Blast from the past: Swing Kids

Swing Kids
Directed by: Thomas Carter
Starring: Robert Sean Leonard and Christian Bale
Release date: Mar. 5, 1993

Significance: The film not only provides a jazzy, light-hearted yet somber and poignant look at youth resistance to Nazism in World War II Germany, but features vintage versions of beloved Hollywoood actors.

Everyone must have encountered Swing Kids at some point in high school. It seems to have been a staple in grade 10 civics or history courses across this province.

Set in pre-war Hamburg, Swing Kids provides a look into the lives of youth in Nazi Germany portraying the ways they chose to resist the regime or fall prey to its propaganda.

In trying to understand the subculture of so-called “swing-kids” in Germany, the film demonstrates how – even though they chose to align themselves with American culture and society – some of these kids were still products of the racially discriminatory, propagandistic culture they lived in.

The film features amazing performances of vintage Robert Sean Leonard – now known as the guy from House – and Christian Bale. Kenneth Branagh also makes an appearance as pseudo-mentor to Leonard’s character Peter Muller, and a man in the higher-ranks of the Gestapo.

The story focuses around a group of male friends, including Leonard’s character Muller and Bale’s character Thomas Berger, who attempt to resist the Nazi regime.

The film opens with these teenagers in Café Bismarck dancing to loud and boisterous swing music. The dancing itself in the film is amazing; so beautifully choreographed that it too becomes a kind of character in the film.

Dancing and music are an outlet for these kids; the wilder the dancing, the more intense and spastic the music, and the more you could see their resistance.

Many high school teachers across the province decided to screen Swing Kids in their classes because it apparently provides a historical context to their studies.

It’s true that the film is based in Hamburg, Germany in 1939, taking the audience prior to and even a little after the beginning of the Second World War.

It is also true that a significant part of the film deals with the HJ, the Hitler Youth. It provides a more focused view on the training of the Hitler Youth, who were mini-SS guards, in the sense that they were taught extensively why Jews were evil and why the German race was the purest on the planet.

Though the film is very Americanized – emphasizing the German youth’s want for American culture and also providing a narrow view on what these kids may have gone through – it is still an extremely entertaining classic.

Bale’s performance as a rich swing kid who becomes embroiled in Nazi ideology is sublime; Leonard’s excels too, as someone grappling with what he knows to be right for himself.

The film also has an excellent soundtrack, filled with amazing jazz songs from the greats, making you just want to dance.

The concluding lines of the film, featuring HJ uniform-clad Bale raising his arm and saying “Swing Heil!” illustrate his ambivalence of character and illuminates a bright spot of resistance in a time of immense terror.