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Why do we love movie Nazis?

At the movies, Nazis become complex psychological portraits or loony B-movie villains or, weirder still, comic relief.
/ Source: contributor

Only at the movies (and in old “Hogan’s Heroes” reruns) is it ever permissible to enjoy the company of a Nazi. To be sure, the real Nazis were horrifying death merchants responsible for igniting World War II. But at the movies they become complex psychological portraits or loony B-movie villains or, weirder still, comic relief.

You can talk to psychologists all day about that last one and why we need harmless fictional versions of real-life boogeymen in order to cope with a sort of evil that most people can’t wrap their brains around, but for Hollywood the answer is pretty simple: bad guys, the baddest guys, mean movies people will pay good money to see.

“Valkyrie” opens this week, starring Tom Cruise as a heroic German military officer who launches a failed coup to stop Hitler’s reign of terror and mass murder. And he’s doing his best to de-Tom-Cruise-ify himself for this one. But when your best work involves being affable and there’s no way, even if you stretch it, to work a toothy grin into a performance as a soldier of the Third Reich, your options become limited. Lots of hissed urgent line deliveries but not much else. And that shows in Cruise’s performance. Not that it’s a bad film. Director Bryan Singer knows how to keep the action moving. But it’s not going to win Cruise any new fans, probably not even in Germany where they already love to hate him.

All that to say that he didn’t make this utterly subjective and incomplete list. However…

Bill Nighy and Tom Wilkinson in “Valkyrie” Cruise’s co-stars walk away with every scene they’re in. Nighy, playing another officer on board with dismantling Hitler’s regime, effectively delivers an extremely pinched demeanor that looks as though it involves painful, unseen clamps attached to his body. Meanwhile Tom Wilkinson, as the Nazi who wants to play both sides of the fence in order to keep his own head when the victor emerges, is the most imperious trapped rat of the movie year.

Dyanne Thorne in “Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS” A 1974 cult film of the highest (or lowest) order, it’s about the most evil Nazi commandant of all, Ilsa, and how her insatiable lust for men — and a concurrent lust for castrating and murdering them — is only outshone by her bra’s cup size. Thorne, who’s still with us and probably some lucky grandchild’s Coolest Nana Ever, was known for her body and not her acting skills, which is how she wound up in legendarily crazy stuff like “The Erotic Adventures of Pinocchio,” “The Swinging Barmaids” and “Wham Bam Thank You Spaceman.” The insanely entertaining “Grindhouse” paid her affectionate tribute with its fake trailer for “Werewolf Women of the S.S.”

Peter Sellers in “Dr. Strangelove” In one of Sellers’ three roles in Stanley Kubrick’s classic black comedy about nuclear war, he plays Strangelove, an ex-Nazi in a wheelchair who can’t keep his robotic arm from flying upward in a salute to his deceased Fuhrer. Thanks to Sellers and Kubrick’s ice-cold direction, it remains hilarious, wickedly pointed and relevant over four decades later. The same cannot be said for…

Veronica Lake in “Flesh Feast” Technically speaking, you don’t get to the part about her being a German mad scientist until the end of the movie. That’s also when you find out that Hitler lived and now it’s her turn to exact her revenge on him with what the lurid poster calls “creeping, crawling flesh-eating maggots.” Fun in that horrible way that horrible movies often are, the flesh-eating maggots get more prominence than its forgotten, tragic star. By this film’s 1970 release, Lake was well-known as a Hollywood cautionary tale whose decade-long run as a glamour girl ended in poverty and obscurity until her death at 53 from hepatitis. Where’s her biopic?

Bruno Ganz in “Downfall” As portrayed by Swiss actor Ganz, Adolf Hitler is both fascinating and appropriately unsympathetic. Ganz aims right for impeccable reproduction and succeeds as a ranting, lost, paranoid Hitler who ultimately abandoned even his innermost circle. He conveys all of the brokenness, misery and defeat audiences in need of catharsis (mostly modern German mainstream moviegoers and non-German arthouse patrons) could want from the vanquished madman. You get nothing new here; he doesn’t turn out to have a hidden sweet side and he’s not secretly gentle or kind, except to his dog. But still, if you want more than caricature, this is the performance to see.

Kenneth Mars in “The Producers” So funny that even Will Ferrell couldn’t remake it without drawing unfavorable comparison (and in Will Ferrell’s defense, the entire 2006 musical film version of this 1968 classic is a rotten mess, so it probably wasn’t his fault), Mars plays the brain-damaged and totally sincere Nazi who creates the certain-to-fail Broadway show, “Springtime For Hitler,” only to see it catch on like wildfire. Mars went on to equally funny roles in “What’s Up Doc?” and “Young Frankenstein,” so why he’s not a household comedy name to this day is a weird, unjust quirk of movie history.

Carice Van Houten in “Black Book” Technically her performance doesn’t involve her being a full-on Nazi, as she’s simply Jewish, passing for Aryan as a spy for the resistance while taking a Nazi officer as her lover. But she might as well be a Third Reicher. Van Houten’s presence in this film is so perfectly amoral you realize quickly that she’s simply doing whatever it takes to get out alive, as though if someone had suggested earlier that joining the Nazi party would be helpful in her survival plan she would have just done that first. In that way it’s like Paul Verhoeven’s earlier film “Showgirls” relocated from Las Vegas to Berlin.

And don’t miss Ralph Fiennes pot-bellied psychotic in “Schindler’s List,” (Liam Neeson gets the heartfelt speeches but Fiennes gets the better role.) Otto Preminger’s Col. Von Sherbach in “Stalag 17,” (imagine “Hogan’s Heroes” Col. Klink as frightening instead of funny.) Dirk Bogarde as the Charlotte Rampling-abusing Nazi in the disturbing “The Night Porter,” and that boy who sings the chilling “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” number in “Cabaret.” Now that kid is one scary Aryan.

Dave White reviews films for