Directed by Thomas Carter
Produced by Mark Gordon, John Bard Manulis
Written by Jonathan Marc Feldman
Starring Robert Sean Leonard, Christian Bale, Frank Whaley, Barbara Hershey, Kenneth Branagh
Music by James Horner
Distributed by Hollywood Pictures
Release date March 5, 1993
Running time 114 min.
Info & Plot
Set in Hamburg Germany in 1939, Peter Müller and Thomas Berger join their friends, Arvid (who is a big-band fanatic and swing guitarist) and Otto at the Bismarck, a swing club. They have a good time dancing and enjoying the music. Leaving the club, it is shown that Arvid has a club foot and can barely keep up as the other boys run off. After he catches up, they laughingly stop to urinate on Nazi propaganda posters. As they prepare to head home, they see a man being chased by the Gestapo. Evidently this is nothing new in Hamburg; they are only mildly shocked, even when he jumps off a bridge and is shot.
Peter goes home to find his mother, Frau Müller, in an argument with a Nazi officer. The doorbell rings. It is Herr Major Knopp, the head of the local Gestapo, who curtly dismisses the officer. He asks Frau Müller some questions about her deceased husband’s friends. Herr Müller had been accused of being a Communist, and returned home a shell of a man after Nazi torture. Peter never understood what went on with his father, and to his little brother Willi’s questions about him, his replies are angry and evasive.
Peter and Thomas then decide to steal a radio out of a bakery. Peter knows it was stolen by the Nazi officer, who was bothering his mother, from a ransacked Jewish home. Thomas is able to get away, but Peter is caught. Herr Knopp, who has become attracted to Peter’s mother, intercedes for him, but the catch is that he must enroll in the Hitlerjugend (HJ). On Peter’s first day of HJ School, he finds Thomas wearing the HJ uniform and a broad grin. The funloving Thomas notes that it is the perfect cover; “HJs by day, Swing Kids by night!”
Arvid is walking home one day and is confronted by some HJs who take a Benny Goodman record from him, smash it, and beat him up. Emil, a former friend and Swing Kid turned HJ, deliberately stamps on Arvid’s fingers, crushing them. Arvid wakes up in the hospital, and is terrified at the sight of HJ uniforms until he realizes it is only Peter and Thomas. He eventually cheers up a little, saying he can learn to play with two fingers.
At HJ school, Thomas is boxing with Emil and it turns rough. Thomas questions Emil’s shift from Swing Kid to Nazi, and Emil says “I wised up.” Emil and Thomas become friends again as Thomas, seduced by the power and the perks, begins to buy into the Nazi philosophy.
Meanwhile, Peter, who has a job delivering books, is asked to spy on his boss who the Nazis suspect is working against the Reich. He peeks into a book he is to bring to Frau Linge, who had known his father, discovers incriminating papers hidden inside, and becomes even more frightened of the Nazis than he had been before.
Then, working at a jazz club, Arvid refuses to play a “German” song, lashing out at the club’s patrons for being blind to the Nazi agenda. Peter is sympathetic but Thomas loudly argues the Nazi side, saying Arvid should watch out because “we’re coming for you next” referring to the Nazi policy of executing the handicapped. Peter is shocked at Thomas’s about-face, but Arvid suddenly realizes that there is no future for him in Germany and no hope of escape. He goes home and commits suicide in the bathtub, slitting his wrists with a broken record.
In HJ school, the boys are encouraged to spy on their friends and families. Thomas, whose father despises him, tells that his father had insulted Hitler, hoping to cause a little trouble for him. But even Thomas is a bit unnerved when the Nazis arrive at his home and take his father away. His subsequent attempts to resume his friendship with Peter and to get him to “go along” with the Nazis are tinged with fear.
Peter is sent by the HJ leaders to deliver identical small packages to three different families. Peter hears screams from the second house as he walks away, so he decides to open the third one. He finds ashes and a wedding ring inside. Horrified, he runs to Frau Linge. She gives him a letter that his father wrote to her husband about the anti Nazi work he did, and Peter finally understands what really happened to his father.
Peter abandons his uniform and dresses in his most fashionable clothes to go to a club, knowing that it is slated for attack. Thomas finds him and begins to beat him, but suddenly comes to his senses and begs Peter to run. “They won’t let it go this time!” But Peter almost willingly mounts the truck that carts him off to the labor camp. Thomas calls out to him, “Swing Heil!” and Willi, who has followed, screams the same thing through tears.