Hamburg, Germany, 1939. Hitler is practically at his pinnacle of power and popularity, having recently annexed Czechoslovakia. And as his power grows any opposition - or perceived opposition - is being violently shut down. It's a hard life for any teenager anywhere at any time, but for Peter (Robert Sean Leonard), Thomas (Christian Bale), and Arvid (Frank Whaley) life is even harder, seeing as they happen to be "Swingjungend" (Swing Kids, or fans of Jazz and Swing music). And in Hitler's Germany such "Neger-kike" music is increasingly Verbotten. Peter, Thomas, and Arvid openly flaunt their long(-ish) hair and musical taste and disdain the party and their Hitlerjungend (HJ) classmates, stopping to urinate on propaganda posters after an underground swing concert and taunting the authorities with their own cries of "swing, heil!" At one point, acting on a tip from Peter's younger brother Willi (David Tom), the trio even saves a Hasidic Jew from the HJ, thinking him at first to be another swing kid.
Peter, whose father died a broken man after crossing the Nazi authorities, wants nothing more than to live the swinging night life of a Jitterbug until this whole Nazi situation blows past. He spends a lot of time at a record store and loves to show off his dance moves to the girl he likes (a love interest story that quickly fades into total obscurity) and works part time delivering books for a friend of his father's in what may be a front for the Resistance. Thomas, a cocky hot head with a verbally abusive father, seems interested only in the moment and often finds himself in arguments with Arvid, a talented swing guitarist with a club foot who retreats further and further into his music. After a violent spat between the two, Peter and Thomas decide to "re-steal" a radio (confiscated by the HJ from Jews) as an apology gift for Arvid, but Peter is caught and faces time in a work camp. However, his mother's new beau, SS Sturmbahnfuhrer Knopf (Kenneth Branaugh), gets the charges dropped in return for Peter joining the HJ as a boy of his age "should." As he enters the HJ he is surprised to see Thomas there as well. Thomas joined to be with him, rationalizing that they could be "HJ by day, Swing Kids by night." Arvid, meanwhile, has suffered a violent attack by HJ, including one Emil Lutz (Noah Wyle); a "treasonous" former swing kid turned true believer HJ.
The drama soon unfolds in ways you'd expect it to in such a move. As Peter and Thomas progress with their double life while Arvid retreats further into his music. And, needless to say, things start to unravel as Peter becomes increasingly shocked with Nazi barbarity while Thomas, taken under Emil's wing, gets progressively more seduced by the power and ceremony of Nazism. The three friends soon find themselves progressively more at odds, and Peter finds himself ever more torn in his life.
Lifted with excellent set and costume design, a swinging soundtrack, and well-choreographed jitterbug dance scenes, Swing Kids is visually a treat. And with a plot based on young rebels standing up against the Nazis, it's got all the hallmarks of Dieselpunk aesthetic and values. With the power of its acting talent Swing Kids should soar, showing firsthand the violence and evil of Nazism and the human drama of those innocent souls caught inside its cold machine.
Swing Kids is an Oscar-worthy plot and setting that has gotten lost in a predictable, forgettable movie. The pacing is variable and the scenes often disjointed, as if they lacked the budget to finish editing and just assembles scenes together as they found them on the cutting room floor. Accents are sporadic, with most actors not even bothering to try a German accent while others dive wholeheartedly into one with mixed results, leading to jarring breaks in suspension of disbelief that might have been avoided if director Thomas Carter had picked one direction or the other. Story arcs are picked up and discarded without resolution, such as the aforementioned love interest, and many of the interpersonal dramas they took time to establish are left hanging. The screenplay has some truly powerful moments that are often lost amid a sea of predictable stock scenes. And many of the movie’s most powerful scenes, including the capstone finale, lose much of their power due to a heavy-handed movie score that comes across like the dramatic equivalent of a laugh track. The finale in particular, the moment which was to cement the movie's message and serve as the culmination of the story, is so heavy-handed with overacting and sledgehammer score as to invoke an unintended bathos (aka "Narm") that breaks the entire moment right at its conclusion.
The end result is, for me, heartbreaking, but not in the dramatic tear jerker way the film makers intended. Instead Swing Kids becomes “the Great Dieselpunk Movie that Wasn't.” Such amazing potential, ultimately squandered. While it's probably worth seeing for Dieselpunks just for the visuals and overall plot concept (which begs to be recycled by more capable hands), it could, and should, have been so much more.
Ratings (1 - 4 stars)
"Diesel" measures the movie's capture and use of the Diesel era aesthetic and/or ethos, including set design, costumes, culture, music, technology, and direction.
"Punk" measures how well the movie uses or explores punk themes or values.