From The Vault
Neo-Nazis in American Feature Films Since 1945
by Dr. Lawrence Baron
Lawrence Baron is the Director of the Lipinsky Institute for Judaic Studies and the Nasatir Professor of Modern Jewish History at San Diego State University. He served as the historian for Sam and Pearl Oliner's The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe and has authored a biography of the German anarchist Erich Muehsam and co-edited three anthologies. He is currently writing a book on recent trends in feature films about the Holocaust.
"The best historical films will interrogate the past for the sake of the present. Remember that historians are working for the living and not for the dead."--Robert A. Rosenstone
Feature films and made-for-TV movies influence what many Americans think about the Holocaust. In a Roper Poll conducted in 1994, 58% of the American adults surveyed cited television as a source of their knowledge about the Holocaust. 33% of those queried identified the "movies" as where they learned about the event.2 Contrary to Peter Novick's dubious claim that the Shoah has little historical relevance to American collective memory,3 there is a corpus of motion pictures which highlights the link between the genocide of European Jewry and the racism of fictional and real postwar neo-Nazi movements. Until 1980, these films tended to portray neo-Nazis as a recalcitrant remnant of German National Socialists forming clandestine networks outside of the United States to establish the Fourth Reich. As public awareness of the Holocaust grew over the past two decades, such movies prominently featured the appropriation of Nazi ideology and symbols by American right-wing extremists to discredit their aims and tactics.
Of the 21 English language feature films released between 1945 and 1979 which deal with neo-Nazi movements, only five situate their stories in the United States. Instead, they typically either treat neo-Nazi activities as a continuation of World War II in Europe or as the sinister machinations of Nazi war criminals hiding in South America. The latent message of these films was that Nazism had no connection with American politics.
Samuel Fuller's 1958 film, Verboten typifies the first kind of movie. Fuller intercuts documentary footage of Berlin in ruins with the story of a wounded American soldier, David Brent, who is hidden and nursed back to health by a German woman, Helga Schiller. Though he eventually marries her, David wonders why she didn't protest when Hitler "started throwing people into gas chambers?" He resigns from the Army and joins a relief agency. Neither David nor Helga knows that her brother Franz has enlisted in the Werewolves whose goal is to foment rebellion against the American Occupation. Ashamed of her brother's activities and hurt by David's suspicions that she married him to get better food and housing, Helga accompanies Franz to the Nuremberg Trials. He tearfully repents when he sees the newsreels of the emaciated survivors and corpses found by the Allied troops when they liberated the concentration camps. Fuller assumes audience familiarity with the mass murder of European Jewry which the prosecuting attorney denounces as the "greatest crime against humanity," "the premeditated destruction of an entire people."4
In the 1960s and 1970s, the threat of a political revival of neo-Nazism in West Germany was communicated to American audiences through British espionage movies. In The Quiller Memorandum, the British spy commanding an operation to infiltrate a neo-Nazi cell headquartered in Berlin warns an American agent recruited for this mission that Nazism is emerging in West Germany under a different guise: "No one wears brown shirts anymore. They look like everyone else and come from all walks of life."5
In The ODESSA File, journalist Peter Miller obtains the diary of a deceased Holocaust survivor. Its grisly descriptions of the slaughter of German Jews deported to Riga are visualized in black and white flashbacks that look like documentary footage. Miller learns that Riga's SS commandant returned to Germany with the assistance of the SS fugitive organization ODESSA. The Mossad recruits Peter to find ODESSA's membership list and thereby prevent German companies from manufacturing a guidance system the group plans to sell to Egypt to target missiles against Israel. Miller infiltrates the ODESSA and kills the Riga commandant in self-defense. During this confrontation, Miller discovers that the commandant had executed Peter's father for refusing to obey an order.6
American movies from the same period usually exploited the infamy of the Third Reich as grist for horror and science fiction movies. Since the Soviet Union had replaced Germany as the primary enemy of the United States, the directors of these movies portrayed neo-Nazi conspiracies as the schemes of demented fanatics hiding in the tropics. Thus, these films implicitly marginalized whatever relevancy neo-Nazism had to American society.
Movies like They Saved Hitler's Brain, The Frozen Dead, Flesh Feast, Shock Waves, and The Lucifer Complex reduced their neo-Nazi characters to deranged scientists reviving or cloning dead Nazi leaders and soldiers to continue the war they had lost on the battlefield. These films were cheap productions whose hackneyed dialogue, poor acting, and unbelievable plots made their Nazi villains seem more ridiculous than menacing. In They Saved Hitler's Brain, for example, Nazi loyalists on a South American island kidnap an American woman to lure her father, a famous professor who has invented an antidote to nerve gas, into their clutches. A CIA agent tracks her down only to discover that Hitler's head has been kept alive on the island. The Nazis put the head in a car and drive it to the cave where it will be safe from the gas they plan to unleash to decimate humankind. The agent saves the day by lobbing a hand grenade at Hitler's limousine and literally blowing his brains out.7
The practice of using concentration camp inmates for medical experiments enabled filmmakers to transform the familiar figure of the crazed doctor in science fiction movies into the mad Nazi scientist.8 From the resurrection of the bodies of high-ranking Nazis in The Frozen Dead 9 or dead Wehrmacht soldiers in Shock Waves,10 to the cloning of 94 baby Hitlers in The Boys from Brazil11 or exact replicas of world leaders in The Lucifer Complex,12 the Nazis' goal of Aryan supremacy remained the same despite the growing sophistication of their technology. The Boys from Brazil is distinguished from these other films by the quality of its actors and script. Operating from his refuge in Paraguay, Mengele carefully replicates Hitler's childhood by giving each clone a doting mother and a domineering father who will be killed while the boys are teens.13
In 1978 NBC broadcast the miniseries Holocaust. Viewed by 120 million Americans, it influenced the kinds of movies made in the following two decades.14 Producing their own feature films since 1966, the networks carried more made-for-TV films than theatrical releases by 1971. The success of docudramas like Roots prompted television companies15 and movie studios alike to produce more reality-based films.16 The introduction of movie cable networks like HBO in 1975 and home videotape players in 1977 provided new markets for movies based on current events.17 Although criticized by film critics for trivializing complex issues, made-for-TV movies tackled controversial contemporary topics for several reasons: 1) dealing with stories "torn from the headlines," they required less extensive advertising; 2) the political issues depicted in them were easily personified by characters articulating different viewpoints; 3) the time to produce TV movies was shorter than that of theatrical releases, allowing network and cable stations to air current event films before the studios could. Laurie Schulze summarizes the educational value of such films: "The issue-of-the-week movie…. opens up the site of an immense and intense ideological negotiation, limning, as it does, the more salient and disturbing phenomena on the social agenda."18
In the same period that topical movies became standard fare on cable and network television stations, radical American right-wing groups increasingly identified with Nazism as a precursor to the extreme measures needed to be taken to reverse what they perceived as the decline of the United States. They alleged that the dominance of white Christians was being eroded by abortion, the banking system, civil rights laws, economic globalization, feminism, gun control, Jewish control of the government and media, non-white immigration from Third World countries, and the relinquishment of national sovereignty to multinational bodies like the United Nations and World Bank. Although the extreme Right's attraction to Nazism had its origins in the American Bund of the 1930s and the American Nazi Party of the 1950s and 1960s,19 Christian Identity Churches, paramilitary groups, and white supremacist skinheads periodically grabbed headlines from the 1980s on by flaunting their admiration for Hitler, denial of the Holocaust, and Nazi symbols like the Swastika and SS insignia. The most violent groups moved to isolated areas to train for a future race war. The 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City which killed 168 people was most destructive manifestation of this neo-Nazi terrorism.20
A primary vehicle for forging the historical connection between the Holocaust and American neo-Nazism has been television docudramas. The 1981 CBS film Skokie chronicled how Holocaust survivors living in a predominantly Jewish suburb of Chicago tried to prevent neo-Nazis from marching through their village three years earlier. They persuaded the village council to enact ordinances banning demonstrations likely to spark violence or traumatize victims of Nazi persecution. The Illinois Supreme Court nullified these laws as unconstitutional restrictions on the freedoms of assembly and speech.21 The final scene of Skokie features representative characters commenting on the case. The neo-Nazi leader gloats over the national publicity he received. A Jewish ACLU lawyer explains the constitutional rationale for defending the right to display symbols and express ideas which he himself finds repugnant, but adds that the "American equivalent of Nazism is racism." The most vocal survivor confesses that battling the neo-Nazis gave him a belated chance to fight Nazism. As Jeff Schandler has observed, these monologues hinder viewers from reaching the "unambivalent resolution that the genre usually demands."22
Courtroom dramas generally provide an effective forum for presenting the legal issues raised when a democracy tries to suppress the incendiary rhetoric and tactics espoused by neo-Nazis.23 The 1988 made-for-TV movies Evil in Clear River and Scandal in a Small Town brought the case of Jim Keegstra to national attention. Keegstra, a former mayor and popular high-school teach in a Canadian town, used his history classes to vilify Jews and deny that Hitler ever ordered the "Final Solution." Parents concerned about what their children were learning mounted a successful legal battle to have Keegstra fired.24 Whereas Evil in Clear River adheres closely to the facts about the case,25 Scandal in a Small Town exploited the sexual allure of actress Raquel Welch whose charges against Keegstra are ignored at first because she plays a cocktail waitress with a sordid reputation. The film's publicity stresses that Welch's character had to prove "that being sexy is no crime."26
Television movies also have exposed the specious arguments of Holocaust deniers. In 1991 Turner Network Television aired Never Again. It told the story of how Holocaust survivor Mel Mermelstein sued the Institute for Historical Review for breach of contract when it did not honor its offer to award $50,000 to anyone who could prove Jews were gassed at Auschwitz. Mermelstein's goal was to get a Federal Court to acknowledge that the Holocaust happened by ruling in his favor.27 Last year, a British TV film, The Holocaust on Trial, blended historical documentation of the fate of European Jewry under Nazi rule with dramatized exchanges from the libel suit David Irving brought against Deborah Lipstadt.28
Action-adventure films currently constitute the most produced genre of movies about neo-Nazis. These pictures often draw their plots from actual police investigations of bombings, hate crimes, murders, and robberies committed by various neo-Nazi groups since the 1980s. They usually climax in armed confrontations between the neo-Nazis and authorities. In 1987 HBO made the first movie about a neo-Nazi paramilitary group operating in the United States, Into the Homeland. An ex-cop infiltrates the Wyoming compound of the "American Liberation Movement" to find his missing daughter. At the ALM's picnic, American pastimes like baseball and barbecue intermingle with Nazi iconography and racism. The FBI finally raids the camp, allowing the man to rescue his daughter. As Willy Nelson sings the refrain "there is room for everyone, living in the promised land," the closing credits inform the audience that there are over 200 White Supremacist groups active in the United States.29
On the one hand, the tolerant tough guy versus bigoted bad guy scenario easily degenerates into formulaic action films where fisticuffs, pyrotechnics, and shootouts overshadow the politics of the opposing forces. This tendency has been apparent in movies like The Omega Syndrome, Dead Bang, Deadly Breed, and River of Death.30 The plotline of prejudiced thugs battling idealistic youths comfortably fits into campy teenpiks like Surf Nazis Must Die, Skinheads, Prayer for the Rollerboys, and Pure Race.31 It also serves as a convenient storyline for installments of series like the Red Scorpion SWAT Team movies, the Best of the Best karate films, and the undercover cop as The Substitute teacher series.32
On the other hand, the most significant films about right-wing extremists and skinheads delve into the economic, political, psychological, and sociological motivations for affiliating with groups which afford their members an outlet to vent their rage, a sense of comradeship, and simple solutions to complex societal problems. Whether it be the farm foreclosure crisis of the 1980s depicted as the catalyst for rural racism in Betrayed,33 the hateful harangues between a "shock jock" and callers to his show which culminates in his assassination in Talk Radio,34 or the perception of excessive taxation and unjust government policies that prompted Posse Comitatus leader, Gordon Kahl into vigilantism in Midnight Murders,35 such movies serve as a portal into the subculture and mentality of their protagonists.
Feature films like Higher Education, American History X, and Pariah are contemporary versions of the juvenile delinquent movies of the 1950's like Blackboard Jungle and T he Wild One, as well as the white counterparts of African-American pictures like Boyz 'n the Hood and Straight Out of Brooklyn.36 In these pictures, angry white adolescents channel their individual rage and social grievances towards the ethnic and racial minorities with whom they compete for jobs, respect, and turf in their neighborhoods. American History X, for example, convincingly traces the transformation of a charismatic chieftain of a skinhead gang jailed for murdering two African-Americans he caught stealing his car into a penitent parolee whose prison friendship with a black inmate refutes the racial stereotypes he once had held. His change of heart cannot halt the cycle of racial violence which claims his brother as a shooting victim of a black schoolmate with whom he had scuffled the previous day.37
Returning to Peter Novick's dismissal of the Holocaust as meaningless in the context of American politics,38 I wonder why Novick sees no significance in the affinity American right-wing extremists feel towards the aims and emblems of Nazi Germany. Unlike earlier postwar movies which safely confined neo-Nazi cabals to distant places,39 recent films have located fascist cadres in American cities, colleges, and rural areas. While it is unlikely that these fringe movements can achieve power here, films about them can raise public consciousness about the unpredictable danger they pose to symbolic targets like the Federal Building in Oklahoma City or individuals belonging to the minority groups they despise. As we now are acutely aware, it does not require legions of terrorists to leave mass death and destruction in their wake.
1Robert A. Rosenstone, Visions of the Past: The Challenge of Film to Our Idea of History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), 238.
2Jennifer Golub and Ranae Cohen, What Do Americans Know About the Holocaust? (American Jewish Committee: New York, 1993).
3Peter Novick, The Holocaust in American Life (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1999), 278-279.
4 Verboten, Directed by Samuel Fuller (USA: RKO Radio Pictures, 1958). An earlier movie with a similar plot in which an American pilot becomes involved with the daughter of a German family which hid him during the War, only to discover she is part of a neo-Nazi group is: The Devil Makes Three , Directed by Andrew Marton (USA: MGM, 1952.)
5 The Quiller Memorandum , Directed by Michael Anderson (UK: Rank Organization, 1966); Martin Rubin, Thrillers (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 134-136.
6 The ODESSA File , Directed by Ronald Neame (UK: Domino 1974). Although the story about the killing of German Jews at Riga is true, the movie's claim that almost 200,000 German Jews died there is too high. See Gertrude Schneider, "The Two Ghettos in Riga, Latvia," in The Holocaust in the Soviet Union: Studies and Sources On the Destruction of the Jews in the Nazi-Occupied Territories of the USSR, 1941-1945 , Eds. Lucjan Dobroszycki and Jeffrey S. Gurock (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1993), 185-193.
7 They Saved Hitler's Brain, Directed by David Bradley (USA: Paragon Films, 1963). This movie was released in different versions under the titles Madmen of Mandoras, The Amazing Mr. H, and The Return of Mr. H.
8David J. Skal, Screams of Reason: Mad Science and Modern Culture (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1998), 234-241; Andrew Tudor, Monsters and Mad Scientists (Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, 1989), 141-150.
9 The Frozen Dead , Directed by Herbert J. Leder (USA: Goldstar Productions Ltd, 1966).
10 Shock Waves , Directed by Ken Wiederhorn (USA: Zopix Company, 1976).
11 The Boys from Brazil, Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner (UK: Lew Grade, 1978).
12 The Lucifer Complex, Directed by James T. Flocker, Ken Hartford and David L. Hewitt (USA: Gold Key Entertainment, 1979).
13Annette Insdorf, Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust, 2nd Edition (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 10-12. I question Insdorf's criticism of the casting of the film. In my opinion, both Peck and Olivier deliver fine performances. By contrast, Insdorf argues that it is hard to imagine the "upstanding" Peck as an unrepentant Nazi or Olivier as a Jewish Holocaust survivor after his chilling performance as a sadistic Nazi dentist in The Marathon Man (1976). Isn't the talent to assume different roles the key to good acting?
14 Holocaust, Directed by Marvin Chomsky (USA: National Broadcasting Corporation, 1978). For conflicting views on the educational value of this miniseries, see Ilan Avisar, Screening the Holocaust: Cinema's Images of the Unimaginable (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1988), 129-130; Judith E. Doneson, The Holocaust in American Film (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1987), 143-196; Insdorf, 3-6; Novick, 209-214; Jeffrey Schandler, While America Watches: Televising the Holocaust (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 155-178.
15Tom W. Hoffer and Richard Alan Nelson, "Docudrama on American Television," in Why Docudrama? Fact-Fiction on Film and TV (hereafter cited as WD), Ed. Alan Rosenthal (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999), 64-77: Douglas Gomery, "Brian's Song: Television, Hollywood, and the Evolution of the Movie Made for TV," in WD, 78-100.
16See the articles by George F. Custen, Jerry Kuehl, Robert A. Rosenstone, Sumiko Higashi,Yosefa Loshitsky, and Steve Lipkin in WD, 19-34, 119-124, 296-383. Also see The Historical Film: History and Memory in Media, Ed. Marcia Landy (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2001).
17Tino Balio, "Introduction to Part II," in Hollywood in the Age of Television (hereafter cited as Hat), Ed. Tino Balio (Boston, MA: Unwin Hyman, 1990), 259-296; Michele Hilmes,"Pay Television: Breaking the Broadcast Bottleneck," in HAT, 297-318; Bruce A. Austin, "Home Video: The Second Run 'Theater' of the 1990s," in HAT, 319-349; Laurie Schulze, "The Made-for-TV Movie: Industrial Practice, Cultural Form, Popular Reception," in HAT, 351-376.
19Sander A. Diamond, The Nazi Movement in the United States (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1974); William H. Schmaltz, Hate: George Lincoln Rockwell and the American Nazi Party (Washington DC: Brassey's, 1999); Frederick L. Simonelli, American Fuehrer: George Lincoln Rockwell and the American Nazi Party (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1999).
20Martin A. Lee, The Beast Awakens (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1997), 337-363; John George and Laird Wilcox, American Extremists: Militias, Supremacists, Klansmen, Communists and Others (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1996); Mark S. Hamm, American Skinheads: The Criminology and Control of Hate Crime (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1993), 30-59; Mark S. Hamm, Apocalypse in Oklahoma City: Waco and Ruby Ridge Revenged (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1997); Stephen Scheinberg, "Right-Wing Extremism in the United States," in The Extreme Right: Freedom and Security at Risk (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997), 55-83; Kenneth Saul Stern, A Force Upon the Plains: The American Militia Movement and the Politics of Hate (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996); Jerome Walters, One Aryan Nation Under God: Exposing the New Racial Extremists (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 2000); Leonard Weinberg, "The American Radical Right in Comparative Perspective," in The Revival of Right-Wing Extremism In the Nineties, Ed. Peter H. Merkl and Leonard Weinberg (Portland, OR: Frank Cass, 1997), 231-253.
21Aryeh Neier, Defending My Enemy: American Nazis, the Skokie Case, and the Risks of Freedom (New York: Dutton, 1979); David Hamlin, The Nazi/Skokie Conflict: A Civil Liberties Battle (Boston, Beacon Press, 1980); James Gibson and Richard Bingham, Civil Liberties And Nazis: The Skokie Free Speech Controversy (New York: Praeger, 1985); Philippa Strum, When the Nazis Came to Skokie: Freedom for Speech We Hate (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 1999).
22 Skokie , Directed by Herbert Wise (CBS, 1981); Schandler, 184-189.
23 Paul Bergman and Michael Asinow, Reel Justice: The Courtroom Goes to the Movies (Kansas City: Universal Press Syndicate, 1996), xvii-xix.
24 David Bercuson and Douglas Wertheim, A Trust Betrayed: The Keegstra Affair (New York: Doubleday and Company, 1985).
25 Evil in Clear River, Directed by Karen Arthur (USA: Phoenix Entertainment, 1988).
26 Scandal in a Small Town , Directed by Anthony Page (USA: Vidmark Entertainment, 1989).
27 Never Forget, Directed by Joseph Sargent (USA: Turner Pictures, 1991). See Deborah Lipstadt, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory (New York: Free Press, 1993) 139-141; Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman, Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000), 126-160.
28 The Holocaust on Trial , Directed by Leslie Woodhead (UK: 2000).
29 Into the Homeland, Directed by Lesli Ginka Glatter (USA: Home Box Office, 1987)
30 The Omega Syndrome, Dir: Joseph Manduke (USA: New World Pictures, 1987); Deadly Breed, Directed by Charles Kanganis (USE: Pepin/Mehri, 1989); Dead Bang, Directed by John Frankenheimer (USA: Lorimar, 1989); River of Death, Directed by Steve Carver (USA: Cannon International, 1990).
31 Surf Nazis Must Die, Directed by Peter George (USA: Troma, 1987); Skinheads, Directed by Greydon Clark (USA: New Star Video, 1989); Prayer for the Rollerboys, Directed by Rick King (USA: Fox Lorber, 1991); Pure Race, Directed by Rocco Devilliers (USA: Cornerstone Films, 1995).
32 Red Scorpion 2 , Directed by Michael Kennedy (Canada: Westcon, 1994); Best of the Best 3: No Turning Back, Directed by Phillip Rhee (USA: The Movie Group, 1995); The Substitute: Failure Is Not An Option (USA: Entertainment, 2000).
33 Betrayed , Directed by Constatin Costa Gavras (USA: CST Telecommuncations, 1988).
34] Talk Radio, Directed by Oliver Stone (Cineplex Odeon, 1988); Eric Bogosian, Talk Radio, based on an original idea by Tad Savinar, American Theatre, 4:8 (November 1987); Stephen Singular, Talked to Death: The Life and Murder of Alan Berg (New York: Beech Tree Books, 1987). Don Kunz, "Oliver Stone's Talk Radio," in The Films of Oliver Stone, Ed. Don Kunz (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1997), 152-153. For other analyses of Talk Radio, see Norman Kagan, The Cinema of Oliver Stone, Expanded Edition (New York: Continuum, 2000), 130-144; Susan Mackey-Kallis, Oliver Stone's America : "Dreaming the Myth Outward," ( Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996), 110-118.
35 Midnight Murders, Directed by Dick Lowry (USA: New Horizons, 1991); James Corcoran, Bitter Harvest: Gordon Kahl and the Posse Comitatus: Murder in the Heartland (New York: Penguin, 1990).
36Thomas Doherty, Teenagers and Teenpics: The Juvernalization of American Movies in the 1950's (Boston, MA: Unwin Hyman, 1988), 105-141; Mark A. Reid, "New Wave Black Cinema in the 1990's," in Film Genre 2000: New Critical Essays , Ed. Wheeler Winston Dixon (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2000), 13-26; Ed Guerrero, "Black Violence as Cinema: From Cheap Thrills to Historical Agonies," in Violence and American Cinema , Ed. J. David Slocum (New York: Routledge, 2001), 211-225.
37 American History X, Directed by Tony Kaye (USA: New Line Cinema, 1998); Higher Learning, Directed by John Singleton (USA: Columbia Pictures, 1995); Pariah, Directed By Rudolf Kret (USA: Poor Boy Productions, 1998).
39Elizabeth Swanson Goldberg, "Splitting Difference: Global Identity Politics and the Representation of Torture in the Counterhistorical Dramatic Film," in Violence And American Cinema, Ed. J. David Slocum (New York: Routledge, 2001), 245-270.