The movies have always had a certain power over me. From the moment that I sit down, my eyes become subject to whatever agenda is put in front of me, be it casual, ideologically driven or otherwise. Whether or not you find yourself in agreement with the characters or their choices, it would be committing a social faux-pas to audibly announce your disdain. In this way, you’re forced to be a bit of a passive agent in terms of whatever is going to be broadcast on-screen. For most films, this is no big deal as everything coming out of Hollywood as of late has felt really cushy and digestible. But there are a few films that are released which can just make you squirm. Sometimes this is because they star Adam Sandler and sometimes it’s because you really don’t like to see bad acting, but then there’s a category of films which revolve around a “radical agenda”. These could involve all sorts of warm topics: neo-nazi’s, white supremacists, religious zealots. As educated individuals, we’re sort of conditioned to have the standard outlook of Nazi = bad guy. It doesn’t have to be more complex than that to make a great movie, I mean look at a classic like Schindler’s List (Spielberg, 1993). One problem that tends to occur with that approach is that the film can end up feeling stale. Those big ‘real world villains’ like racism and fascism play easily on the viewers heartstrings and it feels like a formulaic attempt at an Oscar-run. But what happens when you inject a little complexity and humanity into the radical ideological perspective? You get a lot of uncomfortable. Because the one way to make a movie villain ten times scarier is to make them seem completely relatable.
A few films that I’ve seen recently address this topic. In a multi-faceted viewing experience, I’ve seen each one through a different medium. I saw Denial at the cinema, I saw Imperium on TV through on demand, and I saw Colonia through Netflix on a laptop. Each film approaches the subject in a different way and addresses the various groups of people who are influenced by radical thinking. By no means do any of these films aim to generate sympathy for these causes, but rather allow us a little insight into the mind of these radical groups.
My first trip to the movies that I had been excited about for a while came when I saw Denial. I hadn’t known much about the film prior to seeing it, but I thought that if a film about a legal case can create the amount of tension and drama that the trailer promised, I was definitely interested. In the film, based on true events, Historian Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) goes toe to toe with Holocaust-denier David Irving (Timothy Spall) in court after he accuses her of libel and she refuses to settle. Immediately, the story is framed as a battle for the truth as one of the opening scenes has Lipstadt asking her class for proof of the Holocaust and explaining to them the difficulty of providing evidence after so much had been destroyed. When Irving confronts her at one of her speaking engagements, he forces her hand. His guerilla-style assault seems to work as her retaliatory nature ignites his cause for a case. From there, the film takes us through the interesting set-up for the legal proceedings. On her team, they have a group of stoic lawyers who seem more interested in the work for the merit awarded as opposed to the actual cause. David Irving, on the other hand, stands alone. From the moment Lipstadt’s legal team enters his private chambers, we aren’t faced with a man who rubs his palms together maniacally behind closed doors, but rather a family man who has charisma and an admirable swagger. It’s an interesting juxtaposition created between the two sides. Director Mick Jackson creates an air of boring bureaucracy around the good guys, a legal team who have no time for emotional appeals, and an air of charm around the bad guy, a bombastic, elegant man who uses his affability to move the masses.
By framing the film this way, Jackson creates discomfort in his viewers. Traditionally, we expect the dark side to have that thick layer of bureaucracy sprinkled on top of it’s fascism with little room for emotion anywhere. Think of ‘The Empire’ in Star Wars. They had so much red tape that they naturally collapsed on themselves. They had structure, but internal dissonance. This is exactly what it feels like watching Lipstadt and her team work together. She’s trying to find anyway to inject the reality of the Holocaust into the court case, but the legal team fears it will only propel Irving further, giving fuel for his fire. This internal struggle is difficult for the viewer who is witnessing a reluctant Lipstadt forced to remain silent in front of her academic enemy. In one pivotal scene, they come to the realization that Irving probably does believe everything he’s saying. That prospect in itself is the terrifying nature of this article and, to a greater extent, the world. Even things which should be plainly black and white are viewed by some with lurid color. This creates a second obstacle for the viewer: since this man truly believes he’s doing the right thing, he’s got a degree of authenticity. But that is the nature of evil, is it not? People in the real world who are doing wrong do it with purpose, often a purpose which they think is good. This is what causes the deep level of divisiveness present in the world at this time. People have all sorts of different beliefs about what is ‘good’. This curveball causes Lipstadt and her team to scramble for a new solution in order to vilify Irving and they find one in a search for the truth.
One way or another, the truth will out. The columns of deception decay when under the heat of justice and beneath the rubble, there isn’t room for lies. In Denial, Lipstadt’s legal team takes this approach: show that Irving – despite his core beliefs – knew he was deceptive and used that to empower himself and further his cause. Deception is an incredibly useful, yet difficult tool which has the power to influence some of the strongest minds. But, it doesn’t last. The front that Irving had put up mirrored the front that the director, Jackson, had also constructed, one which allowed for a nazi sympathizer to have a moment of complexity. At the end of the day though, and after all the charisma and passion fades away, all that remains of Irving is the fact that he is a liar. It’s interesting how far people have gone empowered by a seemingly endless supply of charisma and personality, only to later be exposed as guilty of altering the truth to serve their own agenda.
And Denial doesn’t stand as this years sole example of the “wolf in sheep’s clothing” phenomenon when it comes to these extremists and their beliefs. I watched the film Imperium (Ragussis, 2016) from the comfort of a couch, which made it all the more uncomfortable to see the agenda present in that film shoved down my eye sockets. Imperium revolves around an FBI agent named Nate Foster (Daniel Radcliffe) who goes undercover inside a white supremacist group in order to probe them for possible terrorist threats. The framing of these opposing forces begins traditionally as Foster’s first introduction to these extremists is through a group of grimy, pale bikers. These guys look like the anthropomorphized versions of the “Monstars” from Space Jam, wearing their hatred on their sleeve as if it’s a hot fashion trend. But just as we find ourselves comfortably distanced from these antagonists, the complexity of the situation sets in.
In one scene, Foster attends a white supremacist barbecue where he meets Gerry (Sam Trammell), a white collar, white supremacist, well-travelled dad with an interest in culture and renaissance sensibilities. The stark contrast between the family man persona and the white supremacist beliefs provides a more complex portrait of a villain. And pretty quickly, Foster finds himself almost exclusively in the company of these more refined types of white supremacists. He can relate to these guys, Gerry especially, who Foster feels for and wants to be good. In one scene, the two men are talking about classical music in Gerry’s living room. They discuss the intricacies of a particular work by a jewish composer, who Gerry admits is talented and Nate sits there wondering how someone with such similar tastes could think so differently. It’s in this moment that we as the audience really feel for Nate Foster. We also think this guy if effin’ cool and seems like the neighbor that would put all other neighbors to shame. We want him to not be a racist prick, because every other part of him seems genuine. But a lot of the time, the villains in the real world don’t look like our nazi biker gang friends, they often look a lot like Gerry.
When thinking about Imperium and the modern day white supremacists, I had to wonder just how many normal looking people walking down the street might hold those extremist ideological perspectives. I mean, I saw a young picture of David Duke the other day and I thought he looked like one my my local news anchors who I find really charming (a real Ron Burgundy type). That was my immediate association. But that’s the beauty of Imperium and Denial: they really challenge your perspective on what makes someone evil. It’s difficult, especially when a character has redeeming traits, to identify them as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. But no matter how far the audience goes down the ‘maybe they’re reedemable‘ rabbithole, nothing will change the fact that their core ideological values are misanthropic – and that’s not going to change. Nate Foster knows this and it’s what helps him get past his fondness for his new bro and bring the organization to justice. Gerry was deceptive in his appearance and that helped bring credibility to his cause. He, like Irving, used this deception to gain power and, also like Irving, wasn’t quite able to get away with it. Because the truth about Gerry is that, despite his outward, amiable appearance, he was still a despicable person.
These misanthropes can’t maintain their appeal for long and by the end of the film, their nature gets the best of them. But in the case of David Irving and Gerry, we have two gentleman who are expected to maintain some sense of decorum as they’re participants in society. And not every ideological extremist is. In another film I watched, Colonia (Gallenbeger, 2015), we see a different perspective. Colonia follows Lena (Emma Watson – yes we’re apparently having a Harry Potter mini-reunion here), a young woman who joins a cult to save her boyfriend Daniel (Daniel Brühl), who has been sent there as punishment for rebellious activities against the government in 1970’s Chile. This cult fronts as a religious organization, headed by a eccentric demagogue named Paul Schäefer (Michael Nyqvist), who was based on the real cult leader of the same name. Though racist extremism isn’t the focus here per se (though research suggests that there certainly is a connection), ideological extremism and deception are abundant. Cults, by nature, are a bit out of the box in their thinking, but this group takes religious extremism to a new level. In this society, men and women are separated at almost all times, speaking to anyone is discouraged and painful beatings are doled out to anyone who steps the slightest bit out of line. Schäfer runs this Disney-like paradise as if he were part divine: he has followers listen to him without question and treat any opportunity to help him as a privilege. But we see the film through Lena’s perspective, which allows us to immediately understand just how flawed everything is, including Schäefer himself.
Schäefer knows that he’s no God and he knows there’s no reason to run the colony as brutally as he does, but he uses these deceptive measures to maintain control and advance his own perverted agenda. It also doesn’t help that the extremely corrupt government is on his side. But Lena realizes that the outside world doesn’t know the truth behind the horrors which take place inside and, with Daniel’s help, makes it part of her mission to reveal the true nature of the colony. Now, Colonia is a bit more heavy-handed with it’s depiction of “bad guy” than Imperium or Denial, but it still serves as an excellent example of how extremists use deceit to leverage power in their favor, only to be shown what a tumultuous trade that actually can be. It’s also one of the most exciting films I’ve seen on my laptop in a while, just sayin’.
The crazy thing about each one of these films is that each one is based on something that happened in real life. Each one does an excellent job of reminding you of the villains that exist in the real world and Imperium and Denial do a great job of reminding you how evil can appear deceptively ordinary. These characters are empowered under false pretenses and the truth is, that’s not real power. History (and movies) show that it doesn’t really work out for those guys in the end.
The silver lining and perhaps the message of all of these movies is that the truth always comes back to bite you and with a vengeance. While you’re almost certain that David Irving can’t be all that bad as he graciously offers a handshake after losing his trial, you also are reminded that he was just convicted of being a manipulating racist and you don’t blame Lipstadt’s team for not shaking his hand. This rhythm plays throughout these films and throughout life. These films were particularly interesting because of this way they drew you in and painted a complex portrait of these bad guys. Because in real life, good and bad isn’t going to be spoon-fed to you the way it is in the movies. Critical thinking and a strong moral compass are required to discern the truth. In our lives, there are many examples of groups or individuals who have ascended the ranks by manipulating information. Think of groups like ISIS and the strange relatable power they have to certain individuals.
These films create an interesting platform for the importance of truth in the face of power. As relatable and popular these characters are, truth seems to act like the hand that unmasks them for what they really are. Because as powerful or enticing as an individual or an idea might be, it pales in comparison to the reality of life, and the fictional nature of cinema is a great vehicle for that truth. That’s the power of the movies.