Fantasy, farce and folly: Nazis on the big screen

Good news for all you “Iron Sky” fans out there. Filming for the sequel, “Iron Sky: The Coming Race” is due to start next year for release in 2016.

In case you missed the first one – you lucky, lucky people… – it went something like this. Iron SkyAn Afro-American astronaut, landing on the moon in 2018, discovers a city of Nazis hidden there since 1945 and planning a re-invasion of the earth.

Among other intriguing plot points, a mad, racist Nazi scientist turns the astronaut albino and, in search of smart phones to power their space battleship, the future Führer and his fiancé are roped in as advisors for the American President’s re-election campaign.

Baffled? Don’t worry. I am too, and I’ve watched the film myself. What I’m interested in here, however, is not the plot but the characterisation of the Nazis. These men and women, homogenously attired in their field-grey uniforms, are meant to seem absurd.

Their overly rigid rules and regulations, total lack of individuality and spontaneity, and their ludicrous understanding of the world as divided into capitalists and bolshevists render them farcical and the perfect targets for mockery. Seventy-three years after Hitler’s death, they have not quite got the hang of using the name of his successor, Wolfgang Kortzfleisch, in greeting each other. Even Kortzfleisch himself is greeted consistently with “Heil Hitler”, testament to the complete idiocy of these twenty-first century Nazis.

Although a poorly executed example, “Iron Sky” is part of a recent trend of creating and mocking exaggerated Nazi stereotypes in film. “Inglorious Basterds” was a film that did it far more successfully, but the basic premise was similar. The numerous Hitler Rants Parodies on YouTube, based on that famous scene from “Untergang” (“Downfall”), testify to the same idea – that such extremity of character, ideology and behaviour is all too easily turned into farce.

These films and parodies may seem new and radical. But there’s a whole bunch of films made in the 1950s and 1960s that were doing exactly the same thing, often better. Then, too, Nazis were frequently represented as overly obedient, mechanical, homogenous, tunnel-visioned and excessively self-confident.

In the numerous films set in German POW camps and on wartime battlefields, such characteristics leave ample room for quick-witted, spontaneous, cynical and witty British individuals to run rings around dull-witted Germans.

Norman Wisdom (right) as a German general in "The Square Peg"

Norman Wisdom (right) as a German general in “The Square Peg”

For brilliant and wonderfully simple comedy – without the excessive special effects that are sadly “Iron Sky”s best feature – I’d recommend those early post-war films. Norman Wisdom impersonating a German general in “The Square Peg” is utterly hilarious, as are the ludicrous Nazis scattered through the hit POW films “Very Important Person” and “The Wooden Horse”.

“Iron Sky” lacks the tongue-in-cheek attitude that makes those films so enjoyable. In fact, it behaves rather like a stereotypical Nazi, so convinced of its own greatness that it fails to see its own fatal flaws. In the novel “The Wooden Horse” – based on a true story – the German camp officer is so self-satisfied and convinced of his own superiority that he misreads the derisive roar from the British prisoners in response to his morning greeting as enthusiasm: ‘He was popular with these wild-looking British, was he not?’ Such idiocy is exactly the kind being mocked in the films I’ve been discussing.

Similarly, despite the derisive roar from critics and public alike, the makers of “Iron Sky” blindly proclaimed the film a success and forged ahead with a sequel. Such absurdity will surely, rightfully, spawn its own cynical parody and the cycle of mockery will continue.

The language of remembrance

In a year of important anniversaries, today marks another. One hundred years ago, Britain declared war on Germany, marking the beginning of what became known as the ‘Great War’.

European leaders have gathered in Belgium, flags have been lowered, monuments unveiled, prayers spoken and candles lit and extinguished. It’s a far cry from the unsuitably celebratory atmosphere of the D-Day commemorations that I wrote about in my last post. And rightly so – there is some validity in celebrating the beginning of the end of a war, while any form of celebration today would be absurd and wholly inappropriate.

Yet the knowledge that we, the British, were the victors in the war that began on 4 August 1914 is tangibly present in the British speeches and media coverage of today’s events. And the knowledge both that they were the primary aggressor and the defeated nation is no less evident in the words spoken and written by Germans.

Over and over again, we hear and read the verbs “commemorate”, “remember”, “think”, “reflect”, “mark”, “salute”. Time for reflection is rare in our often hectic lives and days like today force us to find that time, to remember what has passed and to mark a moment in history.

But what will happen tomorrow? We’ll return to our everyday lives, for most of us increasingly distant in every way from the realities of the ‘Great War’, and the words we’ve heard and thoughts we’ve had will fade into nothing. That cenotaph, grave or memorial in our village, town or city will return to its customary function as a barely noticed pile of stone, useful certainly for a posed snapshot or a meeting place, but little more.

The problem is one of passivity and complacency. Despite David Cameron’s insistence in a speech today in Belgium that the principles that determined Britain’s entry into the First World War should still be our guiding principles today, there was little in his or other British speeches to inspire real action. As the military and moral victor, we need do no more than mourn, remember and salute, it seems. These may be verbs but they have little to do with action and do nothing to engage or inspire.

German President Joachim Gauck also made a speech in Belgium today. Representing the nation that both initiated and lost the war, his speech was appropriately different to Cameron’s but need not have deviated too far from the language of remembrance and mourning. Yet he spoke boldly of the “bitter, terrible lessons” of the war, of Germany’s responsibility for it and of ever-present shame.

He demanded the active advocacy among Europeans of freedom, justice and tolerance and made explicit reference to current conflicts that necessitate such action. He appealed to European political leaders to show not only with words, but with actions too, that they have learned the lessons of the First World War.

Gauck’s plea for action and his call for all countries, not just those that carry the most blame, to actively learn from century-old events are a long way from Cameron’s passivity and the British media’s insistence on presenting the First World War as an interesting and saddening historical event to be remembered and marked but no more.

Yet this complacency is misplaced. Just because we play the (somewhat dubious) role of moral victor in this one chapter of history, why can’t we still learn from the mistakes that others made in that same chapter? If nations victorious in wars were to descend from their moral high ground in order to study the moral and military errors of their opponents (and themselves), thereby acknowledging that every nation has the potential to err, rather than seeking lessons only in defeat, humanity might progress a little faster.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin

The Germans have a special word for a monument that serves as a warning to future generations – Mahnmal. It’s different to their standard word for monument or memorial – Denkmal. The first word contains part of the word for ‘warning’ – Mahnung – while the second comes from the verb ‘to think’ – denken.

In Britain, we only have Denkmale, memorials that invite us to think, and only that on special anniversaries. Germany has many of these, but also many Mahnmale, monuments that can’t be ignored, that demand our attention, our reflection, our action, monuments that ask of us, ‘how are you going to make sure that this atrocity doesn’t happen again?’

We need a more active rhetoric on our commemorative days. We need a greater willingness to confront today’s realities and to actively use the lessons of the past to better ourselves as nations and as individuals. And we need more than Denkmale that invite us to think – we need Mahnmale to provoke us into action.