10 September 2008

Those Nasty Nazis of Film


As I pour through Richard Evans' multi volume history of the Third Reich it occurs to me the extent to which Nazis have been used in films for almost 75 years.
For one thing they are ideal villains. There never has been nor ever likely will be anything politically incorrect about demonizing them. Also, they really were that bad. And finally they were made for a visual medium what with their color uniforms, flags, emblems, salutes and marches.

As much as films have caricaturized and stereotyped Nazis in movies, generally speaking these depictions have often been fairly accurate. They really were God awful b*stards who relied on violence and torture.  The Nazis were unabashedly racist, sexist, homophobic and every other thing we revile today. Also, there is no mistaking their goals were domination of large part of the world with the killing and enslavement of tens of millions as part of the plan.
But I digress...

There have been some memorable portrayals of Nazi characters in films. Here's a look at ten of the best portrayals of some of the worst people.

Ralph Fiennes as Amon Goeth in Schindler's List (1993).  This quickly became the gold standard of evil Nazis in films. Goeth was a real person and a real horror. I suppose it is fair to say that Fiennes did him justice. He played Goeth as the totally hedonistic cold blooded killer he was, a slovenly one at that who lazily shot at passing Jews from his balcony. One of the most chilling scenes in cinema is when he says to Helen Hirsch a Jewish woman in his employ, "I realize that you are not a person in the strictest sense of the word..." as he is at once reviled and aroused by her. This is is the essence of the sickness within anti semitism.

Conrad Veidt as Major Strasser in Casablanca (1942).  There are myriad elements that make Casablanca one of the most revered films of all time.  Among them is Veidt's portrayal of the oily Major Strasser. Veidt had a special antipathy toward the Nazis as he fled his native Germany shortly after they came to power. His wife was Jewish. Strasser is the quintessential self possessed bureaucrat unhesitant about using violence.

Bruno Ganz as Adolph Hitler in Downfall (2004). He was, of course, the ultimate Nazi.  Ganz played him not as a monster but as a human being.  A God awful human being and arguably  the most destructive to humankind in history but a human being. It is a compelling performance in an important film.

Paul Lukas as Dr. Kassell in Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939). Not a great film but a wonderful performance. Lukas gave his character an intelligence and urbanity that makes the ideas of the Nazis so frightening. After all not all Nazis were thugs, some were doctors, architects, professors.  Scary.

Ronald Lacey as Major Arnold Toht in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Its a performance that verges on camp but effective enough to be scary as hell. Toht is that long leather jacket wearing bespectacled Gestapo guy who seems to live to torture.

Walter Slezak as Willy in Lifeboat (1944). This character was designed to rally the homefront during the war and he sure must have been effective. Duplicitous, cunning, strong and totally resolute.  He bore all the earmarks of a cunning and dangerous enemy. Slezak was never better.

Laurence Olivier as Dr. Christen Szell in Marathon Man (1976).  Okay maybe I'm cheating here because the film is set 30 years after the war but Olivier is after all playing a Nazi and an unrepentant one at that who has escaped justice lo those many years. Szell was the "White Angel" of Auschwitz during the war and his memory haunts Holocaust survivors.  The dental "exam" he gives Dustin Hoffman's Babe Levy is a cinematic classic, in part because it is excruciating yet watchable.

Alexander Granach as Alois Gruber in Hangmen Also Die (1943). Granach was another German who high tailed it out of Germany once Hitler came to power. He played a Russian in Ninochtka (1939) to great effect but I always remember for his performance in this underrated Fritz Lang film about the Czech underground. He was a methodical, calculated interrogator who put a happy exterior to mask a cold heart. Don't you hate that?

Otto Preminger as Col von Scherbach in Stalag 17 (1953). No list of this kind is complete without a POW camp Kommandant (Col. Klink need not apply) and Preminger's performance was as good as they come and doubtless others that followed. He had that nasty Nazi arrogance that was so despicable. The scenes with the removal of his boots are weirdly memorable.

Paul Schofield as Col. Franz von Waldheim in The Train (1964) . The worldly sophisticated cultured Nazi is one of the worst.  Art love von Waldheim may have a touch of class but deep down he's a snake in  the grass too. Using humans as human shields, executing suspected spies, serving the Third Reich as much as did the Brownshirts.

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