Film Review: Swing Kids


  • Actors: Robert Sean Leonard, Christian Bale, Frank Whaley, Barbara Hershey, Tushka Bergen
  • Director: Thomas Carter
  • Rated: PG-13 (Parental Guidance Suggested)
  • Studio: Hollywood Pictures / Buena Vista Home Entertainment
  • Release Year: 1993
  • Run Time:112 minutes

    I do not usually trust Hollywood movies for historical accuracy or realistic non-American characters, even if I enjoy them as entertainment. But my German friend and beta-reader Arnika Kiani, who generously checks my drafts for German authenticity, sent me Swing Kids together with other German history movies.

    I watched Swing Kids, and it was well worth it. The setting is Hamburg in the late 1930’s, around the time of the annexation of Sudetenland and the Anschluss of Austria. The movie shows us a less known part of the Third Reich history: the Swing Youth, a German teenage subculture that emerged in an opposition to the dogmatic Hitler Youth system.  Swing Kids, as they called themselves, listened to jazz and swing music, mimicked British and American fashions, including zoot suits, and danced away at covert parties in clubs and cafes.

    The movie shows how a group of friends, fans of swing and jitterbug, collides with the Nazi regime. Because of a stupid prank, one of the teenage boys has to join the Hitler Youth to avoid further trouble. In solidarity with him, one of his friends joins the Hitler Youth too. At the same time the third friend, a misfit of sorts, develops a blatant defiance of the Nazi order. As we follow the protagonists, we can see how the Nazi ideology affected each of them and the people around, and how personal circumstances could contribute to one’s acceptance or rejection of Nazism. While one of the friends in the Hitler Youth loathes its teachings, the other, on the contrary, falls into them because the Hitler Youth fulfills his yearning for belonging and companionship which his own family failed to provide.

    Although some episodes are reminiscent of a glossy magazine, the movie does provide a glimpse of German life just before the war. It made me realize how the regime validated and cultivated physical violence. The Hitler Youth groups were routinely mustered to help police round up and beat swing kids at secret dance parties. The scenes of the Hitler Youth training and indoctrination helped me visualize the past experiences of my German protagonist who has been heavily influenced by the Hitler Youth.

    Some episodes looked eerily familiar to me. The movie shows how the Hitler Youth leaders taught the children to report their relatives for criticism of the regime, thus nurturing German versions of  Pavlik Morozov, a child hero exalted in the Soviet Union for turning in his father. As a schoolgirl, I read a fair share of textbook stories and verses glorifying Pavlik Morozov in the 1970’s-1980’s. Our school teachers lectured us why it was immoral to follow American fashions and wear jeans, dance to the evil Western music and chew gum. Of course, it was much more benign in my time than in Nazi Germany or the 1930’s Soviet Union. We were under no threat of a jail or labor camp. The worst we faced was a reprimand, a note to the parents or a poor behavior mark in the grade report.

    Swing Kids has a lot of good acting, including a charming Gestapo official played by Kenneth Branagh. The swing dance cameos are carefree and energizing, in a sharp contrast with the scenes of the Hitler Youth drills. The movie shows nuances and shades of gray in human behavior, which makes it ever more interesting to watch. Contrary to the Hollywood custom of happy endings, the finale is dark and foreboding, although some might find it too dramatized.

My ROW80 progress:

  • Not much writing and revising progress, which is not good. I could say that things were too busy at work or that I had a difficult weekend because of teenage dramas in the household, but I do need to learn to carve out my writing time and space;
  • While pondering my review for Swing Kids, I checked some facts on the Hitler Youth online which helped my characterizations.

This week’s ROW80 goals:

  • Jealously guard my writing time and space;
  • Start reading The collapse of the German war economy, 1944-1945: Allied air power and the German National Railway by Alfred C. Mierzejewski, which is ready for pickup at my library.