Dancing kids swing and miss in anti-Nazi film

March 05, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Kids, the Nazis are in control. Kids, they're rounding up dissidents, annexing Czechoslovakia, goose-stepping toward Sept. 1, 1939. What can we do? I know. Let's put on a show!

That's pretty much the thrust of the high-octane kitsch item "Swing Kids" from -- who else? -- the historical ignoramuses at Disney. It's about a group of teens who fight Nazism with be-bop. Guess what? They lose.

Excuse me, but it doesn't take much to be anti-Nazi in 1993. Now, 50 years ago, that was a different story. They gave you a Tommy gun and a parachute and you jumped into Ste. Mere Eglise at 0400 hours on 6 June 1944 or maybe they gave you a typewriter and you pecked your war away in a repo-depo in Fort Wayne, Ind. It didn't matter. You fought the Nazis with the tools they gave you, you were a hero.

Along come your grandchildren with a grotesque farce that turns the threnody known as World War II, with its themes of genocide and sacrifice and heroism on a global scale, into a platform for . . . music videos. It's a monumental breakthrough in the most enduring trend of the '90s: the reduction of everything to nonsense.

There are so many problems with the movie one hardly knows where to begin. So let's begin with the trailer, which has been showing in theaters for months. It's terrific and has everything the movie doesn't: dynamism, pace, a pulsing sense of life. So in the first second of the movie, when it begins to mosey along at the pace of a snail with bad knees, your first response is, what an utter bummer. The next is confusion. It is full of kids who look exactly alike.

Actually, our hero is played by Robert Sean Leonard, who keeps bravely blinking back tears like the young Greer Garson. Leonard is a swing kid, that is, a young German who has taken up be-bop as a way of life as opposed to the more rigorous activities (Jew-bashing, informing on one's parents) offered by the Hitler Youth. His heroes are Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington.

He hangs out at an American-style cafe in downtown Hamburg with others of his ilk, and one problem with the movie is that when the camera penetrates this den, it leaves the natural world and becomes extravagantly stylized. It's Birdland in Nazi-land, with the zoot-suited "Goodman Youth" raising the roof with such theatrical abandon you could be at a production of "Cabaret." But it undercuts its energy by dumbly repeating some of the cliches of old-fashioned musical comedy, such as the "new gal" who is reluctantly nudged to the dance floor and, of course, cuts the rug better than Ginger Rogers could have after a year of rehearsals.

These scenes have some giddy excitement, and possibly they make it clear how important the music is to the youth, but they have almost nothing to do with the rest of the movie, which is a weepy account of the temptations of totalitarianism to a set of Hamburg's fast and reckless.

The movie also has a semi-pornographic fascination with the violence that can be done to tender young faces by fists and clubs. It's a black-eye-o-rama. Someone is always getting poked or beaten upside the head. Poor Leonard spends most of the movie looking as if he's just come out of sparring match with Riddick Bowe.

"Swing Kids" really doesn't go anywhere. Though evidently rooted in fact, the truth is the swing kids didn't do anything except provide the Nazis punching bags. They offered no meaningful resistance to the regime and did nothing to prevent it from launching the greatest mass murder the world has ever seen. Why memorialize them? Some years back, the German film "White Rose" captured the heartbreaking courage of a set of young Germans who actually risked -- and lost -- their lives in opposition to the Third Reich. It was a movie about heroes, not mere dancers.

"Swing Kids"

Starring Robert Sean Leonard and Christian Bale.

Directed by Thomas Carter.

Released by Disney.

Rated PG-13.

... **

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