Part of my continuing examination of "good Germans" in Hollywood films.
I was watching the new film Wonder Woman with my young children, and one of them asked an interesting question. As Steve Trevor started fighting German sailors after being rescued off Paradise Island, one of my five-year-old twins asked "Dada, are you rooting for the Germans?" They are accustomed to me rooting for Germany in soccer. And they know that we are a German-American family, and we even speak some German at home. But in this instance the question threw me for a loop.
For those who haven't seen it yet, Wonder Woman takes place in the waning days of World War I. The Great War, the War to End All Wars. Germans make a good villain in World War II films because they aren't just Germans, they are Nazis. Nazis make safe bad guys, as well they should. (And I hope that they remain safe bad guys for fiction, despite some modern versions of them maybe being "good people," as our current President has rationalized.)
But Germans as bad guys in World War I films, in general, are a tougher sell. During the war the Huns were certainly painted as being vicious and cruel. Much of it was simple propaganda, but they were very militaristic and the idea of the cold, calculating Prussian soldier was well exploited in both the war effort and in films. But immediately after the Great War, many representations of Germans on film reflected the truth that most soldiers were just young men drawn by patriotism to fight for an aristocracy that didn't really care if they lived or died. In that aspect they were very similar to the young French or British soldiers in the same boat. All Quiet on the Western Front (both the 1928 German-language book, and various English-language film versions), detailing the terrible life of regular soldiers on the front, is the classic example of this type of representation. Other films showed that German and British, or French, officers were similar in their regard for social norms. They often saw themselves in the same class, having more in common with each other than with the soldiers serving under them. A good example of this is Jean Renoir's La Grande Illusion from 1937 which portrayed aristocratic French POWs getting along with their aristocratic German captors.
In 2017's Wonder Woman, Germans are represented in a few interesting ways. Early in the film, when spy Steve Trevor crashes his stolen German bi-plane off the shore of Paradise Island, German navy ships follow him. After Diana rescues him, German sailors storm the beach and begin shooting at Trevor and Diana. He tells her that he is a "good guy" and they are the "bad guys." She takes him at his word, and immediately these sailors are represented as being the enemy. As more Amazon warriors appear on the beach to help rescue Diana and Trevor, all of the German sailors are eventually killed. A few Amazons are killed in the battle, including Antiope, Diana's beloved trainer and role model. (Perhaps she is killed partly to give Diana a personal reason to be angry at the Germans?)
In retrospect, a few things bothered me about this scene. Why does Diana take Trevor at his word? We later find out she speaks a hundred languages. Surely she speaks German. Why doesn't she try and communicate with the sailors? Granted, the sailors seem more intent on shooting at Trevor than communicating - but he's a spy they have been sent to capture or kill. They are trying to complete their mission, and Diana happens to be in the way. More important is that the sailors aren't "evil." They are men at war. But we have been told they are the "bad guys" by the English speaking "good guy." And this affects how we view Germans for the rest of the film.
Diana agrees to help Trevor return to England and deliver a stolen diary that describes Germany's plans for expanding poison gas attacks. She is convinced to help him because he tells her that the Germans plan on extending the war and using a new poison gas that will kill thousands. Of course Germany did use poison gas during the war - but so did France, and England, and the United States. By fabricating the tale that Germany was going to continue the war, and create even more powerful gas, the filmmakers are again able to portray the Germans as the "bad guys."
In the film the Armistice is just days away, and both German and English leaders are shown debating whether or not the other side can be trusted to keep the peace. In some ways, the leadership of both countries are seen both in a positive and a negative light. Some of the English are ready to continue sacrificing their own infantry to death in the trenches, as one British officer says (I paraphrase) "soldiers die in war; that's what they do." Diana is appalled at this seeming lack of compassion for the troops. Others want to accept the Armistice and avoid further conflict.
The Germans are also shown debating whether to keep fighting, and they
seem ready to accept the "truce." But here, the German officer in
charge of the final gas attack, Ludendorff, tries to convince them that a
truce is surrender - they disagree. Ludendorff is the one German
in the film who, ultimately, is a true, uncompromised villain. He throws a gas canister into the
room of German officers, with one (ineffectual) gas mask, just to see
his fellow officers fight over it. Along with Ludendorff the other
German who appears to be a villain is Dr. Maru, a woman chemist at work creating
a new, deadlier gas. But her story gets more complicated at the end of the film.
Ultimately the British generals and politicians choose to ignore Trevor's insistence that they pursue the lead on the new German gas because they don't want to put the Armistice at risk. All except Sir Patrick, an English statesman who agrees to covertly help Trevor and a small rag-tag group of ethnically diverse mercenaries find the plant where the Germans are producing the new gas. His reasons seems muddy, however; he didn't seem fully in support of the Armistice. The Germans, under Ludendorff, are able to test their gas on a town that Diana helps liberate. Again, the Germans are alone shown as the side willing to kill civilians indiscriminately.
Diana is convinced that Ludendorff is actually Ares, the God of War, and if she kills him the war will end. When that turns out to be false, it wasn't a great surprise to see the Sir Patrick as the man really pulling the strings. And in this way, the film reveals its anti-war message. All sides are capable of being evil. Don't trust your leaders, because they may be working against you. We never see the British or French using poison gas, but we have seen their Generals dismiss casualties as the price of war, and we have seen their leader revealed as the true God of War.
And it's at the end of the film that we do, finally, see some "Good Germans." As Ares/Sir Patrick and Diana battle, he throws a tank at Dr. Maru (the chemist behind the new deadly gas). Wonder Woman is given the choice to save her, a flawed human, or let her die. Diana chooses to let her live. In this moment Diana reaffirms that even humans as flawed as the German who created the new gas might also be victims. The fact Dr. Maru has a disfigured face also hints at her status as a victim as well as a villain.
After Diana vanquishes Ares, and the poison gas plant and the plane meant to deliver it are destroyed (at no small cost - Trevor sacrifices himself to destroy the plane), the survivors are all stunned. The mercenaries helping Trevor embrace, and they also embrace the few remaining German soldiers, who seem to have awakened from a fog. The German soldiers are survivors of a war that they perhaps were drawn into for the same reasons as their British or French or American counterparts. It's interesting to note that the surviving soldiers all appear to be quite young.
The horrors of the Great War should never be understated. And it should not be forgotten that Germany played a leading role in the development and implementation of poison gas for use in the battlefield. But the reasons for the war, and the role of individual soldiers in the conflict, make portraying Germany and Germans as an evil enemy in World War I fiction a little more complicated. I think the creative team behind Wonder Woman understood that to a degree. Ares, after all, is the true villain of the film, and he influences all sides of the conflict equally. His goal is to foment war. It doesn't matter to him which side wins or loses, as long as humanity suffers.