The film's setting is 1930's Germany during Hitler's rise to power. The film tells the story of some young men and women (but mostly men) who become involved in an underground dance movement. This movement was proscribed by the contemporary leadership because it embraced American swing dancing. You know, "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing," right? Truth be told, there is not really a lot of swing dancing portrayed in the movie. Rather, the movie follows the conflict that exists between and within these young men as they contemplate how to look at and respond to the rise of Nazism in their mother country. A key element of the tale is when the two main characters, Peter (played by Robert Sean Leonard) and Thomas (Christian Bale), both join the Hitler youth. As the movie progresses, Thomas becomes entirely taken with Nazi ideology, while Peter is still very opposed to supporting the Nazis. Peter's father also opposed Hitler's rise, and as a result, was taken by the Nazis, and nearly killed, when Peter was just a small boy. Since Peter and his younger brother were essentially raised without a father, their mother naturally feels tremendous fear toward the German government.
As the narrative unfolds, the friendship between Peter and Thomas is shaken because Thomas begins to openly support Nazi goals, while Peter cannot come to grips with what is becoming of Germany. In a final act of rebellion, Peter returns to a swing club one last time, and dances his heart out until the club is invaded by Nazi soldiers. The soldiers apprehend Peter, along with many others, and load him in a truck to presumably be shuttled to some sort of concentration camp.
One scene that stood out to me is when Peter, Willi (Pete's younger brother), and the boys' mother Frau are sitting at the dinner table with one of the more prominent Nazi leaders, Herr Knopp. While there is still a bit of awkwardness in the atmosphere, here is a family eating mouth-watering food, and drinking fine wine. When Peter shows visible signs of displeasure at the presence of Knopp, and what Knopp stands for, Peter's mother clearly becomes upset, because this is as good as they have had it in a long time. Why mess with what's comfortable anyway, right?
Whenever I watch a film portraying uncomfortable historical realities, I naturally consider the implications for questions of cultural and social institutions we have in place today. Today, Naziism, and antisemitism are repugnant to 99% of us. Similarly, nearly everyone you meet deplores modern and historical racism, in all its disgusting manifestations.
Yet I can't help but think that in the 1930's and 40's many Germans (and Americans for that matter) aided and abetted in the rise of Hitler. And even after revelations emerged about the reality of the millions who were brutally murdered in the Nazi's wake, many people justified looking the other way, either out of fear, or just plain denial. The character Thomas in "Swing Kids," as well as Peter's mother Frau, embody the conflict between knowing something is immoral, but also fearing the ramifications of actually standing up for what is really right.
If you have seen "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner," "Remember the Titans," "Amazing Grace," or the more recent movies "The Help," or "The Butler," you can see examples of a similar trend in American culture. As civil rights came more and more to the forefront, many prominent individuals and institutions not only continued to shrug at the old ways of thinking, but they also railed against things like interracial marriage and integration in schools, because of the fear of what these changes might lead to in the future. And just as with the examples portrayed in Swing Kids, you have many, many Americans unable to stand for what is right because of the fear of how they will be seen by others, be it friends, family, religious peers, or employers.
The civil rights issue of our time is homosexuality and gay marriage. Even though apparently a majority of Americans now support gay marriage, many institutions, especially religious organizations, are trying to hold back the tide. They have their various pet arguments, and they cling to biblical scripture to justify their position.
Yet I cannot help but look backward (and then forward). Am I equating Nazis = racists = homophobes, or that someone who opposes gay marriage is a gay-hater? Not exactly. But it's hard not to imagine a time somewhere down the road where we will look back at gays and gay marriage, and we will think, "wow, I can't believe people believed THAT or said THIS about gays." Isn't that how we look back at World War II and the civil rights era? How could anyone think those awful things about Jews? How could people believe that embarrassing stuff about blacks (Chinese/Japanese/Irish/Hispanics...)?
I can't help but assume that most of the individuals and institutions that oppose gay marriage today would be the ones opposing fair treatment of Jews in the early 20th century, and equal rights for blacks in the mid 1900's. It's easy to oppose those positions today. When you agree with 99% of society, you really have nothing to lose. But today, now, when things are still much more divided, is the test of what a person really values. Loyalty to traditional institutions, or love toward oppressed individuals seems to be the common choice one may have to face. And while "homophobic' is a label many will not appreciate, racism did not become racism only after the vast majority of people decided blacks weren't inferior to whites.
I don't want to look back and know that I was one of those people. The one who decides to go along once it's obvious what the correct way to act is, because nearly everyone has finally jumped on the bandwagon. If we study history, I don't think any of us have a legitimate excuse to be "that" person.