Out of Germany: Tuning in to Hollywood's Nazi losers

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The Independent Online
BONN - For readers frustrated by an insufficient diet of war films on British television, an extended, couch-ridden holiday in Germany could be the answer.

Hardly a week goes by in which the plethora of stations does not offer a stirring selection of Second World War yarns. The small screen jumps to the sounds of steely-eyed blond men saying: 'Ve haf vays of making you tok]' Except that they say it in perfect German, since all films are dubbed. Instead, one sees the likes of John Wayne and David Niven barking 'Achtung' and 'donner und blitzen', or whatever else custom has it that military men said in the war.

Once the visitor has got over this cultural impediment, nothing stands in the way of hours of contented viewing of heroic Brits and Americans showing those nasty Germans what's what.

'These films are successful, the public likes them,' notes Andreas Bartel, spokesman for the private station Pro 7. Why on earth Germans put up with such films, let alone appear to enjoy them is, however, a matter which bemuses many a foreigner living here. For they do not appear to be a people especially dedicated to such obvious forms of masochism. But the answer is relatively straightforward. Most Germans watching these cliched Nazi types jackbooting across the screen do so with the same detached excitement as if they were watching a thriller about headhunters in Borneo. 'There is no sense in which I think, hey, these are our guys, or, that might have been grandfather's generation,' says Hans Eckhert, war-film fan and university student. 'It's just action.'

For Friedemann Beyer, film co-ordinator for another big private station, RTL Plus, this complete lack of identification is the key to the war films' success. 'The audience simply does not relate to the German characters in the films; it has nothing to do with any national feeling,' he says. 'So all you have left is the action and excitement, and well- known Hollywood stars.' Reality does creep in, however, to the extent that viewers accept the Germans always lose. 'The main thing is that it is a fair fight; straight good against bad,' says Mr Beyer. So a bad German soldier is acceptable.

But if there is one thing that knocks a war film stone dead for these audiences, it is a bad German soldier who is also silly. 'Our experience is that those war films which make the Germans ridiculous don't do at all well,' says Dieter zur Strassen, a spokesman for the satellite station Sat 1. 'The Hollywood propaganda films made during the war itself, in which the Germans are portrayed as complete buffoons, don't go down well.'

Nor it appears, do French war films, which tend to enjoy a good dig at les Boches. Clearly, losing to the French is not something the German audience, however detached, has come round to yet.

But even on the silly front, times may be changing. Or at least, that was Sat 1's hope when it broadcast Hogan's Heroes, an aged US slapstick PoW serial. It leaves no cliche unturned in its portrayal of joke German camp guards having rings run round them by enterprising GIs. 'We could never have shown this sort of thing 20 years ago,' notes Mr zur Strassen, 'but we think there are enough people now who realise that the characters are so exaggerated that they really are funny.'

Even so, Sat 1 tried not to take too many chances, placing Hogan's Heroes late on Sunday night after the prime, weekly current affairs talk show. 'We needed to make sure that it is seen by a mainly intellectual audience,' says Mr zur Strassen.

Hogan's Heroes for intellectuals; now that really is something. But even this ploy appears not to have worked, for the serial has been voted a huge flop by viewers; 72 per cent of those polled said it was awful. So, intellectuals or not, it is still: 'Bad German soldiers OK, silly ones not OK.'