Saturday, August 22, 2009

The ultimate bad guys

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


  1. Interesting analysis. I don't plan to see this movie. I am rather fed up with all these Nazi Third Reich (or French Resistance!)stories. What a lack of inspiration and creativity....I don't think that is a good way to get young generations really interested in the subject or of having them aware of how the world actually goes.

  2. Hi Brian,

    I read your article with interest. Your analysis brings up many questions that I have often asked myself in terms of murder, occupation, proportionality and hypocrisy, in the context of the Holocaust, Japan and China, Saltzin Itzin and the Gulags, Slavery in any form, Iran, Iraq, Isarel and Gaza, Kosovo, and reams of other examples of "evil doing" throughout history. Your contention that "Nazis cleary dominate the evil stakes", is mine as well, but that it "should not be so" does not sit easily with me...

    To set a dichotomy between numbers of murders/ deaths perpertrated by regimes, and the modus operandi those regimes have adopted, then draw conlusions on who or which is more or less noxious, diminishes the suffereing of the dead. Lately, I have read many comparisons between various operations of war and which regime was more or less despotic given the numbers they killed or ways in which they were murdered.

    Unlike questions posed in those articles, you ask why other harrowing historic events and and those venomous regimes who marred humanity forever, are not up there beside the Nazis sharing the position of "most evil" in the Hollywood canon... (maya is asking for dinner so off I go and to be continued)


  3. Thanks for your comments Kate. When I wrote that the Nazis should not clearly dominate the evil stakes all I really meant was that there should be other contenders. I think the Nazis will rightly always be regarded as the most evil regime in history. But my pondering is that, judged by what gets filmed (and thereby makes it into popular memory), they were pretty much the only evil regime in history. That is not right. And nor were their victims the only ones deserving of commemoration.

    I think the answer is that Germany has done a passable (but not perfect) job of addressing its past while Japan, Russia and co. have been allowed to literally get away with murder.

  4. Yes, Anonymous, I agree. But it is an interesting comment on our society that movie studios believe that enough of the viewing public is still interested to pay at the box office. As I said in the post, the Nazis have lost their old Communist competitors (who now seem only laughable) and modern terrorism seems a bit too serious and frightening for mainstream cinema. So what is left for a movie industry that relies on the tried and tested?

  5. Hi Brian - here are a couple of contenders for the evil stakes: firstly the British - they are SO GOOD at covering up their iniquitous past - capitailsing on their victory in 1945 (thank God for that, all the same). For example, they invented the Concentration Camp duing the Anglo-Boer war in South Africa. Women, children and the elderly were systematically interned and relieved of their humanity and ultimately many of their lives in these camps. The Nazis were not the first...

    Another contender is the Boer himself - no-one needs to be instructed on the evils of Apartheid.

    Hope you're well down under


  6. Hi Francis,

    nice to hear from you and thanks for reading the blog. I agree the Brits are also candidates for the "getting away with murder" award. We are all well here, hope you are, too.


  7. Hi Brian,

    I know you posted your article on "Basterds" a while ago and come to think of it, I didn't close my post (maya's hunger got the better of me). But, I have just come across an article written by Adi Schertzer, a graduate of Israel Open Uni Department of History , Philisophy and Judaic Studies and a cinema critic for Kippa.
    For interest's sake I thought I'd post the link.

    Her stance does not suprise me since she sent the artilce into a rather right winged religious source but I also tend to agree with some of her contentions.,7340,L-3780825,00.html