From Dr Kassell in Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939) to Major Toht in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), fascists have been a staple of cinema for many decades. Some of these portrayals, like the character Max Aldorfer in The Night Porter (1974) or even Rolf the messenger in The Sound of Music (1965), have been less straightforward than the stereotypical ‘evil Nazi’. The trends outlined above, however, represent a qualitative change in the representation of fascists onscreen. Hitler has never before been so humanised, and sympathetic fascists, coyness towards the true history of fascist personalities and atrocities, and outright heroes who are also unrepentant Nazis have never been presented in such quantity or quality before.
The rehabilitation of fascism
To fully understand these sympathetic depictions of fascists and blatant abuses of history, we must place the films in context. Western capitalism is struggling to reverse a relative economic decline. This is part of the foundation upon which the complex superstructure of history, politics and culture is built.
My argument is that these films represent one part of a broad rehabilitation of fascism. These films represent only one section of film-makers, and one section of the ruling class. The Western bourgeoisie is not trying to introduce fascist governments. But it has a powerful interest in encouraging the influence of far right parties to assist its attacks on the working class. If fascism is to channel enough mass support to put pressure on mainstream politics, it must to an extent be legitimised. It must be made less monstrous through the application of ‘shades of grey’.
The films falsify or distort history through a highly selective use of characters and themes. Selected facts, when torn from their interconnectedness with other facts, can become the building blocks of all kinds of unpleasantness. One does not even have to lie – but the resulting narrative is dishonest because it uses partial empirical evidence to misrepresent the totality of a situation.
By emphasising certain things and downplaying or ignoring others, it is easy to create a credible case for what these films are trying to do. The world really is more morally complex than an uncompromising condemnation of fascism seems to allow. Not every person in a fascist uniform was a genocidal villain: no doubt many thousands made pleasant conversation, loved their pets, and sent money to their mothers. Thousands more were deluded or ignorant about the movement they were participating in, and still more thousands were repelled by it but did not dare confront it. Fascism does pose moral complexities and contradictions, and in the past directors have tended to leave these unexplored. John Rabe really did help protect thousands of Chinese refugees, and Hitler and other fascist leaders really were human beings – so why not say so?
Such objections seem reasonable. But for a proper perspective, we must not misleadingly emphasise individual facts, but consider the sum total of facts.
If the only piece of information we had about Hitler was that he was a vegetarian, most people would have either a neutral or in some cases a very positive response. But if we were then also told that Hitler was a genocidal tyrant, then his vegetarianism would become an irrelevance. Likewise, cinema today is providing us with an abundance of humanitarian fascists who sing songs, protect refugees, donate their life savings to Jewish survivors and bravely try to kill Hitler, but the main fact about the Nazis is not whether selected figures performed admirable acts. Nazism was cruelly prejudiced against homosexuals, women, Black people and other minorities. It sterilised 400,000 disabled people and practised euthanasia against thousands more. It instituted a police state, imprisoned and tortured thousands of political opponents, initiated the most brutal war the world has ever seen, and set up death camps for the systematic extermination of millions of Jews and other victims. It was one of the most horrific episodes in history in which tens of millions of people were killed.
In Downfall, the Holocaust is relegated to one sentence in the credits. Indeed, in the Italian comedy Life is Beautiful (1997), a concentration camp becomes the setting for slapstick comedy – in its single explicit image of mass murder, a heap of bodies is only dimly seen, in case its intrusion upsets the film.
One might object that the horrors of the period have been exhaustively explored and that there is no need to repeat them. But context is essential. If the full horror of fascist regimes is relegated to the background, it can become a regrettable excess offset by the good works done by its kindest members, or by the cheerful antics of its victims. No doubt there were people, like the character Guido Orefice in Life is Beautiful or Jakob in Jakob the Liar, who managed to raise people’s spirits with a joke in the ghettos or the camps, but they are so untypical of the experience that to highlight them without the full context of what those places represented is at best in poor taste. (Fortunately the ‘death camp comedy’ is one trend that even the bourgeoisie has not seen fit to pursue.) Without turning a blind eye to the total reality of history, some of these films would be morally unthinkable.
Trends like the ‘good Nazi’ normalise fascism, suggesting that it is possible to be both a sympathetic person and a fascist – people like Hitler become relatively isolated and extreme cases. This approach makes fascism more acceptable as a political choice. Those who take a firm stand and dismiss fascism on principle may then be accused of being simplistic or even, absurdly, as intolerant as the fascists themselves.
In addition, the traditional bourgeois parties refuse to take any action against fascist organisations, the media legitimise the BNP, and far right violence – such as the threat of white fascist terrorism or the street riots of the EDL – goes barely acknowledged by the authorities.
Justifications can be made for any of these films’ individual choices. It is when they are taken together, in their full political context, that they constitute a disquieting trend in contemporary cinema.
One might think our argument guilty of ‘economic determinism’ for trying to explain aspects of cinema by reference to the means of production.
In fact, the correspondence between base and superstructure is never mechanical. The decline of Western capitalism has led to highly contradictory developments. These range from the entry of fascists into European governments to the socialist revolution in Venezuela. Between these poles stretches a complex and variegated landscape. Within social democracy alone, we see such diverging trends as the Thatcherism of New Labour and the ‘pink tide’ of the administrations in Ecuador, Brazil and other countries in Latin America. Every such development is a response to a general world situation through the prism of particular conditions, not least the balance of power between the classes.
The rise of neo-fascism is not the only development from the crisis of capital. But it is by far the most dangerous. Similiarly, a relative indulgence of fascism is not the only trend in cinema, as explicitly anti-fascist films are also being made. Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) is a striking example of a film that pulls no punches in its depiction of Francoist brutality, and openly identifies with the progressive forces opposing it; the 2005 adaptation of V for Vendetta sided with a vigilante trying to subvert a racist, homophobic regime. The existence of such films does not mean that the ‘sympathetic’ trend does not exist and does not represent real political and cultural forces, nor does it mean that it is not a matter of concern.
The historical precedent is obvious – the last time the world suffered a financial crisis of this magnitude, Hitler was occupying the Chancellery within four years. No crude analogy should be made with 1929, in which mass fascist parties were bidding for state power and in Italy had already succeeded. Fascism’s victory in Spain, Italy and Germany followed years of radicalisation, during which the proletariat had the opportunity to take power but, held back by Stalin and social democracy, failed to seize it. In 2010*, the situation is far less radicalised and fascist forces have made relatively less progress: their fortunes are still variable, their support unstable.
Fascist violence and electoral support is nonetheless firmly on the rise, and the present crisis, which has exposed the mainstream parties as unwilling to protect the interests of the working class, has the potential to create conditions even more favourable to fascism.
Just as the rise of fascism is not mechanically determined, nor is its victory. Fascism could have been stopped in the 1920s and 1930s, and it can be stopped today. But it requires a determined campaign capable of exerting hegemonic leadership over the anti-fascist majority. Nothing is inevitable – human praxis helps to direct history.
Artists and fascism
Are these artists – film-makers, scriptwriters, television producers, etc – consciously trying to rehabilitate fascism?
The rehabilitation of fascism is a deliberate bourgeois project. Quite how far artists are conscious of the role they are playing is debatable and will vary from artist to artist. It is difficult to believe, faced with the oversights and distortions in these films, that some are not at least partly conscious of what they are doing. However, most of these films have above all an anti-fascist message: the ‘shades of grey’ exist alongside that message.
There are millions of people living and dead about whom films may be made, and an infinite number of real or imaginary situations. Films, like all works of art, flow from a series of choices. What the critic must unravel is why film-makers choose particular situations and characters and tell their stories from particular points of view.
The important question however is not, are these artists consciously trying to rehabilitate fascism? I doubt very much if they are. To suggest that Schindler’s List, which I have discussed in this context, is an attempt to ‘encourage sympathy for fascism’ would be preposterous. However, it is not the intentions behind people’s actions that are most important, but their effect upon the real world. The cinema helps to form people’s opinions and condition their attitudes to political movements. The significance of Schindler’s List is that it introduced the ‘good Nazi’ to cinema screens across the world in the mid-1990s and, no doubt unwittingly, set a precedent that allowed later films like John Rabe to go much further.
Cultural trends exist in a complex and mediated relationship with the economic foundations of society. It is possible that cabals of bosses are conspiring in smoky rooms about how to encourage support for the BNP through tendentious film-making, but it is hardly likely, nor is it necessary. Historical processes and their accompanying shifts of ideology can influence people’s behaviour whether or not they are conscious of it, and artists are attuned to such changes on the cultural level. When a space is opened up for the extreme right by the bourgeoisie, some artists respond to the questions this raises and express them in works like the films we have discussed.
The main question we must ask is: how does cinema, whatever the intentions behind it, influence popular perceptions? I would argue that some film-makers’ highly selective readings are providing ammunition for fascism. They are making it possible for Party members like Oskar Schindler, John Halder, John Rabe et al to be held up as evidence that fascists too may be respectable.
We also need to consider how films get made. Some artists, influenced by trends in politics or expected by financial backers to approach a subject in a ‘contemporary’ manner – a manner perhaps influenced by the postmodern view that all discourses are relative – are more likely than in the past to think sympathetic portrayals of Nazis are acceptable, original or ‘thought-provoking’. Given that it takes several years to get a film from concept to release, often directors will attempt to anticipate future trends. What this means in effect is that some of the most ‘avant garde’ directors in Hollywood – Von Trier for example – swerve between the centre and ultra-reactionary end of the political spectrum in search of celebrity and reward.
An example of a film which deals with fascism without making concessions to it is Shane Meadows’ This is England (2007). Told through the eyes of the 12 year-old Shaun, Meadows’ film explores how far-right politics drove the skinhead movement of the 1970s away from its roots in black culture towards racism. This includes Combo, a member of the National Front, who is not demonised but portrayed with some sympathy as he tries to recruit Shaun’s gang to his politics. Meadows looks honestly at some of the motivations that made young white people get involved in fascism:
These were teens who came from areas of high unemployment looking for solidarity beyond Thatcher’s ‘me’ culture. They were abandoned by society and that, of course, made them vulnerable to the advances of the National Front...
When you’re twelve and no one in your town can get a job, and someone comes up to you and says ‘these people are to blame’ it’s easy to believe. I did for about three weeks, some people still believe that as adults and that’s frightening.
But the film does not slip into the trends we have been discussing. Combo is not a ‘good Nazi’ but a confused and dangerous man. The progressive and anti-racist character of the original gang is asserted as an alternative to the National Front’s vile ideology, and the climactic act of violence not only drives Shaun away from fascism but exposes the contradictions within Combo’s own character and leaves him empty. Using images of the Falklands War, Meadows even makes an explicit connection between racism and imperialism. This Is England shows that it is possible to allow complex characterisation of, and even a measure of sympathy for, members of the National Front or other organisations without whitewashing history, introducing inappropriate moral ambiguities or turning fascists into heroes.
It should be unthinkable, after the horrific experience of the 1920s-1940s, that anybody would consider turning to fascism ever again, but the potential for fascism within imperialism never goes away. Europe’s neo-fascists do not wear black shirts and jackboots and publicly demand the liquidation of the Jews – they wear suits, participate in elections, and deny they are fascists at all. The sentiments that contemporary fascism feeds on – Islamophobia, prejudice against immigrants, attacks on multi-culturalism, concern about a ‘white working class’ with separate needs to the black working class, and so on – are firmly established in mainstream politics.
We should have no illusions in the media, which are almost entirely owned by the bourgeoisie and ultimately serve its class interests. But the general silence on how some films are representing fascists is nonetheless reprehensible. Few film critics point out that some contemporary films are inviting us to sympathise with racists and fascists, and that this is inappropriate and dangerous. Downfall in particular created controversy upon its release, but the subsequent debate has been completely inadequate. Even with John Rabe, the debate centred not on its having an unabashed Nazi hero who protects refugees under a giant swastika but on the effect upon Sino-Japanese relations of depicting the Nanjing Massacre. Is the depiction of fascists as heroes really not worthy of comment?
None of the trends outlined here is entirely new – even concentration camp comedy has been attempted before, in Jerry Lewis’s unreleased 1972 movie The Day the Clown Cried. But their prominence in contemporary films warns us that a sea change may be underway. If film-makers are broadly keeping to an anti-fascist position today, what of tomorrow? How will the sympathy be extended further over the next couple of decades?
We are experiencing a radicalisation to both the right and the left. It is inevitable that if the rise of fascism is allowed to continue, cultural expressions will appear which are more and more sympathetic to it; at the same time, others will explicitly oppose it. No development is inevitable. The victory of fascism in Europe could have been avoided: it was the outcome of a political struggle in which the rotten politics of Stalin and of social democracy betrayed the working class. As Trotsky wrote: “fascism comes only when the working class shows complete incapacity to take into its own hands the fate of society.” No concession should be made to fascism or the racism it feeds on, and it should be permitted no platform upon which to build.
Art is one of the arenas in which this ideological struggle will find expression. Despite the problems we’ve discussed, these films are not pro-fascist, and the appropriate anti-fascist response is not to call for their censorship, or the witch-hunting of directors. Instead we need to create a genuine debate which clarifies anti-fascist arguments both for film-makers and for cinema-goers. Film-makers would be less likely to indulge the trends we’ve discussed if they knew they would be held to account and were more conscious of their broader political significance.
With Jodie Foster’s biopic about Leni Riefenstahl and other works currently in development, anti-fascists should be aware of this trend in cinema, and draw behind them the broadest possible forces of anti-fascist opinion to expose and question it. There is no shame in depicting fascism as a tremendous evil, but plenty in helping to rehabilitate it.
*I wrote this article last year. Happily, Jodie Foster appears to have abandoned her Riefenstahl project and the tide of films of this sort seems to have abated. But the general political context is much the same and further concessions to the far-right in culture are likely. On the positive side we may add the protests in the Middle East to the slowly increasing level of class struggle outside of the imperialist countries. Tragically we may also add the atrocities of Anders Breivik to the growing problem of fascist violence. The difference between how the attacks in Norway were treated when Muslims were suspected, and the relative media silence once a white racist was found to be responsible, illustrates the ruling class’s double standards regarding terrorism and its failure to confront fascism. – Eugene Hirschfeld
 The readiness of the Canary Wharf consortium to sponsor multicultural events in London exemplifies a contradiction within the bourgeoisie. Depending as it does on easy movement of international personnel, the City tends to be hostile towards racist controls on immigration.
 Shane Meadows quoted on www.thisisenglandmovie.co.uk.
 Trotsky, op. cit..