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Nazis We Love to Hate

From Confessions of a Nazi Spy to The Debt

The Surgeon of Birkenau in The Debt

In John Madden’s The Debt, three Mossad agents (played by Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington, and Marton Csokas) are sent on an undercover mission to go to East Berlin to capture the Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), who earned the moniker the Surgeon of Birkenau, and who is masquerading as the kindly Doktor Bernhardt. As with others tasked with giving a face to evil, Christensen’s job was not making the character any more horrible, but with making him believable. The Copenhagen-born actor explains, “The man is so terrible that I didn’t have to make the audience any more disgusted with him than they already are. What I needed to do was to bring out his dimensions, the humanity that he does possess, and the rationalizations that he has built around his past.” His performance, capturing simultaneously the man and the monster, highlighted the reason why Nazis make such great screen villains. Their ideology automatically assigns them villainy, leaving the actor to find that part – however perverted – of a humanity that makes them credible.

Franz Schlager in Confessions of a Nazi Spy

In 1939, Anatole Litvak’s Confessions of a Nazi Spy was perhaps the first studio film to take on the Nazis directly, and it did so not by exposing what they were doing in Germany, but by unveiling their efforts in America. In 1938, several members of Friends of the New Germany, a Nazi front group presenting itself as a Germany-American bund, were put on trial for espionage. Warner Bros. sent writer Milton Krims to cover the story and create a script. The resulting film, culled together from Krims’ reporting and from articles by the FBI agent Leon G. Turrou, was Confessions of a Nazi Spy. Germany, once it got wind of the project, quickly put pressure on the Production Code Administration (PCA) to stop the film. Indeed one PCA official, Karl Lischka, hesitated in approving the script, claiming, “Hitler and his government are unfairly represented." Threats from both official and unofficial channels pushed Warner Bros. to create a zone of secrecy around the project, hiding the names and addresses of cast and crew and leaking false information to throw German agents off the track. In the film, an FBI agent (played by Edward G. Robinson) cracks open a Nazi ring operating in New York City which is overseen by Franz Schlager (played with chilling accuracy by George Sanders). In the end, the film was a huge success, so much so that Joseph Goebbels demanded the German film industry retaliate by creating a series of documentaries revealing American corruption and tyranny. Variety wrote in 1939, “Decades from now what's happening may be seen in perspective. And the historians will certainly take note of this daring frank broadside from a picture company." However many took note at the time. The film was banned throughout Latin American and Europe, and Polish theater owners who screened the film were later hanged.

Fritz Marberg in The Mortal Storm

Although the 1940 MGM film The Mortal Storm never uses the word “Jew” or even clearly identifies the country in which the story is taking place, Frank Borzage’s melodrama (adapted from the novel by Phyllis Bottome) managed to rankle the Nazi Party so much that Joseph Goebbels shut down MGM’s Berlin office and banned the screening of all MGM films in German territories. The story begins in 1933, when Professor Roth (Frank Morgan) has a close family and a group of faithful students, including Fritz Marberg (Robert Young) – who is engaged to Roth's daughter Freya (Margaret Sullavan) – and Martin Breitner (James Stewart). As the Nazis rise to power, Roth’s ivory tower begins to crumble. Classroom decorum gives way to ideological rabble rousing. His stepsons and prize student Marberg become Nazis. Then when Roth refuses to acknowledge the superiority of Aryan blood, his stepsons and Marberg turn on him. In the end, Marberg not only betrays his professor, his fiancée and his friends, but is willing to allow them all to die.

Franz Kindler in The Stranger

According to Orson Welles, The Stranger, his 1946 thriller about a Nazi war criminal hiding out in a New England college town, was taken on partially to reassure the studios that he could deliver a conventional thriller on time and within budget. In the five years since Welles had made Citizen Kane, his stature had decidedly moved from boy genius to box-office poison. In the story, Edward G. Robinson plays a government agent tracking down the infamous Nazi war criminal Franz Kindler. After a hunt through Latin America, he arrives at the sleepy college town of Harper, CT, where he slowly begins to suspect that the mild-mannered professor Charles Rankin (Welles) may actually be the Nazi monster. But first he has to convince the professor’s wife (played by Loretta Young) of this fact. Welles was originally approached just to act in the film, which John Huston was to direct. But Welles agreed to accept the gig only if he could also direct. Once hired, he soon found he had limited creative freedom. His desire to have the Robinson character played by Agnes Moorehead was nixed, and the studio hired an editor to keep him on schedule. But even within such constraints, Welles was able to capture the darkness of his character and what he portends for postwar America. Film historian Michael Anderegg suspects that Welles' flat portrayal was meant to reveal more about the psychology of the American public than of his Nazi character: “Welles’ Kindler is so transparent a villain, so clearly not what the all-American inhabitants of Harper, Connecticut, think of him to be, that America’s complacency and naiveté becomes a dominant issue in the film.”

Madame Anna Sebastian in Notorious

Not all Nazi villains wear uniforms, carry guns, or look menacing. Indeed some are even mothers. Such is the case with Madame Anna Sebastian (deliciously played by Leopoldine Konstantin) in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1946 thriller, Notorious. When Ingrid Bergman agrees to romance and snare Nazi leader Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains) in Rio de Janeiro for spy Cary Grant, she learns only too late that the real evil in the family is Sebastian’s mother. After Ethel Barrymore and others rejected the part, Hitchcock cast Leopoldine Konstantin, a noted Austrian actress who’d never appeared in an English-language film, and in fact had just recently learned the language. Although she received only a small salary, reviewers called out her performance as one of the scariest parts of the film. The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther touted her for giving the part a “splendid touch of chilling arrogance.”

Ilsa in Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS

Don Edmonds’ Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS, made in 9 days for a budget of $150,000 (and shot on the abandoned set of the TV show Hogan’s Heroes), became an international phenomenon, its success fueled by controversy and its ability to inspire revulsion in its viewers. A critic from Denmark seethed that “the movie is so nauseating that it is impossible even to hint at its specific scenes without making my typewriter stink.” Very loosely based on the story of a real-life Nazi, Ilse Koch, the film eschewed any historical veracity for pure exploitation. Here Ilsa, the sexually voracious commandant of a Nazi concentration camp, literally consumes her prisoners with her lust. Burlesque star Dyanne Thorne, who played Ilsa, found herself inundated with fan (and hate) mail after the release of the film.

Eduard Roschmann in The Odessa File

Ronald Neame’s 1974 The Odessa File (adapted from a novel by Frederick Forsyth) was part of wave of post-Nazi paranoid thrillers – like The Marathon Man, The Boys from Brazil, The Formula, The Holcroft Covenant, etc. – that started popping up in the 70s. The plot for The Odessa File begins in Hamburg in 1963 when the diary of a Holocaust survivor who has killed himself sets reporter Peter Miller (Jon Voight) on the hunt for Nazi war criminal Eduard Roschmann (Maximilian Schell). The villain of The Odessa File, however, was not a fictional construction, but rather an actual Nazi war criminal. Roschmann, who created and policed the Riga ghetto, was ultimately responsible for the murder of thousands of Jews during World War II, and earned himself the vicious title “The Butcher of Riga.” In the film, Miller’s hunt is soon blocked by mysterious forces that may represent big business, government officials or something worse. The film also includes as a character the real-life Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal (played by Shmuel Rodensky).

Dr. Szell in Marathon Man

Perhaps nothing has pushed back the progress of modern dentistry as much as John Schlesinger’s drilling 1976 thriller Marathon Man. Interestingly, from Marathon Man to X-Men: First Class to The Debt, movie Nazis seem to take up a career in medicine. Here ex-Nazi Dr. Szell (Laurence Olivier), who has been hiding comfortably in South America, is brought to New York to track down a corrupt government agent, Doc Levy (Roy Scheider), who has been stealing from him. His mission to reclaim his Nazi loot leads him to Doc’s brother, Babe (Dustin Hoffman), a driven Columbia grad student who is completely in the dark about his brother's nefarious dealings or about the network of ex-Nazis he’s been connected to. Desperate to find out what he knows, Szell gives Babe an impromptu dental exam in what is one of the most terrifying and memorable torture scenes in all of film history. Adapted by William Goldman from his own novel, Marathon Man has been seen by some as less a duel between Nazism and Western civilization as between two different acting styles – Olivier’s classical training vs. Hoffman’s Method approach. But for Hoffman, the story also spoke to him about Jewish identity. In the original script, Babe, pushed beyond his breaking point, shoots Szell. But, as related in Abigail Pogrebin’s Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish, Hoffman hesitated. “I was called on, as the character, to fire on point-blank at the Laurence Olivier character, Dr. Szell and kill him in the last scene,” Hoffman recalled. “And I said I couldn’t do it.” When asked why, Hoffman explained, “I won’t play a Jew who cold-bloodedly kills another human being. I won’t become a Nazi to kill a Nazi.”

Arnold Toht and Elsa Schneider in the Indiana Jones movies

Although our fedora-wearing hero quips in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, “Nazis – I hate these guys,” he can’t seem to avoid them. In the 1981 Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones is pitted against Major Arnold Toht (Ronald Lacey), a Nazi torturer who is out to capture the Ark of the Covenant for Hitler.  Spielberg tapped the British actor Lacey to play Toht because of his resemblance to Peter Lorre. In order to avoid having to deal with the Nazis again, the second installment, the 1984 Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, is set in India before the war. But in the 1989 third film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the Nazis are back with a vengeance. The blonde, beautiful and betraying Dr. Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody) only appears to help Indiana, before revealing her true Nazi colors and her mission to find the Holy Grail for the Führer.

Kurt Dussander in Apt Pupil

Based on Stephen King’s novella of the same name, Bryan Singer’s creepy coming-of-age tale Apt Pupil is set in the 1980s. A high school student, Todd Bowden (played by Brad Renfro), discovers that his neighbor, a seemingly kindly old man, is in reality Kurt Dussander (Ian McKellen), a fugitive Nazi war criminal. But rather than turn him in, Bowden blackmails him into telling him stories of Nazi atrocities. Singer told NitrateOnline, “The part of the novella that I really liked, that really intrigued me the most, was the idea that this terrible, awful thing that happened so many years ago, so many decades ago in Europe, the awfulness of it, the collective awfulness of it, like a Golem, would somehow have crept up, across the ocean, through time, and into this beautiful Southern California, suburban neighborhood and this seemingly normal, all-American, young man.”

Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List

In Steven Spielberg’s epic Schindler’s List, the humanity of the title character (played by Liam Neeson), a man who made it his life's mission to save hundreds of Jews from being killed by the Nazis, stands in shark contrast with the film’s other real-life figure, Amon Goeth (played by Ralph Fiennes), the head of the Płaszów concentration camp. One of the film’s most horrific moments, when Goeth shoots live Jewish inmates for target practice, was based on actual historical accounts. While the stories were true, making them believable was Fiennes' challenge. Instead of simply making his character a monster, Fiennes dug deep to find the person beneath all the evil. He told Entertainment Weekly, “I do not want to excuse Goeth, but ultimately he was human... He was a kid in diapers at one point, and he had all this potential to be something, and he went the wrong way. That, to me, is tragic.”  His hard work did not go unnoticed, as the New York Times film reviewer Janet Maslin wrote, “Goeth, played fascinatingly by the English stage actor Ralph Fiennes, is the film's most sobering creation.”

Karl Ruprecht Kroenen in Hellboy

Karl Ruprecht Kroenen in Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy may be one of the most terrifying manifestations of Nazi ideology. Although the character was created by Mike Mignola for the Hellboy graphic novel series, the film version pushed his evilness in new dimensions. As a German scientist fascinated by the occult, Kroenen was the perfect storm of rationality and insanity. In the original story, Kroenen became a key player in the Nazi project Ragna Rok, a doomsday scheme pushed by Hitler in the final days of the Third Reich that brought forth an agent from hell (in this case, Hellboy). As a true believer, Kroenen absorbed Nazi ideology in every aspect of his being. In a perverse take on Nazi body culture, Kroenan surgically removed his own eyelids, lips, toenails and fingernails. His fear of contagion makes him wear a gas mask that filters all the air around him.

Col. Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds

In Quentin Tarantino’s homage to World War II films, Inglourious Basterds, the central Nazi villain, Col. Hans Landa (played by Christoph Waltz), takes evil to stylish new heights. As the New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis writes, “Landa is a vision of big-screen National Socialist villainy, from the smart cut of his SS coat to the soft gleam of his leather boots. There might be a fearsome skull (the death’s head, or totenkopf) grinning on his cap, but Colonel Landa has us at hallo.” Labeled the “Jew hunter” for his uncanny ability to detect his prey, Landa remains as cool and cunning as he is cruel. In describing his character, Waltz told the London-based website View, “there is not much that hints at any vicious, violent - he follows a different agenda, and that's part of why this movie and this part is so great, that you're being called upon to employ your moral faculties.”

Standartenführer Herzog in Dead Snow

For his second film, 2009's Dead Snow, the Norwegian filmmaker Tommy Wirkola started with a simple premise. “'What is more evil than a zombie?' A Nazi-zombie, of course,” Wirkola explained to the Los Angeles Times. "There had never been a zombie movie made in Norway before, and we wanted to be the first…because I loved that genre growing up. We thought it would be natural to mix in our own war history, that's really strong in Norway.” The end result fuses a traditional low-budget horror plot (seven students trapped in a small cabin in the wild) with the local legend of a group of Nazis, led by the sadistic Standartenführer Herzog (Ørjan Gamst), who disappeared in the woods after World War II. When one of the students accidentally awakens the dead Nazis, bloody hell breaks out.

Dr. Sebastian Shaw in X-Men: First Class

In X-Men: First Class, Kevin Bacon plays his own version of the Nazi zombie. Dr. Sebastian Shaw is a Dr. Mengele-type scientist who, because of his own special mutant genes, never ages. In the Nazi camps, he pulls out Erik (later played by Michael Fassbender), killing the boy’s own mother so that he can test Erik’s mutant abilities. But like many Nazi villains, in the end, Shaw is less about preserving Nazi ideology as he is about saving himself. Kevin Bacon explained to Collider how it was necessary to take Shaw seriously in order to play him: “If I’m really in the skin of who I’m playing, I don’t think of myself as a bad guy, I don’t think of myself as a good guy. Obviously, my perception of the world is one where humans are a threat to our survival.” 

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