`The Inheritors,' a hard-to-watch but useful look at Europe's neo-Nazi legacy

Three years ago, West German filmmaker Walter Bannert was sitting in a Vienna caf'e when a group of neo-Nazis entered and went on a rampage, attacking Bannert and his companion along with other patrons. Until that moment, Mr. Bannert hadn't believed that Europe was threatened by a significant neo-Nazi movement. The shock of the experience led him to research the subject and (according to notes for his new film) to infiltrate groups in a couple of countries. He then summed up

his findings in ``The Inheritors,'' a harrowing and cautionary drama about ``the danger of international fascism and neo-Nazi terror.''

The film centers on Thomas, a 16-year-old boy from a middle-class family. By chance he makes a new friend who belongs to a neo-Nazi youth group run by an extreme-right political party.

Unhappy with his home life, Thomas is impressed with the camaraderie and sense of purpose the neo-Nazis have. He is also seduced by the group's thuggish behavior and sexual license, which strike his barely awakened moral sense as brave and forthright. He becomes more deeply involved as his family life and school life decay. The ending is predictably tragic, linking the film's personal and political threads.

Bannert avoids setting the story in a specific nation because he feels the menace of fascism is present (actually or potentially) in many European countries. He also avoids pinning the blame on a particular generation: The adults of ``The Inheritors'' are often as corrupt as their misguided children, and the title indicates Bannert's view that today's neo-Nazis are picking up where the Hitler era left off.

``The Inheritors'' is not subtle. Bannert doesn't hesitate to make his points about political, ethical, and sexual corruption many times over in the bluntest images he can muster. The result is hard to watch at times -- one scene, in which an old Nazi gloats over an Auschwitz souvenir, is as sickening as any in recent memory. Yet this film marks another needed escalation in European cinema's confrontation of the fascist legacy.

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