Iron Sky (2012) – Directed by Timo Vuorensola – Starring Julia Dietze, Christopher Kirby, Götz Otto, Peta Sergeant, Stephanie Paul, and Udo Kier.
Nazis at the Center of the Earth (2012) – Directed by Joseph Lawson – Starring Dominique Swain, Jake Busey, Josh Allen, and Christopher Karl Johnson.
I have not yet seen Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, but I am very aware of the conversation that the film has generated. That’s a good thing. It’s good to have people talking about the issues raised in a movie because the question of art and responsibility is a conversation that needs to be had. I’m almost always going to side with giving the artist as much creative freedom as possible in these situations, but that does not mean that all art should be seen by all people, or that artists bear no responsibility for what they create. Plenty of films are racist, homophobic, and vile. Plenty of filmmakers are the same.
Whatever one thinks of Tarantino or Django, there is no doubting that it’s a major Hollywood production, full of Oscar-nominated actors and around a $100 million budget. With that budget, with the wide release, with the director, with the stars, and with the subject of slavery, Django Unchained is not a film that’s going to slip under the radar of very many people.
Major Hollywood production that it is, however, Django is also (from all accounts), a genre film. Tarantino told the Daily Telegraph that he wanted to make a “southern” movie, that he wanted “to do movies that deal with America’s horrible past with slavery and stuff but do them like spaghetti westerns, not like big issue movies. I want to do them like they’re genre films, but they deal with everything that America has never dealt with because it’s ashamed of it, and other countries don’t really deal with because they don’t feel they have the right to.”
When I finally see Django I’ll delve into that idea (and Spike Lee’s reasons for not going to see the film), but I want to get at that last idea here, the idea that “other countries … don’t feel they have the right to” makes movies that confront slavery head on. Implicit in Tarantino’s larger comment is the idea that slavery can (and perhaps should) be used in genre films, in films that are not “big issue movies.” What Tarantino doesn’t acknowledge, of course, is that if you’re Quentin Tarantino and you get a $100 million to make a movie with Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, and Christoph Waltz, you can claim you’re just making a genre movie and not a big issue movie, it’s still going to be a big issue movie.
It would be interesting to see what the reaction would be if someone like, say, The Asylum made a mockbuster of Django Unchained. Would the public even care? As of the writing of this review, I haven’t found any evidence that Asylum has a Django mockbuster on the docket. They’ve released mock versions of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Prometheus, Battleship, and they have a Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters mock coming up next year.
All of which brings me to IRON SKY and NAZIS AT THE CENTER OF THE EARTH, two films that have no problem using Nazis in a genre film. To be clear, these aren’t films that just toss a few swastikas around to help create an easy back story, but fully embrace varying aspects of Nazism and place it at the center of their movies.
Both films are curiously serious, at times, in that they present legitimate moral quadaries. There’s certainly a bit of comic relief going on in both films (mostly through absurdity), but neither of these films are the equivalent of something like 2-Headed Shark Attack or Transmorphers. They are decidedly B movies, but there’s also a bit of … I want to say there’s a bit of reverence going on here, too, but I do not want to give the impression that these are pro-Nazi propaganda films. I mean reverence in the sense that both films treat the Nazis like a real threat and not just as cannon fodder. Both films involve the Nazis attempting to take over the world, but they do so in different ways.
In IRON SKY, Nazis escaped the Earth at the end of World War II and relocated to the dark side of the moon. What’s fascinating about IRON SKY is that they’ve put actual thought into what it would be like if the Nazis had spent the last 65 years developing a whole new society, free of the rest of the Earth. The film makes a conscious effort to show that the hierarchy of the party is different from the average citizens. Our pseudo-heroine turned heroine Renate Richter (Julia Dietze) is engaged to Klaus Adler (Götz Otto), who wants to lead the conquest of Earth and insert himself as the new Fuhrer.
What sets his plan in serious motion is the arrival of two United States astronauts. One of them gets shot, the other gets captured and he turns out to James Washington (Christopher Kirby), a black guy who’s part of the President’s re-election strategy: “Black to the Moon.” (The President is a Sarah Palin parody and a lot of humor is generated through her.) The Nazis haven’t been keeping up on day-to-day operations on Earth and the arrival of a black guy fascinates them.
So they turn him white.
Renata doesn’t understand why Washington is upset at this, thinking they’ve done him a favor by making him “one of us.”
Adler goes to Earth where he intends to have Washington introduce him to the President, and he’s upset when he finds out Renata has secretly come along. Adler gets to meet the President and her campaign manager Vivian (Peta Sergeant) ends up using Adler’s words to spruce up the President’s campaign. They lose Washington, who becomes a street preacher that no one listens to, and then Renata runs into him and they fall in love with each other while saving the world.
What’s impressive about IRON SKY is just how much plot they stuff into this film. It moves really fast and in really big ways. When the Nazis launch their interstellar assault, all of the nations of the world reveals that all of their space satellites are armed and we get a big space battle, complete with Vivian being named the Allied commander and showing up on the bridge like she just walked off the Buck Rogers set.
My favorite part of the movie is when the bleached Washington takes Renata to a showing of Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. On the moon, Renata shows a highly-edited version of the film. She’s not aware of this and genuinely thinks the film is praising Hitler. When she sees the entire film, she’s crushed.
Renata is a fascinating character because she’s both clearly a Nazi and yet clearly a decent person. The film acknowledges her Nazism in her relationship with Washington, but makes her decent by making Adler so completely indecent.
I’m not sure if I genuinely like IRON SKY or if I was just so fascinated with it that it kept me engaged for a single viewing. It is definitely a film that should be seen, however.
NAZIS AT THE CENTER OF THE EARTH, on the other hand, doesn’t portray the Nazis as anything but evil. The premise is that at the end of World War II, a group of Nazis led by Joseph Mengele ended up in the center of the Earth, where they survive to this day by taking the skin of living people and incorporating it onto their own flesh. They get help from Jake Busey, an American scientist working in Antarctica who was kidnapped by the Nazis a decade ago. He’s been helping them ever since by funneling new people to them for their experiments and skin grafting and whatnot.
Think about what’s going on here – the filmmakers are using Joseph Mengele as the primary antagonist. This isn’t some evil guy with a swastika on his arm – this is Joseph Mengele. He convinces people to help him by offering to spare their life, and the characters in the film have a few arguments about whether it’s a good idea to help the Nazis in exchange for staying alive. It’s easy to say, No, it’s better to die than help them, but if you don’t help them, they take your skin and organs and transplant it into actual Nazis to help prolong their life.
CENTER OF THE EARTH is not a deep movie (aren’t I clever?) but it is, for what it is, a serious, grim, horror movie.
At least until robot Hitler shows up. Yeah, Hitler – the real Hitler, complete with a bullet hole in the side of his head – shows up as a head in a jar on top of a robot.
Is this acceptable?
No one cares about his appearance here because CENTER OF THE EARTH is just a silly B-movie, but should they care? CENTER OF THE EARTH doesn’t show the Holocaust (so there’s no direct equivalent to Django depicting slavery), but they do directly reference the concentration camps.
I believe films have to ultimately be judged on their own and not because of how they fit into a predetermined mindset of what’s acceptable and what isn’t. For me, I think IRON SKY offers an interesting take on a Nazi society, while I would have preferred to not see Mengele and Hilter show up in CENTER OF THE EARTH.
Hitler probably shouldn’t be used as the equivalent of Boss Hogg, should he?
Or is it acceptable to use the specific characters of history if you don’t use the specific evils of history?