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How Hollywood Lets Real Fascists Off the Hook
Far from helping us fight fascism, Nazis on film may do the opposite.
This first ran in the much-lamented Pacific Standard in 2019. It’s still relevant though; it’s not like we’ve got any better at representing fascism on film in the interim.
You can find an index of all my substack posts on fascism here.
In Aquaman, the villain is a fascist. Orm, a.k.a. Ocean Master (Patrick Wilson), ruler of the underwater kingdom of Atlantis, is a would-be dictator who uses a false-flag operation to push his nation into war. He also spends much of the movie muttering about how Aquaman (Jason Momoa)—who is half-human, half-Atlantean—is too weak to take the throne of Atlantis because of his corrupted bloodline. Racist eugenics, tyranny, lying propaganda, militarism—it's not especially subtle. Orm is an underwater Nazi.
That shouldn't be a surprise. Hollywood loves to use echoes of Nazi imagery and ideology to signal evil. Yet even though Nazis are a symbol of loathsomeness in movies and television, out here in the real world, we sometimes have a lot of difficulty identifying and rejecting fascism. Indeed, far from helping us fight fascism, Nazis on film may do the opposite.
Filmmakers have used Nazis as a shorthand for iniquity and totalitarianism for decades. In the Star Wars franchise, George Lucas called the evil Empire's shock troops "Stormtroopers," after the Nazi paramilitary Sturmabteilung. Khan, the genetically engineered Star Trek villain who appears in The Wrath of Khan (1982), liked to sneer at less eugenically perfect humans in terms that recalled the race science of the Nazis. More recently, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the antagonist in the Avengers (2012), travels to Germany, where an elderly German man compares him to Adolf Hitler. And that's not even counting movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) or Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), in which the villains are actual, non-metaphorical Nazis. Germany's Thousand-Year Reich may not have lasted a millennium, but it's given us a cinematic shorthand for villainy that's lasted more than 70 years.
Viewers, of course, know that Orm and Khan and Loki are the bad guys. But the United States House of Representatives only recently saw fit to censure Iowa Congressman Steve King, despite his years of racism, anti-Semitism, and history of consorting with actual Nazis. President Donald Trump failed to issue a full-throated condemnation of neo-Nazi marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, even after one of their number murdered a counter-protester. Right-wing talking points about immigrants and crime directly echo Nazi propaganda, and the U.S. just experienced the worst act of anti-Semitic violence in its history.
We all cheer against Nazis in fiction, but in reality we can't seem to get them out of our politics. Why can we identify the supervillains in movies, but not in real life?
The question provides part of the answer. Fascists in real life rarely behave like overt supervillains. Even Hitler maintained a certain secrecy about the extent of his plans for genocide. In contrast, the evil Thanos in Infinity War (2018) just flat-out states that he's going to kill half of all sentient beings in the universe. Real-life fascists generally know not to give it away in the beginning.
Fascists restrict individual freedoms, but their messaging tends to be about belonging and duty and ferreting out traitors. Umberto Eco wrote that one of the key characteristics of fascism is the idea that "disagreement is treason"; dissent is treated as a threat to the nation, a betrayal of a higher good. Benito Mussolini cloaked his totalitarian doctrines in obfuscatory uplift: "The Fascist State organizes the nation, but leaves a sufficient margin of liberty to the individual; the latter is deprived of all useless and possibly harmful freedom, but retains what is essential." Loki, in The Avengers, is less circumspect. "It's the unspoken truth of humanity that you crave subjugation," he says. "You were made to be ruled." Nazis on screen just tell you they're the bad guys. Even films specifically about the Holocaust, like Schindler's List and The Zookeeper's Wife, present their chief Nazis as hyperbolically evil sadists who gloat and boast and fume, much like Lex Luthor or Doctor Doom.
Fascists on screen often have black cloaks, skulls for faces, and ominous music cues. In real life, though, the person saying that white supremacy is OK tends to look like a suburban used-car salesman, while the person advocating ethnic cleansing may appear to be giving a TED Talk. If you're expecting Nazis to look or sound like supervillains, you're likely to be wrong-footed when their evil turns out to be better dressed and less dramatically convenient.
Outerwear aside, there are more substantive ways in which cinematic Nazis deviate from their real-world analogs. It's true that villains like Orm often spout what sounds like eugenics. But supervillain prejudice is rarely directed at specific vulnerable groups, like Jewish people or black people or immigrants—the actual targets of ongoing white-supremacist and Nazi violence.
Instead, fascism on film and in the media is generally framed as a self-contradictory but narratively convenient all-inclusive bigotry.
There is a long history of generalizing the targets of fascism in this way. At Vox, Andrea Pitzer notes that the famous 1956 theatrical adaptation of Anne Frank's diary "deliberately minimized the Jewishness of the Franks in favor of a more universal story that could reach a larger audience." Specific Jewish moments from the diary, such as the Hanukkah celebration, are omitted in favor of "an upbeat finale in which Anne declares her faith in humanity."
You can see the same dynamic in current big-budget films that use Nazi-like villains but avoid really engaging with the true victims of Nazi ideology. Orm, for example, is an Atlantean, so his genocidal "racism" is directed at all human beings. Similarly, in the X-Men films, Magneto talks about mutants as genetically superior to regular humans; he espouses a eugenic philosophy that discriminates equally against everyone watching the movie.
It's not an accident that Magneto himself, in the narrative, is a Jew and a Holocaust survivor. Nazi-like hatred, these films insist, is not evil because it's directed at any one group or set of groups, but because it can be directed toward anyone. In this account, fascism is bad because it threatens everyone all at once, rather than being a particular political ideology that threatens certain people. Such a view scrambles the actual dynamics of fascism, which targets only certain groups for the worst violence, and so creates a powerful incentive for those who aren't at risk to ignore the threat, or even to try to benefit from it.
Consider: In Infinity War, Thanos promises to kill half the people on Earth at random, without regard to race, religion, nationality, or wealth. It's easy for everyone on Earth to band together against him because he threatens all of us. But what if Thanos appeared and said he'd only kill black people, or only Jewish people, or only LGBT people, or only illegal immigrants? Would there be the same unanimous sense of urgency? What might Western governments do if they had the prospect of sudden access to the wealth of a de-populated Wakanda? If Thanos confined his depredations in the global South, would most superheroes, overwhelmingly based on the East Coast, even notice?
Fascism on screen is horrible because it's all-encompassing. But fascism in practice is often horrible because it picks its vulnerable targets with care. Officers with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement harass people, hunt them, incarcerate them, and deport them for small infractions, or even for none. By most measures, an arbitrary police force whose goal is to target and torment a particular community is clearly dystopian. But Hollywood has taught us that dystopias involve prison camps for everyone. When the camps house only immigrants, it's easier to ignore them, or to say that those who are suffering deserve it.
Villainous fascism in Hollywood is an external threat that mainly targets, and is mainly opposed by, heroic white people, who rarely model solidarity with the marginalized. They certainly don't emphasize the importance of listening to marginalized individuals, or of following their lead when fascism is looming.
Even in Casablanca, the 1942 granddaddy of anti-fascist film, Rick (Humphrey Bogart) seems at best to tolerate the people on whose behalf he's supposedly fighting. Casablanca's director Michael Curtiz was Jewish, but nonetheless, the Jewish dissident Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) is a stiff bore, and the Jewish Peter Lorre is cast as the oily, cowardly, and criminal Ugarte, a vicious anti-Semitic stereotype. Rick's African-American friend Sam (Dooley Wilson) isn't really a friend so much as a retainer, there to cheer Rick on and sympathize with his troubles. Sam never pushes Rick to take a stand on fascism, nor does he take one himself. Instead, the person with whom Rick has an actual collegial, working anti-fascist relationship is Renault (Claude Rains)—a corrupt Vichy official. In Casablanca, the most congenial, appealing anti-fascists are fascists.
America in 1942 was deeply racist and fairly anti-Semitic. In order to get past the Hollywood censorship board, though, Casablanca was designed to present the U.S. as "a foil to the evils of fascism," according to the scholar and critic Tanfer Emin Tunc. The studio wanted to attack Nazis, but it had to do so without indicting Americans like Rick, who shared many of the Nazis' prejudices.
America today is still deeply racist, and fairly anti-Semitic, and so is Hollywood. Studios are still careful not to push back against bigotry too emphatically. Orm and Loki and their brethren are meant to inspire anti-fascism—but not too much anti-fascism.
Hollywood is Hollywood, and big-budget movies are rarely the place to look for thoughtful political insight and analysis. Given that, maybe it would be better if films would stop festooning their supervillains with Nazi accoutrements. Hollywood films treat fascism as if it's something easy to recognize. But when they lie to us about who Nazis are and what they do, these movies actually make fascism more difficult to fight. If supervillains are dangerous, it's not because they're fascists. It's because they may end up teaching us that that's what fascists look like.
You can find an index of all my substack posts on fascism here.
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