Sometimes, it’s nice to have a bad guy that everyone can hate. In horror, you often want people to root for one person or group and against another, and it becomes troublesome to create three-dimensional villains that have real-life motivations and reasons for the awful things they do. When faced with a situation like that, one of the tried and true solutions is to bring in the Nazis.
It’s a rarity, in a world populated with rationalization, reinvention, temporary insanity, and deconstruction, that everyone across the world and across time (with the exception of a handful of addle-minded or attention-seeking weirdos) would agree that a single group of human beings had banded together to simply do something so unspeakably horrible that humanity as a species can agree they should never have existed. Nazis are that unspeakable universal horror; in some strange way, the hatred of what they did and what they stood for is a defining and uniting part of the human spirit since the second World War, a signpost that has signaled what everyone can understand as too far and too evil. That kind of singular recognition and agreement, in a world of splintered beliefs and an almost total lack of reasonable and civil discourse, is almost unheard of.
And though it is a true evil upon which we as humans agree, there is also some level of satisfaction and relief at that recognition. Humanity, fearing its own faults and shortcomings (because we always know we have them), has always sought out a scapegoat to blame for whatever our problems are, whether it is truly their fault or not. The idea that there is a single group in man’s history that fulfills every measure of the hyperbole normally leveled at other scapegoats is the ideal for us: they are the other, they are the evil, and I’m not them, so I am not evil.
But, of course it can’t ever be that simple. Every person who signed up to be a Nazi was a regular human being (except possibly for the deranged and diseased minds who created and implemented what became their agenda), and at some point in their existence, they were either fooled into thinking they were doing something right (in the case of people who never saw the concentration camps or Nazi experiments), or they made a conscious decision at some point that what they were doing was a trespass, and that they were going to make that trespass willingly. Either situation is one that humans find themselves in (in lesser degrees) every day of their lives, being taken advantage of by smarter or more manipulative people to do things they shouldn’t, or consciously stepping over the line of what any decent member of society could do in good conscience. It is because these people were human to begin with that we want to distance ourselves from them; because if they could do what they did, then what other human beings could as well? Do we see them every day? Do we know them? Are they us?
The Nazi sub-genre has been alive and well since the early days of the Nazi empire, popping up in films as varied as “Casablanca” and “The Three Stooges”. But it was with the advent of the exploitation film of the 1960’s and 1970’s that Nazis came to the forefront again, embraced as villains in film when society felt sufficiently distant from the real-life events that made them so evil. Films like “The Frozen Dead” and “Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS” became commonplace, reaching a fever pitch in the 1980’s when Nazis were the villains in laughably schlocky fare like “Puppetmaster”. Here are four recommendations for further exploration into the sub-genre.
While more a thriller than a horror film in the strictest sense, this film starring Dustin Hoffman and Lawrence Olivier follows a student caught in the midst of a conspiracy involving diamonds, Nazi war criminals, and some pretty cringe-inducing dental procedures. Directed by John Schlesinger in his run of amazing films that defined the 1970’s (which also included “Midnight Cowboy” and “The Day of the Locust”), this is a thriller film worth a horror fan’s time.
Why do all ski vacations in films have outlandish events take place there? Isn’t skiing interesting enough? Do they all have to be about getting taken over by a group of terrorists (“Extreme Ops”), getting trapped and slowly dying on a ski lift (“Frozen”), or discovering a hot tub time machine (“Citizen Kane”)? Well, leave it to the Norwegians to send a bunch of fun-seeking teens to party at a ski camp only to find themselves under siege from Nazi zombies.
Yes, we just discussed Nazi zombies. Why do it again? Because the other one didn’t have Peter Cushing as the SS Commander pining for the good old days of goose-stepping. It also didn’t have the likes of Brooke Adams, the actress from the 1978 “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and wife of TV’s Monk, Tony Shalhoub. What else does it have? Directing chores handled by Ken Wiederhorn, also known for directing both the second “Meatballs” film AND the second “Return of the Living Dead” film. I rest my case.
With legends of the Nazi army scouring the world for religious artifacts in its bid for world domination long rumored and speculated upon, it only makes sense that director Guillermo Del Toro would bring them the success they sought in his translation of Mike Mignola’s comic book “Hellboy”. In a brilliantly convoluted backstory, it was the Nazis who teamed up with the Mad Monk himself (not Tony Shalhoub), Rasputin, to open a portal and summon some Lovecraft-esque monsters into our realm. What they got instead was a cute little baby demon with a giant stone hand. And what audiences got was a great comic book film that was equal parts “The X-Files” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark”.