'Swing Kids' Revisited: Does The Nazi Jitterbug Drama For Kids Still Hold Up?

(Welcome to Nostalgia Bomb, a series where we take a look back on beloved childhood favorites and discern whether or not they're actually any good. In this edition: a look back at Swing Kids, the early '90s drama about dancing in the face of Nazism starring a young Christian Bale).

For about three months in 1998, everyone got into swing music.

The Brian Setzer Orchestra, Cherry Poppin' Daddies, Royal Crown Revue. The big band sound was suddenly everywhere after creeping into the public eye through the early '90s.

RCR featured prominently in The Mask in 1994 as the flashy backing band for Cameron Diaz's character's dance numbers. Then Big Bad Voodoo Daddy was in Swingers. Then Brian Setzer, 1980s savior of rockabilly, had a hit covering the Louis Prima song "Jump, Jive an' Wail" in 1998 (it won a Grammy!) and the nation had a reached a fever pitch culminating in Old Navy cashing in on the trend.

I dove in greased-up head first. That was also my freshman year of high school, and I was invested in a full reinvention of the middle school me, which meant shunning drama for band. Over the next four years, I'd play in the pit (I never figured out why we needed a xylophone on a football field), march quads, and play vibraphone, then guitar, then piano, then trap set in our jazz band.

I played upright bass in a touring rockabilly band, wore terrible silk shirts with martini glasses on them, had a wallet chain and pocket watch, and generally absorbed a host of style tips from different musical eras without regard for continuity. I invited Big Bad Voodoo Daddy to my Eagle Scout ceremony. And got a response! It was a really nice postcard.

I also listened to Slipknot, Ben Folds Five, and Outkast, but swing and jazz provided a ready-made identity. It had a language. A dress code. An attitude. Trivia. A complete system.

It's all profoundly embarrassing, which is why I was desperate to see whether Swing Kids, the 1993 granddaddy of the swing revival, held up without nostalgia goggles on.

Hepcats vs Nazis

The movie takes place in 1939 Hamburg where a group of kids passionate for big band music and British fashion come of age during the rapid ascendancy of the Nazis. Peter (Robert Sean Leonard) is sweet and emo, a boy whose professional violinist father died shortly after the Nazis tortured him in 1933. He's quick to temper, especially if you're a dumb-faced Nazi block captain slapping his mother (Barbara Hershey) around.

Thomas (Christian Bale) is even quicker to start punching, which gives him a natural good guy sheen when it comes to beating the crap out of goons in the Hitler Jugend (the Nazi youth program) bullying a Jewish boy on the way to yeshiva. It doesn't matter that he didn't know who he was saving, or that he probably did it because he thinks the HJs are tragically uncool. He's a guy you want in your corner.

He's also constantly butting heads with Arvid (Frank Whaley), a virtuoso guitar player who compensates for his dance-inhibiting leg deformity by learning everything about every jazz song. Recording dates and locations. Who solos. What brand of cymbals the drummer used, probably. Every geek crew has an Arvid: the fanboy who's into the hobby just a little more than everyone else.

They all try to stick together as personal and political forces pull them in opposing directions.

When I was a kid about half past three...

The appeal of Swing Kids to a 13-year-old band nerd is obvious and two-fold. First, there's the music. The dance hall sequences are electrifying swirls of feet and legs and snapping fingers. There's a clear, unselfconscious love for the music that spills out into the choreography that introduces Thomas and Peter as teen royalty. Every night is the best night of their lives.

These sequences were PG sexy. Girls' skirts flew high in the air, everything seemed sweaty, and bodies spun by and collided in a heated frenzy, backed up by a musical burst of intense joy. It reminded me most of the local punk scene where, if you slipped on the sweat-soaked floor in the mosh pit, a stranger's hand would always appear to pull you back on your feet.

The idea that a bunch of teens could go out on the town, grab beers, and literally pick up girls was also endlessly appealing to me. It seemed grown up, and it thrilled me the same way seeing my much-older brother's first apartment away from home did.

The big band bliss was balanced by a complicated camaraderie of friends drawn together largely because of their shared interest. They rarely gelled well, and Peter regularly played peacemaker between Arvid and Thomas before heads cooled down again. I think now that the characters must have also let me live out the fantasy of what I would do if confronted by Nazis. I could see power in teenagers fighting back against an unstoppable wave of hatred and injustice, even in their own superficial way.

But most of all, these were high schoolers learning about and falling in love with the same musicians I was learning about and falling in love with. Benny Goodman. Count Basie. Duke Ellington. They obsessed over music. So did I. They were trying to get girlfriends. So was I. They were navigating the dangerous waters of a murderous regime that demanded full loyalty. I could fantasize about doing the same. Fighting back against genocidal maniacs by putting on my dancing shoes. You cannot love swing music and be a Nazi.

It was also difficult to tell if the swing kids were cool at school or hopeless dorks grasping for popularity only in their cafes. That made sense to me. A few years on from Dead Poet's Society, Robert Sean Leonard was King of the Sensitive Boys, and I saw a lot of myself in him no matter how much I wanted to relate to Christian Bale's brawler courage.

A Maudlin History Lesson

The grand lesson of Swing Kids is that pop culture can fight a poisonous ideology. It can be your identity if you need it.

But acceptance is the first rule of tribalism. Finding something you enjoy and people who treat you well can create a potent sense of belonging that translates to a defense of your tribe at any cost. Groupthink can replace your identity.

In rewatching it, I prepared for a lot of it to seem cheesy (since there were cringe-worthy moments even back when I watched it dozens of times as a teen). Yet the message is still powerful. People question how Nazism could have flourished? Here's how.

Peter is forced to join the HJ after he's arrested trying to steal a radio as an act of retribution against the abusive block captain and as a gift for Arvid after a bad fight. Thomas joins in solidarity, promising that they can pretend to be Nazis by day and continue living it up as swing kids by night.

Even good-hearted Peter is eventually tempted by the logic the Nazis ram into his brain, defending the ouster of several Jewish professors that his father stood up for. They must have done something to get fired, right? The system wouldn't simply punish people arbitrarily or, worse, for being who they are.

This is kid logic that a lot of adults never shed. It's the same logic preyed upon by evil systems. Peter has to believe that the adults in his life have benevolent reasons for their actions. Otherwise, who can he turn to for guidance? His mother is the queen of keeping her head down to avoid losing more. The gestapo agent Herr Knopp (Kenneth Branagh) wants to help Peter and brings the family rich foods to eat. He's a polite Nazi, but he's still a Nazi.

While Peter snaps out of the propaganda haze after being tasked with delivering ashes to screaming mothers, Thomas falls for it completely. After beating the snot out of Emil (Noah Wylie), a former swing kid and HJ all-star who crushed Arvid's fingers, Thomas buys into Nazi thought at the first sign that he's socially accepted. Arvid always condemned Thomas as a poser, and his actions seem to confirm it. He didn't love swing music so much as he wanted a tool to rebel. The Hitler Jugend provides that, some prestige, and a sweet new motorbike. This creeping bigotry sets up the eventual clash between old friends. Wingtips versus jackboots.

Does It Hold Up?

Roger Ebert included Swing Kids on his Most Hated list, which makes no sense. Finding it too lightweight for the historical heft, I get. Thinking it's a bush league Spielberg riff? Sure. But hatred? It's surprising to see such an intense response to something that's, at worst, aggressively average.

For the most part, it holds up well, although the cheese shines through a bit more clearly through adult eyes. Peter, Thomas, Arvid, and their hanger-on Otto (Jayce Bartok) are always quizzing each other on jazz age terms and throwing out slanguage like "supermurgatroid" and "Swing Heil" (yersh). It almost always feels off, maybe because the actors don't fully sell it, because it's fundamentally embarrassing, or because there's just something strange about British and American actors pretending to be Germans borrowing African-American hepcat lingo while speaking English so the audience doesn't have to read subtitles.

On the other hand, it made me desperate for a German-language version of this movie.

When Peter yells that Thomas is "the king of Harlem," it's so impossibly geeky and thoroughly high school that you almost, almost think he deserves to be shoved into a locker. These are kids borrowing the trappings of a culture as a place holder for their identities.

There's also a rough scene where Peter jazzsplains music to his crush Evey (Tushka Bergen), a beautiful blank slate for him to show off some knowledge and dance moves before fading into the background of Peter's life.

Nazis By Day

Swing Kids does a great job of interrupting youthful magic with the fatal war of adulthood. The first comes early on when the main trio, drunk on dancing and booze, are singing and pissing on Nazi posters when they watch a man get shot by the gestapo. The nighttime blur of music and girls is shattered by a sober morning watching a body pulled from the river. That theme escalates throughout, with swing spaces more and more invaded by Nazism (including a scene where Arvid jams while Thomas and Peter dance together before the entire stage band abruptly cuts to polka music to avoid a raid).

Peter remains the most interesting, pulled by several competing forces: his terrified mother, his Nazi benefactor, the bookstore owner he unknowingly delivers falsified papers for, the high school girl he wants to date, the young woman trying to flee the country (Julia Stemberger) who he connects to through music. Of course there's also Arvid, who is the only character who never wavers even a little in his ideology, going so far as to refuse to play a German song when Luftwaffe pilots request one, offering instead a speech on the silence allowing racism and murder to take hold in their country.

At the top of the pile stands Thomas, who tries again and again to convince his friend to stick with the Nazis. Best friends torn apart by a force that would draw the entire world into war. Facing the prospect of acquiescing to the people who killed his father, Peter straps his swing outfit on one last time and has what can only be called A Moment dancing by himself to a haunting, accelerando version of the yiddish "Bei Mir Bist Du Schon" before the club is raided by Thomas and the other HJ thugs.

Even as a kid I found the ending anticlimactic and goofy (especially when Peter's little brother Willi (David Tom) shouts "Swing Heil" through tears), and it still is, but I can't imagine it ending any other way. Unlike some in the real-life Swingjugend, Peter and Thomas aren't part of the music scene to undermine the Nazis. They want the songs and the dance floor and the freedom, but it takes the entire film for them to understand that they have tools to fight back at their disposal.

By the time the authorities cracked down hard, the Nazis only offered two options: loyalty to short haircuts and the HJ or banishment to work camps. In the end, the only thing Peter can really do is dance alone.