It’s been 70 years since the Third Reich was sponged, purged, and blasted from the surface of the Earth, yet popular culture can’t get enough of the Nazis, hence programs like the recent Amazon show The Man in High Castle. They’re people it’s perfectly politically correct to hate, but they’re such symbols of power that they’re seductive to emulate, especially their fashion and poster design, or fun to lambast. But when writers bother to make them three dimensional characters instead of pure evil cartoons, then they become scarier and more satisfying to see get beaten. The really stellar characters will serve a really unnerving point: Making it possible to imagine ourselves as someone who would join them if we were in that situation.
Note: These are fictional Nazis only, hence why you don’t see Bruno Ganz’s performance as Adolf Hitler in the 2004 film Downfall or Josef Mengele from Boys in Brazil, as played by Gregory Peck.
10. Dr. Strangelove
The US Director of Weapons Research and Development, this titular character from the 1963 comedy classic is an illustration of how America was embracing fascist ideology and policies in its rivalry with Communism. With his voice, and mannerisms like an arm with a mind of its own that forces him to do Nazi salutes (a real condition, it turns out), Strangelove is definitely one of the more bizarre Nazis in an acclaimed comedy. Of course, the American government was in real life using Nazi scientists for our space program as part of the infamous Operation Paperclip, but they weren’t known to be in any war rooms debriefing the President during national emergencies.
He barely conceals his history of working for the Third Reich, doing things like changing his name to the more American sounding Strangelove (originally it was Merkwürdigliebe, which is German for “Strangelove”) and makes slips like referring to Mr. President as “Mein Fuhrer.” It’s odd that when we first see him, he plays practically a straight man who asks the Soviets why they would ever keep their doomsday weapon secret when that negates the whole point of the thing. Sometimes the real world is too crazy even for broad caricatures to make sense of it.
9. Kurt Dussander
One of the two villainous protagonists of the 1982 Stephen King novella Apt Pupil, Dussander is a concentration camp commandant hiding in Los Angeles under the name Arthur Denker. A neighborhood boy named Todd Bowden recognizes him and rather than turn him in, he blackmails Dussander into describing the horrors he saw and inflicted during the final solution from a perspective he could never get from some dry history book. Dussander reluctantly complies and in the process, awakens dark urges within himself.
Dussander is probably the most vivid illustration of pure love of power as it related to the Reich. He develops a grudging affection for Bowden solely because the boy has the power to get what he wants and the will to do what is required to keep it. He begins killing animals and derelicts because it gives him power over life and death while still having the wherewithal to stay free. When he dreams, it’s of his victims pursuing him like feral animals, but he has the power to keep them away from him seemingly forever so the dreams are not nightmares. Many who read the book will find Bowden, an average American boy who toys with evil mostly out of boredom, more disturbing than Dussander, but Dussander was the one who knew what he was doing enough to cause much greater damage than Bowden’s impulsiveness.
8. Renate Richter
Because Nazis are history’s villains, it’s rare to see them portrayed in even slightly sympathetic roles, particularly in comedies. This character from the Finnish film Iron Sky, a movie so bizarre that it plays the notion the last of the Nazi high command somehow managed to escape the Allies by flying to the moon and establishing a base on “the dark side,” surprisingly has one of the more nuanced and sympathetic Nazis ever portrayed. Renate Richter, as a school teacher and fiancee to a soldier aspiring to be the Fuehrer, is someone who has lived her whole life inside the Reich, cut off from the rest of humanity.
As a result, she completely swallows all the positive propaganda they produce that even though the military overtly controls her life while espousing a need for racial purity, she still has convinced herself that her nation believes in truth, unity, and peace. While it’s not a perfect film (the way her loss of belief in her nation’s lies comes from chancing upon a showing of The Great Dictator is a bit contrived and a lot of the movie’s humor is limp) it serves a good satirical point: Even the most corrupt and vicious societies can function if good people are naive enough to fall for the propaganda.
7. Major Koenig
This expert sniper who engages in a sniping duel with the Soviet hero Vasily Zaitsev in the 2001 film Enemy at the Gates, which is about the battle of Stalingrad, turns out not to have ever existed. Still, Ed Harris’s stoic, polite portrayal of the man makes him surprisingly sympathetic. He isn’t trying to kill Zaitzev out of any belief in his racial superiority. He’s there because his son was killed at this battle and he’s here for personal revenge.
It’s completely misdirected rage, but it’s misdirected in a very human and relatable way. On the other hand, he is willing to do such evil things as hang a child that he has interacted with more than enough to humanize just to antagonize his Zaitsev, so there’s no shying away from the darker side of what such motivations can do to a person.
6. SS Colonel Hans Landa
Landa is introduced in the opening scene of the 2009 film Inglourious Basterds (a scene which even negative reviews of the movie often praise, and which many single out as the scene that won Christoph Waltz his Oscar for the role) trying to present himself as the least threatening Nazi in the world, being more interested in milk and tobacco than harming anyone. But he still has a brutal intelligence that makes him more dangerous than most men in uniform.
He aligns himself with the Third Reich not because he believes in his racial superiority or he’s a nationalist. He dismisses his comrades all the time, prides himself on being able to think like a Jew, and happily betrays them. He does it because it’s a sanctioned way to hunt down and kill people. He carries around a big, affected pipe like the type Sherlock Holmes smoked and inspects crime scenes despite his position of authority. He’s not a soldier, he’s a detective who loves finding clues. It makes his cynical decision to put on an SS uniform seem even more depraved than those of the true believers, however more insightful his choice might be.
5. SS Colonel Hans Muller
So oblivious that he makes Sgt. Schultz from Hogan’s Heroes look like Hans Landa, Muller is probably the funniest Nazi ever portrayed. He has all the absurd bluster and nonsensical beliefs of the Nazi ideology, and from what we see, it constantly undercuts him. In the first sketch on the comedy sketch series Key & Peele, his belief in comically stupid race theories seems to blind him to the obvious fact he’s dealing with the very black people that he’s hunting.
In another, he leaves himself horribly vulnerable to an American GI and ended up costing his unit a loyal, competent soldier purely because of his ego. Ty Burrell’s performance is surprisingly able to make him seem both somewhat menacing and still likable. His delivery even sells anachronistic jokes like referring to one of the waist high salutes that Hitler did as “down low, very cool.”
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Romper Stomper is an extremely controversial movie from 1992 because it does not overtly condemn the actions of skinheads and really, aspects like Russell Crowe’s star-making performance as gang leader Hando are too compelling to be comfortably enjoyed. Hando leads his gang with courage (he begs for an Asian gang his gang provoked a war with during a long fight to break into a warehouse so he can fight them) and something like intelligence used for a horrible purpose. A scene where he coolly, almost rationally tells an Asian immigrant “I want you to listen to me very carefully, this is not your country,” is almost worse that the beatings the other members of his gang are giving.
Still, the movie doesn’t idealize the neo-nazi movement at all. In the same scene where Hando is itching to fight the Asian gang, he has to retreat because the rest of his gang doesn’t stand with him. He sees through the many failings of his gang members and when several of them try to quit, he accurately berates them with how weak they are as people to keep them in line. Even Hando admits it’s likely that his status as a white person may soon be all he has, which sounds very defeatist for a supposed member of the master race. Writer/director Geoffrey Wright says the title for the movie came from hearing a skinhead refer to his shoes that way because that was a kid term for them, and that child-like appeal nails Hando. He’s big, tough, and knowledgeable, but he’s nowhere near able to really accept the responsibilities of adulthood.
3. Capt.- Lt. Henrich Lehmann-Willenbrock
Das Boot is one of the most acclaimed German movies ever made. It is probably the only movie where audiences, according to TVTropes, began watching cheering how many German u-boat crew members died during WWII and ended the movie pulling for the crew to survive even after they sunk Allied ships. It’s no wonder that Jürgen Prochnow became an international star on the basis of his performance as the commander of U-96 in this film. This Captain is openly contemptuous of the notion that his mission is anything but, as he puts it, a “children’s crusade.”
He’s one of the few Nazis who relatably deals with his terrible working conditions by joking about it, such as when he praises the free home-cooked meals. He praises the British that he’s dealing with, and, unlike just about any member of the Reich’s armed forces, is horrified by the sight of his enemies dying in agony, even when it’s his own fault. He’s one of the rare Nazis who is shown realizing that even when he’s victorious, all he accomplishes in the long run is fruitless destruction.
He doesn’t get a name, but it’s hard to forget this fanatical officer from the 1985 Russian classic Come and See. The movie is set in Belarus, a nation on the Eastern front which was particularly devastated by the war, and one of the units which murdered the most civilians was the Dirlewanger Brigade. We see one of their frequent atrocities where villagers are crammed into a church, then the Obersturmfuhrer tells them that adults will be allowed to leave, but only if they leave their children behind, and then the church is set on fire. Almost no one escapes. Later in the movie, he and his unit are taken prisoner by a group of partisans and survival does not look likely.
Unlike the leader of the unit who begs for his life, claiming he’s an old man that never personally killed anyone, the Obersturmfuhrer calmly admits what he did and why. As he explains to the partisans that they’re subhumans and should be wiped out, his eyes seem to go dead. This warped, psychopathic sort of bravery is one of the most unsettling shots of an actor portraying a nazi soldier even though the character is pretty much helpless, and takes away some of the satisfaction the scene might provide a viewer sympathetic to the Soviets.
1. Derek Vinyard
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Acclaimed when it was first released (on the strength of Edward Norton’s powerhouse performance), the general consensus about American History X has shifted to the point many will now admit it’s not a very good movie. The script includes some bad contrivances, nonsensical plotting, and the black characters too often act as ciphers there to serve the growth of the white characters. However, the one redemptive aspect of the movie by the same consensus is how neo-nazi Derek Vinyard is written and how Norton plays him.
Derek Vinyard is a neo-nazi, but his hatred comes with much more intelligence and thought than most people are willing to admit. He doesn’t just lash out and froth at the mouth with his prejudices, he will describe in detail, and just enough accuracy to be unsettling, such things as how the media has been deliberately misleading about the actions of some black people and how condescending it is to treat them like they have no control over their own behavior. During the infamous dinner scene, he also uses the Rodney King event in a very convincing way to explain why the media should never misrepresent news events to promote a social agenda. No matter how well-meaning it is, it will get used by the opposition to undermine the movement.
Plus the character has some amount emotional justification for his racism, having been effectively indoctrinated by his father who died being killed by a shooting in a majority black neighborhood, which confirmed his father’s prejudices in his eyes. Ultimately, Derek Vinyard sees the error of his violence and racism and tries to redeem himself to some degree by getting his brother out of that life, but he was not a blind follower before that. He was the sort of charismatic person who would make joining even an evil, self-destructive organization seem seductive for a poor, vulnerable kid just to interact with him.
Dustin Koski does not aspire to write any particularly good portrayals of Nazis, but you can see if he does anyway by following him on Twitter.