You can always kill Nazis
There’s a well-known anecdote in Hollywood that during the making of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, Steven Spielberg was concerned that the script was going to be too violent for the intended teenage audiences because of the gruesome deaths in the film. Writer Larry Kasdan answered him: “Steve, don’t worry, you can always kill Nazis.”
The only people who remain poorly represented by the multitude of Second World War films and dramas are those who started it themselves: the Germans. They’re also the people whose perspective has been ignored for a reason — because to many around the world, its still too unpleasant to want to deal with.
In Germany though the situation is more complicated because the soul searching that begun right after the war has never ended. “Soon nobody will be left who experienced the war,” wrote a columnist in one of Germany’s biggest newspapers. A new show dubbed the German BAND OF BROTHERS, GENERATION WAR seems to have been made in answer to this concern. This show follows five Germans who join the Army in 1941, and thus asks the audience to empathize with men who took part in Nazi atrocities themselves. The show has had enormous ratings in Germany itself, averaging 7 million viewers for some episodes, and even in Poland, where it was heavily criticized it nevertheless still received very high viewing figures.
A recent BBC article on the subject has emphasized that with characters who are supposedly evil, human details become more important as we unconsciously look for any way possible to achieve empathy with these people. This is especially difficult though when the character is one that most would simply prefer to remain a monster. There are still many in the world who would prefer to believe there’s nothing human about the Nazis.
Previous blogs have looked at how BREAKING BAD and at documentary THE ACT OF KILLING achieve empathy with the audience. In today’s TV dramas, the most memorable characters are the most unpleasant, because these are the most exciting to watch and experience. Times have changed since Kasdan made his joke and “unsympathetic protagonists” have become commonplace. Today, Tony Soprano and Walter White are probably the most famous TV characters in drama, because while being evil in many ways, they’re also human. Murderous Mafia boss Tony Soprano was defined by his midlife crisis, and GENERATION WAR shows how the characters began as naïve young men and women before being changed by the reality of the war.
Great shows like DAS BOOT have been made in the past, and so have excellent TV movies like HBO’s CONSPIRACY, but GENERATION KILL touches on a nerve; because now, with the last survivors of the war dying off is really the last chance anyone is going to have of seeing the war from the German perspective. The chance to understand why and how it happened will soon be lost to history when these last survivors die.
Some would rather not explore this perspective though. We love monsters in popular imagination — they’re part of our culture. These monsters don’t have to be inhuman like the zombies in the picture above; people can also be too foul to understand, and for years Nazis have been perfect. Today times are changing, and Nazis are becoming yesterday’s monsters. Larry Kasdan’s joke that “you can always kill Nazis” is less relevant than it may have been in the 1980’s. He believed like many others that it was not possible for anyone to have empathy with anyone so evil and that in any case such people are utterly irredeemable. Many in Hollywood are directed directly from victims of the Nazis, so his perspective is completely understandable.
Thirty years after Kasdan made the joke, however, memories are fading, and shows like GENERATION WAR have proved that that you can actually be made to empathize with anyone at all. The scariest thing after all is when monsters become human.