Tell us a little about your book.
The Aesthetics of Antifascist Film: Radical Projection argues for a general theory of an antifascist aesthetics, which originated during the WWII period and was adapted over the course of the long twentieth century in relation to the changing political situations and aesthetic traditions that came into contact with it. Drawing on insights from film and cultural studies, aesthetic and ethical philosophy, and socio-political theory, the book argues that the artistic struggles with political commitment and modernist strategies of representation during the 1930s resulted in a distinctive, radical aesthetic form that represents an alternate strand of post-modernism. Radical Projection defines and theorizes this aesthetic resistance by examining a number of film case studies that represent the ethos of a particular cultural moment and space as well as the development of this antifascist aesthetic over time.
These case studies fall into three historical periods: First, the WWII period of the 1930s and 1940s, which includes Fritz Lang’s Fury, Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, and Orson Welles’ The Stranger. Second is the Cold War period of the 1950s through the early 1980s, which includes Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, mon amour, John Frankenheimer’s The Train, and Dusan Makavejev’s WR: Mysteries of the Organism. The final era is the Post-Wall period of the late 1980s through the present, which includes Ken Loach’s Singing the Blues in Red, Florian von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others, Jessica Wu’s Protagonist, and Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir.
Antifascism is a central social and political crux of the twentieth century, and antifascist alliances are a necessary, if failed, precursor to the development of contemporary democratic societies. Yet antifascism has remained under-examined as a political, historical and artistic phenomenon, due in part to its nebulous identity as a movement in its own right: antifascism is an oppositional campaign made up of a variety of forces that are working towards the same goals but are not always unified in their ways and means. As an artistic movement, in particular, the question of what constitutes an antifascist aesthetics remains largely unexplored except as an ancillary offshoot of fascist aesthetics. Because of this previous under-theorization, when most first hear the term antifascist film, they are likely to think of films created by filmmakers of Allied countries made during WWII, or later films set in or resonant of this period. While all of the films covered in this study do contain a close engagement with the problem of fascism (political and ideological) as it radiated out from 1930s Germany around the globe, my purpose here is not to document films about the fascism of WWII and resistance to it. Instead, I look at the ways in which some filmmakers of the 1930s and 40s developed a specific aesthetic grammar in order to critique and challenge these repressive political systems, and the afterlife (or, perhaps it should be more properly called the continued life) of this grammar in the following decades.
The antifascist films I focus on tell narratives about the struggles, failures, and partial successes of resistance to fascism and fascistic forces, and they simultaneously embody those struggles in a film aesthetic that enacts a tension between resistance to fascism and resistance to creating a didactic and propagandistic work of art. Although the films’ essential focus transforms over the decades in relation to changing historical moments and national perspectives, which encompass a variety of relationships to the fascism of WWII, they achieve their narrative focus through a constellation of particular aesthetic choices, techniques and tropes that remain fairly constant throughout the century.
Opposed to a fascist aesthetics based on wholeness, homogeneity, and pureness, antifascist films assert a radical beauty of fragmentation, heterogeneity, irregularity, and loss. As is the case with most “political” works, the films contain a strong element of pedagogy, teaching characters and audiences about the systems they are opposing through both content and form. Yet as opposed to propaganda, and the fascist systems that the works stand against, the ways in which these films present their message deconstruct the notion of a singular, supposedly self-evident truth, choosing rather to embrace the messy, the irrational, and often the irresolute. This imperfect and subjective representation of the real is often centered on a single central character, whose experience of becoming an exile (an outsider and cultural other) set against the monolithic, repressive dominant culture serves as a central point-of-view. Through this perspective, the audience is prompted to form empathetic connections (and affective identification) with the character and appreciate his/her treatment and transformation, with a different sense (visual, bodily, aural) emphasized during each of the three developmental time periods that is representative of their primary symbolic form of engagement with antifascism (identification, eroticism, and technology). This sense of the singular versus the monolithic is also mirrored in a focus on a tension between surveillance and invisibility—being watched or feeling that one is being watched is a consistent theme, as is the notion that secrecy is essential but exposure is necessary.
The multiplicity of content is carried out on a formal level as well, with the development of an antifascist aesthetic that emerged at a critical moment in film history: 1930s and 1940s Hollywood. The amalgam of national film styles achieved during this period (Russian montage, German Expressionism and Hollywood melodrama) represented the international nature of antifascist alliances in aesthetic form and was facilitated by the presence of German émigrés in Hollywood. This mixture of styles also enacted a dialogue between political commitment and aesthetic richness and complexity that played out in terms of the inclusion of both documentary (and/or social realist) and modernist (or defamiliarizing) techniques, mingling the seemingly “real” with the patently synthetic. Even the difference between the two is often deliberately blurred—for example, the inclusion of documentary evidence is included often as proof within the works, yet it is presented in such a way that its content tends towards surrealism in its context and reception (grounded in the deformation of humanity in the Holocaust). Because these films do not only oppose fascism in a didactic way, their dialogue between disparate elements does not generally reach a resolution, and this can lead to a sense that the films are not really working, are disjointed, and/or do not fit into a canon/genre. Such reactions have led to the marginalization of many of these films, and the lack of recognition for their artistic achievement, something that this study attempts to rectify.