Portrayals of Nazis on film

Godwin’s Law, a well-known law of the internet dating back to the virtually prehistoric times of 1990, states that ‘as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one’ (see TV Tropes). Perhaps a related law should be established stating that ‘the more films are made within a year, the greater the probability that the next film you see will involve Nazis’. Old Nazis, young Nazis, melty-faced Nazis and metaphorical Nazis, there’s no escaping them, as anyone returning from a showing of the latest (really rather good) X-Men film, X-Men: First Class can tell you. Although the basic characteristics of the film Nazi do not change much, being uptight, smartly uniformed, highly organised and irredeemably evil, their uses vary widely according to genre and to the purpose they serve within the film. We’ve highlighted just a few of the most common.

(N.B. These are all films from Allied countries – German films about Nazis are another kettle of fish all together).

The Human Evil Nazi

As seen in: Schindler’s List (dir. Steven Spielberg, 1993)

There’s a reason Ralph Fiennes was asked to play Lord Voldemort, and the reason is this film. Fiennes’ blistering performance as concentration camp Commandant Amon Goeth is the embodiment of evil in human form. The difference between Goeth and Voldemort is the essential element of humanity that remains present even in the context of the horrific acts Goeth carries out. Although Voldemort starts out as human, he becomes a symbol of monstrous evil, of a person who has lost their humanity by giving in to evil and heartlessness entirely, represented by his absent nose and snake-like features. Goeth and his fellow Human Evil Nazis are explorations of a wickedness that remains chillingly human throughout. These are often the most powerful and complex portrayals of Nazis on film.

See also: Inglorious Basterds, Conspiracy (TV movie).



The Conflicted Nazi

As seen in: The Sound of Music (dir. Robert Wise, 1965)

The Conflicted Nazi is closely related to the Human Evil Nazi, and can often slip into the even more evil form as the film progresses. The difference is that the Conflicted Nazi starts out as a reasonable, even likeable, person and displays at least one moment of uncertainty before embracing the total lack of morals of the Human Evil Nazi. This moment may be as long as a soliloquy or as short as a fleeting facial expression, but it will be there. Alternatively, the Conflicted Nazi may embrace evil right up until the arrival of the Allies and the accompanying threat of a war crimes trial, at which point the full evilness of their actions suddenly comes home to them. The Sound of Music’s Rolfe is perhaps the quintessential Conflicted Nazi; he is almost entirely likeable and romantically charming on his first appearance, but becomes increasingly dubious as he is slowly led astray by the Nazi Party, until finally he is willing to condemn an entire family, including his ex-girlfriend, for the sake of Nazi values and his Nazi career.

See also: Ice Cold in Alex, The Pianist, Holocaust (TV series).

Faceless Enemy Nazis

As seen in: Saving Private Ryan (dir. Steven Spielberg, 1998)

The Faceless Enemy Nazi is not always a Nazi at all; often he may be a German soldier with no strong political leanings. The American or British soldiers chasing him will not take the time to find out. Nor should they, of course, as they’re in a combat situation – but the point, from the filmmaker’s point of view, is that no German will be humanised within the film, nor will any line be drawn between an enlisted German soldier and a Nazi. This should be viewed in contrast to films like The Longest Day, in which scenes of German soldiers behaving in ordinary or even sympathetic ways may be included to humanise the enemy, like the brief scene in which a hapless German lookout despairingly declares that the entire Allied fleet is heading ‘straight for me!’ The Faceless nature of the enemy in Saving Private Ryan stands out because the film was made so long after the war and its reliance on Faceless Enemy Nazis is therefore more surprising, but it is by no means the only film to portray German forces in this way.

See also: Where Eagles Dare, The Guns of Navarone.


Bogeyman Nazis

As seen in: Raiders of the Lost Ark (dir. Steven Spielberg, 1981)

A third entry for Steven Spielberg on this list – he is quite the Nazi connoisseur. Bogeyman Nazis are Nazis who play the part of the Bad Guys in a genre film, usually science fiction or fantasy, but an action/adventure film using them as cardboard cut-out bad guys also counts. Although human, they fulfil a role that could have been fulfilled by all manner of genre bad guys, from werewolves to vampires to aliens (and indeed, TV’s True Blood actually gives us Nazi werewolves. And Nazi vampires). In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Nazis are the Bad Guys Who Want the Stuff, and our hero has to get The Stuff before the Bad Guys get it. They are eventually brought down by their own hubris and subjected to melty-faced doom, a fate the audience is encouraged to cheer and celebrate, without thought of the actual horror of that idea. Nazis, in this scenario, could be replaced with various other groups of generic Bad Guys and little would be lost. Little, not nothing; there is usually a metaphorical or tonal purpose to the use of Nazis specifically, in Raiders’ case, the fact the our hero is protecting a Jewish artefact from the enemies of the Jews. Such thematic resonance, however, takes a backseat to the Nazis’ overall purpose as simple villains.

See also: The opening scenes of X-Men: First Class, Red Dwarf’s ‘Meltdown’ (TV episode).


Metaphorical Nazis

As seen in: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One (dir. David Yates, 2010)

The most common of all cinematic Nazis, you know you are in the presence of Metaphorical Nazis when you see long lines of soldiers dressed in grey and marching in tight formation, bad guys attempting genocide or discussing eugenics or the master race at length, any kind of camp into which good guys may be put, any large and well-organised army bent on world- or universe-domination… Found largely but not exclusively in science fiction and fantasy, metaphorical Nazis are everywhere. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One may be singled out as the most blatantly signposted recent example. The identity of the Death Eaters as Metaphorical Nazis is clearly present in the books and earlier films (mixed in with a bit of the Ku Klux Klan in the film version of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) but in Deathly Hallows Part One the costume and art departments really go overboard. The Harry Potter series is set in the present day, with earlier sequences featuring the destruction of such recent landmarks as London’s Millennium Bridge (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince). The wizarding world has, however, always been a bit behind the Muggle one in terms of fashion, the adults often displaying a marked preference for robes and other pseudo-medieval attire. In Deathly Hallows Part One, though, certain denizens of the wizarding world – most notably a woman being interrogated concerning her blood status – suddenly and unaccountably take to wearing 1940s fashions, complete with 1940s hairstyles. Others, including nasty bad guys working closely with the newly evil Ministry of Magic, abruptly decide that long black leather coats, sometimes with red accessories, are the way to go. In case we didn’t already realise, from the obsession with blood status, the desire to rid the world of Muggles and ‘Mudbloods’ and so on and so forth, that we were in the presence of Metaphorical Nazis, the costume department have raided the World War Two Costumes section, just to make sure.

See also: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, the entry-to-Rome sequence in Gladiator, Star Wars, Doctor Who’s Daleks (TV series) etc, etc, etc…


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6 Comments

  1. Alice says

    Love this! Just the draw your piece has shows how enthralled we are with everything Nazi. Like a car wreck, we can’t help but watch however horrible it might be. Nice categories, so right on.

  2. H Niyazi says

    Nice summary Juliette! I would also like to submit for consideration “Anachronistic Nazi” – the Nazi who does not belong in the era of a depicted story – the most unnerving example I can think of is the Basil Rathbone Portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in ‘The Spider Woman’ (1944) – which was a mixture of several Holmes tales, that managed to include a trip to a carnival shooting gallery where Watson takes potshots at effigies of Hitler and Mussolini.

    H

  3. josh says

    you are a bit shortsighted, that or you are trying to spread some misinformation. your section labeled ‘metaphorical nazis’ should more accurately read ‘metaphorical satanists’. because, let’s be honest here, that’s really what you’re describing.

  4. Juliette Harrisson says

    That’s an interesting point – did the use of the Nazis as cardboard cut-out Bad Guys start only after those who actually fought the war had retired? The Conflicted Nazi appears in films made by those who fought in the war, and maybe sometimes the Faceless Evil Nazi, but the others, not so much…

    I haven’t yet seen McKellan’s Richard III but I very much want to, hopefully it’ll be screened on an Arts channel at some point!

  5. Bill Mesce says

    Interesting and nicely done piece.
    I think part of what might be at work here is that A) the Nazis were an undeniable, unequivocal evil, perhaps the greatest in history, certainly the greatest since the beginning of the 20th century; B) and that the Nazi regime in Germany was so long ago, that most moviegoers have no real-world connection to that time or events.
    You put both of those together, and the Nazis become a very easy go-to abstract symbol for Bad Guys (remember Ian McKellan’s RICHARD III?)that can be stretched to mean whatever a good storyteller wants them to mean.

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