Thursday. April 7, 2016. Posted Monday, April 11, because I'm just so goddamn slow a writer these days.
“In here, life is beautiful! Ze girls are beautiful! Even ze orchesra is beautiful!” Joel Grey as the Master of Ceremonies and the Kit Kat Club Dancers performing "Wllkommen", the opening number of the 1972 movie musical Cabaret.
I try not to let politics seep into our discussions in my Wired Critics class because I want to keep the focus on things like where’s the focus in scenes in the movies we’re watching, discussing, and writing about. But politics suffuses everything because politics is how people put together ordered, civilized societies or, as Uncle Merlin has said, politics is how people live together without settling every argument by reaching for a battle ax. Anyway, one thing has a way of leading to another, no matter where the professor intends for a discussion to go, and last week we wound up talking about, among other things, Donald Trump and Nazis.
Trump bulled into it because we were discussing how Muslims are depicted in movies like American Sniper, Argo, 13 Hours, and the movie we’re watching today, Zero Dark Thirty. The question on the table was how do you make a true-to-life movie---or in the cases of all four of these films a relatively true-to-life movie---in which the bad guys share a religion and ethnicity with a group of people who here in the United States are a minority subject to vilification and prejudice? This is where we ran into the Donald.
Who, you will be happy and relieved to learn, is not popular among my students.
The Nazis got into it, though, because I brought them into it, and not for the reason you might be thinking. I did it to bring the discussion back around to movies.
I did it by pretty much reciting my Trumpenvolk post from last month. My point then and today was that while a lot of people are calling Trump and his followers fascists and making comparisons to the rise Hitler and Nazism, I don't see it. Trump strikes me as as being in the line of Huey Long and George Wallace, American democratic---small d democratic, although both Long and Wallace were Democrats---demagogues who cheerfully and cynically exploited class and racial resentments, anger, and fear to get themselves elected to offices they did not intend to use to establish a corporatist-militarist-statist dictatorship.
Wallace they knew. Huey Long was a stranger to most of them and for the few who’d heard his name before that’s all they'd heard about him, his name. So I gave them a brief history lesson and a link to a website, and then asked if any of them had read All the King’s Men.
None of them had, although most of them had heard of it. They weren’t sure where or when they'd heard of it, but that had heard of it. Probably, I suggested, what they’d actually heard of was the movie adaptation starring Sean Penn. But maybe not since it came out when the oldest of them was twelve. I couldn’t recommend it because I haven’t seen it myself. But I did recommend they be on the lookout for the 1949 Oscar-winning version starring Broderick Crawford as the Huey Long stand-in, Willie Stark.
And there we were, back on track, away from Donald Trump and talking about books and movies, but then I returned to Nazis.
If you want to know what Nazis and Nazism really looked like---and, as I did in that post, I emphasized that how the Nazis looked was part of their appeal and strength---they should watch Triumph of the Will.
That one, by the way, many of them had heard of. A couple of them have even seen it.
And one of them beat me to it and brought up the new movie Race, and all of them have not just heard about Jesse Owens, they know what he did and what happened at the 1936 Olympics.
But I wasn’t done. I had some clips to show them.
Which none of them have seen.
I gave them a quick summary of the plot, pointed out that although they may not know Liza Minnelli they certainly knew her mother and if they didn’t know Joel Grey they were probably familiar with his daughter, then I showed them this:
I explained to the students that much of film takes place in the Kit Kat Club where, despite the M.C.’s assurances that inside the club “Life is beautiful. Ze girls are beautiful. Even ze orchestra is beautiful,” things are rank, cheap, and ugly and the customers and the performers are twisted, mocking, cynical, lewd, decadent, and grotesque. The exception is Sally whom we worry about because we can see she’s in danger of being corrupted. But she seems to be having such a grand time it’s hard not to get caught up in the fun. And it is fun, for a while, but then like York’s character, Sally’s ambivalent lover, the writer and academic Brian Roberts, we start to wonder about it. It makes us uneasy, then it begins to sicken us.
So it comes as a relief when Brian and his friend Max leave Berlin for the day to take a drive out into the countryside where life truly is beautiful. The sun is shining, the sky is blue, the hills and the trees are green. They stop at a beer garden and the people at the tables are handsome and wholesome-looking. There are families with children. Young couples in love. And then a young man---a very handsome young man---stands up and starts singing in a clear and lovely tenor voice. Everyone turns to listen, smiling and enraptured. At first we see only his face but then the camera slowly pans down and matter-of-factly reveals...well, watch.
It's a chilling scene. The most frightening moment to me is when that young woman jumps up and joins in. The look of anger on her face is terrifying. But that's just the beginning of the horror, as one after another, others in the crowd stand up and start singing, each with mixtures of anger and joy on their face.
“Tomorrow Belongs to Me” is a perfect Nazi anthem in the way it blends the sentimental---the Nazis were notoriously and nauseatingly sentimental---and the martial: the lyrics are filled with cliched images of nature at its loveliest and most peaceful that lead into angry, defiant, and quasi-religious invocations of the “Fatherland”, addressing it as if it’s an actual Father and God the Father.
And that, I said, is what Nazism looks like.
It doesn't look like a roomful of goofy and bewildered middle-aged white people manipulated by a self-glorified game show host into limply raising their right hands and promising to vote for him. It looks like thousands and thousands of seemingly decent, intelligent, and civilized white people of all ages consciously and ecstatically giving themselves over to the subversion of the beautiful and joyful by what is essentially a death cult.
Here's Roger Ebert's Great Movies Review of Triumph of the Will.