If you’ve seen the ads for Swing Kids and think it looks like some sort of grotesquely upbeat ersatz-’40s musical about fresh-faced German youths grinnin’ and hoofin’ their way through the rise of Nazism (Swingtime for Hitler?), the movie will probably take you by surprise. The hero, a svelte teen maverick named Peter (Robert Sean Leonard), does adore big-band jazz and spends many an evening at the Café Bismarck, a candy-colored dance hall where young couples toss each other around with electric abandon. The movie, which takes off from actual accounts of German teenagers who rebelled through their love of swing, treats the music — appropriately — as the rock & roll of its era: the sound of freedom. The dancing, for all its gymnastic splendor, comes off as wilder, sexier, less meticulously choreographed than it usually does in Hollywood swing-dance sequences.
Nevertheless, most of Swing Kids has nothing to do with swing. Set in 1939, just as the Nazi juggernaut was reaching full force, the movie is a somber, smoothly crafted drama about a wily adolescent who senses there’s something rotten going on in his country but can’t quite put a finger on it.
Suddenly, everyone Peter knows — buddies, schoolmates, even his widowed mother (Barbara Hershey) — is turning into a brainwashed Third Reich partisan. The most effective aspect of the movie is the way it portrays the Nazis less as goose-stepping monsters than as an insidious cult that alternately seduces and bullies the civilian population. At the behest of a Gestapo official (Kenneth Branagh, employing his thin-lipped hauteur for silken malice), Peter dons the fascist Boy Scout uniform of the Hitler Youth. But he isn’t taken in. Robert Sean Leonard, a Dead Poets Society alum, has a face that grows more interesting the longer you look at it. He’s Aryan handsome but with a touch of high-cheekboned androgyny. Following the rise of Nazism through his nervous, gimlet eyes, we seem, at moments, to be caught up in some grim historical version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Still, I have a question: Why on earth was Swing Kids made? It’s doubtful a picture like this one could hold out much commercial appeal for young moviegoers. Raised on pop nihilism, fashion, and the eternal cult of the now, most of them feel at a crucial remove from such antique phenomena as swing dancing and, you know, World War II. As for anyone older, the movie, okay as it is, will seem too derivative to be very exciting. At this point, you’d have to put a far more audacious spin on the Nazi era to create a drama that could honestly be described as eye-opening. B-