Captain America: The First Avenger, aside from being one of the only legitimately enjoyable blockbusters of this summer, was a reminder of how captivating Nazi villains are on the silver screen. Seriously, is there anything more chilling in cinema than a diabolical Nazi? I say, on the balance of things, no. There must be a reason why filmmakers keep going back to that well. Anyway, that reminder, coupled with this totally ridiculous article in The Atlantic that calls Nazi film villains boring, has inspired me to compile a personal top-four list of the most memorable Nazi villains.
Read on after the jump, then tell me where I went wrong in the comments. And don't worry, much as I liked Captain America, Red Skull did not make the list, and he wasn't disqualified from consideration on the technicality that he's kind of not a Nazi.
My first exposure to Timothy Dalton was not as James Bond, but instead as Sinclair, the Hollywood star and oh-by-the-way Nazi sympathizer/spy in The Rocketeer. It's been some time since I've seen this film -- far too long in truth -- but I remain jarred by Sinclair's sinister transition into Hitler's henchmen, particularly him barking out orders to Nazi soldiers in abrasive German.
Catch me on another day, and I'd put Landa, played by the superb Christoph Waltz, at the top. There's so much texture and depth to Landa, and that's part of what makes him so realistic and also so frightening, even in a movie that is as cartoonish and over-the-top in its carrying of vengeance to its logical conclusion as Basterds.
Why is Landa so frightening? Because he's just doing his job, and trying to do it well, with no real concern for the grander implications. That's frightening because real people like the very much fictional Landa are probably a big reason the Nazis were able to rise to power in Weimar Germany in the first place.
Another villain who was tempting to put in the top spot, Toht, played by Ronald Lacey, ultimately misses out for two reasons. First, he's somewhat obscured by French archaeologist Rene Belloq and Nazi Col. Dietrich as the three share the villainy somewhat equally in Raiders. And second, I had to partially discount the still visceral reaction Toht engenders in me.
Other than Hitler himself, I think Toht is one of the first associations I ever had with just what Nazism was when I was young. I'm still creeped out by him picking up Marion Ravenwood's medallion in her Nepalese bar as it burned to the ground and badly mangling his hand in the process. I'm still relieved that his face melted off when he and Belloq finally opened the Ark. Apparently, Steven Spielberg chose Lacey to play the role because he reminded him of Peter Lorre. Makes sense to me on many levels.
If Toht was the cinematic Nazi who terrified me as a child, then Goeth represents a more adult conception of the exact horror Nazism wrought upon the world.
Spielberg painted a brutal picture in large part with Goeth, played by Ralph Fiennes, as his primary instrument of elucidation. Fiennes was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his part in Schindler's List.