The Scoop: 1993 PG-13, directed by Thomas Carter and starring Robert Sean Leonard, Christian Bale, and Tushka Bergen
Tagline: In a world on the brink of war. You either march to one tune or dance to another.
Summary Capsule: During the rise of the Nazi party, a group of German kids rebel by Lindy-hopping like there’s no tomorrow.
Mike’s Rating: It don’t mean a thing….
Mike’s Review: Does anybody besides me remember the whole retro swing music craze in the mid-nineties? Bands like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and the Brian Setzer Orchestra were at the top of the charts and being played on alternative rock stations. Zoot suits were back in style and people were lining up in the streets to get into the clubs to Charleston and Jitter-bug. Swing was the new punk rock. Even I myself was working at a old restaurant by a commercial air field made up to look like an old french bistro in World War 2, and the music that was constantly played was, you guessed it, swing. A lot of people may remember this brief but fun fad, which was popular enough to start a whole new swing-dancing subculture (which still exists out there, though it’s not as mainstream as it once was). What most people might not remember is that Swing Kids is the movie that started it.
It’s Hamburg in the 1930’s. World War 2 hasn’t yet begun, and the Nazi party, having risen to power in Germany is just starting to bully their way across their borders. Meanwhile on the home front, more and more personal freedoms are being infringed upon, and if you’re Jewish or viewed as disloyal, then there’s a very real risk you’ll “go away” for a while. It’s in this political climate that we’re introduced to the titular group of Swing Kids. With their long hair, British fashion and obsession with American swing music (not only listening but *gasp* dancing to it!), they’re pretty much the worst nightmare of the Hitlerjugend (or Hitler Youth), known as the HJ’s. Fascism and rebellious youth rarely go out and play racquetball together after all, so the kids not only refuse to join the HJ’s but make a habit of getting into brawls with them.
The movie focuses mainly on three young hepkats. Peter (Robert Sean Leonard), a regular guy whose family was directly affected during Hitler’s rise to power, Thomas (Christian Bale), a rich hothead with a bit of a chip on his shoulder, and Arvid (Frank Whaley), an amiable guitar-player with a crooked leg. All is well for the youngsters until an ill-advised theft lands Peter in jail and he’s forced to join the HJ’s, his only other alternative being deportment to a work camp. Thomas decides to join up, just so Peter doesn’t have to go it alone. The pair are convinced they can lead double lives, being “HJ’s by day, Swing Kids by night”. Things get more complicated, though, when Arvid is savagely beaten by HJ’s, Peter’s mother is being courted by a high ranking Gestapo officer (Kenneth Branagh in an uncredited role), and Thomas begins to buy into the Nazi party’s propaganda machine.
First thing that should be mentioned in any review for this flick is the dancing scenes. Making up for far less of the movie than you’d expect, they are nonetheless reeeeally fun watch. The dancers and actors alike get into it with such energy that you can’t help wanting to dance along, and the viewer gets a great feeling for how life-affirming the music and dance was in a time of political oppression.
There’s no sour notes acting-wise either. The casting director of the movie scored a real coup and got some really talented young actors to play the three leads. Robert Sean Leonard plays Peter with just right amount of confusion over the different voices fighting for his soul, and Bale shows early on why he’s one of the best actors today by taking his character from a guy who can’t stand the Nazis to a proud flag-waving Hitler youth. Kenneth Branagh is really good as a charming Nazi who honestly believed Hitler is doing the right thing, and Barbara Hershey gives a powerful depiction of Peter’s mother, who’s just trying to keep her head low and stay out of trouble to protect her family. My real praise here, however, goes to Frank Whaley as Arvid for realistically portraying the anger and fear of a man who sees the horror that his country is cultivating. As far as the kid playing Willy, Peter’s little brother, well I dare you to watch the final scene with this kid and not get a little emotional.
Swing Kids is also a prime example of a phenomenon that never ceases to bug me. I call it the “really good movie that every critic trashes for no reason” scenario. They whined that the story was too light, that the weight of the effect of the Nazi party on the whole world was not given adequate gravitas, that certain things should’ve been made more obvious, like the fact that oh, say the Nazis were evil. I genuinely wonder if said critics actually watched the movie or just sat in the theatre, half asleep, lazily gnawing on giant tubs of comped popcorn occasionally jotting down some plot point that they could cleverly snark at.
I don’t think you should play up the Nazis as stereotypical mustache twirling villains when you’re tying to adequately portray how they were viewed in Hamburg in the 30’s. The whole point of Branagh’s character arch, and his interaction with Peter was to show why so many Germans could’ve been seduced by the propaganda issued by the Third Reich. For those who thought that the story was too light, I might suggest rewinding and watching the scene where Arvid is beaten by a former friend. Honestly, sometimes critics just bewilder me.
- I could’ve sworn I saw Kate Beckinsale for like, a second at the very beginning of the movie.
- If you’re caught dancing with a Faust you’re probably an Icky who can’t counter that jive and you don’t got your glasses on.
- The main Swing step done during the dancing scenes is the Lindy hop, which was the most popular step to do in those times.
- This was the film debut for Jessica Hynes, who went on to play Daisy in Spaced, and Nurse Redfern in two awesome Doctor Who episodes. Just in case, like me, you trying to remember where you knew her from.
- That the HJ uniforms really did make the guys wearing them look like dorks.
- Otto’s little stumbly dance off to the side always makes me chuckle
- The Really BIG girl leading the little dude
- Bei mir bist du schon means that you’re grand.
- There is no more fun song to swing to than Sing Sing Sing with a Swing
- So Evey learned to do complicated aerials, just like that? I can’t do that and I’ve been swing dancing for four years.
- Kenneth Branagh is uncredited in the role of Herr Knopp because he refused billing after being told he’d be billed above the younger stars. He said that the boys were the real stars of the film and it belonged to them only. Branagh had previously worked with both Robert Sean Leonard (in Much Ado About Nothing) and Christian Bale (in Henry V)
- The movie pretty accurately depicts a real movement among teens in Germany during the Nazi regime. Largely apolitical, much like their American zoot suit counterparts, they were none the less a pervasive sub-culture starkly contrasting to the militaristic Hitler youth. They took many occasions to mock the Nazis, the military and the Hitlerjugend, hence the famous “Swing Heil” salute, mocking the Nazi “Seig Heil”. While there was never a specific organized Swing kid movement, there were several organized street gangs, such as the Edelweiss Pirates who acted in defiance of Hitler Youth norms.
Thomas: Look who we have here, Peter’s priss. Have you talked to her yet?
Peter: Who says I’m interested?
Thomas: Your tongue was on the floor.
Thomas: We’re gangsters
Peter: We’re cowboys.
Arvid: You’re idiots.
Peter: [turning down a cigarette] Can’t, they smell your breath.
Arvid: Then we better not listen to this music, they may listen to your ears.
Evey: How do I look?
Peter: Like gold.
Thomas: What hell was that about? What was all that nonsense, “the gypsies and the Jews”? What about the cripples and the retards. You know that’s who you belong with.
Arvid: I would rather belong to anyone… ANYONE, than belong to the Nazis like you do.
Thomas: That’s because you have everything backwards. Nazis go anywhere they want, do anything they want, everyone gets out of our way. If I were you I wouldn’t look out for anyone but myself, because we’re coming for you next. So who’s the smart one now, huh Django-man?
Arvid: Quiz time. Got your glasses on.
Arvid: It means you don’t know who your friends are.
Arvid: Do you think that just because you’re not doing it yourself, you’re not a part of it? Well I’m sick and tired of doing my part!
Peter: It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing…Do wah do wah do wah do wha do wha…
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