“For it is an affair of the State…to prevent a people from being driven into the arms of spiritual lunacy…Everywhere we meet germs that represent the beginning of excrescences by which our culture is bound to perish sooner or later…Woe to the nations which are no longer able to master this disease!”
–Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf
Up dee geegeebopparootlaydee keebowawoe roddleegay gezigint! Tiggitaway tiggitaway tiggita ballyhooway! Whoaaaaaaaaa!
–Cab Calloway, Are You Hep to the Jive?
Hep, or Hip. American slang meaning “alive to, aware of, wise to”. It is probably from the West African Wolof word hipi, meaning “to open one’s eyes”. See HIPPIE.
–-Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable
It may be alright for Disney to make animated films about everything from Mulan to Moses, but let the Disney name be attached to a serious dramatic film and it’s almost a critical kiss of death. Case in point: Thomas Carter’s Swing Kids (1993). A couple of people had recommended this film to me recently, and I was eager to follow up. Having taught about the Holocaust for several years at the junior high school level, I was surprised to learn that there was a relatively recent, relevant motion picture of which I had never heard. It turns out that Swing Kids takes an original approach to the Nazi attack on culture, but you’d hardly know it from the film’s critical reception. There’s seems to have been a universal wave of horror at the thought that Disney would dare stray so far afield as to touch on a subject reserved for “serious” filmmakers. One imagines there might have been similar jitters when the news first broke of Stephen Spielberg’s work on Schindler’s List. Spielberg triumphed; Swing Kids was brushed into oblivion with comments about “intolerable simplification,” “trivialization,” “sanitization,” and playing “irresponsibly loose with one of the grimmest periods of history for the sake of creating a movie with mass appeal.”
I guess I must be irresponsibly simple and trivial. I found Swing Kids moving and thought-provoking. Does it give a sweeping, clear picture of what went on in Germany in the 1930’s? No. If one knew nothing about the Holocaust or the rise of the Third Reich, this might not be the picture to begin with. But must a screenwriter assume complete ignorance on the part of his or her audience? Again, no. Playwright Jonathan Mark Feldman wanted to tell a story that had merited little more than a footnote in some obscure historical journal, but allowed for a dramatic exploration of both the insidious influence of propaganda on the young, and of music as a counter to that influence.
There was apparently a craze among certain German teenagers during the Thirties for American big band music. Although I’ve been unable to track down any historical evidence outside of the film itself (perhaps there’s something in Michael Kater’s book Different Drummers: Jazz in the Culture of Nazi Germany?), it all seems likely enough. Didn’t the Beatles first hit it big in Hamburg, the same city om which Swing Kids is set? Mocking the Hitler Jugend (Hitler Youth) and Nazi sloganeering with their own “Swing, heil!” the German Swing Kids quizzed one another on Harlem slang, haunted the docks for new record shipments from America, dressed like Cab Calloway, and jitterbugged the night away in imitations of the Cotton Club.
The German authorities were not impressed. Too many American Jazz musicians were either black or Jewish or both. Swing dancing was a decadent waste of energy that was righteously meant to be expended in HJ (Hitler Youth) boot camps. Who but a degenerate would choose Lindy Hopping over goose-stepping? Like their brownshirted adult counterparts, the young goons of the HJ knew how to deal with degenerates.
Three friends, Peter (Robert Sean Leonard), Arvid (Frank Whaley), and Thomas (Christian Bale) are at first too caught up in their music to realize what is happening around them. They thumb their noses at authority the same way kids did when 1950’s American radio commentators warned “decent” people about that depraved jungle music called “rock’n roll.” The Nazi ban on “Neger-Kike Musik”, which forced Benny Goodman records to be smuggled in under Gene Krupa’s name, strikes the three boys as stupid rather than evil. They joke that the only reason Count Basie isn’t on the blacklist is because the Nazis believe he’s the leader of a country.
Peter, Thomas, and Arvid think they’re still living in a democracy. A lot of Germans made that mistake. Even Thomas’s father, who voted for Hitler and now reviles him, sees him as a clown who can be tossed out at the whim of the army. As for the Jews, if they are being victimized, their disappearances raise no great alarms. There’s a strong sense that, as Peter voices it later in the film when the horror he’s becoming a part of confronts him face to face, the Jews must have done something to have their rights so blatantly violated by the State’s sanctioned authorities.
Peter of all people should know better. His father had been taken away six years previously by the Gestapo, and returned to his family a broken, dying man. It is in the handling of Peter’s relationship to his father that I find Swing Kids not even remotely “trivial”. He doesn’t admire his father as a brave man who stood up to fascism and paid with his life. History makes these judgments seem easy in retrospect; but for a young man who sees his mother left with nothing, struggling to support her two sons with menial factory work, his father’s sacrifice seems selfish. Peter rejects the idea that his father was arrested for being a communist (Hitler exterminated communists before he turned his full attention to the Jews); he suspects that the arrest had something to do with defending the Jews, and feels bitter because the Jews weren’t his father’s problem and his father should have been worrying about his own family instead of about strangers who Peter thinks may have just been using him. Peter doesn’t realize that the Nazi propaganda he’s been growing up with has led him towards an emotional betrayal of his own family. Peter’s mother is no help. Her betrayal, rooted in loss and fear, reaches even deeper.
Besides thinking they’re still living in a country where free choice is possible, the Swing Kids’ second big mistake is to think that they’re immune to Nazi propaganda: “No one who likes swing can become a Nazi.” Seeing one of their friends in an HJ uniform, they assume he’s playing a game: “HJ by day, swing kid by night!” Peter winds up in the Hitler Youth as the only alternative to being sent to a work camp. Thomas joins up to stand by his friend. We get an unnervingly candid picture of what life in the HJ was like. Both Peter and Thomas are seduced; Peter has doubts, but Thomas turns out to be (to use Stephen King’s title for a related short story) an “apt pupil.” The third of the friends, Arvid, is the intellectual of the group. The fact that he’s got a club foot insulates him from all of the Aryan boosterism. It also isolates him. He knows exactly what’s happening to his friends and neighbors, and despairs of being able to stop it.
The young actors in this film are uniformly fine. Kenneth Branagh has a strong cameo performance as a Gestapo officer who tries to provide Peter with a new paternal role model. Their confrontation over supper is one of the film’s highlights. On a totally different plane, the music and dancing in Swing Kids are, to use the idiom, “supermergantroid!” Judging by the number of Swing Kids websites, a lot of kids were hep to the jive.
Perhaps some of the adults who came down so hard on Swing Kids saw the teenagers in this film as the German equivalents of America’s zoot-suiters: dancing while the world burned. I don’t think so. The guys in the zoot-suits didn’t have the Gestapo and SS there to truly open their eyes. And shut them permanently.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
“If we do not raise our voices in outrage, we will have collaborated.”
I’m going to apologize in advance for what follows. I don’t usually use this venue as a soapbox. Of late, however, the world seems to have grown a little uglier and watching Swing Kids reminded me of how truly ugly things can become when enough people are willing to sacrifice ethics & morality for unadulterated self-interest. I’ve also been reading Robert Ellsberg’s All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time to remind myself of some of the remarkable men & women throughout history who have chosen to light candles against the darkness. Several of them, like Käthe Kollwitz, Max Josef Metzger, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mother Maria Skobtsova, Father Engelmar Unzeitig, Hans and Sophie Scholl, Alfred Delp, and Père Jacques Bunol did not survive the Nazi Reich.
What saddens me in the present times is not the Great Darkness like that of Hitler and Stalin, but the smaller uglinesses that that can pave the way towards a society that is less compassionate, less tolerant, less willing to acknowledge and respect individual human dignity, and ever-ready to let militant ideology trump honesty, generosity, and simple kindness. Here in Canada we saw some of that lesser darkness descend with the almost decade-long hold on government of Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party. That demonstration of arrogance and contempt for dissident opinion has of late been resurrected by Harper acolyte Jason Kenney in his role as Alberta premier and leader of the United Conservative Party, and by premier Doug Ford and the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario. I think it’s safe to say that both Kenney and Ford have been buoyed by the take-no-prisoners political carnage playing out under U.S. President Donald Trump.
As a cautionary tale about how small compromises with evil can inexorably lead to full-on collaboration and betrayal, Swing Kids is more relevant now than it was when first released. From the moment in the last U.S. presidential race in 2016, when Donald Trump was allowed to flout the laws regarding revelation of his income tax returns, the abandonment of any sense of moral or ethical standards has gone forward relentlessly for four years and counting. Racism, fear-mongering, and misogyny have been given free rein in the public arena. Conflict of interest regulations have been made a mockery of. Environmental laws have been gutted. Voting districts have been gerrymandered. Immigrants have been demonized. Women’s reproductive rights have been walked back in state after state after state. The U.S. military budget equals, I believe, that of the next five biggest spenders combined. The U.S. per capita prison population may be the highest in the world. The idea that one can respect one’s political opponents, even while disagreeing with them, now seems like a quaint fairy tale that was once told to particularly naïve children. The political scene is now winner-takes-all, and dog eats dog. Where once it was considered wise to keep competent bureaucrats in place even during changes in government, the new norm is to fire everyone and parachute in flunkies, yes-men (and women), and the highest bidders. Where once people were at least outraged when politicians were caught out in blatant lies, now it’s a daily occurrence with zero repercussions. At some point, the well of pubic discourse will contain nothing but toxic poison. It may have already happened. And thanks to the COVID10 pandemic, the application of what Naomi Klein called the “Shock Doctrine” by unprincipled opportunists will accelerate the slash & burn of democratic safeguards across the planet.
America is not yet a full-on fascist state. Journalists, teachers, and labor leaders aren’t being killed with impunity by the hundreds or thousands for speaking out. Our families, neighbors, friends, and colleagues aren’t disappeared in the night. The nightmares that have been inflicted on our neighbors to the South, with the active collaboration of the North, have been spared us. But perhaps what we’re seeing is that the slippery slope that leads from freedom to fascism can be also greased by hypocrisy, contempt, and endless propagandizing, instead of literal rivers of blood. If no one cares what freedom looks like, who will miss it when it’s gone? The unions that workers died to build in the latter part of the 19th century and early part of the 20th century, giving Americans one of the highest standards of living in the world and guaranteeing better lives for their children, have disappeared like smoke under capitalism’s ideological magic wand. The taxes were once used to build highways and schools and provide clean drinking water for everyone are now mocked by politicians who only believe in those taxes when they bail out failing banks & corporations and fund the military’s right to full health care, cheap education, subsidized housing, and the most expensive hardware. Funny how socialism doesn’t sound so bad when it’s paying corporate salaries or army contracts.
It’s not in my nature to be this pessimistic, but if even the threat of a global pandemic can’t address the better angels of our nature, how far have we already fallen? The young men we see in Swing Kids witnessed their educated, cultured, democratic nation descend into madness during the course of less than two decades. What vision of the future did they have while the tendrils of violence & hate were insidiously strangling their future? I wonder, did the writers & director of Swing Kids believe in Arvid’s claim early in the film that “Nobody who likes swing could ever become a Nazi.” Most of the film’s momentum would seem to prove otherwise, but two defiant gestures near the end would seem to offer hope. Was that defiance genuine, or just the filmmakers’ unwillingness to go full dar?
Of course, there is always hope. There will always be those with the courage to rebel, even in the face of the Gestapo, the SS, the Cheka, the OGPU, the Taliban, the paramilitary death squads of El Salvador, Chile, Nicaragua, Colombia, or Argentina. If Swing Kids did nothing but remind us of what bravery in the face of power looks like, it would be enough. Thee must always be beauty beyond the ugliness or terror, or life would hardly be worth living. Walt Whitman didn’t stop working on Leaves of Grass even after living through the horrors of America’s Civil War. I haven’t stop reading Whitman because Donald Trump continues with his danse macabre. There is more to be seen out there than the bitter, angry faces on the news, even it’s sometimes hard to remember that. There’s also more to Swing Kids than spiritual carnage. I love the dancing in this film, and would be quite happy to seeing an entire movie devoted to it. In fact, such a movie already exists: Ettore Scola’s incredible Le Bal from 1983. Scola’s film tells the history of France in the first half of the 20th century entirely through what happens in a single Parisian dance hall. No dialogue or narration, only music and dance. Unforgettable. Almost 40 years after I first watched Le Bal and showed it to my senior French classes, I’m still trying to get my hands on a DVD copy.
It’s interesting to contrast the crisp, clean visuals of Swing Kids with a couple of the German period TV series that have recently shown up on Netflix. I don’t doubt that the set and costume designers who worked on Carter’s film did their research to ensure period accuracy, but the end result is a long way away from the grim realism of Babylon Berlin and Freud. Swing Kids is still Hollywood’s Germany, while German television has given us something closer to Fritz Lang, Wagner, and the Nibelungenlied.
As usual, I’d like to follow up on the cast & crew of the film. Director Thomas Carter has put most of his energy into television work, winning three Primetime Emmys. Kenneth Branagh has been nominated for 5 Oscars. It’s about time they gave him one of the damn things. Christian Bale has been nominated 4 times and won once (for The Fighter). And let’s not forget that he got to wear the batsuit in The Dark Knight, my favorite Batman film. Robert Shawn Leonard has worked largely under the radar, and mainly in television. Frank Whalley currently has 117 acting credits on Imdb. He’s also done a lot of TV work. Barbara Hershey has been acting since 1966, and began a new TV series as I write this in 2020. Ms. Hershey has one Oscar nomination. Julia Stemberger has also had a long career and is currently working on a TV series. Polish cinematographer Jerzy Zielinski currently has 54 film credits. Composer James Horner has two Oscars out of 7 nominations. The film community lost an extraordinary talent when Mr. Horner died in a plane crash in 2015. There’s no shortage of his work on music streaming services.
For anyone interested in some background reading on Germany’s Swing Kids, there is a solid “Swingjugend” Wikipedia article that you’ll find here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swingjugend
and a lengthy article on “The German Swing Youth” here: http://www.return2style.de/amiswhei.htm