Back to the Führer at the movies

SS zombies? Hitler in drag? The Nazis are again being used as all-purpose villains by a slew of film-makers. Only this time, argues Geoffrey Macnab, they're not to be taken seriously

Thanks to the shock tactics of a new generation of film-makers, we are learning aspects of 1940s history that have long eluded us. For example, it is a little-known fact that at the end of the Second World War, the same German scientists who had designed the V2 bombs built some early spaceships. From a secret base in the Antarctic, they were able to launch a mission to the moon. This is where a select group of Nazis fled as Hitler's regime crumbled. They have been hiding out on the dark side of the moon for the last 70 years, plotting a new invasion of earth.

Did you know that during the Second World War, a group of Apache-like Jewish-American Nazi hunters rampaged through Europe, killing and taking the scalps of as many German soldiers as they could? Were you aware that Dr Joseph Mengele, the "Angel of Death" at Auschwitz, created a new super army of invincible soldiers? Had you heard the astonishing story about the Nazi soldiers who died in a remote part of Norway and then came back as zombies to terrorise a group of Norwegian medical students? Or what about the allegation that Hitler didn't die in his bunker as commonly supposed but ended up hiding in post-war London, disguised as a woman?

This is history as interpreted in a number of new (and outrageously far-fetched) films, which use Nazis as rent-a-villains. Quentin Tarantino's latest feature, Inglourious Basterds, is an entertaining romp about vigilante Jewish hunters – a spaghetti Western in which the baddies wear swastikas, or have them engraved on their foreheads by Brad Pitt and his men.

Iron Sky, a long-gestating Finnish movie that begins production in early 2010, is a sci-fi yarn that posits the idea that Nazis are lurking on the moon. "Now it's 2018, the Nazi invasion is on its way and the world is goose-stepping toward its doom," is the producers' tag line for the movie, which stars Udo Kier as the Führer.

Tommy Wirkola's Dead Snow, which premiered in the Midnight section at the Sundance Festival, is billed as the first Norwegian Nazi zombie movie – a distinction of sorts. "Dude, that's not a regular zombie biting your neck, it's a Nazi zombie! Which means that the flesh-eaters in Dead Snow are better dressed than your typical George Romero undead and a lot more relentless," wrote Chuck Wilson in The Village Voice of Wirkola's Nordic shocker.

Shaun Robert Smith's The 4th Reich is a forthcoming British horror picture exploring Mengele's nefarious experiments in the effects of disease. The film-makers are promising the movie will come "packed with blood and guts" and will explore "the fear and the desperate depravity of mankind".

Mrs Meitlemeihr (2002) is a subversive and funny short starring (the ubiquitous) Udo Kier as Hitler in post-war London, dressed as a woman and pestered by a randy Jewish neighbour.

What these films have in common is the superficiality of their engagement with Second World War history. They are made by directors for whom the war is a long way in the past. If you're looking for Shoah-like analyses of the Holocaust, or an account of the social and political forces that swept Hitler to power, they won't provide it. As psychological case studies of evil, these films are about as penetrating as an episode of Scooby-Doo. Should we be offended by their lack of context or lack of respect for the suffering the Nazis' victims endured? You'd have to be very thin-skinned to get upset by films that are so preposterous and that don't hide their main purpose, which is to startle and entertain audiences.

For film-makers of Tarantino's generation, and those younger, the Nazis now seemingly serve as all-purpose bad guys, ready to be co-opted into action movies, horror pics, comedies and sci-fi dramas alike.

"Many things that would be a taboo for older generations are easier for younger people who come at it [the Nazi period] from a more distant way," suggests Tero Kaukomaa, producer of Iron Sky. He points out that there is just a grain of credibility about the notion of Nazis on the moon. It is well known that German scientists, led by Wernher von Braun, went to the US after the war and played a key role in the US space programme. However, Kaukomaa adds, "the story [of Iron Sky] is total fantasy, of course."

Perhaps ironically, given its cheery evocation of Nazi villainy, Inglourious Basterds was shot in Germany and part-financed with German money. Iron Sky is likewise due to be made in Germany. (The Nazi moon station will be created in a film studio in Frankfurt.) Local sensibilities don't seem bothered by foreign film-makers coming to the country to tell bloodcurdling, tongue-in-cheek yarns about gimlet-eyed SS officers or stormtroopers in space.

Besides, there is a very long tradition of film-makers poking fun at the Third Reich. During the Second World War itself, Hollywood and British directors alike were busy lampooning Hitler and concocting stories so far-fetched that they make even Iron Sky and Inglourious Basterds seem like understated realism.

Take The Goose Steps Out (1942), a Will Hay vehicle in which the antic British comedian plays a nincompoop English schoolteacher who turns out to be the doppelgänger of a top-ranking Nazi. He is airlifted into Germany and ends up in charge of a troupe of Hitler Youth students. (He teaches them to give the v-sign instead of the Hitler salute to the Führer.)

The Will Hay and Crazy Gang films, made in the middle of the war, are perversely cheerful and upbeat. Given the later revelations about the Nazi death camps, the footage of the Crazy Gang up to high jinks in Nazi captivity can't help but seem jarring.

In Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, the Führer is played by Martin Wuttke (also cast as Arturo Ui in a famous Berliner Ensemble production of the Brecht play in the mid-1990s.) It's a very vivid cameo. Hitler is seen between rants chewing gum outside a cinema. In his mix of menace and absurdity, he isn't so different from the pantomime villain shown in British wartime movies.

Why are there so many outrageous, Nazi-themed movies being made now? There isn't any specific answer to the question – it's not to do with anniversaries or with the rise of neo-Nazism. The film-makers' motivation seems far less complicated than that. For a new generation of directors who want to startle audiences or are looking for the most convenient villains to put on the moon or to press gang as zombies, the swastika is simply the place to start.

'Inglourious Basterds' is released in the UK on 21 August