Think of it as a movie: "Bitburg!" An American president goes to Germany on V-E Day to salute the war dead, embracing his opposite number in a nimbus of sweet reason. Flashback to German troops slogging through the mud, retreating before the Russians. Shells explode around them; they hunker down in a trench. "You know, Hans," says one -- Hardy Kruger, perhaps. "Vee are victims of de Nazis just as surely as de Jews."
"Dot's true," says Hans, nodding over at a forlorn SS trooper in the corner. "Even him."
Cut the projector! Lights on! Where're the monocles? Where's the writer? Who hired that bozo?
When you see a German in the movies, complete with monocle, jackboots, and dueling scars from Heidelberg, sneering about the softness in the hero's nature and brusquely menacing his minions, you can bet he's not running a soup kitchen. Over the years, the German has become etched in our imagination as a signifier of pure evil. "It's become a convention," says screen writer David Freeman. "In the Elizabethan theater, a character would come out with a kind of mask on his face -- that would mean he was invisible, and everyone in the audience accepted it. We've done that to the Nazis."
The Teutonic role in our movies emerged out of history. While the tradition of ridiculing or vilifying Germans predates World War II (the crazed German professor was a standard butt in vaudeville, and the horrible Hun during World War I), the mainstream of the tradition springs from the frankly propagandistic films of that era. Here began the image that is now familiar -- the arrogant curl of the lip, the heel-clicking sycophancy, the "Vee haff vays to make you talk."
Germans became villains because they were our adversaries in a war of good and evil, in a time of high drama in the world. The Japanese got the same treatment, but after the war, they largely disappeared, in part because the screen portrait was tinged with racism. Occasionally, the Vietnamese (as in "The Deer Hunter") occupy the screen niche of the Japanese -- the vicious chatterbox -- but that war remains for most too morally ambiguous to produce any black hats.
While Russians appear regularly as the blighters in espionage thrillers, they've never caught on like the Germans. Our war with them is a cold one; and there's something distant, unknown, about them, the legacy of the Iron Curtain. Or perhaps it's as simple as the famous stolidity of the Russian character. What good is evil in the movies if the evildoer doesn't visibly enjoy it?
"When you're doing this stuff, it's anything to make your hero sympathetic," says screen writer Freeman. "That's the game. The way you do it is to make the guy on the other side rattle the cages. You know, Hitchcock always said, 'The better the villain, the better the picture.' If you don't know what to do with a story line, somebody just begins rolling their eyes and screaming 'Heil, Hitler!' "
The Nazis have served as objects of satire (Lubitsch's "To Be or Not to Be," Chaplin's "The Great Dictator") and comedy (Mel Brooks' "The Producers," television's perverse "Hogan's Heroes"). But it's as villains that Germans are most cherished: Conrad Veidt in "Casablanca." Erich von Stroheim in "Five Graves to Cairo." Otto Preminger in "Margin for Error." Orson Welles in "The Stranger." Donald Pleasence as Blofeld in "You Only Live Twice."
While the image of the German was originally inspired by historical events, German villainy has endured. In the movies, the Germans have been assigned a set of values noxious to the American character. For example, they aren't democrats. A superior spits out orders, then hisses "Dismissed!" in cadences that sound to us like the clangor of iron, as if the gristle in all that bratwurst had hardened in the national mouth; fawning underlings click their heels and goosestep away. Inevitably, some chump dares to question the boss' orders, at which point he is cut off at the knees by an expression of oblique menace. From "Hotel Berlin": "I think I will refer your case to Dr. Himmler. He has a sure cure for defeatists."
This very obliquity is foreign to us, too. Can you imagine John Wayne referring a recalcitrant soldier to the War Office? Heck, no! A right cross, a prone soldier, then: "I'm running this outfit, blankethead." Germans never dirty themselves with their own nastiness, even to the point of speaking plainly about it; the threats are delivered with baroque vagueness, the actual brutality administered by thugs in a back room. The most vivid German villain of recent vintage, Laurence Olivier's sadistic Szell in "Marathon Man," asks Dustin Hoffman "Iss it safe?" (instead of just asking about the gems), then gives him the business with a dentist's drill -- how hygienic can torture get?
To roll-up-your-sleeves America, this fastidiousness is a badge of effeminacy and decadence. Sometimes, the Nazis are portrayed as hustling parvenus; in "Watch on the Rhine," the Nazi, a "bloody butcher boy," is contrasted with the Prussian aristocrats of a bygone Germany who resent him, but are too effete to act. Generally, though, the German villain bears the haughty mien of privilege. Hundred-proof snob George "Today-Europe-tomorrow-the-world!" Sanders was perhaps the greatest of the movie Nazis, meticulously fitting his glove to each finger of his hand while discoursing on "the primitive virtues" in Fritz Lang's "Man Hunt."
The ubiquitous monocle becomes the perfect metaphor for this dimension of German villainy (talk about affectation!) and serves other symbolic purposes as well. If the eyes are the windows of the soul, the monocle, a reflecting shield, represents, not secretiveness exactly, but that sinister indirectness (one window open, the other not). And most simply, the fit of the eyepiece forces one eyebrow into a sinister arch, corsetting the face into supercilious evil.
In his book "The Bad Guys," William K. Everson wrote of the German movie villain, "he was often a man of supreme intellect and culture, placidly listening to Wagner while his storm-troopers tried to beat a confession out of the hero." The German villain plays to an America suspicious of intellectuals. Mad scientists in the movies, like Dr. Pretorius in "The Bride of Frankenstein" or Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove" (Peter Sellers, who has to bite his artificial arm to keep it from locking in the Sieg Heil salute), are inevitably Germans. Germans are prisoners of abstract ideas ("We don't want any isms in this country except Americanism!" declares an American Legionnaire in "Confessions of a Nazi Spy.") Naziism becomes the life of the mind gone amok.
Underlying all of this is a dark current of twisted sexuality. The traditional outfit, the jackboots and elaborate leather harness, comes out of a Times Square bondage boutique. Women are ordered around in the timbre of profound distaste; they find their only liberation by becoming sadists themselves, like Charlotte Rampling in "The Night Porter." In an America that puts sex on a surfboard, disinfected by the sun, this is the last straw.
A countervailing movie portrait of Germans arose after the war. In these movies, Germans could be pathetic, like Burt Lancaster's jurist who turned his back on the law in "Judgment at Nuremberg," or even sweet (Marlon Brando was a honey of a Heinie in "The Young Lions"). Hitchcock provided an oddly poignant moment in "Notorious," when Nazi-in-exile Claude Rains tells his mother, "I am married to an American spy."
This evolved into admiration of the German soldier: stern but beloved by his men, highly proficient, decidedly unimpressed by the megalomaniac zeal of the Nazis. His soldierly virtues are outside morality -- the human BMW. In Sam Peckinpah's "Cross of Iron," the hero is an indestructible German soldier who hates the Nazis and his superiors as much as the enemy. And in "The Eagle Has Landed," a legendary German officer is cashiered for trying to save a Jewish woman from the SS.
"In 'The Eagle Has Landed,' the German is really the hero of the piece, which I think really worked against the film," says its screen writer, Tom Mankiewicz. "There were a couple of actors who didn't want to play that part, because they didn't want to play a Nazi colonel and try to be a hero." The most recent example in this tradition came from Germany: Wolfgang Petersen's "Das Boot," a thriller that portrayed German submariners as, beneath the accents, just another bunch of dogfaces, Everyvictims of the horrors of war. The crew's single emphatic Nazi is pretty much ignored by everyone.
The appeal of this for the president is obvious. First, it's completely ahistorical, an imaginative figment of Hollywood, which means that the truth doesn't infringe on the freedom to tell a good story. In fact, as Daniel Goldhagen points out in a recent issue of The New Republic, there is no facile distinction between the Wehrmacht and the Nazis or the SS; the army was a willing handmaiden to the Holocaust and often performed executions on its own in contravention of Nazi policy, which reserved this treat for the SS.
More centrally, the ideology of these movies is pure Reagan. By celebrating the average German in the trenches, bleaching out his swastikas, movies like "Das Boot" or "Cross of Iron" grow out of ersatz populism. Hitler becomes the original big government man; Siegfried Q. Public is the victim of the bureaucracy. Reagan goes to Germany, and nothing changes -- instead of running against Washington, he's running against Berlin.
What's perhaps most astonishing about the Bitburg debacle is how for the first time Reagan has misunderstood his own medium -- in which Grenada becomes cowboys and Indians and Vietnam becomes "The Sands of Iwo Jima," with personal heroism brought foremost in the mind while political questions recede. Reagan is both Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne, the idealist-next-door and the tough hombre brooking no nonsense, an image he cleverly updates. "The Force is with us," he observes. And to Congress: "Make my day."
After "Bitburg!," though, one thing is sure: Reagan will never work in Hollywood again.
Reagan will begin shooting on-location in Germany this week, to coincide with the 40th anniversary of V-E Day, and the studio, with good reason, is worried. The crowd-pleasing peak of recent years came in "Raiders of the Lost Ark," which ended with a Nazi brigade fricaseed in a fireball while audiences cheered. We demand monocles, and Reagan gives us the "good German." "Good Germans!?" says Peter Lorre as a concentration camp survivor in "Hotel Berlin," and explodes in an cackling chorus of incredulity.
Call casting! Helmut Kohl's all wrong -- he was in short pants during the war. And sorry, Dutch, but you're wrong, too -- you spent the war making movies. We need a veteran, an Audie Murphy type. Call the script doctor and rewrite the movie:
An American president meets a monocled German chancellor over the grave of an SS stormtrooper. The movie crosscuts in closeup from the chancellor to the tombstone to the president, whose face begins to fissure in recognition. Cut to flashback. The future president is lying wounded on the field of the Battle of the Bulge. An SS officer, his back to the camera, is interrogating him. "I won't talk," says the future president through gritted teeth. "Vee haff vays to make you talk," says the SS officer, and his underling begins to grind his jackboot into the president's shrapnel-shattered knee. Suddenly, the SS officer turns around; his youthful face looks eerily familiar . . . It's the chancellor!
It's a wrap!