I get it. The bad guys in these movies are like the Nazis (that means they must be really bad). Nothing is more frightening to the contemporary Western psyche than the rise of another Hitler. In our mind, Nazi Germany is the quintessence of evil. Although there was undoubtedly evil in the Nazi regime, I wonder if our obsession with Hitler and the Nazis has become unhealthy.
The first time this question entered my mind was while watching The Monuments Men. I was generally disappointed in this movie, but one scene in particular rubbed me the wrong way: Near the end of the film, after having successfully completed his mission of saving stolen art, George Clooney’s character speaks with Colonel Wegner, the chief antagonist of the film, who had previously operated a concentration camp, and was in charge of carrying out the “Nero Decree” by orchestrating the destruction of stolen works of art. Knowing that Clooney had written and directed the film, I couldn’t help but sense some self-righteousness as he says to the Nazi bad guy:
“I want to remember this moment. I’m gonna go home soon. Got a nice apartment in New York on the Upper West Side. There’s a deli down the street called Sid’s. Every morning, I walk there and I get a cup of coffee and a bagel, and I read the newspaper. I think about it every day here. It’ll be the first place I go when I get stateside. I’m gonna be sitting there, eating one of Sid Meldman’s toasted onion bagels and reading a tiny article in the New York Times, page… 18… that says you, Colonel Wegner, were hanged for your crimes you committed during the war and you were buried in an unmarked grave. And then I’ll think about my cigarette… and I’ll think about you sitting there with that stupid look on your face. Then I’ll finish my coffee, leave the paper for Sid to wrap fish in. I’ll never think of you again.”
Clooney literally wrote himself a part telling off the Nazis. This is the dream of many a westerner: give the Nazis a piece of our mind, let them know how wrong they were, and assure ourselves (and everyone else) that we would not have gone along with 1930s Germany. Something about it just feels cheap.
Since watching The Monuments Men, I’ve been more attuned to references to the Nazis in cinema and other discourse, and I’ve become increasingly frustrated with a ubiquitous “reductio ad Hitlerum.”
Many of the scenes like those I’ve shown here are modeled after Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, which documents a Nazi rally in Nuremberg. Although there are still questions about Riefenstahl’s support of the Nazis, there is no question about the film’s cinematic merits. Its daring artistry earned Riefenstahl several awards, not only in Germany, but also in the United States, France, Sweden, and other countries, and it continues to influence cinema to this day, as the above examples show. Unfortunately, there is nothing innovative about contemporary comparisons of movie bad guys to the Nazis. It is at least a little tragic that a stunning tour de force like Triumph of the Will has been reduced into a simple MacGuffin: Just visually compare them to the Nazis and the audience will know they are really bad guys.
But the real tragedy is that our obsession with the Nazis seems to have become borderline paranoia. This fear of Hitler (like the fear of witches or communists) is somewhat irrational: Although it is possible that a party like the Nazis could come to power again–and it could happen in the United States–it is rather unlikely (and certainly not an imminent threat every four years). Although a Hitler-like dictator could take control of the government, it is improbable. Of course no one thought Hitler would become Hitler, and that’s a decent argument for why we ought to be wary–and we certainly are, perhaps too much: Because not all of us can pull a George Clooney and, with the magic of cinema, travel back in time to fight against and tell off the Nazis, we seem to jump at opportunities to identify, call out, and oppose their supposed modern incarnations. For example, the Huffington Post recently published a piece about how Trump’s supporters raising their arms resemble Nazis. This is the same kind of laziness as J.J. Abram’s depiction of the First Order: How do we show that these guys are bad? Give the audience an image that triggers “Nazis” and game over–no further discussion needed.
We are hyper-sensitized to Hitler-like evils–fanaticism, authoritarianism, racism, nationalism, etc.–and are quick to call them out and agitate against them. There is certainly value in opposing these evils, but perhaps we do so at a cost: In our hyper-sensitivity to various manifestations of Nazism, we might be growing desensitized to other, opposite kinds of evil: disloyalty, permissiveness, refusal to make important moral judgments, social isolation, etc. It could be that our “Hitler phobia” feeds into an already excessively individualistic and liberty-based ethos, occasionally leading us to run about with fire-extinguishers when there is a flood (as C.S. Lewis says in Screwtape Letters, full quote here).
And eventually, the paranoia of “another Hitler” becomes dangerous. We fear that anyone (especially a candidate for the presidency) could become a Hitler, just like our neighbor might be a communist, and the old lady down the street might be a witch. That quick suspicion comes from the underlying horror captured by the now famous line in Hitchcock’s Psycho, “we all go a little mad sometimes.” The horror moves from a frightening, but isolated case to grounds for suspecting anyone and everyone. It is no longer a peculiarity but an all-saturating fear and general distrust of the Other. This fear and distrust is, I believe, at the heart of the large cultural divide we are witnessing in this presidential campaign. If we convince ourselves that a group of people is comparable to the Nazis, we can justify impolite, adversarial, and unsympathetic interactions–we just tell them off like George Clooney tells of Colonel Wegner. I think this is what has been happening with regards to Trump and his supporters, and this anti-Trump rhetoric has been accompanied by violent opposition. Demonstrators have the righteous indignation of Resistance fighters, which steels them in increasingly escalating protests; eventually violence breaks out. I am not suggesting that Trump and his supporters are innocent of wrongdoing, and I will not be supporting his campaign, but I fear the continued violence that may result if there is no de-escalation.
Sure, there are pictures and sound bites that lend themselves to a Hitler comparison, but this is usually cheap journalism and cheap political discourse. In reality, we are generally not choosing whether or not to oppose the rise of another Hitler. Occasions like that may arise in our lives–and I pray that any new embodiment of Hitler would be overwhelmingly opposed from the beginning–but if we treat every vote like another WWII, we’ll end up digging trenches in fields we should be plowing together.