What does it take to become a Quentin Tarantino Nazi? First, it helps if you're naturally blond. And as 6,000 Germans who came out for the September casting call found out, a nasty sneer doesn’t hurt, either. Part of a wave of Nazi-themed films crashing over theaters this season, Tarantino’s gory new World War II film, Inglourious Basterds (yes, that is the official spelling), is attracting a lot of would-be actors in Berlin.
“We thought we’d be shoo-ins,” said Jens Christian Kage, a 33-year-old German journalist who auditioned with his older brother Jan. “My brother even got his hair cut for the part. He sat down at the barbershop and said, ‘I need a Nazi haircut.’”
“Sure, you’re a Nazi—but you know that, in the end, you're going to get your head hacked off,” said one extra. “That was definitely part of why I wanted to do this.”
Both Jens and Jan are over 6 feet and have boyish good looks. They’re 100 percent German and look it—that is to say, they blend into the German male landscape. The problem is that both have dark hair and, more important, they’re just not sinister enough to play Germans. After having their portraits taken, both were turned down by an apologetic casting agent. “She told us that we look too friendly,” said Kage, laughing. “They wanted people who the audience would like seeing killed.”
Basterds is a blood-curdling flick about vengeance-seeking Jewish-American soldiers, played by Brad Pitt, Sam Levine, and Eli Roth, among others. These Nazi hunters sneak behind enemy lines to bash out Nazi brains and carve swastikas on their victims' foreheads. According to a leaked version of the script that circulated on the Internet, the troupe's leader, played by Pitt, demands, "Every man under my command owes me one hundred Nazi scalps...and y'all will git me one hundred Nazi scalps, taken from the heads of one hundred dead Nazis, or die trying."
The head casting agent, Johanna Ragwitz, said that more than 4,000 Germans got parts. That sum does not include the Germans who got Nazi parts in other recent American movies. Americans have come to Germany in recent years to shoot Valkyrie, starring Tom Cruise as a renegade Nazi colonel, and The Reader, in which Kate Winslet plays a woman who once guarded concentration camps. (Apparently, Cruise and Winslet had the Nazi look.)
But why, you might ask, would anyone want to play a Nazi extra? The measly five-euros-per-hour stipend isn’t much of an incentive. The Tarantino Nazi wannabes I met were all liberal Berliners who don't usually act in movies and who have no fondness whatsoever for the Third Reich. In fact, some claimed that the main attraction in this case is the fact that they will be gruesomely killed, Tarantino-style, by Jewish-Americans.
“Sure, you’re a Nazi—but you know that, in the end, you're going to get your head hacked off,” said a friend of Kage’s who managed to get cast and thus spoke with me anonymously. “That was definitely part of why I wanted to do this.”
“Who wants to be in a film where Nazis come off looking positive?” scoffs Kage. “In Germany you grow up constantly faced by this terrible history. The bad feeling of wearing a Nazi uniform is alleviated by the fact that you’re going to get blown away.”
Not all Nazi extras are in it for therapeutic purposes. There have been embarrassing instances when actual neo-Nazis managed to get cast as their heroes—most famously in Downfall, a German film depicting the last days in Hitler’s bunker. A smug right-wing politician revealed that he’d played a small Nazi role and said he’d recognized several other neo-Nazis among the extras.
Still other would-be Nazi extras offered more straightforward reasons. "I think people would play Jews, Nazis, Filipino terrorists—or whatever—just to be with Tarantino and Brad Pitt," said theater technician Jan Schulte, who was disappointed not to be in town for the casting, since he feels his blond locks and angular face would make him "a perfect Nazi." He added, "We're the third generation. We've heard enough jokes and distanced ourselves enough from the subject that we can stand it.”
And what of those lucky 4,000 who managed to join the Fourth Reich? Kage's friend, a strawberry blond who landed a small part, sent me a plaintive email from the set last week. His message, with cheeky subject line "Live at St. Quentin," reports a surreal scene: S.S. officers discussing the benefits of a refrigerator that makes crushed ice and a Nazi naval officer lounging about in a colorful Peruvian wool hat. Mostly, being a Nazi meant long hours spent on uncomfortable wooden benches waiting around for action that rarely came. "I spend all day in a shit-brown uniform with a swastika on my lapel,” the redhead writes. “Four days ago, I was still honestly curious about this whole thing—now I have an IQ of 45. Maximum."
Maybe that’s how Tarantino wants his Nazis.
Caroline Winter is a Fulbright fellow and freelance journalist based in Berlin.