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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Swing Kids is a 1993 movie about jazz-obsessed teens during Nazi Germany who are forced to choose between staying true to themselves or conforming to the Third Reich. The depictions of teens getting excited about the contemporary music of the time and how it fits into their overall spirit of rebellion has obvious parallels to the youth culture movements of later decades, but it's also the unsparing depiction of how the major and minor characters responded to oppressive brutality of the Nazis that should also inspire discussion amongst families about the horrors of that time and what it meant to be an ordinary citizen trying to survive. Unsurprisingly, there are scenes in which Jews are being persecuted, as well as propaganda films from that time comparing the Jews to vermin. The swing music of Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and Django Reinhardt is deemed "["N" word] [Jewish slur] music" by the Nazis, and we see a propaganda poster showing a monkey playing a saxophone. There are some streetfights, brawls, and boxing matches in which characters are shown getting beaten and bloodied. Profanity includes "f--k." Swing Kids are shown passing around small black-and-white photos of topless women, and make remarks about their breasts. Reference made to masturbation. The overall dramatic intensity of the film might be difficult for younger or more sensitive viewers, but overall, this movie is a history lesson on how youth culture and rebellion persists amidst oppression, and how they inspire resistance.
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What's the story?
SWING KIDS takes place in 1930s Hamburg, as the Nazis consolidate power. Three teens -- Peter (Robert Sean Leonard), Thomas (Christian Bale), and Arvid (Frank Whaley) -- are "Swing Boys," devoted followers of the music, dance, and style of swing music. They grow their hair long, learn all the dances, and buy black-market copies of records by Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and Django Reinhardt. They also reject Nazi propaganda and stand up to Hitler Youth bullies. But their lives change when Peter, incensed at the blatant corruption of a Nazi officer who he witnessed slapping his mother (Barbara Hershey) while trying to blackmail sexual favors from her, decides to steal a radio the officer took from the ransacked home of a "traitor" as a gift for Arvid. Peter is caught by the police, and is only spared persecution due to the intercession of Herr Knopp, a high-ranking Gestapo officer who is also attracted to his mother. In exchange, Peter must join the Hitler Youth. Thomas then signs up to join in solidarity with Peter, and the two hope to go under the radar and remain Swing Boys at heart, despite the Nazi uniforms. But this begins to change when they see a legendary Swing Kid named Emil (Noah Wiley) who has now clearly embraced Nazi doctrine. Blinded by the power, prestige, and material gifts he is given, Thomas begins to also subscribe to the racist propaganda they are exposed to day in and day out. On the opposite end, Arvin is disgusted by what they have become, and refuses to compromise his values, even when his left hand is crushed while attacked by Emil and other Hitler Youth thugs, severely limiting his ability to play guitar. As Herr Knopp tries to emerge as the father figure Peter lost when his own father, a musician and Communist, died seven years prior by Nazi persecution and torture, as his mother simply wants to get along to go along, and Thomas becomes more and more brutal and fanatical in his transformation from a Swing Kid to a full-fledged Nazi, Peter must decide if he will conform to the evils around him, or remain true to himself, even if it means getting sent to work camps or even death.
Is it any good?
Despite the negative reviews that greeted its initial release, this is a riveting story about rebellious teens in 1930s Hamburg coming face-to-face with Nazi tyranny. Clearly intending to show similarities to later and better-known youth culture movements, the characters grow their hair long, get into fights with authority figures, obsess about music, and try to copy the style, attitude, and slang of their favorite musicians. Against the backdrop of a Germany becoming increasingly oppressive as ordinary citizens respond to the horrors of the Third Reich in many different ways, the three lead characters, boys who just want to dance in ballrooms and hear the latest jazz records, are forced to make their own decisions. Through Peter, this decision of whether to openly rebel because it's the right thing to do, to look the other way to avoid trouble, or to take advantage of the current system and become a member of the Hitler Youth is brought into clear focus, as good a representation as any of the decisions teens in Nazi Germany had to make.
While the historical relevance is nearly ruined by a mawkish Hollywood ending that feels shoehorned in to soften the blow of the evil of it all, the themes of Swing Kids and the choices all the characters must make will resonate with modern audiences. This is a movie to watch, reflect, and discuss with family during our own troubled times. It's a nice opportunity to see how history is so much more than the dry facts of a textbook, but rather, a way to see the connections and similarities linking the past to the lives we lead today.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about coming-of-age movies centered on rebellious teens. How is Swing Kids similar to and different from other movies in the genre?
How do the three lead characters come to embody the options available to "Swing Kids" as Nazi tyranny grew worse? Did you know much about "Swing Kids" before you saw this movie? How could you learn more?
How are the themes of the movie relevant to today and other moments in history?
- In theaters: March 5, 2002
- On DVD or streaming: September 3, 2002
- Cast: Christian Bale, Barbara Hershey, Robert Sean Leonard
- Director: Thomas Carter
- Studio: Buena Vista
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Friendship, Great Boy Role Models, History, Music and Sing-Along
- Character Strengths: Courage, Perseverance
- Run time: 114 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: Violence and some language.
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