The central characters in this movie are unpolitical teenagers who have no concern with the larger political issues of Naziism and simply want to enjoy themselves. Their only perspective is that Nazis are stuffy, conformist jerks and no fun at all. For this reason, a number of mainstream critics (among them Ebert and Berardinelli) trashed the picture for trivializing the crimes and horrors of the Third Reich. These critics, I think, miss the point. The value of the movie is precisely that it is trivial. There is no hindsight. The audience, like the characters, is caught up in the everydayness of everyday life in a totalitarian state. The Nazis are the government, and as far as anyone can see in 1938-39 they are going to go on being the government forever. The war hasn't happened yet. The Swastika flag flying over every post office and courthouse doesn't give them a little shudder of horror; it's as normal as the Stars and Stripes is to us. All sensible, respectable people who aren't Nazis themselves go along with the Nazis, because they have no reason not to. Auschwitz hasn't happened yet either. Sure, there are concentration camps out there somewhere, but that has nothing to do with normal, ordinary people who behave themselves. Unless you happen to know a Jew or a political dissident yourself, what the government is doing to people like that isn't your problem. The teen-aged lead characters find themselves in opposition and in trouble, not because they have any principled objections to the government, but simply because they find respectable culture boring and want to amuse themselves. The first reaction of authority, in the person of Kenneth Branagh's kindly Gestapo man, is that all they need is a good talking to, a second chance, and a little constructive guidance in the Hitler Youth and they'll grow up to be good citizens. He's fifty percent right; Thomas does respond positively to the comradeship and healthy outdoor activity he finds there. The ultimate choices made by the two boys are governed not by principle but by their personal situations. Thomas has been rebelling against his cold, pompous, wealthy father, whom he loathes, and he ultimately decides that being a dutiful Nazi and denouncing the old man to the Gestapo offers him much better revenge than dancing to illegal jazz records. Peter recoils from the Hitler Youth (and from his former friend) because his own father had disappeared, perhaps into the camps, after the Nazis took power several years earlier. There's's no hindsight in the movie's perspective, and no heroism. Instead, it gives us ordinary, everyday people dealing with ordinary everyday life as they find it, from the viewpoint of a high school student. The movie leads the adolescents who are its target audience to ask themselves an unpleasant question -- would they be any different, any more politically aware, if they were in the same situation? Indeed, would they even realize it if they were actually in the same situation now? The implicit answer is that they probably wouldn't be all that different from ordinary non-political German teenagers in 1938, minding their own business, going about their own lives, and at most trying to carve a little more personal space than the government wants to give them. That's disconcerting and not at all flattering, which is why Swing Kids is worth watching.
A close-knit group of young kids in Nazi Germany listen to banned swing music from the U.S. Soon, dancing and fun lead to more difficult choices, as the Nazis begin tightening their grip on...
August 4, 2020