The counterfeit profundity of fascist fetishism
Reviewing The Book Thief (2013), Godfrey Cheshire wonders “has the use of Nazis in movies reached the point of being pornographic?” while lambasting the movie as “historic horror enlisted in the cause of facile fantasy.” This seems an odd criticism: if nothing else, The Book Thief provides a sober look at life under Nazi Germany. Surely its child’s-eye view isn’t worse than The Diary of Anne Frank or Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars. Yet Cheshire raises a legitimate concern: how much do filmmakers trivialize Fascism?
Hollywood depictions of Nazi Germany veer from somber disgust to cartoonish hatred. Nazis remain our go-to villain seven decades after the Thousand Year Reich’s end, turning up in innumerable action movies, TV shows and video games to be killed. Hence why The Sum of All Fears (2002), besides post-9/11 sensitivity, transformed its villains from Muslim extremists to Austrian neo-Nazis. Hence why even a children’s cartoon like Hey Arnold! can depict Hitler wrestling the title character’s grandfather.
It’s easy to mock these, and more recent flicks like Captain America (2011) and The Monuments Men (2014), which aren’t more than popcorn entertainment. But even sober films like Schindler’s List (1993) and Downfall (2004) accrue criticism, the former for supposedly trivializing the Holocaust, the latter for humanizing Adolf Hitler. The subject, understandably, remains contentious: Germany and other European countries still outlaw public display of the swastika, and Holocaust denial is illegal. European movies on the subject tend to be more circumspect, though as we’ll see exceptions remain.
Yet “serious” Nazi dramas are equally guilty of cheapening the subject. For every The Pianist (2002) and Downfall, there’s an overblown melodrama using the Third Reich as a fig leaf of respectability. Provide the silliest story, the raciest content, the most overwrought violence and shameless sentimentality, so the theory goes, inject swastikas and genocide, and voila! Art.
Consider Luchino Visconti’s The Damned (1969). This dark, brooding epic depicts the Essenbeck family, German steel industrialists, trying to seize corporate power while currying favor with Hitler. Visconti grounds the story with impeccable period detail, while contrasting the family’s plotting with events like the Night of the Long Knives. But Visconti also dwells on sensationalism: Martin’s (Helmut Berger) sexual proclivities, his incestuous mother (Ingrid Thulin), a Brownshirt orgy culminating in bloody massacre. Do these elements dilute Visconti’s craftsmanship? Is The Damned a serious drama or glorified porn?
There’s less doubt about Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter (1974). This silly psychodrama shows a former SS camp guard (Dirk Bogarde) and inmate (Charlotte Rampling) reunited after the war, resuming a torrid affair while ex-Nazis hunt them. It possesses the plot and imagery of a cheap potboiler, complete with tawdry sex and a monocle-sporting villain. Yet Cavani tries to earn gravitas by invoking the Holocaust, inserting stylized flashbacks of death camp depravity. Night Porter’s somber tone never matches its shoddy trappings, proving less poignant than pretentious.
Stephen Daldry’s The Reader (2008) fares marginally better. The first hour shows teenaged Michael (David Kross) seduced by middle-aged Hanna (Kate Winslet). Daldry abruptly shifts gears to a mediation on responsibility, with Michael as a law student observing war crimes trials. To his shock, Hanna’s on trial as a former camp guard. In a remarkably ill-judged scene, Michael pays Auschwitz a visit, brooding over death camp memorabilia. Did Daldry fear viewers wouldn’t understand Nazism is bad? Regardless, injecting Holocaust imagery moves The Reader from merely dull to repulsive.
All three movies trade on two troubling assumptions. One, that the setting alone guarantees profundity and gravitas. Visconti can show Brownshirts drinking and whoring if he cuts mid-scene to a portrait of Hitler. The Night Porter’s assorted atrocities are excusable if the characters wear SS insignia. The Reader’s soft core sex becomes profound if the protagonist stares at dead Jews’ shoes. By this token, Ilsa She-Wolf of the SS (1975) provides penetrating insight into the Holocaust.
Which introduces the intersection of sex and fascism. Susan Sontag explored this in her 1975 essay Fascinating Fascism, lambasting movies that fetishize fascist imagery. In part, Sontag wrote in response to The Damned and The Night Porter, which equate Nazi evil with licentiousness, granting jackboots and sleek SS uniforms a squalid eroticism. Yet The Reader, despite outward gentility, is more explicit than either of the above films, its historical setting a glorified subplot. Why does it avoid the “exploitation” tag that Visconti and Cavani’s films often receive?
We’re well beyond the point where a single sensationalized shot in Gillo Pontecorvo’s Kapo (1959) provoked moral outrage. Nowadays filmmakers crassly traffic in swastikas and Second World War imagery. Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009) infuriated many by showing Hitler and other Nazi officials gruesomely assassinated. But Tarantino skirts these concerns by showing a Nazi propaganda film, where Americans are victims for target practice – an inversion of every WWII film and historical drama since 1939. When does our Nazi obsession degenerate into vulgarity?
Certainly The Book Thief isn’t a masterpiece, or more than a competent rendering of Markus Zusak‘s source novel. But citing it as a turning point in the vulgarization of Nazism is remarkably absurd. After you’ve seen Dirk Bogarde rewarding Charlotte Ramping’s affections with a man’s severed head, you’re long past rock bottom.