Nazi With a Puppy Dog Films

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, Universityof Wisconsin - Green Bay
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In some films Nazis have been shown adoring their pets, tending their gardenslovingly or listening rapturously to classical music. This is all to show usthat "these men weren't monsters", that they had a "humanside." The fact that the Nazis loved their pets, tended their gardens orlistened to classical music proves only that they loved their pets, tended theirgardens or listened to classical music. The fact that they dumped cyanide oninnocent 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 playingcharacters coated with a layer of slime) has his tender moments, even falls inlove with a Jewish girl, yet it's clear that these traits are superficialcompared with his throughgoing banality and evil. In fact, Fiennes' tendermoments stand out against his overall evil so starkly and awkwardly that they'reembarrassing. Many other films, however, try to play it both ways, showing acharacter as depraved and then trying to elicit sympathy.

Apocalypse Now

One of the most preposterous Nazi With a Puppy Dog moments occurs in ApocalypseNow. Marlon Brando, in the role of a renegade officer who has set up his ownprivate 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 againstpolio. The team has just left a village only to be called back by a hystericalvillage elder. When the team returns to the village, they find that the VietCong 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 onlytwo courses of action that are morally possible on viewing this scene. One is tostomp out of the theater and demand a refund because the film has lost allcredibility (or take the video back to the store). The other, if the scene doeshave credibility, is to question seriously whether or not the opposition to thewar was morally justified. This wasn't collateral damage caused by an errant airstrike, or even soldiers killing civilians because they suspect they might beworking for the enemy - this was deliberate maiming of completely innocentchildren, who are known to be innocent by their torturers. I canrespect someone who reasons that the damage done fighting the Viet Congoutweighed the evil they committed. But I cannot respect anyone who can viewthis scene and not see a profound moral issue, and the fact that so littlecomment has been made on this point tells me that most of the people who opposedthe Vietnam War on moral grounds were moral illiterates.

In describing his feelings, Brando utters some of the most ridiculous dialogever put on film. He realizes the Viet Cong's ruthlessness gives them awesomepower, 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 ownfamilies proved nothing, the fact that they hacked the arms off innocentchildren 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 renegadesoldiers sneaks behind enemy lines in search of stolen gold. At one point, oneof the soldiers is captured and tortured by a young Iraqi captain. We find thathe 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 hisinfant son killed by American bombing during the Gulf War. This is all supposedto show us that people on both sides of a war are really pretty much the sameafter all. The only thing ruining this tender moment, for viewers with attentionspans longer than five minutes anyway, is that shortly before this, the captainsaw one of his superiors murder a young woman in cold blood, and he did nothingto stop it. The captain allows that maybe Saddam is pretty evil, but he joinedthe 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 anunsuccessful attempt to overthrow Saddam, and he "can't get out?" Hecan't join their cause? Give me a break.

The dialogue between the captured American and his Iraqi torturer is supposedto convince us that the Iraqi is pretty much the same as his American enemy andbasically a decent man driven to rage by the harm done to his family. But he's nota 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 achance to join the people fighting Saddam and did not. But most of all, he's awhore, like all the Republican Guards - as one of the educated members of Iraqisociety, he's in the best position to oppose Saddam successfully, but insteadsells himself.

The fact that the Iraqi captain loved his wife and son proves only that heloved his wife and son. The fact that he witnessed atrocities and did nothingmade him a coward and a monster.

October Sky

October Sky refers to the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik 1 on October4, 1957, and is also an anagram of the title of the book on which the film isbased, Rocket Boys. The film takes place in Coalwood, West Virginia, a company mining townhaunted by the prospect of the eventual shutdown of its only industry, the OlgaCoal Mine. Early in the film, townsfolk gather outside at night for a glimpse ofSputnik. They spot it, and one of them is transformed by the sight.Teenage Homer Hickham decides do go into space. Homerhas a tense confrontation with his father after announcing that he has nointentions of working in the mine.

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

Baloney. The guy is a complete and total jerk. The fact that Homer's father cantranscend being a jerk on occasion doesn't redeem him - if anything, it makeshis normally loathsome character even more tragic by showing he has thecapability 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. Ikethe welder lives in the same environment and remains humane; other miners manageto be more humane. Homer's high school principal, hardly a cuddly characterhimself, moves quickly to set things right once he is convinced the boys werefalsely 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 returnedhome from winning the science fair. His father couldn't even be bothered to comedown and greet him, and when Homer went to the mine to see him all he got was asneer that Homer met his hero and didn't even know it. Homer replied "he'snot my hero. You are." After the emotional abuse Homer took from his fatherin 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 wasbrave. So was Genghis Khan. So what?

My first impulse on viewing the scene where Homer's mother said that the minewouldn't cover the cost of all his father's hospitalization was outrage at theinjustice. After all, the man had been injured rescuing other miners, and bytoday'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 fathercalled him a thief for using a miniscule amount of company time and resourceswelding his rocket, and banished the man responsible from the machine shop. Atmost the welding could have consumed a couple of cents' worth of welding rod andelectricity. The time could only have amounted to a few cents' worth, maybe noneat all if things were slack and the welder did it on down time. So when Homer'sfather is denied care because some bean counter wants to save a trivial amountof money, what goes around does indeed come around. He's merely being treatedthe same way he treated others.

I lived through the 1950's. Am I nostalgic? It was a happy enough time giventhat people of the time didn't know anything better, but there is not enoughgold in Fort Knox to persuade me to go back. When people try to tell me the 1950's were more moral than the present, theyhave to be joking. Take all the Internet porn and schoolyard shootings of thepresent and they don't even start to weigh against the pervasive injustice towomen and minorities and the narrow-minded smugness that were so prevalent inthe 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 15 January, 2020

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