Magneto, Nazis & Modern Cinema

Michael Fassbender stars as Magneto, the brooding anti-hero.

Magneto is the villain? Right? Maybe… sometimes… sometimes not. In cinema, he’s most certainly the principal character of X Men: First Class. Whether due to his ruggedly handsome appearance, high-calibre acting or charisma, he completely stole the show from Xavier the smug, smirking, self-righteous raper of minds. As much as we are drawn to him for his mysterious, deep and tortured qualities, Magneto is a dicey and slippery character: full of rage and hell-bent on a quest for deadly vengeance. Not exactly the qualities we want in a hero. But add some demonized Nazis into the mix and we have a quest for righteous vengeance. Welcome to the land of the anti-hero.

What’s really interesting here is the way that the heroisation of Magneto is so dependent on the demonisation of his Nazi persecutor: as the cruelty of experimenting on humans unfolds, we gain more and more audience sympathy for Magneto’s desire to kill the man who is responsible. But in doing that, he becomes his deadliest foe because his quest is not for justice, but for vengeance. As he makes inquiries at Swiss banks concerning their clients, then flies to Argentina to find suspicious looking men swilling German beer in a pub, he could be a very energetic member of the Simon Wiesenthal Foundation. But what sets him apart is his violence and his penchant for killing first and asking questions later –  the Wiesenthal Foundation focuses on justice, not vengeance. Justice is bringing people to a fair trial, not torturing them (the Swiss banker) and executing them just for speaking German, drinking German beer and knowing an ex-Nazi as Magneto does. What this film, and many modern films, does is to over-simplify the issue in an offensive manner: it does not make any distinction between people in Germany during this period, men wearing the uniform, soldiers, death camp guards or vivisectors. Instead, it lumps them altogether under one big heading… “Nazi”. X Men: First Class did not voice any alternative to killing ex-Nazis, such as the much more favourable method of giving them a fair trial with an open mind and unbiased judgement.

Irony Alert! Fassbender stars as an offensively stereotyped British agent impersonating a stereotypical Nazi in Inglorious Basterds.

While Magneto doesn’t opt for the fair trial, he does present us with a bloody alternative: killing Shaw with the same Nazi coin that he was forced to move in the death camp, creating a pseudo-poetical element to this execution.  Now, the Nazi coin operates on this pseudo-poetical level, and also as a device for creating a nice element of ring composition as the coin features at both the beginning and end of the film. In addition, it also makes a rather self-conscious reference to that other gem of modern cinema which relies on Nazi golden coinage as a narrative device: Død snø. All together now, scream the tagline: “Ein, Zwei Die!!!!!” All joking aside, Død snø is an important landmark in the portrayal of Nazis: they aren’t just baddies, they’re evil undead who are after you and *need* to be killed before they get you first. This represents the ultimate justification in modern cinema for going on a wild Nazi-killing spree (coincidentally, these do feature in Død snø several times). This is also important because it  contributes towards the widespread portrayal of the Nazi as a stereotypical, two-dimensional baddie which you are completely justified in killing. Scriptwriters might as well use a cardboard cut out and invite the audience to hiss at it à la pantomime. The only Nazis we see in X Men: First Class are vivisectors, executioners and death camp guards. To use the uniform as a characterisation device to denote everyone wearing it as “evil” is just pure laziness on the part of scriptwriters, and to be honest, it’s really tiring and symptomatic of a lack of creativity… not to mention racist. It does not give any quarter for people on the continent, and in Germany, during that period who were just as much the  victims of the Third Reich as were all the Allies who suffered. Why can’t we have some more nuanced and subtler writing in modern cinema?

Magneto Reaching for Racial Tolerance

All in all, this film has seriously confused its main message of tolerance in two ways:

  1. The film principally concerns the allegory of mutants as members of the gay community, but then the film also very self-consciously writes itself into the cinematic tradition of World War Two, Nazis and the Holocaust (with references to Død snø and v much in the vein of Inglorious Basterds). But X Men: First Class as a less than nuanced, 2 hour film which lacks creativity in script writing, cannot handle two traditions at once. It’s just ends up too confused and ends up doing neither tradition the full justice it deserves.
  2. The preachy tone of the film: the message is tolerance? Ethnic minorities are not well treated/depicted (either killed or defect onto the “baddie” team), the only Jewish character (Magneto) is portrayed as a psychologically-damaged individual who enjoys killing, and then the only German characters are portrayed as Nazis and are subjected to a simplistic treatment, while being abused as symbols of evil with little or no room for characterisation (except for Magneto, of course, whose character is explored quite extensively).

It was fun to watch though.

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