Retro Movie Review: Swing Kids

“It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”

In the early 1990s there was a popular resurgence of swing music. Many bands like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, and Squirrel Nut Zippers quickly became famous and many young people learned how much of a thrill Swing dancing could be.

With such resurgence of Swing popularity, it only makes sense that Hollywood would attempt to capitalize on such a fad. You’d expect that whatever came of such theatrical effort would be shallow and corny, much like all of the wannabe Star Wars movies of the 80s… or Dirty Dancing. Instead, the movie that appeared to be cashing in on a flight of passing fancy, Swing Kids, is much, much deeper than the title implies.

In the late 1930s, Germany was undergoing some major changes as the National Socialist (better known as Nazi) party led by Adolf Hitler was tightening its grip on German society. At the same time, Jitter-bug dancing young Germans were relishing in English and American Jazz culture and were doing everything they could to embrace it in their clothing, speech, music and dancing.

Three close friends involved in this movement are Peter Müller (played by Robert Sean Leonard – House, Dead Poets Society), Thomas Berger (played by Christian Bale – Batman Begins, Empire of the Sun), and Arvid (played by Frank Whaley – Career Opportunities, Pulp Fiction). Peter and Thomas are heavily involved in the dancing scene while Arvid – sidelined because of a lame foot – is the temperamental, intellectual musician of the bunch.

One day, in a misguided attempt to bring some joy into the moody Arvid’s life, Peter and Thomas attempt to steal a radio that Peter believes was wrongfully taken from a suspected “traitor” and given to a woman giving comfort to the district supervisor. The poorly conceived, attempted theft fails and Peter is left holding the radio.

In order to avoid serving time in a labor camp, Peter is giving the “choice” to join the Hitler Jugend (Hitler Youth) – the Nazi youth organization that is the polar opposite of everything the Swing Kid movement stands for. Shortly after joining, Peter’s self-disgust is swallowed-up by Thomas, who in a show of solidarity, joins the Hitler Jugend, or the H.J., as well.

Quickly Peter and Thomas are indoctrinated in the philosophies of the Third Reich and their loyalties to their family and friends are tested. Arvid, who is not only excluded from the H.J. because of his handicap but also because of his undeviating commitment to the accepting and free culture of the Swing Kids, becomes the catalyst that tests what Peter and Thomas really believe about themselves, their friends, and their family, and what they would be willing to do or sacrifice for them.

Swing Kids is a movie that I believe was hurt in the box office by two things. One is the impression that it was just feeding a fad, and the other is the name. While “Swing Youth” is the actual name the Swing movement of the time had, I believe the title, Swing Kids, gives the movie a juvenile feel while the subject matter is anything but.

This movie deals with serious themes; such as how important it is to know who you are and what you stand for. Peter and Thomas joined the H.J. more on a whim than anything else. Little did they know how completely brainwashed they could become if they didn’t already have a strong foundation they could cling to. Without knowing what he stood for, Peter becomes a tool used by both parts of the struggle between good and evil in Nazi Germany. Only when it’s nearly too late does he realize which side of the struggle he wants to be on.

Swing Kids is a must-see movie that reminds us how easy it is to be taken in by ideologies that on the surface appear to be virtuous, but underneath reveal philosophies that make the uninitiated recoil… reminds us to make sure we know what we are committing ourselves to before we throw in our lot with anyone or anything – no matter how harmless it may seem.

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