A minor yet persistent complaint about Christopher Nolan’s World War II masterpiece “Dunkirk” goes something like this: “Well, it’s fine, but it’s missing something very important: Nazis.”
You see it in Dorothy Rabinowitz’s Wall Street Journal essay on the film. Though more concerned about Winston Churchill’s absence from “Dunkirk,” Rabinowitz was also upset by the shortage of Huns. “This is — despite its impressive cinematography, its moving portrait of suffering troops and their rescuers — a Dunkirk flattened out, disconnected from the spirit of its time, from any sense even of the particular mighty enemy with which England was at war,” Rabinowitz wrote. “No wonder those German Stukas and Heinkels bombarding the British can barely be identified as such.”
Richard Cohen, meanwhile, wrote for The Washington Post that the film is “deaf to history” because it does not grapple fully with the Nazi menace. “Winston Churchill, the new prime minister, was fully aware of the stakes. There would be no chivalrous surrender ceremony. Every member of his Cabinet, he wrote, ‘was ready to be killed quite soon.’ This was a war of extermination,” Cohen writes. “Aside from an opening scroll, none of that is mentioned in ‘Dunkirk.’ More startling, neither are the Germans. Throughout they are called ‘the enemy.’ … I am not a German bitterender. I am, though, a German never-forgetter.”
Writing for CBC News, Michael Coren praises “Dunkirk” while sharing the story of a Nazi atrocity — the mass killing of some 80 soldiers by SS thugs — that took place during the retreat and illustrates that Nazi evil was not limited to the Holocaust.
“What the movie doesn’t show, however, is an incident of profound importance in the history of the war,” Coren writes. “The general view is that while Nazism was, of course, inherently evil, it took time for its repugnance to become obviously manifest. It’s assumed that it wasn’t until the Holocaust that the authentic nature of National Socialism was revealed, and that on the battlefield it was the eastern front and the war against the Soviets that exposed the genocidal nature of Adolf Hitler’s creed. Not so.”
Coren’s essay is the best of the three, insofar as he is providing interesting information and historical context without lamenting the fact that Nolan did not make a film more suited to his interests. Still, his compulsion to remind us of the evils of Nazism resembles similar complaints from Rabinowitz and Cohen. And, frankly, it’s a concern I found somewhat baffling as I repeatedly came across it. I could list at least a dozen movies highlighting Nazi atrocities from the past decade or so off the top of my head; give me five minutes and Google and I could probably up that figure to 50 without much trouble. Most of us, fortunately, don’t need another reminder that the Nazis were evil.
The concern over the erasure of Hitler et al in “Dunkirk” may have something to do with the way in which the medium of film, in particular, has shaped our view of Nazi Germany. This perspective is so ingrained, so deeply held, that we get a bit itchy if the Fuhrer’s minions are not dispatched with extreme prejudice. The movie that best drives home the way film has shaped our view of the Nazis is probably Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.”
That 2009 picture reimagined World War II as having ended in a German theater, the Nazi high command simultaneously gunned down, burned up and blown apart by a ragtag team of Jewish American soldiers and Shosanna Dreyfuss (Melanie Laurent), a Jewish theater owner forced to host the premiere of a Nazi propaganda flick. In the climactic scene, Shosanna’s face appears on the screen and she informs the gathered National Socialist swells that they are about to die at the hands of a Jewish woman. “THIS is the face of Jewish vengeance,” a spectral Shosanna declares, face projected onto smoke, a triumphant guffaw emanating from her disembodied head.
Tarantino’s meaning is twofold. Yes, Shosanna’s face is literally the face being projected. However, the true, final face of Jewish vengeance is not hers but the movie screen itself. Remember, Tarantino makes movies about movies; he is always in conversation with the history of filmmaking. He’s constantly quoting previous pictures, constantly riffing on old ideas in new ways. “Inglourious Basterds,” then, is perhaps best understood as his treatise on the power of the moving picture to shape minds and mold attitudes.
Hollywood was an industry founded by Jewish immigrants, men who employed Jewish refugees fleeing from Hitler. And Hollywood has, by far, been the biggest and bluntest instrument in shaping public opinion about the Nazis. As a result, we know them not as tacticians or as warriors or as misguided patriots but as Manichaean monsters and brutal boogeymen. Nazis are the stuff of nightmares when they aren’t the butt of jokes; Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) is a villain for the ages, but the most potent images from “Basterds” may be the grotesque mid-coitus shot of Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) wheezing like a pig on top of his Vichy mistress and Adolf Hitler (Martin Wuttke) tromping about in a cape like a deranged supervillain. This is the lens through which the world views the leaders of the so-called master race — and their absence from “Dunkirk” simply cannot change that perception.
Perhaps it makes some sense, then, given how much we’ve come to rely on Hollywood to denounce Nazis for us, that we get a bit anxious when the villains we’ve been trained by decades of movies to expect never actually materialize in “Dunkirk.” Art and other representations — museums, statues, public squares — help shape how we see the past and make sense of the present. And unexpectedly disrupting that sensibility, as “Dunkirk” most certainly does, is bound to cause unease.