If the SS cap fits

Why are British actors always being asked to play Nazis? And why do they look so good in the bad guys' clothes? Maybe because the Nazis themselves were so very theatrical. By Jasper Rees
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The Independent Culture
There's a scene in Where Eagles Dare where, in order to get his crack team of commandos out of a jam, Richard Burton has to pretend to be an officer of the Third Reich. With those fierce azure eyes and that clipped theatrical voice, he pulls it off so convincingly that both his Nazi captors and fellow prisoners are easily duped.

Few have managed to be so frighteningly plausible as Burton but - call it the spoils of victory - for the last 50 years, English actors have been gainfully employed in the impersonation of the erstwhile enemy. No sooner had we won the war than our film industry started churning out movies about how we managed it, and someone had to play the baddie. Throwing off their battle-soiled dress, sundry thespians found themselves buttoning themselves into the regalia of the Third Reich.

Half a century on, the Germans are our pals, Colditz and 'Allo 'Allo are fading memories, but we're still at it. Ian McKellen's version of Richard III, though not given an explicitly German context, none the less drew on 1930s totalitarian iconography. It can't be a coincidence that soon after the film opened, McKellen went to America to play an ageing Nazi war criminal in Apt Pupil, directed by Bryan (Usual Suspects) Singer and written by Stephen King.

Meanwhile, back in Blighty, the Tricycle Theatre is restaging Nuremberg, a dramatic transcription of the war crimes trials that took place half a century ago. Michael Cochrane will once more give us his Goering, Thomas Wheatley his Hoess and Michael Culver his Speer. "They always say actors fall in love with the character they're playing," says Jeremy Clyde, who plays Alfred Rosenberg, deputy leader of the nascent Nazi Party and later Commissioner for the East European Region. "I've had a bit of a problem in that regard. The accent is a tricky one. If you do the full thing, if you signal villainy, people stop listening. We suggest a Germanic turn of phrase: the banality of evil, the fact that they were so ordinary, is what we're going for."

Of course, it could all have been so different. In the scenario of a German victory imagined by Robert Harris's bestselling thriller Fatherland, the jackboot would have been on the other foot. We would have had Maximilian Schell as the dastardly Churchill, Klaus Maria Brandauer would have played the evil genius Barnes Wallace, and the comic bungler Field-Marshal Montgomery would have been a gift for Arnold Schwarzenegger.

But in purely thespian terms, a British triumph was the right result. Our fair-skinned, almost Aryan, actors look splendid in brown or black, and wear it easily and frequently. Laurence Olivier, whose Henry V made such a stirring contribution to the war effort, will be remembered by film-goers as much for his Nazi villains as for his English kings. In Marathon Man, he was a concentration camp dentist chiselling into Dustin Hoffman's molars. In Wild Geese II, he paced around Spandau as a dead ringer for Rudolf Hess. Only this year, Derek Jacobi made a scene-stealing cameo appearance as a haughty Nazi general in the "Everyman" drama documentary Witness Against Hitler. Robert Lindsay was an SS officer in the 1994 "Screen Two", Genghis Cohn, and talked of an "immense feeling of power" when pulling on the boots.

It's only natural that our pre-eminent actors make such thoroughly convincing Nazis. More than other totalitarian creeds, Nazism delivered its message with a grandiloquent theatricality. The rallies designed by Albert Speer were vast, brilliantly choreographed exercises in a kind of community theatre. The straight-arm salute has an exaggerated, make-sure-they-can- see-you-in-the-gods staginess. And, as for the uniform, it's a far more impressive costume than anything you'll find in the British army wardrobe.

"It's unusual," Clyde says, "to find the bad guys actually getting into the black uniforms, putting on the black hat and then putting a death's head on to the black hat. Dressing up as a villain and being one at the same time is certainly a theatrical statement."

In some contexts, that theatricality is intentionally absurd. About the only thing that Chaplin's The Great Dictator and 'Allo 'Allo have in common is the way they play up the panto antics of the villain. But most of the time, Nazism's thespian attributes are sinister, which is where the English also fit the bill. When Hollywood wants to semaphore a character's evil, it casts a Brit: see Alan Rickman in the Die Hard series, most Bond films, and any movie set in Ancient Rome. Thus it was that in the straight-to- video movie version of Fatherland, the nice Nazi hero trying to prove that the Holocaust actually happened is played by a German (Rutger Hauer), while all the nasty Nazis on his tail are played by Anglo-Saxons.

And Nazism can put a doodlebug up an actor's career. Just as McKellen's reinvention of Dick Crookback as an icy Fascist should finally make him a major player in Hollywood, Ralph Fiennes hasn't looked back since his death camp commandant in Schindler's List. Fiennes's searing, serpentine wickedness turned him overnight into a pin-up - unsettling evidence to support the old theory that there's something dangerously alluring and glamorous about unalloyed evil. (Similarly, when Lindsay first donned the SS garb, the wardrobe ladies told him he looked sexy.) Schindler's List was by no means Fiennes's Third Reich debut: in a single-performance charity production of Martin Sherman's Bent at the Adelphi in 1989, he played one of the camp guards. He was joined by Richard E Grant, another searingly blue-eyed Aryan. Sean Mathias, who directed the play, has been filming it this summer.

Fiennes and Grant are both dark-haired but "for the movie," says Mathias, "I'm going more with the blond look." The big prize, of course, is Hitler: he's the Hamlet of the Nazi party, the Everest they're all queuing up to attempt. For Olivier, it was the role that got away. Easily the most frequent Fuhrer was Robert Watson, who pasted on the toothbrush 'tache in The Hitler Gang and other propaganda movies during the war. Of the stars, Chaplin got there first with his little dictator, unnamed but unmistakeable. Later, the cream of the British profession were summoned to (usually American) television movies to give us their moustachioed maniac. There was Alec Guinness in Hitler: The Last Ten Days, Derek Jacobi in Inside the Third Reich, Anthony Hopkins in The Bunker and McKellen (again) in ITV's Countdown to War. Can it be mere coincidence that all four Hitlers were subsequently knighted?

`Nuremberg' previews from today, and opens Wed, Tricycle Theatre, London NW6. Booking: 0171-328 1000