The only good Nazi is a dead Nazi.
Not surprisingly, that was the feeling During World War II, as movie audiences cheered and hollered whenever the villainous Nazis were mowed down by stars such as Errol Flynn and John Wayne. Hollywood’s fascination continued over the years — there have been ruthless Nazis such as Ralph Fiennes’ soulless butcher in “Schindler’s List,” idiotic dummkopfs in “The Producers” and “Hogan’s Heroes” and more recently more nuanced Nazis such as Kate Winslet in “The Reader” and Tom Cruise in “Valkyrie.”
In his multi-Oscar-nominated “Inglourious Basterds,” writer-director Quentin Tarantino has created one of the most memorable Nazi screen villains ever — Col. Hans Landa — a diabolical and eccentric SS officer known as “the Jew Hunter.” Landa is brought brilliantly to life by Austrian actor Christoph Waltz, who has won practically every award this season and is considered a front-runner for the supporting actor Oscar. In a way, the film is something of a throwback to the take-no-prisoners spirit of the World War II films; Brad Pitt, the leader of the “Basterds,” doesn’t want to understand the Nazis, he just wants to kill them — or scalp them, or both.
Abraham Foxman, a Holocaust survivor who is National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, enjoyed “Basterds” as a “fantasy. It was wonderful. I wish it were true.”
As for films like “The Reader,” that have put a human face on Nazis, Foxman says, “the further we move away from the Holocaust the greater the need to tell the stories that will touch new generations. One way to do it is the portrayal of the human character. I felt ‘The Reader’ was very moving.”
Though Nazi characters have been a staple in films for over seven decades, it took a long time for isolationist America to seriously examine the rise of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party. Hollywood didn’t want to anger Germany because almost half of a picture’s box office came from foreign markets. But Jack and Harry Warner made “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” in 1939 as war broke out across Europe.
The news of “Spy,” which is based on a real story, brought threats upon the studio and the film’s actors. Dr. George Gyssling, German consul general in Los Angeles, approached the Production Code Administration to insist it make Warners stop production on the film or he would see to it that Germany would ban any film starring an actor from it.
But Warners refused to bow to pressure and the film Nazi was born.
Here’s a look at the various ways Nazis have been portrayed in cinema ever since.
In the beginning
“Confessions of a Nazi Spy”: Edward G. Robinson plays an FBI agent who investigates a Nazi espionage ring in the U.S. headed by a doctor named Kassell (Hungarian-born Paul Lukas). Francis Lederer, who immigrated from Prague, played an unemployed emigre who joins Kassell and becomes a spy for the group.
“The Mortal Storm”: MGM’s first anti-fascist film — released in 1940 — so angered the German government that Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, went so far as to ban all MGM films in the country.
“The Great Dictator”: The most audacious critique of the war in Europe was Charlie Chaplin’s first sound film, a brilliant satire released in 1940 filled with high comedy and pathos. Chaplin cast himself in a dual role of a Jewish barber and his look-alike — the vain, self-glorious anti-Semitic dictator Adenoid Hynkel. Hitler banned it from Germany and all the Nazi occupied countries, though he did see the film twice. (Chaplin never found out what he thought of it.)
Connie and Otto
Conrad Veidt: The dashing German superstar left his homeland in 1933 with his Jewish wife, first settling in England and then in 1941 coming to the U.S., where he excelled in playing elegantly ruthless, steely-eyed Nazis, most notably as Rick Blaine’s nemesis, Maj. Heinrich Strasser, in 1942’s “Casablanca.” He also starred in 1942’s “Nazi Agent” as twins — one a sweet bookstore owner in the U.S., the other a vicious Nazi who is the leader of a spy ring.
Otto Preminger: Though the bald-pated Preminger is best known for directing such classics as “Laura” and “Man With the Golden Arm,” he also acted on stage and film. A Jewish emigre, who was born in the Austro-Hungarian empire, he first played a villainous Nazi in the play “Margin for Error.” He brought his arrogant Nazi act to the silver screen in 1942’s “The Pied Piper” and the 1943 Bob Hope comedy “They Got Me Covered.” His most famous Nazi portrayal was in Billy Wilder’s 1953 classic “Stalag 17,” in which he played the merciless camp commandant Oberst von Scherbach.
Joking about Nazis
“To Be or Not to Be”: German Jewish emigre director Ernst Lubitsch directed this 1942 satire — completed just a few weeks after Pearl Harbor — about a group of Polish actors led by Carole Lombard and Jack Benny who become involved in the underground in order to thwart the Nazis. Forty-one years later, Mel Brooks remade the film with his wife, Anne Bancroft.
“The Producers”: The most audacious comedic depiction of Nazis on screen appear in Brooks’ first feature film about a penniless Broadway producer (Zero Mostel) who, with his meek accountant (Gene Wilder), decides to make a killing by producing the worst Broadway musical ever made — “Springtime for Hitler.” Brooks, who won an Oscar for his screenplay, scored an even bigger success on Broadway in 2001 with a musical version starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, both of whom also starred in the 2005 movie version.
The Nazi with a conscience
“The Young Lions”: In Irwin Shaw’s bestselling novel about the lives of three soldiers — two American and one German — the German character was a party-line Nazi who never repented for his cruelty. But in this 1958 feature version, the officer — played by a dyed-blond Marlon Brando — is more of an idealist who comes to realize the horrors of the Nazi regime
“Valkyrie”: This big-budget Tom Cruise vehicle is based on the true story of a failed attempt to assassinate Hitler by members of the German military.
“The Reader”: Kate Winslet won an Oscar for her compassionate portrayal of an illiterate concentration camp guard who blindly followed orders.
“The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”: This 2008 film revolves around a young boy whose father becomes the commandant of a concentration camp.
“Good”: This 2008 film deals with a mild-mannered professor who eventually becomes seduced by the Nazis. This and “Pajamas” offer complex views of German complicity in the rise of the Nazis, without offering any excuses for the horrors that followed.