The other night I watched one of Roger Ebert’s most hated films: the 1993 Swing Kids, directed by Thomas Carter, and starring Christian Bale, Robert Sean Leonard, and Frank Whaley as the rebellious kids and Kenneth Branagh as an SS-Sturmbannführer authority figure. It is the story of how, in pre-World War II Germany, two high school students attempt to be Swingjugend by night and Hitlerjugend by day—two very different and incompatible aesthetics.
The film takes place in the city of Hamburg, where the swing scene was huge. The Swingjugend of Hamburg danced in private quarters, clubs, rented halls, and most notably, the Café Heinze. They dressed differently from the others who were opposed to swing. For example, boys added a little British flair to their style by wearing homberg hats, growing their hair long, carrying umbrellas, and attaching a Union Jack pin to their lapels. They were considered “effete” by their Nazi contemporaries and the authorities as well. Girls wore short skirts, applied lipstick and fingernail polish, and wore their hair in curled Hollywood styles rather than traditional German styles like braids.
This group consisted mostly of teens between 14 and 19 from middle- and, especially in Hamburg, upper-class families. In these upper-class homes, it was common for the youth to have had ballroom dance lessons, to know a little English, and perhaps to even have had the opportunity to travel abroad to England or America. Hamburg youth especially were the children of cultured intellectuals with generally liberal views. They were privileged with wealth and spent their money on black market records, expensive clothing, and liquor. In the early years of the war, the authorities seemed to be less alarmed by the Negro/Jewish influences of American swing music and more concerned by the kids’ Anglophile affectations.
The film was panned by most critics but has a significant underground following among fans. The reason Ebert so hated this film is summed up in this quote from his review: “At a time when civilization was crashing down around their ears and Hitler was planning the Holocaust, it doesn’t make them particularly noble that they’d rather listen to big bands than enlist in the military. Who wouldn’t?” He seems to object to director Thomas Carter’s attempt to spin the Swingjugends’ apolitical self-indulgence into some sort of nascent heroism. Carter has taken an isolated event—the roundup of over 300 Swingjugend in Hamburg on August 18, 1941 in a brutal police operation—and reinvented it as a significant political event.
It wasn’t. Contrary to popular myth, the Nazis never specifically outlawed swing dancing in Germany; they merely discouraged it. (The well-known “Swingtanzen verboten” sign is a 1970s fake invented for an album cover.) Hamburg was the only city in the Reich where raids on the Swingjugend ever took place (and that seems to be because a particularly ambitious police official was stationed there).
The measures taken against the Hamburg Swingjugend who were arrested ranged from cutting their hair and sending them back to school under close monitoring, to their conscription into the military and deployment to the front lines where they were generally allowed to perish, to the deportation of 40-70 of their leaders to Jugendschutzlager (youth prisons), where they were badly treated.
The Hamburg Swingjugend had contacts at some point with the Weiße Rose, a famous but ineffectual youth resistance movement, when three members of the Weiße Rose developed a sympathy for the Swingjugend. However, no formal cooperation arose, though these contacts were later used by the Volksgerichtshof to accuse some Swingjugend of anarchist propaganda and sabotage of the armed forces. The consequent trial, death sentences, and executions were averted by the end of the war.
The Swingjugend were at their heart a group of teenagers. Like most teenagers, their lives were mostly just about being teenagers. There is a desire, I think, to imagine they were being brazenly political in what they were doing. But if the original Swingjugend were political at all, it was mostly an unconscious choice, or something attributed to them that they did not attribute to themselves. Certainly their love of American swing music was probably an inherent expression of individuality, freedom, and tolerance; their defiance of the Hitlerjugend was an inherent defiance of Nazi philosophy. But it wasn’t something they talked about with each other, or planned actions for. Almost every Swingjugend interviewed has said that they simply were not politically motivated. When the swing kids did rebel, it was often in the spirit of being overly-confident and obnoxious. They greeted one another with a “Swing Heil” or “Heil Hotler” and swaggered their lifestyle around town.
“We were going to tell these dumb bastards that we were different, that was all,” said one grown-up Swingjugend. From his words, it’s clear that most of the Swingjugend were simply playing a game that they unfortunately didn’t grasp. Yet as the 1930s grew darker it’s hard to imagine that there weren’t at least a few of them who realized that they were a part of something much greater than just a teenage rebellious fad. With the post-war everything-the-Nazis-did-was-evil mentality, it’s natural to wonder how teenagers could go around so blatantly breaking the rules of the Reich.
Apparently, the reality is that they weren’t actually breaking as many rules as we are led to believe.
Despite the fact that the Swingjugend didn’t fully understand the danger around them, I believe it still took a lot of courage to flaunt their lifestyle in a culture which emphasized conformity above all else—even if many of them were just privileged, naive kids.
Last week I watched a video of 16-year-old Amos Yee Pang Sang, who has called Singapore’s now-deceased first minister “malicious” and as a result could face up to three years in prison. I cringed—not because of his views, but because of the immoderate way he expressed them, despite an authoritarian regime. He is obviously a bright, well-educated kid, but Singapore’s repressive judiciary is unlikely to cut the kid much slack. He will likely be hammered simply because he is young and obnoxious. The judges will probably think it is their mission to have the System knock some sense and respect into his smart-ass.
Some adults including Roger Ebert expect the young to stand up for what is right, but then the kids are punished when they do stand up—and then the adults are nowhere to help them deal with the consequences. Why can’t we lighten up be more understanding of kids’ natural desire to be kids and sometimes revolt and be revolting?
Groove of the Day
89° and Partly Cloudy, then Clear