simply trying to get by in his own grimy backwater. As the Galactic Empire tightens its grip he finds himself drawn under its scrutiny, unjustly imprisoned and relentlessly persecuted.
You could quite easily move it all to France in 1942 and cast a world-weary Jean Gabin in the role. It could be set in a mining town somewhere near Lyon; Andor could take a job with a bunch of Resistance fighters stealing from the German military payroll, enabling him to relocate to - ooh, let’s say Casablanca. There he is caught up in a random police sweep of the usual suspects. After escaping from a punishment camp he returns to his hometown to discover the Gestapo are looking for him. He flees to join up with the Resistance permanently.
Andor is that, but with aliens.
It is, essentially, the story of an apolitical, largely antisocial, highly individualistic man who is radicalised by the inexorable creep of authoritarianism. A fascist state deploys extreme power and violence against a petty crook, and in doing so turns him into a political rebel. In resorting to force and political violence, the state creates an equal and opposite reaction that - among other things - morally degrades its opposition; Stellan Skarsgard’s rebel spymaster Luthen Rael observes that he is ‘condemned to use the tools of my enemy to defeat them’.
Andor also shows the ethical compromises required of those who try to keep their heads down in a fascist state: the small fry, the ordinary people who make up the body politic, and the power-adjacent who pretend they cannot see. A senator’s husband exhibits a squalid moral lassitude, affecting apolitical ignorance while living at the heart of Empire. It is equally good on the spiritual corruption of the Empire’s servants, the scheming court apparatchiks and hierarchy climbers; people like the series’ main villain, Imperial intelligence officer Dedra Meero.
Two of the most gripping characters are members of a privately run security organisation who pursue and fail to catch Andor at the beginning of the series. Wet-behind-the-ears Deputy Inspector Syril Karn and his bruiser sergeant Linus Mosk are then humiliated by an Imperial officer and fired. Alex Ferns’s Mosk is the very model of a street-fighting SA bully, but Kyle Soller is revelatory as the tightly wound, hurt and furious Syril Karn. Karn is an upstanding young man from a bourgeois family, and feels his humiliation keenly. He craves the authority and status of Imperial rank, but also, unconsciously, the moral - and sexual - abasement the Empire requires of him. He wishes to follow orders and follow them well; he wishes to wear the boot but also to be ground under it (specifically, Dedra Meero’s boot). It is a fantastic portrait of how the fascist state offers certainty and possibility to those who are happy to make the spiritual sacrifices it asks of them.
It is now ninety years since the Nazi party rose to power in Germany. Usually, time dulls our sensitivity even as it brings past events into clearer focus. There was less than a century between the Second Afghan War and Carry On Up The Khyber, and only seventy years between the Armistice and Blackadder Goes Forth. But as we have discovered more about the truth of the Nazi regime, so the culture seems to have become increasingly careful, and more uncomfortable with slapdash portrayals. It’s hard to imagine the BBC’s ‘80s French Resistance-themed sitcom ‘Allo ‘Allo,1 with its ludicrous comedy Germans, being made today.
Meanwhile, all those kids who ran around blasting Imperial Stormtroopers in the playground have grown up. Like Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, Andor tries to make a Star Wars story that speaks to that original audience, who are now in their ‘50s and looking for a little more emotional and political crunch. They are reimagining the politics of a fictional setting that has hitherto been primarily concerned with the dynastic struggles of eugenically privileged space wizards.
Actual Nazis are mostly gone, as are the people who fought them. But authoritarianism hasn’t gone; nor has racism, political violence and militarised nationalism. We will always need to find ways to tell stories about them, because one thing we all seem to agree on is that we must never forget.
Cross of Iron ends with a quote from Brecht:
Don't yet rejoice in his defeat, you men!
Although the world stood up and stopped the bastard,
The bitch that bore him is in heat again.
For more fictional Nazi fighting:
This sentence will make very little sense to Americans, and indeed to any non-British human, for which we can only apologise.