Nazi With a Puppy Dog Films

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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In some films Nazis have been shown adoring their pets, tending their gardens lovingly or listening rapturously to classical music. This is all to show us that "these men weren't monsters", that they had a "human side." The fact that the Nazis loved their pets, tended their gardens or listened to classical music proves only that they loved their pets, tended their gardens or listened to classical music. The fact that they dumped cyanide on innocent people made them monsters. I call films that employ such reasoning "Nazi With a Puppy Dog" films. 

Schindler's List gets it right. Ralph Fiennes (who excels at playing characters coated with a layer of slime) has his tender moments, even falls in love with a Jewish girl, yet it's clear that these traits are superficial compared with his throughgoing banality and evil. In fact, Fiennes' tender moments stand out against his overall evil so starkly and awkwardly that they're embarrassing. Many other films, however, try to play it both ways, showing a character as depraved and then trying to elicit sympathy.

Apocalypse Now

One of the most preposterous Nazi With a Puppy Dog moments occurs in Apocalypse Now. Marlon Brando, in the role of a renegade officer who has set up his own private army in the jungle, describes the incident that sent him over the edge. He had been part of a civic-action team that was inoculating children against polio. The team has just left a village only to be called back by a hysterical village elder. When the team returns to the village, they find that the Viet Cong have hacked off the arms of the children who had just been inoculated.

It seems to me that for anyone who opposed the Vietnam War, there are only two courses of action that are morally possible on viewing this scene. One is to stomp out of the theater and demand a refund because the film has lost all credibility (or take the video back to the store). The other, if the scene does have credibility, is to question seriously whether or not the opposition to the war was morally justified. This wasn't collateral damage caused by an errant air strike, or even soldiers killing civilians because they suspect they might be working for the enemy - this was deliberate maiming of completely innocent children, who are known to be innocent by their torturers. I can respect someone who reasons that the damage done fighting the Viet Cong outweighed the evil they committed. But I cannot respect anyone who can view this scene and not see a profound moral issue, and the fact that so little comment has been made on this point tells me that most of the people who opposed the Vietnam War on moral grounds were moral illiterates.

In describing his feelings, Brando utters some of the most ridiculous dialog ever put on film. He realizes the Viet Cong's ruthlessness gives them awesome power, and that it's coldly calculated. These men weren't monsters, he says, they had families of their own! The fact that the Viet Cong loved their own families proved nothing, the fact that they hacked the arms off innocent children made them monsters. 

Three Kings

Three Kings tries to be the Apocalypse Now of the Gulf War, even down to having its own Nazi With a Puppy Dog moment. A band of renegade soldiers sneaks behind enemy lines in search of stolen gold. At one point, one of the soldiers is captured and tortured by a young Iraqi captain. We find that he learned interrogation techniques from U.S. advisors during the Iran-Iraq war - nice touch of irony. The captain explains that his wife was maimed and his infant son killed by American bombing during the Gulf War. This is all supposed to show us that people on both sides of a war are really pretty much the same after all. The only thing ruining this tender moment, for viewers with attention spans longer than five minutes anyway, is that shortly before this, the captain saw one of his superiors murder a young woman in cold blood, and he did nothing to stop it. The captain allows that maybe Saddam is pretty evil, but he joined the Army to support his family better, and now he "can't get out." Can't get out? He's surrounded by people risking and losing their lives in an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow Saddam, and he "can't get out?" He can't join their cause? Give me a break.

The dialogue between the captured American and his Iraqi torturer is supposed to convince us that the Iraqi is pretty much the same as his American enemy and basically a decent man driven to rage by the harm done to his family. But he's not a decent man. For openers, none of the Americans tortured anyone. Besides that, the Iraqi is a coward. He witnessed atrocities and did nothing, and had a chance to join the people fighting Saddam and did not. But most of all, he's a whore, like all the Republican Guards - as one of the educated members of Iraqi society, he's in the best position to oppose Saddam successfully, but instead sells himself.

The fact that the Iraqi captain loved his wife and son proves only that he loved his wife and son. The fact that he witnessed atrocities and did nothing made him a coward and a monster.

October Sky

October Sky refers to the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, and is also an anagram of the title of the book on which the film is based, Rocket Boys. The film takes place in Coalwood, West Virginia, a company mining town haunted by the prospect of the eventual shutdown of its only industry, the Olga Coal Mine. Early in the film, townsfolk gather outside at night for a glimpse of Sputnik. They spot it, and one of them is transformed by the sight. Teenage Homer Hickham decides do go into space. Homer has a tense confrontation with his father after announcing that he has no intentions of working in the mine.

The film portrays Homer's father as a stern but fair man. The miners comment on his courage in rescuing others in a cave-in, and there are numerous references to how much other people respect him. He comes to the rescue of a boy being abused by his drunken stepfather, and eventually loosens up enough to help his son during a crisis in his rocketry, and finally to come out and view the last launch. The obvious moral is that he's a bit rigid perhaps, but fair and just underneath.

Baloney. The guy is a complete and total jerk. The fact that Homer's father can transcend being a jerk on occasion doesn't redeem him - if anything, it makes his normally loathsome character even more tragic by showing he has the capability of rising to a higher level but fails to do it. And the fact that life in the coal fields is tough doesn't change things. Ike the welder lives in the same environment and remains humane; other miners manage to be more humane. Homer's high school principal, hardly a cuddly character himself, moves quickly to set things right once he is convinced the boys were falsely accused of starting a fire. But Homer's father remains resolute, indeed elemental, in his cloddishness.

The one time in the film I felt contempt for Homer came after he returned home from winning the science fair. His father couldn't even be bothered to come down and greet him, and when Homer went to the mine to see him all he got was a sneer that Homer met his hero and didn't even know it. Homer replied "he's not my hero. You are." After the emotional abuse Homer took from his father in this film, this sort of self-abasement is grotesque and just plain creepy. What in the world is there in his father that is even remotely heroic? Well, he was brave. So was Genghis Khan. So what?

My first impulse on viewing the scene where Homer's mother said that the mine wouldn't cover the cost of all his father's hospitalization was outrage at the injustice. After all, the man had been injured rescuing other miners, and by today's standards a hospital stay in 1957 would have been a penny-ante expense. My later sentiment was that it was in fact, perfect justice. Homer's father called him a thief for using a miniscule amount of company time and resources welding his rocket, and banished the man responsible from the machine shop. At most the welding could have consumed a couple of cents' worth of welding rod and electricity. The time could only have amounted to a few cents' worth, maybe none at all if things were slack and the welder did it on down time. So when Homer's father is denied care because some bean counter wants to save a trivial amount of money, what goes around does indeed come around. He's merely being treated the same way he treated others.

I lived through the 1950's. Am I nostalgic? It was a happy enough time given that people of the time didn't know anything better, but there is not enough gold in Fort Knox to persuade me to go back. When people try to tell me the 1950's were more moral than the present, they have to be joking. Take all the Internet porn and schoolyard shootings of the present and they don't even start to weigh against the pervasive injustice to women and minorities and the narrow-minded smugness that were so prevalent in the 1950's.

Bridge to Terabithia

The marketing of this film was nothing short of massive consumer fraud. We've all heard it said of some film that all the good stuff was in the trailers. Never was it so literally true. The advertising presented the film as a Narnia-style fantasy, and literally every second of fantasy in the movie was in the trailers. The rest of it was a pretty ho-hum piece about junior high kids dealing with bullies.

And the child hero has a moronic, loutish father pretty much cloned from October Sky. In fertile farming country, he can't make a go of farming plus an outside job. He disdains his son's interest in books, although mebbe if'n he'd got some of that thar book-larnin', he might just figure out that a "farm" has to be more than a hothouse with a few tomato plants.

His Nazi With a Puppy Dog moment comes when he consoles his son after the accidental death of his best friend, but he's laid such a trail of slime all across the movie, who cares?

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Created 6 January, 2002, Last Update 02 June, 2010

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