Sabine Hake. Screen Nazis: Cinema, History, and Democracy. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2012. XIII, 308 S. ISBN 978-0-299-28713-9.
Reviewed by Yael Ben-Moshe
Published on H-Soz-u-Kult (December, 2013)
S. Hake: Screen Nazis
Numerous themes, among them Nazism as a signifier of sexuality and sexual deviation and the ways in which the body became an agent of what she calls political affect, are the topic of Sabine Hake’s new book Screen Nazis: Cinema, History, and Democracy. The author examines the political affect of fascism on the screen, which developed less from the content and narrative of the films discussed and more from the emotional connection created between the characters of these films and the audience of the post-fascist cinema. Hake’s unique theoretical approach highlights facets of film that go beyond theories that approach films as a reflection of society or of historical periods. Rather than attempting to understand the meaning of these features as film analysis usually does, Hake focuses on the effect of the totalitarian spectacle on the democratic spectator. In other words, here the analysis of Nazis on screen is aimed toward the shift from the historical to the political, to the shaping of democratic subjectivity in different periods and contexts. Hake also discusses the intertextual conversation that takes place between contemporary films and earlier twentieth-century films (including Nazi propaganda films), and which establishes the aesthetic imagination of fascism in historical films as well as in parodies of Nazis.
Hake’s search for the point of identification through which the spectator not only sees the film, but also engages with the emotions on the screen, is the key to her analysis and underscores the significance of cinema as a public sphere. Nonetheless, the examination of political affect “not out of specific convictions and opinions but through the relationships between characters and the spectator’s engagement with them” (p. 21) draws its objectivity mainly from political-social contexts that facilitate an understanding of the films’ political intentions through emotions. The number of films analyzed and the illustrations in each chapter illuminate Hake’s argument without forcing her thesis on too broad a range of films and images. Nevertheless, the references and theories for the analysis of the text, the context, and the intertexts contribute to Hake’s rich and wide-ranging discussion.
The first chapter, “Democracy in Action”, addresses Hollywood’s anti-Nazi films in the 1940s and provides an excellent contribution to Robert Ray’s theory on the principle of dichotomies in the American classical narrative, through which the enemy of America and the American hero are defined. Ray, Robert B., A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, 1930–1980, Princeton 1985. In this context, Hake discusses the portrayal of the Nazis as perverse, dangerous, and subordinate in contrast to the American hero, who embodies America in his rationality, objectivity, and freedom to act individually. From the very beginning, then, Hake claims, that the political affect of anti-Nazi film productions has not been based on values of ideology, but rather on stereotypes easily identified by the spectator.
Under the title of “Resistance to the Resistance” the second chapter deals with the process of Americanization – in correspondence with de-Nazification – during the post-war years in West Germany. In that period, Hake argues, the attitude towards democracy in anti-Nazi German films stood between the adoption of a kind of American individual hero and a revision of the fascist spectacle. The chapter identifies the aesthetic foundation through which German films in the 1950s depoliticized the past and marginalized discussions of fascism.
Chapter three, “Melancholy Antifascism”, focuses on the productions of the Deutsche Film AG (DEFA) during the 1960s and 1970s, and on antifascism as a central theme in the DEFA’s narratives since the 1940s. Here Hake describes a general atmosphere of melancholy in the antifascist film, caused by the inability to process the defeat, loss, and sense of emptiness that followed the shattering of illusions that took place at the time. Hake’s interpretation of political affect through the physical expression of the images presented in this chapter creates a sense of the energy of the scenes and characters presented here. I would not be exaggerating if I said that many of the powerful illustrations, combined with Hake’s apt analysis, convey here the affect that might be created by actually watching the films.
In the fourth chapter, “Between Art and Exploitation”, Hake discusses extensively the politics of sexuality in Italian Nazisploitation films of the 1970s. She provides an explanation for the agonizing depiction of sex in concentration camps, and she sheds light on the subject of how Nazism became a signifier of sexuality and violence. Her analysis employs social science theories developed at the time that influenced filmmakers parallel to the awakening of radical movements and violence as a means to promote political goals during ideological crises (p. 136). The next chapter, titled “Postpolitical Affects and the Intertextual Effects”, presents two very aesthetically different films, Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009) and Moloch (Aleksandr Sokurov, 1999). However, both are detached from reality as we know it and refuse to serve as its reflection. In relation to films from the past, Hake chooses these two films as examples of post-political films in order to examine fascism as an aesthetic phenomenon. Regarding the intertextual effects, I found it difficult to relate to certain parts of Hake’s interpretation. For example, I was not convinced that the red dress that Shoshana wears on the day of revenge in Tarantino’s film could be linked, even as a contrasting image, to the figure of the passive, naive victim who wears a red dress in the monochromatic scene in Schindler’s List (p. 181).
Chapter six, “Postfascist Identity Politics”, examines the role of violence in European resistance film of the last decade in the context of the blurred geographical boundaries of Europe under conditions of economic crisis and increasing terror. Whereas in the world of Tarantino’s film, as Hake explores in the previous chapter, violence is a problem, but also appears as a justified solution, Hake describes how the past is used to voice the fears of the present and becomes, along with violence, a means to protect the national in a post-national time. At the end of her book Hake returns to Germany. With Downfall (Oliver Hirschbiegel/ Bernd Eichinger, 2004), she discusses how morality has shifted in the post-national age to a position of acceptance and how national identity has replaced political ideology. She is critical of German television for serving as the central medium for heritage film, which is turning history into a story through such universal categories as love, power, hope, and belief, and thus stimulating nostalgia for the national in post-national times (p. 240).
Despite their enduring ties to the art of film, analyses of fascism in post-fascist cinema have not, until now, addressed on-screen feelings and emotional affect as leading motifs that shed light on the political purposes of these films. This book fills this gap. Through diverse periods and cultures, Hake’s analysis adopts emotions as a collective language and an essential component in the relationship between film-making and audiences. Her approach proves to be instrumental in broadening and refining our awareness of the deep political and social meanings in the making of contemporary and historical images of fascism in film.
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Yael Ben-Moshe. Review of Hake, Sabine, Screen Nazis: Cinema, History, and Democracy.
H-Soz-u-Kult, H-Net Reviews.
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