In 'The Boys From Brazil,' Ira Levin probed our absurdist obsession with Nazi replicants—unfortunately today's fascists don't conform to pulp trope
Nazi clones have taken over! That’s not just a B-movie tagline; in terms of pop culture, it’s a terrifying, and/or preposterous truth. Hollywood has long adored Nazi antagonists, and it has slipped them into the most incongruous settings. The Galactic Empire in Star Wars names its military grunts after Nazi Storm Troopers. Khan, in the 1982 Star Trek movie, spouts garbled fascist eugenics, as do more recent villains like Orm in Aquaman and Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War. Meanwhile, Hitler himself pops up as an antagonist in recent shows like the AMC series Preacher and the film Jojo Rabbit, while his Nazi henchmen and heirs are the bad guys in Amazon Prime’s Hunters and The Boys Season 2. Nazis: they’re everywhere.
Ira Levin’s 1976 conspiracy spy novel The Boys From Brazil is not the first pulp Nazi thriller. It’s the one that most self-consciously addresses the proliferation of pop culture fascists from the ’70s until today. The novel shows how pop culture teaches us to hate fascists but also suggests that pulp tropes can make it harder to identify fascists when they show up in real life.
The book’s preposterous plot centers on infamous real-life concentration camp doctor and torturer Josef Mengele, who, after the war (in this fanciful narrative), perfects cloning technology. Using Hitler DNA, he creates 94 genetic duplicate baby Hitlers, and adopts them out to families similar to Hitler’s; with a younger mother and a father who is an older civil servant. Mengele then sends out hitmen to assassinate the fathers at age 65 in the hopes of reproducing the family dynamics that created the Adolf we know and who Mengele loves. Nazi hunter Yakov Liebermann gets wind of the plot and tries to prevent the assassinations and bring Mengele to justice.
Outside of the novel’s pseudoscience spy silliness, there are some real questions about the nature of fascism and of evil. Nazis, of course, are eugenicist racists who think that heritage is destiny, so it makes sense that Mengele would try to reincarnate his Führer.
But Liebermann is more skeptical. In the first place, he points out that social conditions had to be right to allow Hitler’s rise; he didn’t bring the Nazis to power all by himself. Hitler’s political program of mass slaughter is impossible to extricate from Germany’s own political situation. Hitler was enraged by the loss of World War I. That particular resentment would have been difficult to reproduce in the 1970s, regardless of genes or an abusive father.
Liebermann reasonably concludes that the clones aren’t likely to become monsters. “It could be that none will be Hitler, not even if there was a thousand of them,” he argues when a colleague proposes murdering all the clones. “They’re boys. No matter what their genes are. Children. How can we kill them? This was Mengele’s business, killing children. Should it be ours?”
“The idea that family bloodline determines one’s greatness is still a staple of pop fiction. Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Aquaman, and Superman all inherit their power and their extraordinary destinies from their powerful and extraordinary fathers.”
But while Lieberman’s arguments are persuasive, the book doesn’t quite believe them. The climax of the novel is set in Pennsylvania, where Liebermann tries to intercept Mengele before the doctor can kill the father of one of the Hitler clones, Bobby Wheelock. Mengele outsmarts Liebermann and kills Mr. Wheelock, but young Bobby, with Hitler’s genes, turns out to be a deadlier opponent. The boy sets Dobermans on Mengele, killing him, and then coolly forces an injured Liebermann to cover up for him. Bobby’s not at all upset by the death of his father, but instead sees the whole situation as an opportunity to advance his own career as a filmmaker. (All the Hitler clones have artistic ambitions, as their prototype did.)
Bobby’s an unfeeling sociopath, which means that Mengele was (unfortunately for him) largely successful. Ira Levin makes eugenics works after all, even though—via his fictionalized persona, Liebermann—he clearly explained why it shouldn’t.
So why is the author less smart than his own character? The answer seems pretty straightforward; Levin has eugenics work in the novel because eugenics is a good basis for fun pulp adventure. Nazi ideology often reads like pulp in itself—so much so that Norman Spinrad’s 1972 novel The Iron Dream imagined that Hitler could have been a science-fiction novelist in another life.
Nazi antisemitism took the form of elaborate conspiracy theories not that far removed from the plots of books like The Boys from Brazil. And the idea that family bloodline determines one’s greatness is still a staple of pop fiction. Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Aquaman, and Superman all inherit their power and their extraordinary destinies from their powerful and extraordinary fathers.
“But all these ersatz Hitler clones can also make it hard to recognize actual fascists today, who may not look exactly like that original Führer.”
This doesn’t mean that pop culture is inherently fascist. The chosen-by-blood trope is as much about King Arthur and traditions of royalty as it is about Nazi eugenics. But Nazis can be plugged into pulp tropes very easily. Mengele the character is partly the real-life monster who experimented on and murdered Jewish people out of egotism and racism. But he is also an analogue for Ira Levin and all those pulp creators who look at Hitler and think, “It would be a lot of fun to make more of these! For science! For world domination! That would be a plot!”
There’s obviously a certain satisfaction in foiling Mengele and even in having him (fictionally) torn apart by dogs. Nazis are evil, and pulp Nazis remind us of that, and give us a chance at revenge. But all these ersatz Hitler clones can also make it hard to recognize actual fascists today, who may not look exactly like that original Führer. When you’re looking for a mustache and a forelock, you might miss the well-dressed pundits calling for ethnic cleansing of immigrants, or the nice white ladies assaulting Black children at swimming pools, or the internationally renowned author threatening children’s websites which offer support to trans people. There are plenty of Anglophone traditions of bigotry and discrimination grown at home, not in any petri dish. Contra-The Boys From Brazil, and the pulp Nazi tradition in general, we don’t need Hitler DNA to lead us to hate.