There's a saying in Hollywood: The two things you can always kill without turning the audience against you are Nazis and zombies. Maybe that's why J.J. Abrams is producing a movie about Nazi zombies, and why the Nazi Zombie mode in Call Of Duty is so popular.
But zombies are cartoons -- one-dimensional humanoid villains to blast apart with indiscretion before they rip you apart in their single-minded pursuit of brain hoagies. Nazis are not cartoons, and yet we've spent decades of popular culture reducing them to avatars of badness, completely free of context and stripped of the emotions they are supposed to instill in us (beyond the feelings of disgust and revenge, of course). Shooting endless waves of slobbering undead Nazis while a gleeful heavy metal soundtrack thrums along and the voice of a delightful celebrity guest star provides snarky quips is undeniably fun for some people, but it feels grimy and shameful if actual Nazis intersected your family at any point. It's like making a video game wherein you blast your way through waves of Al Qaeda werewolves inside the collapsing North Tower.
There are reasons America has been awash in World-War-II-centered entertainment ever since the war ended. It's the most black-and-white conflict the United States has ever been involved in, to the point where one side can literally be called "evil." Whereas if you make a movie or a video game about Vietnam, the Korean War, or Iraq, you must either uncomfortably address the subject of American imperialism or uncomfortably ignore it. The Civil War isn't good shoot-em-up movie fodder either; people are still arguing about what it was about to this day. We're still pretty close to World War II, relatively speaking -- most people can connect themselves directly to the conflict by tracing back one or two generations. Also, it's the last war America really "won," or felt good about winning. We hold it up as the ideal of America as a world power, so we keep coming back to it. And Nazis make good bad guys -- they dress like villains, they have sinister accents, and they murdered innocent people to comply with an insane doctrine of white purity.
There was a resurgence of big World War II entertainment in the late '90s, with Saving Private Ryan paving the way for two massive video game franchises, Medal Of Honor and Call Of Duty, which would spend the next several years reaping The Last Great War for all it was worth. Then we went through a bit of a dry spell (Medal Of Honor pretty much vanished, and Call Of Duty turned its sights to modern warfare and eventually space), but World War II movies are coming back. Last year, Hacksaw Ridge was nominated for multiple Academy Awards, despite being directed by a man who could gently be referred to as a "Nazi enthusiast," and this summer will see the release of Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, an epic World War II film starring part of One Direction.
As if to punctuate this, Call Of Duty's next installment will return the franchise to the conflict of its birth to shoot even more Nazis.
But maybe it's time to stop using Nazis as bad guys.
Now hear me out. I'm not saying we shouldn't make any more World War II movies. And I'm not saying we can't have movies that portray Nazis in the villainous role they require, earned, and deserve. All I'm saying is that maybe we shouldn't for a while.
Nazis have essentially become the titular alien from the Alien series. We've seen it so many times, its portrayal growing more and more reductive with each installment, that we've reached the point where we're no longer afraid of it. The alien isn't scary anymore. Once you drag the monster out of the shadows of your bedroom, shine a bright light on it, and make it dance, you forget what it feels like to be sitting alone in the dark with it watching you from a distorted mass of shapes that project nothing but malice and dread despite never fully congealing into a recognizable figure.
Nazism is insidious. It's a plague, not a dragon; although, left unchecked, it will eventually hatch a dragon, and not just your cuddly Smaug variety. Today, we take for granted the amount of time it took the majority of the world to realize that. Many countries, the United States included, didn't see Nazis as the overt monsters nearly a century of hindsight has taught us they were all along. Nazism was en vogue even in America, where the well-educated and well-moneyed would spend evenings extolling the virtues of eugenics and suggesting appeasement was the way to deal with Hitler because he "really didn't seem that bad."
German American Bund
Most people reacted with incredulous disbelief at the rumors of death camps, prompting people to actually break in to camps to collect evidence, because yes, "pics or it didn't happen" absolutely extended to the Holocaust. We had to be convinced that Nazis were truly evil, and decades of casting them as cartoonish villains in popular culture has softened their evil to the point where it's almost become abstracted. When watching Inglourious Basterds, it's easy to forget to connect the bizarrely affable Hans Landa to this (holy hell graphic and disturbing) image of a wheelbarrow full of dead Jewish children, and fucking nobody is thinking about that real, soul-crushing shit while they're waiting for Nazi Zombies to load.
Nazis have even become a visual shorthand for other movies to use when they want to convey extreme badness, like in Star Wars and Harry Potter. Sometimes it's subtle, like the Empire's uniforms, and sometimes J.J. Abrams includes a scene in The Force Awakens wherein the First Order holds a Nazi rally in front of a sea of red banners.
Problem is, they're not Nazis. Neither was the Empire, S.S. uniforms notwithstanding. They were fascists, sure, but not Nazis. Voldemort is kind of a eugenicist, but also not a Nazi. We're applying the abstraction of Nazism to these villains, but not the reality. That is, unless we fully commit and depict the Empire forcing the rebels to dig mass graves for their loved ones, which would be horrifying and not fun, because real Nazis are not fun. And we've been slowly wearing down the horrifying impact of Nazis by continuously depicting them as little more than sneering faces drawn on target dummies.
So maybe we need a break from movie Nazis, to give us enough time to remember what they actually were (and disturbingly still are), and how to present them in the proper context. Let's say ... ten years? That seems to have worked for the Alien franchise -- after taking a ten-year break since the last genuine Alien movie (Alien Vs Predator: Requiem), Alien: Covenant looks like it's going to be the first time people will actually be scared of the Alien since the 1979 original.
20th Century Fox
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