Villains from the Indiana Jones film can be almost as memorable as the franchise namesake’s swashbuckling archaeologist. The creepy, bespectacled Gestapo agent and the saber-wielding dude in Raiders of the Lost Ark. The human-sacrificing High Priest from Temple of Doom. And, oh yes, an immortality-hunting tycoon in The Last Crusade.
The fifth installment in the franchise will be released on June 30th, titled Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, reminiscent of a game show. It will be actor Harrison Ford’s final adventure in which he wears Indy’s trademark fedora. Set in 1969, the film sees Ford confronting an enemy whose description will be familiar to space enthusiast and longtime Huntsville residents: a former Nazi turned US aerospace engineer.
The character, named Jürgen Voller and portrayed by actor Mads Mikkelsen, was partially inspired by Wernher von Braun. Brilliant, pioneering, and revered late director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, von Braun led America’s Apollo 11 space flight mission to the moon. In the process, Huntsville transformed from a cotton town into “The Rocket City”.
But von Braun’s legacy is complicated. Earlier in his life he was a member of the Nazi Party and developed a World War II weapon for German dictator Adolf Hitler that killed tens of thousands of people.
This Indiana Jones 5 villain rumor has been circulating on movie blogs for a while. But recently, more mainstream media outlets have reported on the character’s inspiration.
In late 2022, the film’s co-writer Jez Butterworth told entertainment news website Empire, “The simple fact is that the moon landing program was run by a bunch of ex-Nazis. How “ex” they are is the question. And it’s on Indy’s nose.”
Butterworth added, “The people behind this are, you know, his sworn enemies.” Nazis are recurring adversaries in the Indiana Jones franchise. The original 1981 Raiders of the Lost Ark and the 1984 sequel Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom were set in the mid 1930s, while 1989’s The Last Crusade was mostly set in the late 1930s.
The Indiana Jones character was created by George Lucas, the auteur filmmaker whose Star Wars franchise made Ford one of the biggest movie stars in the world. Jaws mastermind Steven Spielberg directed the first four films in the series, including 2008’s Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. James Mangold – known for Walk the Line, Logan and Ford v Ferrari – directed and wrote “Dial of Destiny”.
Mikkelsen is known for roles such as James Bond “Casino Royale” antagonist Le Chiffre and cannibalistic sociopath Dr. Hannibal Lecter in the “Hannibal” TV series. The Danish actor described Indy 5 villain Voller to Empire as “a man who wants to right some of the mistakes of the past”.
A story published on Yahoo on Jan. 18 described Voller as “a Nazi scientist who has found a new calling in America’s space program but still has plans to change the world.
In real life, von Braun was born into the Prussian nobility in 1912 and died of pancreatic cancer in Virginia in 1977 at the age of 64. Growing up, his dream had been to build rockets to go to the moon.
After becoming a member of the NSDAP around 1937, he developed the V-2 rocket for Hitler’s Germany. This V-2 rocket was deadly in more ways than one.
As Time Magazine’s Alejandro de la Garza wrote in a 2019 article, “Before he [von Braun] built rockets for America, he built them for Hitler. Germany has fired more than 3,000 rockets of its design against Britain and other countries, killing about 5,000 people indiscriminately while up to 20,000 concentration camp prisoners died assembling the weapons.”
De la Garza also wrote of von Braun: “Some have portrayed his time with the Nazis as a survival strategy, but others have gone so far as to portray him as a war criminal or something similar.” Da von Braun died before all the details of his Nazi past were in went mainstream, he never really got to tell his side of the story.
A biography on NASA’s website states: “Von Braun was a Nazi Party member and SS officer, but was also arrested by the Gestapo in 1944 for making careless remarks about the war and the missile. His responsibility for the crimes related to missile production is disputed.”
AL.com reached out to NASA to comment that von Braun is the partial inspiration for Indiana Jones’ new villain, how von Braun’s Nazi past is affecting his and NASA’s legacy in the future, and others with it related questions. At the time this story was published, we had not received any answers to our questions.
AL.com also reached out to Lucasfilm Ltd., the production company of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, regarding Braun’s inspiration for the film’s villain. At the time of publication, we have not yet received an answer.
During a 2019 lecture at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, von Braun’s daughter Margrit von Braun raised questions about her father’s role in Hitler’s space program. “It’s really hard to recall what people had to do in times of war,” said Margrit von Braun. “I think he was born into a terrible situation in terms of his career and was forced to do things … It’s hard to go back and look at the choices he was faced with.”
Like many veterans, Margrit’s father never spoke about his war experiences, she said. “I knew him as my father and I knew him as a person. And I knew the kind of heart and soul he had. He had to do things you have to do when you work under a dictator.”
In 1945, with both Russian and American forces approaching and the Allies nearing victory in World War II, von Braun and his staff of German scientists chose to surrender to American troops instead of the Russians. After von Braun and his German scientists were first sent to Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, in 1950 at the beginning of the Korean War, they were transferred to Huntsville. In Huntsville, von Braun and his team developed the technology for the United States’ first satellite, thereby igniting the country’s space program.
In the early 1960s, US President John F. Kennedy initiated the American lunar program and commissioned von Braun to take American astronauts to the moon by the end of the decade. There is a famous photograph of Kennedy and von Braun shaking hands during a meeting in Huntsville, home of Redstone Arsenal, just months before Kennedy was assassinated while riding in an open-air limousine in Dallas.
In Huntsville, von Braun’s rocket team knew him as a charismatic, fair, and super-intelligent boss. The von Braun family lived in a house on McClung Avenue. At the weekend, Wernher took his family to Lake Guntersville, about an hour’s drive away, to water ski. “He loved water,” said Margrit in 2019.
In addition to transforming Huntsville’s economy and industry, von Braun also left his mark on the city’s culture. He proposed the idea of building the US Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, which has been the city’s signature tourist attraction for more than half a century.
In the mid-1970s, the entertainment complex Von Braun Civic Center, later abbreviated to Von Braun Center, was built in downtown Huntsville and named in his honor. Since then, the VBC has hosted concerts by many legendary musicians, including Elvis Presley, Van Halen, Tina Turner and Prince. This spring, the VBC will host a star-studded tribute to the late country legend George Jones.
The German-American engineers considered the creation of the Huntsville Symphony Orchestra in the mid-1950’s, Alabama’s longest continuously operating professional orchestra.
In the decades following von Braun’s death, his Nazi past has become common knowledge for history-conscious Huntsville residents. Periodically, this past also pops up in popular culture. In the 2020 Amazon series Hunters, Al Pacino played the leader of a late ’70s vigilante group tracking down escaped Nazis who were making new lives in the United States
The fifth episode of “Hunters” featured the murder of a fictional version of von Braun, who went into hiding after faking his death from cancer. That episode contained a surreal satirical sequence that proclaimed, “Come to Huntsville, Alabama, home of the Space and Rocket Center staffed by Nazi scientists smuggled here by your government. Oh yeah. It really happened. Huntsville, Alabama, it’s quite a bummer. But hey, we’ve reached the moon!”
Being a one-episode story in a streaming series that most people have already forgotten is one thing. Serving as the personification of evil in a blockbuster franchise film released during the social media/social justice era is another. Indiana Jones and the Wheel of Fortune is one of the most anticipated movies of 2023.
Dial of Destiny will bring von Braun’s complicated legacy to the attention of more people than ever before. And it’s a short jump from there to think how that also complicates the legacy of Huntsville, which is currently booming with development and is now Alabama’s most populous city.
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