Overcoming The Past: Cinema’s Romance With Nazism Is In Transition

Neeti Singhal - 72 weeks ago

Boy 23 – The Forgotten Boys of Brazil – a film with a Nazi connection all the way in Brazil uses catharsis as a means to reconciliation. The film received top honour at the 13th Montreal Black Film Festival and was shortlisted for Oscars It explores the Nazi ideologues behind racism in the state that was the last to abolish slavery and speaks of the time somewhere between the two World Wars: the 1930s.

Think trauma cinema and the first thing that comes to mind are stories about the well-documented episodes of unimaginable brutality imprinted on our collective memory - the Holocaust. Filmmakers have exploited the bloodletting stories from the Nazi era for years. This episode from history has found a consistent place in cinematic culture, from the moving images documented by the Third Reich right up to the present with Paul Andrew Williams’ The Eichmann Show (starring Martin Freeman) and Mar Targarona’s The Photographer of Mauthausen being recent additions to the library. Mar Targarona, in an interview with Variety confessed, “I’ve always been interested in WWII and in particular Nazism, which never ceases to astonish me. For many years, I have immersed myself in endless films and documentaries.” Spielberg has shown similar immersive interest in documenting the history of Jews - he is also the founder of an organization to the same end.

(A still from Mar Targarona's The Photographer of Mauthausen)

Over the years, filmmakers have covered all possible routes for the approximation of this very complex slice of history; from dramatization of true stories, celebrating lesser-known heroes, to stories of resilience to filmmakers dabbling in alternate realities like Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 adventure drama Inglorious Basterds. Films like Life is Beautiful, The Reader, The Boy in Striped Pyjamas, The Body Collector all make an attempt to document stories from various angles, as do millions of other books, documentaries and films. Marvin J. Chomsky’s television miniseries Holocaust (1978) and the much-celebrated Schindler’s List (1993) by Steven Spielberg brought the mass industrialization of Nazi exploitation to mass consciousness and reinforced Holocaust as the symbol of suffering.

(A still from Mark Herman's 2008 release The Boy In The Stripped Pajamas

One less explored but highly effective course to delve into Nazi era is moving from the historical reconstruction of violence into chronicling its transition to present by documenting personal narratives. Films that try to explore the subject through extensive interviews of survivors in the present seem to be the televised equivalent of the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions supported by Nelson Mandela for the recovery of a nation, after the end of apartheid, on the back of confessionals and truth-telling instead of retaliation.  

(A still from Steven Spielberg's Schindlers List)

Belisario Franca’s Boy 23 - The Forgotten Boys of Brazil, which received top honour at the 13th Montreal Black Film Festival and was shortlisted for Oscars, is one such hidden gem and explores the Nazi ideologues behind racism in a state that was the last to abolish slavery. It speaks of the time somewhere between the two World Wars (around 1930) and uses personal narratives as a means to face the aggressors in a state with Nazi leanings which most Nazis in power escaped in order to evade the law of the land at the end of Hitler’s reign. 

It all began, according to Franca, when they discovered a story which he thought had the drama to be worthy of audiences. He stumbled upon the story through the works of the historian Sydney Aguilar Filho, who is also interviewed in the film. On being asked about the challenges of making such a film, Franca had remarked in an interview during the Addis Film Festival, “It was a sewing process. We did regressive exercises and continuous shooting before final editing in order to recreate an impressionistic memory.” 

The film, in its very analytical approach and devoid of any hysterics, allows Argemiro Dos Santos aka Boy 23 and Dois (another survivor) to reveal their stories for the first time. Santos is heard speaking about the time he was enslaved and was made to work on a farm without a wage, his subsequent escape and his life after. He and 49 other boys were pulled out from an orphanage under the guise of schooling. Bianca Lenti, co-writer on the documentary, combines these narratives with archival footage and dramatic reconstructions which is further heightened by its beautifully crafted black and white shades, thus giving full justice to the story. The footage used for reconstruction of memories effectively complements the narrative of the survivor. 

Through the denial of survivors, the film addresses denial of the state with a strong underlying message that the only way for Brazil to rise from its slave past and its current far-right leanings is to accept it in a way as to provide closure to those affected. With Brazil still riddled with white supremacy and discrimination against indigenous population coupled with leadership of the dictatorial President, Jair Bolsonaro who makes racist and misogynistic comments with ease, there’s a long distance to be covered. 

Franca’s Boy 23 is a deep look at racism and explores the intersection between racial superiority, slavery and the Nazi ideologues. In its simplicity, Boy 23 is a strong statement reinforcing the act of truth-telling leading up to reconciliation. One can only thank the curious historian whose chance discovery of Swastika imprinted bricks in the sleepy town of Sao Paulo brought forth this story.

(Boy 23 – The Forgotten Boys of Brazil is currently playing on myNK)


Boy 23 - The Forgotten Boys of Brazil / Menino 23/ Belisario Franca/ Steven Spielberg/ Mar Targarona/ Schindler’s List/ The Holocaust/ Nazi/ Hitler

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of The Film Hashery.

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