"Swing Kids" underperformed at the box office, received bad reviews, but today maintains a cult following. Reading the reviews from the film's 1993 release, critics seemed to be ticked off mostly by the fact that the film depicted a seemingly trivial demographic in a horrific time and place. Their argument was understandable: if such mass genocide and political corruption was taking place, why would we want to know about German teenagers who were obsessed with American swing music? My question is, why would we NOT want to know about them?
Had "Swing Kids" been released some time after Steven Spielberg's epic "Schindler's List", critics may not have been quick to bring up that point. However, "Cabaret" (1972) was also about Berlin counterculture amidst the rise of the Nazi party, and no one seemed to have a problem with that film.
"Swing Kids" is by no means a perfect film, but it also shouldn't be dismissed specifically because it doesn't take place in a concentration camp, and no one can be seen being tortured or killed. It's a small footnote, but by no means an uninteresting story.
The movie centers around Peter Muller (Robert Sean Leonard, who I couldn't help but think bore a striking resemblance to Jim Carrey in this movie), a German student barely out of his teens who, along with his friends Thomas (Christian Bale) and Arvid (Frank Whaley), love to stay out late and dance to big band swing music. They wear their hair long, own zoot suits, and are rebellious against the Nazis at first for rebellion's sake. They don't seem to be phased by the Nazi's propaganda against the Jews and other ethnicities until later in the film, although that point is not clarified well in the beginning.
Peter reluctantly joins the Nazis when his mother's significant other, Herr Major Knopp (Kenneth Branagh), pulls some strings after Peter's arrest involving a stolen radio. His other option is to be sent to jail, or perhaps even a concentration camp. Thomas enlists as well just to join Peter, but they ultimately don't give up their night life of Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller. However, the more Peter learns about the Nazis, the more he hates them. Thomas, on the other hand, falls into the Nazi propaganda over time.
The overall story is told pretty well here. Robert Sean Leonard is good as the moral compass of the story. Nowadays, I'm used to seeing Christian Bale in either villainous roles ("American Psycho" (2000), "The Prestige" (2006)), or as heroes with a noticeable dark side ("The Dark Knight" (2008), "Terminator: Salvation" (2009)). However, here Bale plays a guy who is a genuinely good friend at first, and his good acting made me forget about his later roles. At the same time, when his character becomes entrenched in the Nazi life, Bale somehow made this dramatic transition smoothly without seeming contrived.
Frank Whaley is also effective as the crippled friend Arvid, who can't join the Nazi army even if he wanted to because of his condition. Arvid plays jazz guitar, and knows a lot about American jazz. He is frequently bullied and beaten by Nazi soldiers his age, but still has energy to rebel. Whereas Leonard is the moral compass here, Whaley is the heart. I can't give away what happens to Arvid in this movie, but you really do feel for him as the movie progresses.
"Swing Kids" has a very good story, and characters good and bad that you really care about. Among the major weaknesses in this movie is the fact that it takes place entirely in Germany, yet none of the characters actually speak German. Normally that fact would not be a problem, but my issue was that the good guys here spoke with either American or British accents, whereas the villains (such as Branaugh) spoke with a heavy German accent. It's as if Hollywood hasn't gotten over the idea that German or Russian accents sound evil, even long after World War II and the Cold War ended. In this story, it goes without saying that accents shouldn't matter.
This is why I think the movie would have worked better as a foreign film made by Germans, rather than an American film made by the Disney company. If everyone was speaking German, allegedly evil accents wouldn't be an issue. On the other hand, "Cabaret" had good guys in it that had German accents. Why couldn't this film?
Also, perhaps I'm asking too much here, but the written epilogue at the end wasn't enough for me. Of course, as I mentioned earlier, not every film that takes place during World War II has to be dark and depressing, but it would have been nice to have received a glimpse of what these swing kids went through in concentration camps, how they coped, and whether they got out alive or not. Maybe such a broad subject could still be the basis for another movie, but just two written sentences before the credits broke the Golden Rule of Storytelling: Show, Don't Tell.
This film would have benefited from being shelved for at least a year, and perhaps being released a little while after "Schindler's List" made its run. Compared to concentration camps, young men in Germany who loved American music seems insignificant in comparison, but by no means does it discredit the alternative history lesson from being told. Critics could have been more open-minded to the movie, but the good thing is that the film now has a cult following. It still nags me that the film wasn't in German, though. At least it has historical accuracy on its side.
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