Saturday, March 23, 2013

Watching Hitler

A scene from Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will.

The Nazi spectacles had a dramatic flair and originality that their Communist imitators never matched.  And the man at the center of this spectacle (like the men at the center of the Communist spectacles) seems so very small and odd, even with Leni Rieffenstahl's masterful framing and editing to make him look as messianic and commanding as possible.

Hitler long ago replaced Lucifer as our emblem of manifest evil, and perhaps rightly so.  I certainly recognize that evil exists, but I've always had a hard time accepting that it had any kind of transcendent or spiritual dimension.  Who needs the devil and Beelzebub and Pandemonium and demons and hell when the last century saw Auschwitz, Treblinka, the Gulags, Tuol Sleng, the Great Famine in China, Rwanda, My Lai, and any number of massacres and crimes of astonishing cruelty and sadism, where just about every last boundary of decency imaginable was breached and then some?  Why should evil need any kind of transcendence when, as Hannah Arendt pointed out, the 20th century saw crime on a metaphysical scale?

I never had any desire to see movies about demonic possession.  Sorry, but I think it's all crap.  Evil is plenty real, and it's all right here in the Here and Now, and prayers, crosses, and holy water will not stop it or even slow it down.  Those movies to me are more about the kinky thrill of torturing teenaged girls than about any kind valuable lesson about evil.

I never really bought into Milton's heroic Satan declaring that he would rather rule in hell than serve in heaven.  The face of evil in my experience is more like the strange little man at the center of the Nazi spectacles, a teetotaling vegetarian paranoid obsessive who, despite decades of rumors, was probably mostly celibate (It seems that those hell-bent on Total Destruction can be just as unworldly and ascetic as those committed to Total Salvation).

For reasons that are not clear to me, historians these days like to do comparative body counts among the last century's bloodthirsty ideological god kings.  In the systematic mass murder competition, Hitler comes in at a paltry 17 million while Mao is the runaway winner with estimates of anywhere from 40 to 80 million perishing in the famine that followed the Great Leap Forward.  Stalin comes in at around 20 to 30 million dead in his famines, massacres, and gulags.  Pol Pot could win the prize if the numbers are calculated proportionately.  He murdered a quarter of the population of Cambodia in 4 years.  And yet, none of those gentlemen started a world war and Hitler did.  I don't know why the casualties of the Second World War (including German casualties) are not counted into Hitler's total body count.

The men at the centers of all of those vast criminal enterprises were hardly heroic or even glamorous.  Each and every one of them comes off as strange, small, and vulgar.  We have a hard time believing that such small men could bring off such historic criminality, and so we speculate uselessly over whether or not a character like Hitler was mad or somehow deranged and degenerate.  One historian (whose name I can't remember) said that a much more useful line of speculation about Hitler would be to ask why generals and field marshals took orders from a man who never rose higher in the military than corporal; or why scholars, scientists, and artists deferred to the views of a man who was almost entirely self-taught and an art school reject; or how such a man could come to hold so powerful a spell over the population of a major modern industrialized country.  That would cross into the uncomfortable territory of speculation about ourselves.  If the inhabitants of so advanced and educated a country could fall for Hitler and end up willingly collaborating in a huge criminal enterprise, what about us?  Are we really so different?  We always insist on the otherness of evil, that it is somehow completely alien to us, while secretly wondering to ourselves if it might, on the contrary, be familiar and near to us always, within our reach.  That thought truly frightens and offends us.  Godwin's Law will always be there to protect us by distancing ourselves from our own self doubts.

I think those who have the best insights into these characters are the parodists.  They see clearly just how trashy evil really is; Hitler's middle-brow tastes, Stalin's boring personal routines, or the elderly Mao as a vulgar sybarite bedding worshipful young girls.  There's nothing like a cult of Mao kitsch to knock down the cult of Mao.  Perhaps an all drag performance of the opening fan dance in the great propaganda movie The East Is Red in a gay cabaret in Chengdu is a fitting tribute to the revolutionary who, as John King Fairbank noted, was not interested in making life better for his people so much as in dominating them.

And Hitler gets the salute he deserves from the ultimate anti-Leni Rieffenstahl, Mel Brooks in "Springtime for Hitler" (sorry no clip, just a link ).  The Incarnation of History, of the Destiny of the Aryan People, gets remade as a star-struck show queen.  The only thing I find hard to believe in this clip is that at the end, Hitler kissed the blonde on his right and not the blond John Barrowman on his left.

"It ain't no mystery, if it's politics or history, the only thing ya gotta know is, everything is showbiz!"

Indeed.  And how do we know that Hitler didn't mouth "I love you all!" to the regimented masses at Nuremberg when Leni Rieffenstahl turned off her cameras?

Against the assaults of laughter and ridicule, no tyrant can stand.  Let's save our tears and our seriousness for the tyrant's victims.


In this extraordinary video from December 21, 1989, we see an amazing spectacle as the heroic monumental figure of Nicolae Ceaucescu, the Genius of the Carpathians, cracks and we see the gray drab little man inside.
This is Ceaucescu's last speech in Bucharest.  At one of those dreary "spontaneous" shows of popular support so familiar from the last century, the crowd spontaneously booed and heckled a very rattled Ceaucescu and his wife Elena.  Everything we hear in this clip is from Ceaucescu's own microphone.  Four days later, Nicolae and Elena Ceaucescu were dead, shot by a firing squad.


JCF said...

"Who needs the devil and Beelzebub and Pandemonium and demons and hell when the last century saw Auschwitz..."

Don't forget Hiroshima&Nagasaki.

Counterlight said...

Haven't forgot them, or Vietnam.