Bit of a change of pace! I had the honor to be asked to speak at the American College of Greece (Deree) for Sociology Week. The theme was Social Causes and Impact of Populism and Extremism, which gave me the opportunity to break out the Nazis-in-film material I’ve unsuccessfully been trying to condense into a short-enough video. This talk was for an audience of Greek sociology students and faculty (Deree doesn’t have a film department). They were all lovely and responsive, so definitely listen through to the Q&A.
In this twenty-minute talk, I discuss the figure of the Nazi in pop culture from Star Trek to Fight Club, as well as where Hollywood leaves us vulnerable to fascist ideology in disguise.
[Below is a transcript of the intro and presentation. It does not include the Q&A that starts around 25:00.]
Welcome. Thank you very much for coming. I’m here to present Margarita Georgitseas. She is a film writer and YouTuber. She has a Bachelors in Media Studies and English Literature from Macalester College in Saint Paul and a Masters in Film and Philosophy from King’s College London. She worked in Film Comment magazine in New York and film marketing for Picturehouse Cinemas in London and now she has a YouTube channel called Is This Just Fantasy? where she makes video essays about film and ideology.
So Margarita’s philosophy is that people learn how to think from movies than from anything else, so we have an ethical responsibility to understand what we’re watching. So her goal basically is to make advanced film analysis more accessible to everyday people—to non-academics, basically. So she’s going to talk to us about why fascism always wins in film.
Thank you, Billie. So as Billie just explained to you all, I’m not a sociologist. I’m not a historian. My understanding of fascism and my familiarity with it as a concept comes primarily from film. And in my defense, I think that’s probably true for most Americans.
A few years back I was doing my Masters dissertation on Tarantino—Tarantino’s history films—because I was really interested in the ethics of representing historical atrocities, and of course that inevitably led me to Holocaust cinema and the Nazi in film. And the question that I kept coming back to: what is a Nazi anyway? And I don’t mean that in a historical, political, literal context—I’m sure if I asked any of you, you’d be able to give me a definition that was more or less accurate—but I’m talking specifically about the Nazi in movies. If somebody had no knowledge of history outside of what they saw onscreen, what would they think Nazism was? And more importantly, what are the ethical implications of that? Because this is not that much of a stretch; most people do get most of their information about history from the movies, so it’s really important to understand what it is that they’re learning.
Of course in order to understand what something is you have to understand what it does, and a lot has been written about the function of the Nazi-figure in film. And the go-to book on the subject is by Sabine Hake, it’s called Screen Nazis, and her argument is that the Nazi in cinema is a response to a problem that is unique to Hollywood cinema—I’m talking about mainstream American cinema. And the problem, according to Sabine Hake, is that democracy and the ideals of democracy are very, very hard to represent in Hollywood cinema. Why? Well, because classical Hollywood narrative is focused on the psychology of the individual. If you take any screenwriting course this is the first thing they’ll tell you: it’s the individual’s desires, it’s their choices, it’s their actions, that drive the plot of the film. But democracy is about the People. “The People”, the collective “People”, the abstract “People”—how do you represent “the People” in a classical Hollywood narrative? It’s too abstract. Who are these people? What do they want? Where are they?
So the solution is to represent democratic ideals in negative terms, which is to say: ‘This is what we are not. This is what we stand against. This is what we are opposed to. This is our natural enemy.’ And that’s where the screen Nazi comes in. This is especially true in recent decades because communism and the Red Scare are no longer considered a real threat to American ideals, so the Nazi has become this embodiment of, let’s say, absolute evil, the absolute enemy to everything that we stand for.
And this kind of figure, as you can imagine, in a Hollywood context, is incredibly useful because we really love to hate the Nazis. They are everywhere. They’re in every kind of film. We see them from serious movies (Roman Polanski, The Pianist) to not-so-serious movies (Mel Brooks, The Producers) to really not-so-serious movies (those are Nazi zombies). They’re everywhere! Because the Nazi uniform is such an easy and convenient way to an audience that what we’re looking at is bad and evil. It’s the easiest possible shorthand at a filmmaker’s disposal. In fact, it’s so convenient that we see it end up even in stories where there are no Nazis—we end up seeing Nazi-like figures. Do these look familiar to you? This is the Empire from Star Wars. The New Order also from Star Wars (the First Order, I’m sorry). The Cardassians from Star Trek. (Any trekkies in the house? Might come in useful later.) Hydra from the Marvel Universe. The Death Eaters from Harry Potter (they’re also coded as KKK-like, but they have a lot of Nazi qualities as well). The dystopian British government in V for Vendetta. And in case your childhood hasn’t been ruined yet [laughter]: it’s The Lion King.
So obviously none of these groups are technically Nazis in a historical or political context—like I was saying, a literal sense. They all exist in alternate fantasy or science fiction universes; it would be silly to call them Nazis in a literal sense. But they’re all tied together by these instantly recognizable images and symbols. We get a paramilitary with sinister black or grey uniforms. We get a supreme leader giving speeches, rousing speeches, above everybody—crowds marching in lockstep. We get a lot of talk about “ethnic superiority” and “the Master Race”—these are great buzzwords. And of course we get this aesthetic. We get this geometric emblem, we get a lot of skull imagery, and we get lots of black and red, which I would call the Nazi palette. You may notice that I made my PowerPoint black and red because it’s so instantly evocative. But it doesn’t have to be black and red. That’s Wed Anderson’s take on the Nazis, pastel Nazis—it’s really extraordinary because what kind of context does this exist in? It’s immediately recognizable but it’s so divorced from historical, political, ideological context. And in many ways I think that Hollywood has reduced Nazism from an ideology to an aesthetic.
So what does “Nazi” mean now? Well, over time, I would argue, the word “Nazi” has become interchangeable with other enemies of democracy and enemies of freedom to the point that it’s devolved into a sort of all-purpose derogatory term. And we see this not just in cinema but we see this in pop culture and we see this in real life as well. We get lower-case-“n” “nazi” words: we get “feminazi”, we get “grammar nazi”, we get “cleaning nazi”, we get Seinfeld’s iconic “Soup Nazi”. And what we’re looking at here is the devolution of a word until it becomes almost empty of political and ethical meaning.
Because in order for the Nazi to function as a symbol of absolute evil it has to become sort of disconnected from its original context. It has to stay current. So as the ideals of Hollywood change, the figure of the Nazi adapts to suit it. And let me give you an example. It’s very common for Nazi villains in Hollywood to be characterized as effeminate or unmanly. They’re always a bit limp-wristed, a little prissy, a little… maybe secretly gay? This is odd. This is really odd, because not only did the Nazis worship this ideal of the Übermensch, this ideal of virile Aryan masculinity, but also they persecuted homosexuals! They rounded them up and put them in concentration camps. But Hollywood worships masculinity so of course the Nazis must be the opposite.
Another stereotype: the Nazi is always incredibly posh, isn’t he? He’s always incredibly effete and upper class and elitist and always looking down on poor people. Which again is sort of odd, because we do get aristocratic Nazis in history but for the most part Nazism borrowed heavily from socialism and from the workers’ movement. It billed itself as a populist movement. But American democracy is populist so of course our enemies can’t be; they have to be played by Peter O’Toole.
And for me this is where it started to get weird. Because when you look for Nazis in the media you end up finding them in very, very strange places. If you haven’t seen the original series of Star Trek I would highly recommend it because you get amazing gems like this. In this episode, Captain Kirk and his crew land on a planet of Nazis (it’s not even the strangest thing to happen on the show) and Spock is captured and this Nazi examines him and declares him to be, and I quote, “Definitely an inferior race.”
This already is interesting in and of itself. Now, I’m imagining most of you aren’t familiar with Star Trek, so brief recap: Spock is a Vulcan. Vulcans in many ways are a kind of obvious foil to Nazis. They’re the embodiment of logic and rationality, but in an ethical way; they’re always motivated by ethics, by the good of all—they’re the good guys. They’re vegetarians, they’re pacifists, they’re intellectuals, they’re spiritual, they never lie, they’re stoic, they value diversity and living in harmony with all living things. And most importantly, academics have repeatedly argued that Vulcans are an allegory for the Jewish people. They have a lot of sort of what I would call “positive” Jewish stereotypes. So this makes sense, this dynamic right here.
But then I noticed something really weird happened. About thirty years later, the Star Trek franchise is still going strong, as it is today, and we get Star Trek: Enterprise. And suddenly the Vulcans aren’t so noble or so ethical anymore. They’re still representations of logic, they’re still hyperrational, hyperanalytical, but they’ve also become really cold, and really deceitful, and inhuman, and inhumane, and even, I would say, anti-human. They look down on all the other races, they see themselves as superior because of their logic, and they start to sound very Nazi-like. Now this is really bizarre, because they still represent the same thing—logic—and yet somehow they’ve done a complete 180 and where before they were the heroes, and where they used to be anti-Nazi and used to be Jewish, now they look like the enemy. And I think that if the effeminate Nazi—if the sort of limp-wristed, gay-coded Nazi—says something about how Hollywood feels about homosexuals then I think the Vulcan Nazi says something about how Hollywood feels about logic and objective, impersonal analysis.
Nazis in recent years have come to be portrayed as very cold and very emotionless and hyperrational and almost sort of robotic. And this is very, very wrong. I’m sure all of you have encountered this; and if you look at actual Nazi propaganda from the time period, the Nazi movement was very loudly anti-intellectual, anti-rationalist. Nazis encouraged sincere emotion, encouraged instinct over thought. They attacked pure reason, they attacked what they called “degenerate intellectuals”, “Jewish intellectualism”—they said “Stay away from universities! That’s where the Jews are. They’re going to brainwash you.” They even claimed that too much education made men sterile. It’s really extraordinary. This doesn’t get shown at all in the Hollywood image of the Nazi. This appeal to emotion, this instinct over reason, the rejection of intellectualism, “don’t think, just do”—it’s a hugely important part of Nazism and it’s a hugely important part of fascism and yet we don’t see it in the figure of the screen Nazi, in our figure of absolute evil. Why not?
I want to talk about a movie that seemingly has nothing to do with Nazis. How many of you have seen Fight Club? [hands go up] A few. It’s a popular movie. Without giving too much away, Brad Pitt’s character starts a “Fight Club” for young men—white, middle class men—that eventually evolves into what I would characterize as a massive fascist cult, and I use that term very deliberately. It’s not used in the film, it’s not used usually when people talk about the film, but that is what it is if you look at it. It ticks all of the boxes. If you look at Umberto Eco, he famously made a checklist for what he called “Eternal Fascism” or “Ur-Fascism”. We get the return to tradition in the form of the rejection of commercialism, we get the cult of action for action’s sake, we get the appeal to a frustrated middle class, we get lots of conspiracy theories. [reading from the list] Fear of difference, disagreement is treason. We get a charismatic leader (Brad Pitt, how much more charismatic can he be?), selective populism, the glorification of masculinity, the glorification of violence, of death. Contempt for pacifism, contempt for weakness, contempt for women. And Newspeak (changing language).
So this [Brad Pitt] doesn’t look like what we think of as a Nazi. Where’s the prissiness? Where’s the elitism? Where’s the uniform, where are the symbols? Where’s the color palette that we know so well? And it doesn’t sound like a Nazi; where’s all the talk about the “Master Race” and ethnic superiority? But make no mistake, this is fascism, and all you would need is a dose of racist ideology to make it Neo-Nazism.
If you look at the actual story of Fight Club, it’s anti-fascist. This is not a fascist film. It’s a good film; it’s a smart film. Brad Pitt’s character is eventually revealed to basically be a charlatan, a con man. He ruins people’s lives and people end up dying because they buy into his intoxicating and seductive ideas. And yet when Fight Club came out in 1999 there was a huge trend of young men starting real-life fight clubs. And I think this trend is still going on today; fight clubs are a real thing now because of this movie. And this ideology has become very, very popular. I barely had to look on the Internet to find so many articles and inspirational quotes from Fight Club that will “inspire you to break free”. [reading from slide] “Tyler Durden is the best life coach.” And people really buy into this. This is graffiti in real life from people who are worshiping this ideology: [reading from slide] “Project Mayhem”, “In Tyler we trust.” And this is the most astonishing thing to me: anti-fascist fight clubs! [laughter] Yes! People starting fight clubs in the name of fighting fascism. So these people think that they’re fighting fascism because they have been taught to associate fascism with intellectualism and elitism and unmanliness and order, and in their mind this is them fighting the enemy. And they’ve fallen into a trap. Why is this? Why didn’t this work? Why didn’t the message of this film come across?
I think this has a lot to do with the technology of cinema. I’m going to get a little “film nerd” here and give you a brief history lesson. (Oh, my slides are out of order.) In the 1920s, in Soviet Russia, the future of cinema was still being decided. It was a very talked-about, very theorized-about new medium. And we had two opposing schools of thought. On the left-hand side we have Dziga Vertov, a wonderful documentary filmmaker (we still watch his films today in film classes, not much elsewhere). And he advocated what he called the “Kino-Eye”. The “Kino-Eye” was observational cinema. For Dziga Vertov, film had a unique ability to be a window into objective reality. It would be objective, it would be impartial, it would be unstaged. It would be a tool for people to see reality in a more analytic and rational way. And then you had Sergei Eisenstein—and if you’ve heard of one of these two that’s probably the one you’ve heard of—and he advocated the “Kino-Fist”: propaganda. Film would be subjective, film would be emotional, film would be manipulative. Film would use the technology of montage to, as he said, “infect” the viewer with emotion. And he went on to make some of the greatest propaganda films in history and we still watch them in film classes today (although, I grant you, not very much elsewhere).
Now, I love Dziga Vertov’s films, but in my mind there is no doubt which of these men better predicted the future of mainstream cinema. If you look at Hollywood cinema, which is the style that dominates, it’s the Kino-Fist all the way. It’s not a reasoning medium; it’s an emotional medium. It’s not an instrument of logic; it’s an instrument of emotional manipulation. It doesn’t work unless it moves you.
So what’s the point? My point is that this [Vulcans vs. Nazis] was not sustainable. This was absolutely not sustainable. This was doomed to fail, the Vulcan hero defeating the Nazi with logic and analysis, because logic is impossible to sell in a Hollywood movie. And I’m not just saying this in a derogatory way, I mean it literally is impossible to sell. I mean, when was the last time you saw a movie where the moral was “check your facts, analyze, look before you leap, think things through”? Hollywood doesn’t work that way. For cinema to work it has to move you. In order for it to move you, you have to suspend your disbelief. You have to suspend logic. You have to submit to emotional manipulation. And I’m sure many of you have been to a movie with a friend who was a little overanalytical and said, “Oh, that’s not realistic. That doesn’t make sense. Why did he do that? Oh, unbelievable!” And you wanted to strangle them because they’re ruining your movie! It ruins the movie. The logic to Hollywood is allergic to logic. It is very much like fascist logic: “Don’t as questions, trust what feels right.”
So I would argue that submitting to primal feelings, belonging to a crowd, all these aspects of Nazi ideology which are so fundamental to Nazi ideology and to fascist ideology as I’ve said—are almost impossible to portray in a negative light because when you put them onscreen, people like it. That’s the simple fact. People love it! People respond to it because it feels good, it feels empowering. When you go into a film you’re not thinking with your analytic brain. Hollywood says, “Don’t listen to the voice of logic, because the voice of logic spoils the movie for you.” It says, “The voice of logic—that is the enemy. That is what Nazism looks like, that is what fascism looks like—emotion and instinct are going to free you from him.”
The problem with the screen Nazi right here—and I said earlier that Hollywood has taken an ideology and reduced it to an aesthetic, Hollywood has taken an idea and replaced it with a symbol. And that is very, very dangerous. Because this figure right here, the one on the left, is politically meaningless. It’s empty of political meaning; it’s empty of ethical meaning (as I’ve said). All we have, all it represents, is an enemy to be destroyed. That makes us vulnerable. When you mistake aesthetics for politics, that’s when you’re most vulnerable to fascist ideas disguised as freedom and individualism. Because we think we know what fascism looks like and we think we know what freedom looks like. As you know, in America, and in Greece as well, new forms of fascism are on the rise. And it’s very easy to say, “Well, how can these people associate with the image of absolute evil?” But they don’t! They don’t associate with the image on the left [the screen Nazi]. They associate with the image on the right [Tyler Durden].
Because fascism doesn’t show up looking like the enemy. Fascism doesn’t show up dressed in the uniform of absolute evil, with the red and black, and the symbols and the swastika, and the talk about the master race. Fascism doesn’t say “Submit”. Fascism says “Be free! Free yourself from the burden of thinking! Become a warrior, not a worrier! Reclaim your power! Reclaim your masculinity! Seize the day! (I’ll have to have a whole other presentation on The Dead Poets Society and how it’s secretly a fascist film.) Don’t think, feel! Stop overanalyzing. Trust your instincts.” So fascism sounds a lot like Hollywood. What it doesn’t look like is this: [Nazi imagery with flashing text that reads #aesthetic].