When it comes to depicting Nazis in movies, are you on Team Mel or Team Woody?
Mel Brooks, who gave us “Springtime for Hitler,” is a proponent of ridicule: Making fun of Nazis is the best way to “rob Hitler of his posthumous power and myths,” he told Spiegel in 2006. Woody Allen, on the other hand, expressed a different point of view in Manhattan. “A satirical piece in the Times is one thing,” his character says, referencing an upcoming Nazi march, “but bricks and baseball bats really get right to the point…. Physical force is better with Nazis.”
The Finnish film Sisu, opening April 28, agrees. Throughout its 91-minute run time, a prospector (Jorma Tommila) resourcefully knocks off Nazi after Nazi in the most punishing and spectacular ways, from a knife through the skull to sending one plummeting to his death atop a bomb, like Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove. According to one Nazi, he’s a one-man death squad: “one mean motherfucker that you do not want to mess with.”
Sisu is a welcome addition to one of our greatest cinematic subgenres: death-to-Nazi movies, films that consign some of history’s most hissable villains to terrifically violent and terrible fates. As Robert Redford says at the end of The Sting, “It’s not enough. But it’s close!” And if you want more after Sisu, there are plenty of gems to choose from—starting with our favorite 10.
The Blues Brothers (1980)
The “Illinois Nazis” in relentless pursuit of Jake and Elwood Blues don’t get a lot of screen time, but it’s just enough for them to receive humiliations galore. In one of the movie’s best set pieces, Dan Aykroyd’s Elwood guns the motor of the Bluesmobile, circumvents a Nazi demonstration traffic jam, and sends the entire Nazi contingent off a bridge, to the cheers of the crowd of protesters. As John Belushi’s Jake succinctly states, “I hate Illinois Nazis.”
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
The Nazis in Steven Spielberg’s classic adventure are movie Nazis from the “Ve haff vays of making you talk” school. From an airplane-propellor decapitation to supernatural face-melting, they meet their makers in crowd-pleasing fashion. But having seen the film several times upon its release in packed theaters, I remember the one bit that never failed to get applause was during the truck chase, when Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones takes the wheel and repeatedly slams a Nazi driver’s head into the dashboard. Simple pleasures are the best.
Inglourious Basterds (2009)
These Nazis are Quentin Tarantino Nazis, which means they are loquacious, speak with what Paddy Chayefsky once called a “sinister silkiness,” and know who obscure French silent-film comedian Max Linder was. Their side has Oscar winner Christoph Waltz as the Jew Hunter; ours has Eli Roth’s baseball-bat-wielding Bear Jew, one of eight Jewish American soldiers recruited to form a “bushwhacking guerilla army” with one purpose: killin’ Nazis. In the best addressing-the-troops speech since George C. Scott’s in Patton, Brad Pitt’s Aldo Raine spells it out: “Any and every son of a bitch we find wearin’ a Nazi uniform, they’re gonna die…. We will be cruel to the Germans, and through our cruelty they will know who we are…. And the German will be sickened by us, and the German will talk about us, and the German will fear us…. Sound good?”
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Nazis are the worst, yes? But a close second are Nazi collaborators. We will forever love Frenchwoman Yvonne, whose patriotism is reawakened during the singing of “La Marseillaise” in Casablanca. So there is no pity for the ill-fated Walter Donovan (Julian Glover) and Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody), who are unmasked as being in cahoots with the Nazis in their quest for the Holy Grail.
The Rocketeer (1991)
Close behind Nazi collaborators are Nazi spies, such as the dashing movie star Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton), who is after a rocket-pack prototype developed by Howard Hughes. His unwitting accomplice is gangster Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino), who has a change of heart when he learns the truth about Sinclair. “I may not make an honest buck,” he proclaims, “but I’m 100% American. I don’t work for no two-bit Nazi.”
Green Room (2015)
“We’re a movement, not a party,” declares neo-Nazi leader Darcy Banker (Patrick Stewart). His intense and unrelenting thriller gives new meaning to the phrase “panic room,”as a punk band member finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. After witnessing a murder at Banker’s remote concert venue, he and his bandmates are confined in the club’s greenroom, where they must fend off Banker’s army. With each attempt on their lives, our investment in their survival deepens. “Whatever you saw or did is no longer my concern,” Banker tells the band members. “But let’s be clear: It won’t end well.”
X-Men: First Class (2011)
“Blood and honor. Which would you care to shed first?” So Erik Lehnsherr (a.k.a. Magneto) confronts two former Nazis in 1960s Argentina. It’s a great scene, certainly enough to include this comic book prequel here. Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) is just getting started: He’s on the hunt for Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), the aspiring dictator who killed his mother in front of him. Shaw is a Nazi of the “future of the human race” school. Their climactic confrontation will put a rift in Lehnsherr’s friendship with Charles Xavier; it’s totally worth it.
Movies on a Mission
For those of a more traditional cinematic bent, we take a break from the targeted killing of Nazis and their ilk for this mini roundup of the classic Hollywood mission movies to which Tarantino paid homage with Inglourious Basterds. The focus here is on American military cunning and superiority, and the crippling of the Nazi war machine. Representative titles include The Great Escape (1963), in which messing up “the works” and getting back at the enemy the hardest way possible means leading a massive breakout from a POW camp; The Dirty Dozen (1967), in which Lee Marvin leads a squad of condemned prisoners on a suicide mission to blow up a Nazi chateau; and Where Eagles Dare (1968), an essential penetrate-an-impregnable-fortress adventure in which Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood mount the rescue of an American general being held in a castle atop the Bavarian Alps.