Playing With Fire: The Dilema of Portraying Fascism In Film

Posted on 23rd May 2004 by Ryan Somma in Mediaphilism

“The cinema is the most powerful weapon,” Mussolini proclaimed in 1922, but it was Germany’s Third Reich that produced the film with the most influence on modern day cinema. Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of Will cast the mold for fascist style. The influence of her film is recognizable in films as wide and diverse as Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, Stanely Kubrick’s Spartacus, George Lucas’ Star Wars films, and even Disney’s Lion King (Mondello).

The iconography of Germany’s Third Reich remains prevalent in many of today’s subcultures. From Wermacht novelty motorcycle helmets to Nazi officer style S&M regalia, these trademarks of Nazi branding are not popular for the ideology they once represented, but find appeal in their slick stylishness and sexuality:

Much of the imagery of far-out sex has been placed under the sign of Nazism. Boots, leather, chains, Iron Crosses on gleaming torsos, swastikas, along with meat hooks and heavy motorcycles, have become the secret and most lucrative paraphernalia of eroticism. (Sontag)

Like cyperpunk, goth, emo or any other popular subculture, the fascist style finds its way into the mix. Films make use of it both for its appeal and its historical associations.

Many films have tried to explore and understand the appeal of fascism. In Bernardo Bertollucci’s Il Conformista, he portrays the psychological drama of a fascist loyalist, who must forsake his personal beliefs for the party’s demands. Menno Meyjes’ goes even further into controversy with his film Max, where he portrays a young, impoverished Hitler as both a struggling artist and public speaker. Both films have drawn sharp criticism for humanizing evil, which may evoke identification with and empathy for the fascists.

Films such as Star Wars and Pink Floyd: The Wall both use fascist imagery and its historical associations to present an ultimate evil. These are only two examples, for:

Armies of bad guys are almost always depicted as neo-nazis now, because Riefenstal’s images have been so seared into society’s consciousness. Rallies of people you don’t like, chanting things you don’t like, look like Nuremburg to you because she made that the reference point, indelible images, strangely seductive, and monstrous because of what they came to represent. (Mondello)

Yet, this use of fascist imagery, as a shortcut to creating an evil antagonist for its own sake has consequences, creating caricatures of their real life references and distance audiences through exaggeration and “over the top” monstrosity.

The appeal of the fascist style has grown beyond just the bad-guys in popular cinema. Films such as David Fincher’s Fight Club and Paul Verhoven’s Starship Troopers have actually presented their protagonists as fascists, both stylistically and ideologically. Although these filmmakers deny this intention, their target audiences are too inexperienced to detect their subtle satire.

The more overtly anti-fascist films following Riefenstahl’s work employ parody and horror to strip the style of its appeal. Charlie Chaplin ridicules the fascists as buffoons and guilty of overt hypocrisy. Michael Radford changes the context of the fascist style to present a nightmare landscape for his portayal of George Orwell’s “1984,” while Terry Gilliam mixes these two techniques into a modernized variation on the theme. In spite of the effectiveness of these techniques, all three filmmakers rely on an audience incapable of closely identifying with their subject matter.

The Origin of Fascist Style

Leni Reifenstahl’s Triumph of Will

Triumph of Will opens with Hitler’s motorcade riding through the streets of Nuremberg. The scene resembles a parade, with the crowds jostling to see Hitler at its focal point. Neon swastikas, military bands, fireworks, smiling faces, and goodwill generate a sense of levity. This carnival atmosphere seems oddly kitsch when the decades of post-war associations are removed.

One of the more striking shots Reifenstahl employs in her film is a slow orbiting focus around a stationary figure. In the film’s opening, she uses this shot to draw attention to a statue, making it dynamic; later, the same technique gives additional energy to Hitler’s speech to a Nazi Youth assembly. “Her gliding camera, rhythmic cutting, and long slow shots of shining spotlights framing a cathedral of lights gave der fuhrer and his faithful a look of sophistication” (Simon).

Another aspect of Reifenstahl’s film is her use of geometry. Squares, curves, and circles formed in the crowds and soldiers generate, not only a sense of a unified people, but a sense of the modern. Iron sculptures, neon swastikas, and flags tall as buildings lend to this. The fascists are modern, futuristic, an ideal.

Possibly the most important aspect of Reifenstahl’s film is her selectiveness. Much of Hitler’s speeches are edited of their controversial content, such as the “Jewish Threat.” The closest we come is when Hitler proclaims, “We must examine and remove the bad elements from our ranks.” For this reason, critics of Riefenstahl’s work as being a documentary argue, “The document (the image) not only is the record of reality but is one reason for which the reality has been constructed, and must eventually supersede it.” (Sontag). This staged aspect of Riefenstahl’s film, that many of the gatherings, rallies, and speeches were prepared with the making of her film in mind, make its purpose as documentary transcend into the realm of propaganda.

Critiquing Riefenstahl’s film as propaganda, there is a realization of how much was staged for its making. We could also go beyond her camera shots and Hitler’s speeches to see the entire film in the context of a Hollywood production. We could analyze the costume design involved in the Nazi uniforms from the imposing black and trim SS Troopers, to the rugged down-to-earth overalls of the labor forces. High-ranking officials are introduced with dynamic, yet familiar text.”Ley,” “Frank,” and “Goebbles” flash on the screen for Dr. Robert Ley, Dr. Hans Frank, and Dr. Josef Goebbles as if they were pop stars, painting “Hitler and his followers as idealized supermen” (Ebert). Thus “Riefenstahl’s documentary is the aesthetization of politics, not the politicization of art” (World Cinema).

Exploring the Psychology of Fascism

Bernardo Bertollucci’s Il Conformista

Bernardo Bertollucci’s psychological drama Il Conformista focuses on the individual’s motivations for joining the fascist political body. It studies the character Marcello Clerici, a man seeking to blend into society. When asked about his reasons for getting married, he responds, “I intend to construct my normality.”

Joining the fascists, for Marcello, represents just another characteristic to constructing an identity, but when the ideology commands him to assassinate one of his former teachers, Professor Quadri, we find him torn between his deeply suppressed intellectualism and his need to fit in. Bertollucci draws a metaphor for this conflict, between individual desire and fascist ideal, in a philosophical discussion about Plato’s “Myth of the Cave,” where Plato describes a theoretical setting:

human beings living in a underground den… here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them… a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets. (Plato)

These represent Plato’s “un-enlightened,” only seeing and speculating about the shadows cast on the wall, never knowing the reality of what they represent.
Professor Quandri likens the shadows to fascism, style without substance. We learn that Marcello’s thesis involved this myth, but that he abandoned it when the Professor, his mentor, fled to Paris. Marcello has since acquired a new mentor, a radio spokesman for the fascists, who is also, ironically, blind.

The fascist institutions portrayed in the film are made of imposing architecture, modernist, sharply geometric and cold marble, powerful and intimidating. A fascist leader explains the reasons people collaborate with the fascists are “fear, money, few for fascism.” This background helps emphasize the enigma of Marcello’s motivations. Money and power seem to fit in with Marcello’s trophy wife, wealthy background, and cold disregard for humanity, but these motivations fall apart the deeper we delve into Marcello’s psyche.

We find a deeply intellectual man, one who identifies more with the Professor than with the fascist killers he works with. The Professor also knows Marcello does not believe in fascism, partially because of his philosophical nature, which the fascists have made criminal. When it comes time for Marcello to perform the assassination, he cannot. We also detect an underlying contempt for his bourgeois, superficial wife, and a suppressed desire for Giulia. We also find later that fascism has placed Marcello in a lower standard of living, sharing a dwelling with several other families, in spite of his service in the secret police.

The film’s final moments, when Marcello and his blind mentor go for a walk to see what a revolution looks like, does Marcello finally break down and reveal his true underlying motivation. His cool facade cracks and he shrieks at passersby that a homeless man committed the Professor’s assassination. He reveals his mentor for the fascist commentator, screaming at people who are only confused by his irrational attempt to absolve himself. Throughout the entire film he has cast a shadow, trying to go unnoticed, and now the fear has finally consumed him.

Menno Meyjes’ Max

Menno Mayjes’ controversial period piece Max takes on the monumental task of portraying Hitler before the formation of the nazi party. Max is an aspiring artist, impoverished World War I veteran, and harshly vocal anti-Semite. He befriends a Jewish art patron, Max Rothman, also a veteran, who lost his painting arm in the war. Max seeks to steer the young Adolf away from his anti-Semitic street corner rantings and channel his fury into his artwork.

Two aspects of this film help further define and illustrate the allure of fascism in ways we cannot see in Riefenstahl’s film, because they address the context of Riefenstahl’s audience. The film places much emphasis on the overwhelming poverty of post-war Germany. It portrays the humiliation the Treaty of Versailles placed on the German people, making them accept responsibility, both morally and financially, for the war. So when the young Hitler speaks before a small congregation of Germans, sounding inspired, echoing their frustrations, giving them an enemy, and a purpose, we understand the audience Riefenstahl was addressing with her film.

Through Hitler’s artistic expression, the film directly addresses the allure of Nazi imagery. Max Rothman, having failed to sell Hitler as an impressionist, discovers the young man’s concept drawings for Nazism. They are modern, comic-bookish, and fanciful without their historical context. Max sees value in their vision, and wants Hitler to do a “World of the Future” art show. Creating a tragically ironic social commentary on the distinction between style and substance, the film ends with Max killed by a young Nazi, on his way to a dinner with Hitler to set up the show.

Both of these exploratory films were attacked for their subject matter, which some saw as risking potential audience identification with the fascist ideology and its members. Bertollucci’s film was “criticized by some for promoting a psychological explanation of Fascism over cultural, historical, or ideological ones,” (Bozzola) and Meyjes “film was protested by one Jewish group, sight unseen, simply for attempting to humanize the young Hitler” (Ralske). While such concerns are valid and reflect the wariness of the historically-aware public, they are also unfair to the filmmaker’s intentions.

These films do not justify fascism with their explanations, but provide us with an understanding of their appeal or persuasiveness. Film critic Josh Ralske explains the importance of Mayjes approach that “part of the film’s conceit is its crucial acknowledgement that Hitler did not spring fully formed from some other dimension. However monstrous his actions, he was a human being, making him all the more disturbing an historical figure” (Ralske). Indeed, the alternative portrayal of the fascist, as a monster, has much worse implications

The Fascist Bad Guy

Alan Parker’s Pink Floyd: The Wall

The rock musical Pink Floyd: The Wall uses Nazi imagery to define the anti-social aspect of a man’s insanity. Pink, the film’s protagonist, once separated from the world with a mental “Wall,” rebuilds himself out of hatred, shaving his body hair and sporting military dress. He becomes an amalgamation of the old Nazi regime, with towering flags bearing “twin hammers” reminiscent of the swastika, and the neo-nazi movement, with its shaved heads and hobnailed boots.

This modernized portrayal of fascism presents the audience with something easier to identify with and fear. The neo-nazi movement has gained much attention in the new media over the last two decades. Updating Pink’s style to reflect this makes him a more intimidating villain. When we place his rally in the context of a rock concert, the modernized image is completed. The fans become fascists as well, dancing in lockstep, their faces replaced with featureless masks.

Symbolically, Pink becomes the thing he hates, those who killed his father in World War II, but the imagery is also used as commentary on the mindlessness of the pop-star’s fan base. It grows more convoluted as cartoon monsters join the action and hammer’s march to the beat of the film’s soundtrack. The ideology’s hatred is also present, as Pink orders his fans to kill those who are different.

George Lucas’ Star Wars

The film Star Wars recognizes the futuristic aspect of Nazi style. The Grand Moff Tarkin and other officers on the Death Star wear form-fitting outfits with tall leather boots. Darth Vader, in a addition to wearing all leather, wears a helmet with a flared out base in the shape of an exaggerated Nazi helmet.

Their ideology also resembles fascism in its demand for unquestioning loyalty. “Fear will keep the systems in line, fear of this battle station,” Tarkin explains soon after announcing the demise of the last vestiges of the Republic. Even the theme of conformity is illustrated with a science fiction twist. The Storm Troopers, soldiers of the Empire, are revealed to be clones, produced in assembly line fashion. They are not only ideologically identical, but genetically as well.

These portrayals of fascism are less about a totalitarian ideology and more about good versus evil. They are a quick means of evoking audience associations with evil. Fascism becomes a stage prop, present for the sole purpose of identifying the bad guy. As a result, the fascist becomes a caricature of their historical counterpart. The reality of fascism grows more disassociative as years of distance are placed between the historical reality and the modern audience. They are replaced with these imaginary monsters, becoming less viable as a real life possibility.

When this barrier of reality breaks down under the implausibility of fiction, the audience members begin to focus entirely on the style. Once stripped of their repulsive ideology, the fascists are quite stylish and sexy. The audience, therefore, finds the bad guys more appealing for their visual allure.

That the bad guys are more stylish and appealing visually than the good guys, with their white tunics and youthful looks, is not lost on George Lucas. By the third film, Return of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker sports the same, form-fitting, officer’s uniform of the Empire, complete with high leather boots and gloves. Thus, fascist imagery overtakes the good guy’s style.

The Fascist Good Guy

Paul Verhoeven’s StarShip Troopers

Imagine a future where fascism succeeds and you have the backdrop to Paul Verhoeven’s science fiction action film Starship Troopers. In this system, only those who serve in the military may acquire citizenship and the right to vote. Taking place after the “failure of democracy,” this is a world characterized by swift justice for crimes, as when an execution takes place hours after the defendant is found guilty and is televised, licenses are required for having children, which are easier to attain with citizenship, and less obvious intrusions on privacy, such as school grades being posted in large font complete with the student’s name, so that other students may ridicule those with low scores.

The film’s ideological backdrop also matches its set design. The government’s logo is an eagle reminiscent of the Nazi eagle, with its modern design, suggestive of steel and weaponry, resembling a military bomber. Great attention is paid to the body as well, similar to Riefenstahl’s attention to the shirtless Hitler youth, Verhoeven has a coed shower scene to show off the soldier’s muscular bodies enhanced with the glistening water. The uniforms also harken back to the Third Reich, black and form fitting.

Most striking among the fascist images, are the film’s brief news clips, which are “modeled on propaganda films made during World War II” (Verhoeven). These include exiting and dynamic presentations of the war, seemingly benign, yet disturbing, scenes of children playing with weapons as an early indoctrination to the society.

Oddly enough, the film never confronts its fascist backdrop. The system is never questioned, only reinforced as a necessary means for survival against an alien threat. In spite of this, Paul Verhoeven staunchly defends the film as being anti-fascism in his director’s commentary:

This fascist propaganda that is kind of apparent in the movie… should be read as something that is not good… not a good statement, and this is not good politics, and if you see a black uniform, you should know bad, bad, bad (Verhoeven).

The problem with Verhoeven’s statement is that the movie makes no associations with its fascism and its lack of humanity. In fact, the film’s writer, Ed Neumeier, contradicts Verhoeven’s assertion almost immediately:

It’s actually… a society that works pretty well. There’s no sexism, there’s no racism, later we will see that there’s very little crime, in fact they seem to have achieved the ideal sort of politically correct society, except that we… question how they have achieved it (Neumeier).

This disconnects with Verhoeven’s directorial Intentions. If he were making an anti-fascist film, then creating a utopian fascist society seems contraindicated.

Verhoeven, therefore, must rely on the historical associations with fascism to get his point across. The audience must recognize what the film’s models are and take pleasure in the irony and satire of a utopian fascist society, again we find contradiction, for the film’s target audience, a younger generation seeking a Friday night action flick, lacks the experiential and educational background required to enjoy this dimension of the film. Verhoeven’s subtle satire, crucial to the film’s anti-fascist message, is lost on an audience incapable of detecting it, and thus the film becomes a pro-fascist statement for the majority of its audience.

David Fincher’s Fight Club

David Fincher’s Fight Club suffers from this same dilemma. The film presents the character Jack, a man suffering from insomnia, sleepwalking through life, and completely disgusted with the meaningless materialism around him. He and a companion, Tyler Durden, form a club, where disenfranchised males fight one another in a dysfunctional sort of therapy.

Up to this point the film’s message appears fairly anti-establishment in a relatively benign form; however, the fight club quickly evolves into an anti-establishment enterprise known as “Project Mayhem,” a coordinated effort to vandalize icons of Western materialism such as modern art, expensive cars, coffee shops, and credit agencies. The fight club evolves into an anti-establishment establishment, demanding unquestioning loyalty, the dissolution of the self through fraternity style hazing techniques, and communal living.

While its direct influence on Finch’s work seems doubtful, Alessandro Blasetti’s pro-fascist “Ettore Fieramosca,” made in 1938, employs the same costuming techniques to push his agenda as “Fight Club” uses to frame its social conflict. In Blasetti’s film, when the French Aristocrats and Italian fascists face off, the French are all dressed differently with long pretentious titles expressing their individuality, while the fascists all wear black and act as one body in unity (Chin). This resembles the members of Fight Club, who also dress in all black and additionally do not have names, except in death. The forces they battle against are colorful expressions of materialism, varied in appearance, but conformist in principle.

The fascist idealism apparent in the fight club reaches a stark climax when one of its members dies. Jack, their leader, questions the morality of their actions with cynical despair. The other members, momentarily shocked, quickly recover by finding hope and validation through a rationalization of his critical words. When the minions begin chanting affirmations over their leader’s protests, Edward Norton uses this example to illustrate the films anti-fascist message, “the guys in black shirts and boots running around doing stupid things are such morons” (Norton).

Beyond the film’s portrayal of the fight club’s members as nimrods, the film requires no real critical thinking on the part of the audience. In the end the only real rejection Jack has to Tyler’s plan is murder. He accepts everything else the club does, and, in the film’s final shot, watches the many credit agency buildings get demolished as he holds hands with the woman he loves. Thus, a more nuanced view of fascism takes place, one where the anti-establishment actions are promoted, murder is not, and the argument becomes one of degree. How much fascism is acceptable

Using Absurdity and Horror to Tackle the Fascist Dystopia

Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator

Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator provides both a direct retort to Riefenstahl’s propaganda and the answer to the seductiveness of Nazi style. The film mocks Riefenstahl’s camera techniques when a statue of “The Thinker” is seen in the background saluting. Chaplin also makes fun of the choreographed nature of her film in a scene where the Dictator, Hynkler, is to greet the Dictator Napaloni. The carefully choreographed setup falls apart when the train does not stop at the designated place and everyone is forced to chase it. The soldiers under the “Doublecross,” vice “IronCross,” are bumbling oafs, not the stalwart pinnacles portrayed by Riefenstahl.

Nor are they the benign, pop-icons of Riefenstahl’s film. Chaplin illustrates the deceptive nature of her propaganda in his film when Hynkler gives a speech translated into English. When Hynkle goes off on a seemingly endless tirade, so furious the very microphones wilt under his hatred, the translator interprets this as, “His excellency has just referred to the Jewish people.”

Chaplin mocks the style of the Third Riech at every turn. Everywhere he parodies it as more concerned with style than substance. An example is when an imposing file cabinet opens up to reveal a dressing room mirror for the Dictator to pose in front of. Herr Garbage gives an inspiring speech about purifying the race, first removing the Jews, then the brunettes, leaving a race of blonde haired, blue-eyed people under the rule of Hynkle, a brunette. The film’s conclusion brings the style’s lack of ideology to a climax, when a Jew impersonating Hynkle assumes Dictatorship and preaches the exact opposite message of the former Dictator, and this meets with rousing cheers of approval.

The difficulty of Chaplin’s approach to his subject is that in ridiculing the fascist threat, he removes the audience’s ability to take it seriously. His fascists are too bungling and inept to prompt audience members to take arms against it. “Chaplin subsequently noted that, had he known the scope of evil perpetrated on Europe by the Nazis, he would never have made them the subject of this lampoon” (Jardine).

Michael Radford’s Nineteen Eighty-Four

Michael Radford finds another way to strip fascism of its appeal using bleak set design and dull gray color tones in his adaptation of George Orwell’s book in the film Ninteen Eighty-Four. All of the classic Nazi rally settings are found within this film, but they are cheapened. The smooth concrete arena floors replaced with loose dust and gravel. The laborer’s jumpsuits, so proudly showcased in Riefenstahl’s film, are worn and dirty in this oppressed world. Everything here is decay and ruins, bombed out husks of buildings, industrial style used not to evoke a sense of the modern, but a rusty skeleton of abandoned visions.

The only time we escape this vapid color scheme is when Winston and Julia sneak away from the city to a green pasture, where they engage in thought crimes and sexual intercourse. In this sanctuary of the natural world, an oasis peace and tranquility from the wasteland of modernity, they find a brief respite from the oppressive scrutiny. This gloomy wasteland, the result of this world’s totalitarian system, sets the stage for the psychological nightmare that takes place in it.

Remaining true to George Orwell’s vision and narrative, the film focuses on the plight of the individual living in a system demanding the absolution of individuality for the state’s purposes. The story dwells on Winston’s brainwashing, drawing out his torture using clinical dialogue with O’Brien, his tormentor and party leader. Like Marcello in “The Conformist,” Winston submits to the fascist demands out of fear, renouncing the woman he loves, his beliefs, and even reality for the social construction of reality the fascist party presents:

O’BRIEN: How many fingers am I holding up?

WINSTON: How ever many you say.

While in “The Conformist,” Marcello seeks the illusion of allegiance to fascist principles, while his mind remains intellectually conflicted, in Ninteen Eighty-Four the fascist state replaces the mind as well. Combining Orwell’s politicized dialogue with Radford’s instruments of torture, most notably an industrialized version of the rack, which uses steam power to inflict pain, the nightmare of mental violation is realized on the screen.

Orwell and Radford turn the fascists into supernatural monsters, subjecting them to a surrealist audience perception, similar to Star Wars. The threat becomes removed from reality behind science fiction backdrop, whose scope has grown too large for audience identification. In spite of the effectiveness of the nightmare, it remains as cautionary as a dream, which fades soon after we leave the theater.

Terry Gilliam’s Brazil

Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil strikes a delicate balance between Chaplin’s absurdity and Orwell’s nightmare. Gilliam originally intended to title his film “1984 Revisited,” and his story updates Orwell’s for the 80s audience, changing the means his fascist state uses to control its people. He uses a subtler propaganda, less overt in its totalitarianism, but the setting remains infused with it. Posters appear in every scene, sporting slogans like “Paranoia Breeds Confidence,” “Who Can You Trust?” and “Happiness, We’re All In It Together” a commercialist spin on Big Brother propaganda.

The film takes a nonchalant attitude to the fascism present within its world. A smiling, pleasant receptionist taking dictation in one of the offices at “Information Retrieval” seems ordinary enough, but a close up of her transcript reveals a torture session. A man killed during an interrogation generates a paperwork conundrum because he was innocent, and the victim’s family is entitled to a monetary refund for his arrest.

Like Chaplin, Gilliam’s world merely presents the illusion of modernity. The televisions that appear everywhere in the film, while appearing futuristic, are still black and white, with small screens that only show old movies such as the Marx Brother’s films. Although computers exist, the purpose of information technology remains lost on an information-obsessed society, which still requires immense volumes of paperwork that travels through ducts running through everything.

The ever-present ducts, like kudzu vines growing into everything, are a product of the bureaucracy, which serves as a control measure for the fascist state. Citizens, like Jill Layton, seeking a redress of grievances against the government become lost in the bureaucratic shuffle, running from department to department, standing in line endlessly, and being turned away because a department failed to stamp one document out of the hundreds required. After a woman’s husband is seized for interrogation, a clerk has the grief-stricken woman sign several receipt forms, and then retains one document, which he says, “is my receipt for your receipt.”

Although audience members may identify with the bureaucratic frustration, even realize its potential for oppression, Gilliam’s vision suffers from the same audience detachment as “Nineteen Eighty-Four” due to its science fiction nature. This detachment becomes magnified in the film’s absurdist tone, conflicting the audience’s emotional response with its silly nightmare.


Leni Riefenstahl’s propagandistic documentary cast the mold for the fascist style. Her technical mastery of the camera, combined with the Third Reich’s set and costume designs created an elaborate production for other filmmakers to admire. Riefenstahl’s directorial intention was to present the Third Reich in an adoring light, but her collaborative vision later suffered the taint of the Nazi regime’s historical legacy. As a result, we are left with a document both seductively appealing and terrifying in its historical context.

This leaves filmmakers with a dilemma in how they present fascism to audiences. Exploratory dramas have sought more realistic depictions of the consequences of fascism, but their dramatic microcosms create isolated incidents, often too nuanced for the audience to take their cautionary warnings seriously. Additionally, many audience members are offended by what they perceive as apologism on behalf of the fascists in the filmmaker’s explanations for fascist origins.

While critics of this approach express a legitimate concern for the creation of fascist sympathies, they ignore the consequences of the opposite approach. Filmmakers who present fascists as monsters often merely caricaturize Nazi imagery for dramatic effect, creating a stylish threat but one too evil to take seriously in a modern context. Once deprived of their believability, the audience is allowed to perceive the bad guys for their superior style.

They stylish presentation of the “fascist bad-guy” for entertainment purposes has evolved into the “fascist good-guy” for entertainment purposes. In spite of Directorial intentions to the contrary, these films have produced fascist anti-heroes both in the context of a military establishment and as anti-establishment revolutionaries. While such films rely on the insights and education of their audiences to recognize the satirical points, the genre and youthfulness of the film’s target audiences belay this intention.

Directors seeking to circumvent the appeal of fascist imagery for films with a directly anti-fascism purpose use absurdity and impoverished contexts to strip the style of its appeal. The absurdist approach works well for preventing the audience from wanting to identify with the oafish, bullying fascists portrayed, but this tactic suffers from credibility issues for parodying reality. The nightmare or poverty context approaches suffer from audience detachment as a result of the science fiction aspect inherent to rendering futuristic societies or alternate realities.

Decades of distance between Riefenstahl’s and Hitler’s vision have detached audience associations with their material. The Nazi imagery has outgrown its historical context and been blown up on the big screen as exaggerated caricatures, too stylish for total audience repulsion or too monstrous to take seriously. “Through Riefenstahl we have seen how a monument can be made from a body… how from a madman with a moustache you can make a charismatic hero… Thanks to her [work] we mistrust ourselves.” (Bach) The conundrum of Triumph’s effective rhetoric set against its repulsive ideology will continue to conflict the work of filmmakers far into the future.

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Denise Richards, Jake Busey, and Neil Patrick Harris.
Sony Pictures Entertainment / Touchstone Pictures / TriStar, 1997.

Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. Dir. George Lucas. Perf. Mark Hamill,
Anthony Daniels, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Peter Cushing.
20th Century Fox, 1977.

Star Wars: Episode VI – The Return of the Jedi. Dir. Richard Marquand.
Perf. Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams,
and Anthony Daniels. 20th Century Fox, 1983.

Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones. Dir. George Lucas. Perf. Ewan McGregor,
Natalie Portman, Hayden Christensen, Christopher Lee, and Samuel L. Jackson. 20th Century Fox, 2002.

Triumph of the Will. Dir. Leni Riefenstahl. Perf. Heinrich Himmler, Rudolf Hess,
Adolf Hitler, Martin Bormann, Hermann Goring, and Josef Goebbels.
Fusion Video / Ventura Distribution, 1934.

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