Indulgent, garish pulp: The Boys from Brazil (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1978)

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So the Nazis aren’t just hiding out in South America, they also cloned Hitler. Wait, what? That’s what this movie’s about? Oh lord.

Okay, that’s not fair. I shouldn’t hold the garish story against it just because it’s not what I was expecting. The Boys from Brazil does go to great lengths to try and make its science seem plausible. However, too many scenes are a near-unbearable trifecta of clunky dialogue, incoherent characters and dodgy overacting. Gregory Peck and Lawrence Olivier have their moments but don’t seem to have been reined in at all, and anyway don’t fare that well in the midst of jarring cuts and dubious plot turns.

The film is also unwilling to explore some obvious issues associated with the premise. Can personality be predicted by combining nature with nurture? The Boys from Brazil suggests it is. If we accept, for the moment, this is true, then what to do about these young Hitlers? You know the conundrum about going back in time to kill a child who will become a tyrant, but what if the child’s future actions are not known for certain, but seemingly stamped in their genes? The film isn’t that interested in the answer, but then, it’s also not interested in portraying ‘evil’ with some subtlety, which would make it easier to think about these things properly.

I did like two things. First is Mengele’s jungle hideaway, with its tropical birds, caged monkeys, bust of Hitler, classical records, human test subjects and sea-plane jetty. It’s a James Bond-ish but disturbing depiction of a sociopath whose crimes have not just gone unpunished but continue on, unchecked, in the midst of luxury. Second is when a young Bruno Ganz shows up out of nowhere. Give me his multi-faceted potrayal of Hitler any day.

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