Buried Credits, a column that deep dives into the IMDB pages of favorite actors, directors, and writers to find their lost, forgotten or unknown film and TV credits, continues this week with works featuring Barbara Hershey.
Swing Kids (1993)
Directed by Thomas Carter
Written by Jonathan Marc Feldman
Swing Kids is like The Sound of Music told from the perspective of Liesl’s boyfriend, Rolf. You don’t want it but you also kind of need it. At least you need the version that would’ve been willing to trust its audience. Swing kids were a real movement that wore their hair long, danced to swing records (many of which were recorded by African American and Jewish artists), and wouldn’t join Hitler Youth. In the movie they are Peter Müller (Robert Sean Leonard), Thomas (Christian Bale), and Arvid (Frank Whaley), three friends who love to dance but appear attracted to the group out of teenage anti-authority, not politics. Early on they see a man get killed by the Nazis, leaving them startled, but Peter’s stumble, when the man ran past, gets more discussion.
In the most irritatingly juvenile of stunts, Peter gets caught trying to steal a radio that was already the stolen property of a Jewish home. His reasoning, that it’s not for the Nazis to give, is right but, in the grand scheme of what was happening to the Jewish people, not the real fight, and in the grand scheme of provoking the Nazis, who end up chasing him and Thomas, careless. They’re young, and scared, and have to think fast but they’re running through the streets, destroying vendor tables, all for the chance to confiscate a radio for their friend, who it also doesn’t belong to. Dropping the thing would ensure no one gets it. They’d have a chance of slipping away. Instead, Peter gets caught, with the likely punishment of being sent to a work camp. A gestapo officer (Kenneth Branagh) takes a shine to the Müller family, and uses his pull to get Peter off… on the condition that he cuts his hair and joins Hitler Youth. Thomas joins, too, in ‘solidarity.’
Saying someone who lived under an oppressive regime should have done this or that is easy when you’re on the outside, with the distance of decades. It’s another reason why watching Swing Kids can be difficult. It’s eerie to see people going through their lives like nothing is wrong, under the influence of Nazi propaganda. Set in 1939, World War II is on the horizon and during the course of the movie Czechoslovakia is invaded. Having an awareness of what the Nazis are and will do colors how you view teenagers simply trying to go about their lives, an understandable desire by itself. We’re used to movies about the book shop that secretly transports fake papers, a small subplot in Swing Kids. A movie where the focus is put on Frau Müller (Hershey) is different. With a much better grasp of the dangers they are in than her sons, Frau Müller is terrified that something should happen to them like her husband, who was killed. She is a mother, not a hero, and that’s a more difficult character.
Of the three friends, Arvid is the first to recognize and speak out about what their country is becoming. Already set apart from the others by a limp that makes him unable to dance, he’s ready-made to become a symbol of what happens to those who voice dissent. Some metaphors work, like his friends laughing when he obsesses over a record from his collection getting scratched. It’s not funny and the larger idea is that Arvid knows that small things matter. They snowball into big things. That the film has him make a big public speech denouncing the Nazis to their face is, like the radio stunt, having a character act extremely, without follow-through, to incite a point. We know Arvid’s fate will be tragic but we don’t need the drawing out of a Nazi stamping his hand to grasp that. Sometimes suddenness can be more powerful than premeditation but the film always takes the bait to draw out cruelty, like a harsh yellow highlighter that overwhelms material least in need of embellishment.
Swing Kids‘ compulsion to telegraph viewer emotion, in a movie about Nazi Germany, where showing strictly what happened is guaranteed to get a response, has its worst impact on the film’s conclusion. We’re talking the whole nine yards of solidarity chanting and last second recognitions of wrongdoing, that are timed precisely late enough so that someone has to pay the price. The intent was probably to be poignant. The opposite is true.
Verdict: Better Left Buried
Even typing “Better Left Buried” I can’t tell if it’s the right decision. Swing Kids makes you angry but that’s why we have sayings about remembering history, so we don’t repeat it. We need to be angry. There’s no way around Swing Kids‘ ending though. That, and the excessive embellishment, are bad.
Check back tomorrow as we close off the week with Barbara Hershey’s performance as an unconventional aunt, whose nephew comes to build her a porch.