Elizabeth Kinnison, Contributor, Lookie-Lookie
If you're feeling devoid of hope and frightened by the upcoming presidential administration, you're not alone. As progress goes from a wax to a wane, let us remind ourselves that we as a civilization have been through worse; Mussolini's Italy, Franco's Spain, Hitler's Germany. The news is still bad - welcome to the new America - oppressed freedoms for the sake of a nationalistic right-wing agenda. We have elected an authoritarian brute who is celebrated by white supremacists and uses vocab from the fascist leader starter pack: watch list, registry, other. No, he has not started any wars or executed anyone, and maybe he lacks the intellect to mobilize a revolution, but he hasn't even been sworn in yet.
Film is an imprint of feeling, thought, and image from times past. To look back at what films were made by the oppressed intellectuals living under fascist leaders, or by individuals who had lived through such times, is enlightening and cathartic. Whether the film's intention is to express fear and anger or if it's to instill a sense of togetherness and support, perhaps we can learn from them. Here are five films, hand picked to ease that voice in your head telling you that we can't get through this.
Closely Watched Trains is a film by Jirí Menzel from 1966 from Czechoslovakia. Set during the German occupation of Czechoslovakia in World War II, it tells the story of a young, sexually inexperienced man named Miloš who works as a train station guard. It's a coming of age story, mostly focused on Miloš's feelings of inadequacy about being a virgin and his desire to become a man. Concurrent to that, it is a protest against fascist Germany. Miloš is self-absorbed and not entirely serious, much like the Czech people, who after years of occupations and turbulence, had developed a defensive sense of humor.
A senior Nazi official, Reinhard Heydrich, had called the Czech people "laughing animals," a line that is famously repeated in the film by a character who is a Nazi sympathizer. It is the humor and silliness of the Czech people that get them through Nazi occupation, as well as their inclination toward introspection and individuality. The film ends with Miloš successfully blowing up a train carrying ammunition, and then dying in a hail of gunfire. Despite the Nazis, death and attempted suicide depicted in the film, the subject matter is not treated as grim, just unfortunate.
Another film that adds some perspective to a Trump presidency is Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini in 1976. Salò is disturbing and grotesque, its imagery burned into the minds of its audience. The Italian film takes place after Mussolini's fall from power, and follows four fascist libertines who kidnap young men and women, bring them to a secluded mansion, and subject them to tortures - mental and psychical abuse, rape, and murder.
It is unpleasant to think about and awful to watch, but draws an interesting parallel between the atrocities committed in the film and the fascist sovereignty of Benito Mussolini's camp. The victims of Salò are helpless and alone, subjected to the perversions and violent whims of the four kidnappers, who are empowered by sadistic torture and the abuse of innocents. The explicit and extreme nature of the film feels angry, and seems to surrender to the inevitability of human cruelty. Shortly before the film's release, Pasolini was violently murdered. While none of this is cathartic, watching Salò is a form of grief, and a reminder of how unchecked power can lead to the abandonment of morality.
A hopefully more relatable film to our situation is Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 film La Haine. While not outright a response to fascism, the film responds to the fascist sentiment of French nationalism. After an influx of immigrants coming from old French colonies threatened white, catholic French identity, the country became divided by racism, police violence, and Islamophobia. It is unnervingly similar to what is happening in the United States.
La Haine is about three friends, an African, an Arab, and a Jew, who live in the slummy banlieue of Paris. They learn that one of their friends was killed by the police, and spend the movie behaving like delinquents, traveling to the city center of Paris to cause trouble. They are united in anguish and frustration, resentful of a society that treats them like outcasts. The question of "who is French?" is mirrored in America today - Who is American? Who deserves to be American? What do they look like? What is their faith? La Haine shows the faces of French people who are alienated by these kinds of divisive questions, and reminds its audience why asking them is dangerous and cruel.
Another Italian film that fits the theme is The Conformist, which is about the desire to fit in after the fascist takeover of Italy. Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci in 1970, the film focuses on Marcello, who is tasked with killing his former anti-fascist college professor. When the professor does die, Marcello lacks any kind of emotional response. The dream-like film depicts a man who is maybe not invested in the cause of fascism, but rather a man following the status quo without a second thought. To Marcello, morality is not a consideration when the government is dictating his actions.
The film addresses the question many have about World War II and the Holocaust, which is how on earth did people go along with the atrocities orchestrated by Hitler and Mussolini? The Conformist shows the psychology behind that very kind of person, and reminds us of humanity’s weakness for acceptance and comfort.
Lastly, an American film, directed by Michael Anderson in 1976 - Logan’s Run. Albeit a silly film, Logan’s Run repeats a popular theme in science fiction: fascists have taken over, and the world has become a dystopian nightmare. Like an air headed 1984, Logan’s Run is about a society that maintains its structure by killing anyone who reaches 30 years old.
The film stars Michael York as Logan, a policeman of sorts whose job is to catch people attempting to flee before their euthanasia. He escapes that destiny himself by running, and finding hope in the world outside of cyber-fascism. The solace that this film provides is, despite Trump’s upcoming presidency, we’re probably not going to be murdered by computers for some time.
These films were made by people who had seen humanity at a low point, and continued to create. They remind us of those who had the strength to endure oppression - something I’ll try to remember when things feel hopeless.