When I first watched Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, I didn’t understand the full connotation behind the term “Nazi collaborator.” To be fair, I was eight.
At that age, I wasn’t in the habit of looking too closely at the morality of the movies I watched. I understood that the bad guys lost because they were the bad guys, and the good guys won because they were the good guys. So when I saw Nazis die one after the other in Steven Spielberg’s third Indiana Jones movie, it didn’t register as a nuanced moral statement that would one day be relevant to the political climate. And yet, here we are.
There are two named characters in the film that show themselves to be Nazi collaborators: Julian Glover’s Walter Donovan and Alison Doody’s Elsa Schneider. Both in pursuit of the Holy Grail, they are revealed to be working for the Nazis mainly because they believe that is the fastest way to achieve their goal. Donovan sees the Nazis as tools that he uses to find the Grail. He is never shown to be concerned with their methods or beliefs. Not so with Elsa, who clearly demonstrates regret over her decision to align with the greatest evil in the world.
She tries to convince Indy her remorse is real more than once, because she truly believes him to be a kindred spirit. Elsa sobs as she averts her eyes from Nazis gleefully burning books in Berlin. When Indy finds her there while taking back his father’s diary, she says she believes in the Grail, “not the swastika.” Indy reacts angrily, threatening to strangle her. She counters by threatening to scream and reveal him, putting the two former lovers at an impasse. Indy walks away, leaving Elsa to hear the repeated, echoing chants of “sieg heil.” This is itself an echo of an earlier scene, when Elsa says that Indy would have done the same as her to find the Grail. When he scornfully replies, “I’m sorry you think so,” Elsa is clearly, genuinely hurt. But only for a moment. Elsa clearly does not think of herself as a Nazi, but she is still able to turn a blind eye to their atrocities, as her desire for knowledge and glory proves much stronger than her guilt over being a collaborator.
It is important to understand the difference between Nazis and Nazi collaborators in The Last Crusade because Spielberg intentionally emphasizes them. The Nazi soldiers are smarmy, inhuman sadists (traits they share with the Nazis of Raiders of the Lost Ark)—they hardly have personalities, much less stated goals, conflicts, or ideals like Elsa and Donovan. This is by design. Even Nazi collaborators have a greater degree of humanity than the Nazis themselves; they would have to. The Nazis are barely human at all. And everyone, even the nonviolent scholars among us like Indiana’s father Henry, has to recognize that they must be stopped.
“I can’t believe what you did!” says Sean Connery’s nebbish Henry Jones in shock after watching his son Indiana shoot Nazis with a machine gun. Henry Jones Sr. is a professor of medieval literature, unaccustomed to Indy’s violent adventures, and his acceptance of the necessity of violence towards Nazis forms one of his main arcs in the film. You can see him processing it a few scenes later when he realizes aloud that the Nazi pilots shooting at him are, in fact, trying to kill him. The arc finally concludes during the tank sequence, when Henry blows up a car full of Nazis with no hesitation. “Look what you did!” says Marcus Brody about this act of violence. Replies Henry: “It’s war!”
The vast majority of Nazis that die are thus killed in battle. There is no questioning or hand-wringing about the use of violence against them after Henry makes this declaration. Fighting Nazis is imperative. It must be done. And so before we can move on to the film’s climactic sequence, the Nazi officer Vogel must be thrown off a cliff.
The film’s attitude towards collaborators isn’t so black and white. Elsa and Donovan aren’t heartless sadists—at the beginning of the movie, they appear to be normal people. Because of this, the heroes treat them as full characters: Elsa and Donovan are never hurt, never thrown off a cliff by Indiana or any of the others. There is never a direct, violent confrontation between them and the good guys, and this fact would seem to imply that the film was taking a more tolerant stance towards the collaborators if it weren’t for the way the two of them die. Both meet their doom at the end of the film, at the resting place of the Grail.
Donovan meets his end because he drinks from the wrong cup. The guardian of the Grail, its Knight, tells him he must choose from an array of possible grails, and Donovan asks Elsa to choose for him. Elsa hands him the most ornate goblet in the room, and he trusts her choice. “It’s more beautiful than I ever imagined,” Donovan whispers as he takes a sip. He dies gruesomely, aging before our eyes, shriveling into a corpse, then bones, and finally dust. The last thing visible amidst the pile of his remains is his pin bearing the Nazi insignia. It shines out, screaming that whatever else Donovan may have been, this is how he will be remembered. This is the choice that will define him.
“He chose poorly,” says the Grail Knight.
Elsa dies for similar reasons. After Indy chooses the true Grail, a humbly painted wooden cup, he saves his father and all seems settled. But Elsa attempts to escape the cave with the Grail, and this triggers an earthquake that tears open the floor and threatens to swallow her. Indy dives after her, desperately holding on to her hands—but she tears one away to reach for the Grail. She doesn’t listen to Indy begging her to give him her other hand, and she falls, engulfed in mist. It is a gentle death, not nearly so grisly as Vogel’s or Donovan’s, but it is still a death.
Even after everything she’s done, Indy still tries to save Elsa. He implores her to look beyond her desire for the Grail so he can save her life. She doesn’t, and she falls into the abyss because of it. When I was a kid, I loved Indiana for trying anyway, for being good enough to attempt to save the life of this traitor. I still do. But now I also love the movie for not doing the same.
Elsa may not have been an evil person at heart, but she made evil choices. And in the end, given one final chance at redemption, a chance to put aside her greed for the Grail and listen to another person, she does not take it. It was good of Indy to offer her that chance, but it was good of the movie to punish her for not taking it. The Last Crusade cannot forgive Elsa any more than Donovan for collaborating with Nazis, and it grants them both exactly what Kevork Malikyan’s Kazim told them their quest for the Grail would grant them: