Right about now, you might be asking yourself how I define a classic movie. Fair enough. First, it doesn’t have to be a really old movie, although I was surprised to see that this movie was made in 1993 which probably seems old to some of you but my thought was, ‘I didn’t realize it was that recent’. To me, an old movie is one with Bogart and Bacall, Tracy and Hepburn, Judy Garland, John Wayne, Gary Cooper, or Astair and Rogers. A timeless movie, or not — you can watch them as if they’re just happening, or they take you back to another era — a kind of historical fiction. It doesn’t have to be black and white, although I truly shun ‘colourized’ movies. I don’t have a cut-off date, or anything like that. Mainly, it has to say something — either about a time period and we think, ‘Wow, I didn’t know about that’, or ‘It was incredible that people behaved in that way’, either courageously or incomprehensibly badly — or it just highlights something really great about life or the human spirit. Also, it should be a movie with incredibly great acting, superb directing, and terrific filming. It doesn’t require a humungous budget — just a determination to create something different and wonderful.
Swing Kids isn’t that old (at least, to me) but it did tell me something I didn’t know about the time period of Nazi Germany. Also, it showed how the human spirit refuses to be crushed by oppression, and how a group of tight-knit friends can choose different paths that show a very different character, and obviously, very different results. You will recognize Robert Sean Leonard (amazing actor from Dead Poets Society who went on to star in the television series, House, MD) and Christian Bale (who played Jim in Empire of the Sun, and also went on to make many more movies), and the incomparable Kenneth Branagh as Herr Knopp (uncredited), the kindly Gestapo agent who befriends Peter and his family.
Leonard and Bale make up two of the foursome who are caught up in the jazz trend of the 1930s, refusing to join the Hitler Youth (HJ), following British fashion and American movies, and dancing to swing music — music which was banned in Hitler’s Germany. I had never thought about that before. But of course, most of the American jazz and big band greats of the time were either black or Jewish. Their music was smuggled into Germany with different names on the labels. Many of the record sellers and club owners, sold/played the music with full knowledge. The kids used Cab Calloway’s Hipster’s Dictionary and had a whistle signal — the opening line of It Don’t Mean a Thing (If it Ain’t Got That Swing). They changed the Hitler slogan ‘sieg heil’ (hail victory) to ‘swing heil’.
The movie, set in Hamburg, 1939, begins with Leonard and Bale (Peter Müller and Thomas Berger) entering a night club where the crowded dance floor contains young people their own age jitterbugging, arms, legs, and skirts flying, to the music of Louis Prima. The boys are wearing 3-piece suits with ties, carrying umbrellas, and have long hair; they are not Hitler Youth. They dance till the wee hours. Their best friend is Arvid (Frank Whaley), affectionately known as “Herr Hit Man”. Arvid plays an amazing guitar and sometimes sits in with the bands. He’s a cripple; he walks with a limp. And here begins the tension. Leaving the night club, Thomas wants to race to the bridge, but Peter is reluctant, knowing it will leave Arvid out of things. However, Peter can be baited and Thomas knows how to do it.
Peter’s family is trying to get by. His father died after being in prison for having Jewish friends, butter has to last a month, and his mother is threatened into an unwanted relationship with a block leader in order to keep her job in the factory and feed her family. Peter’s younger brother, Willi (David Tom), barely remembers his father, a brilliant classical violinist, and idolizes his older brother.
When Peter is arrested, he feels forced to join the HJ to protect his family, and Thomas joins to keep them from being split apart — “HJ by day; swing kids by night”. But before long, Thomas has embraced the HJ totally — he is befriended by Emil, a former swing kid, he reports his father for seditious talk, and he distances himself from Arvid and Peter. Peter is a more reluctant participant. He is cautioned by Herr Knopp that the owner of the bookstore where he works, Herr Schumler, is suspected of working against the reich, but that if Peter were to continue working there, he might be able to clear Herr Schumler. When he returns to work, Peter learns that Schumler is indeed helping people escape Germany by providing documents. Peter doesn’t give him away but still tries to assimilate into the HJ until he’s asked to make deliveries for the Gestapo. When he realizes what he’s delivering, he completely turns against the Nazis.
The ending is superbly ironic as Peter is arrested and Willi hoists Peter’s umbrella up in a salute and shouts the swing slogan over and over at the top of his lungs as the truck is driven away. This is one story among the stories of many who struggled with the moral issues of the third reich, and had enough spirit and courage to stand against it, even if the individual stand seemed such a small thing that it couldn’t possibly effect the final outcome. It was just one segment of German culture that stood against the reich. As you watch the movie, try to notice all the different uses of cases you see. If you love swing music, you’ll love this movie. You can watch it for free online at this link. PG 13 * * * * *
Watch the trailer. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VX7AReML354