Both movies are set in brutal police states. Both make heroes out of fanatical storm troopers. And both portray their villains as dehumanized vermin fit only for extermination. The difference? One is a Nazi propaganda film made in the 1930s; the other is currently the No. 1 film in the country.
Director Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers conquered the box office last week with a $22.1 million opening — hardly a shock, since on the surface, Troopers is your run-of-the-mill glossy, overbudgeted, check-your-brain-in-the-lobby sci-fi event flick that lures in hordes of teen moviegoers. But a deeper peek reveals there’s more to this special-effects fest than just killer spiders from outer space. In short: It iz not vat it zeems.
”The first shot [in Troopers] is taken from Triumph of the Will,” Verhoeven explains cheerily, referring to German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl’s infamous 1935 Nazi propaganda classic. ”When the soldiers look at the camera and say, ‘I’m doing my part!’ that’s from Riefenstahl. We copied it. It’s wink-wink Riefenstahl.”
Turns out there are more wink winks to Will in Troopers, as well as to other Nazi works. The characters’ gestapolike uniforms, the Albert Speer-style architecture, the Goebbels-esque dialogue (”Violence is the supreme authority!”), even the film’s casting — with scads of perfectly cheekboned young unknowns — seem straight out of an Aryan Spelling production. At times the Nazi references all but goose-step off the screen. One critic described the opening Riefenstahl homage as a ”kissing cousin to a Hitler Youth recruitment ad.”
Which raises the question, Why? In part, it was an aesthetic consideration. ”The reason for all the German uniforms and everything is because the Germans made the best-looking stuff,” says Troopers screenwriter Edward Neumeier. ”Art directors love it.” Verhoeven too was attracted by the visual appeal: ”I just wanted to play with these [Nazi images] in an artistic way.” But the director also sees the film’s fascist undercurrent as a sly exercise in cinematic deconstruction. ”I wanted to do something more than just a movie about giant bugs,” he says. ”What I tried to do is use subversive imagery to make a point about society. I tried to seduce the audience to join [Troopers‘] society, but then ask, ‘What are you really joining up for?”’
Still, some wonder what kind of impact Troopers‘ Nazi subtext will have on those who don’t get the joke — like, say, action-craving teens who think Triumph of the Will is about a boy and his whale. For them, isn’t Troopers merely an ironic twist on Nazi propaganda — minus the ironic twist? ”All those macho guys in black leather and boots — someone my age can’t help but make the association with Nazis,” says Dr. Will Miller, Nick at Nite’s resident pop psychotherapist. ”And to make them the good guys — that’s a pretty creepy message for kids, who generally don’t have a knowledge of Nazi propaganda-film techniques.”