Quentin Tarantino's latest film Inglorious Basterds shows that Nazis retain their stranglehold on the role of pop culture's "ultimate bad guys". During the Cold War they still had some competition from the Communists, for example in James Bond films. But today the Nazis clearly dominate the evil stakes. This should not be so.
Why doesn't the Japanese treatment of the people of occupied China in the lead up to and during World War II get them some credit as evil-doers? Why don't we have any films (or computer games, for that matter) about great escapes from Soviet gulags? The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom a book by Slavomir Rawicz recalling such an escape a trek across Siberia during WWII would be a good candidate.
In his book Manufacturing Consent, Naom Chomsky argued that Cold War America's obsession with Anti-Communism meant that people's lives were differently valued. He showed that the death of an anti-government priest in Communist Poland was, in terms of US news media coverage, many times more important than the death of an oppositional priest in US-dominated Central America. Likewise, our obsessive use of the Nazis as the bad guys without equal implicitly undervalues the lives lost at the hands of other evil regimes.
Indeed, you might think that with the passing of time the cinematic potency of the Third Reich would slowly diminish. Far from it. The number of films - both facts-based and fictional - that feature Nazis is on the rise. Historians talk of us now being in a "post-memory" era, a time when most people have had no direct experience of the National Socialist dictatorship. In this phase of historical awareness our knowledge of the Third Reich (and of World War II) is mediated by film, TV, museums and the education system. For his part Tarantino, portrays the Nazis as stock-in-trade bad guys and many reviewers agree that Christoph Waltz steals the show as an SS officer. The film is an entertaining black-humoured action-drama that leaves you wondering when Hollywood is ever going to expand its list of stereotypical bad guys. Don't hold your breath!
© Brian Long 2009