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Politics

A message from Joseph Goebbels

Against the backdrop of Anders Breivik’s personal theatre, and on the eve of the staggering electoral result in Greece of the party that for reasons of politeness so many media organisations would rather not call neofascist or neo-Nazi (besides, their symbol is not at all a Swastika, it’s a meander, that’s like a totally different thing, don’t you see?), outside the train station in Bologna, I picked up an old film magazine. This one.

 

 

The 8th annual Venice International Film Festival took place in September of 1940, less than three months after Italy had belatedly entered the Second World War as Germany’s ally. In fact the Festival lost its ‘international’ designation that year, as the war had reduced the number of participating nations to just three: Italy, Germany and, in a sparring role, Hungary. It became therefore the Manifestazione cinematografica italo-tedesca, to reflect its Italo-German character. The two countries participated with seven feature films each, while Hungary had three. Costume period dramas and love stories accounted for the majority of the productions, with titles like The Sinner, Gül Baba, The Siege of the Alcazar, A Romantic Adventure and Dance at the opera, although the German line-up also included the more sinister-sounding Süss the Jew and Beware! The Enemy Is Listening. But those lone concessions to the conflict and propaganda aside, a truly strange wartime festival this must have been, as is reflected in that cover image of ill-at-ease gentlepersons, some coming, some going, as if unsure if the show had finished or was about to commence.

September of 1940: was this the zenith of fascism? France had capitulated, the Battle of Britain must have seemed winnable, and the United States and the Soviet Union hadn’t been made into enemies yet (as a matter of fact, the winner of the German section of the Festival, the romantic comedy Der Postmeister, is reported to have included a charming and amicable depiction of life in Leningrad). And if this was the zenith of fascism, perhaps cinema helped it to get there. After all, hadn’t Mussolini called it ‘the greatest weapon’? Didn’t Goebbels, who had a direct hand in Süss the Jew – a film which was to garner some belated critical attention at Nuremberg – declare that his ultimate goal was ‘to establish German film as the dominant cultural world power’?

An ad in the magazine for the Cinecittà studios in Rome interprets the thinking of the leaders thusly:

‘So that fascist Italy can spread throughout the world more rapidly the light of Rome’s civilisation.’

A weapon to spread culture – this was cinema under fascism, and this is why if you turn the pages of this magazine you’ll get the refined, cultured side of the regime. An attractive ad for the new Fiat 1100. A coupon with which to redeem a sample of Lara, the new face lotion from Scherk. Above all, stills and publicity shots of films that take you back in time, or transport you to exotic locations.

Three of the Italian feature films at the Festival: clockwise from the top A Romantic Adventure, Abandonment and Don Pasquale.

Indeed you’ll find plenty more clues that a war is going on in some of the ads than in the articles. Piaggio, later the makers of the iconic Vespa, synonymous with the laid-back stylishness of post-war Italy, preferred at this time to be known for the ‘glorious airplane engines’ and ‘perfect train carriages’ designed and produced in the service of the country.
 

 

Full-page ads for other major manufacturing industries including Ansaldo, Breda, Ilva, Falck and Guzzi follow a similar script and repeat rather tiresomely the motifs and fonts dear to the regime.

 

 
Interestingly, so do credit institutions like the Bank of America and Italy (formerly Bank of America; since 1986, wonderfully, ‘Deutsch Bank SpA’).

‘The expansion of every Italian activity throughout the world is fervently supported by the Bank of America and Italy with undisputed authority and rational use of vast resources.’

What the presence of these ads in the magazine denotes is both the prestige of cinema and its capacity to illustrate that the people of Germany and Italy embodied positive values and a culture worthy of becoming hegemonic, therefore to act as a justification for war. Awarding the ‘Mussolini Cup’ (as what is now the Golden Lion was then known) was part of that project, as was the awards system in Germany. And it doesn’t matter that some of the films from that period – at least the Italian productions that I know – were a lot more complex and claustrophobic than you might think or than it transpires from their posters. In fact this issue of Cinema included a learned contribution by Mario Socrate on the problem of turning into a film Calderon’s La vida es sueño – hardly a fascist text, even if you regarded it primarily as an aesthetic or technical challenge for the filmmaker; but a highly sophisticated cultural endeavour, this without a doubt.

This was the acceptable, bourgeois face of fascism, speaking in an educated voice, peddling spectacles that distracted from the appalling atrocities already perpetrated by the two regimes. I knew about this, we all do, and yet I confess that I felt a distinct chill when, ten pages into the magazine, I came upon a message bearing the signature of Joseph Goebbels. Why was that? Did I actually expect his contribution to depart from the script and descend into madness? Of course it would not. Goebbels wrote this:

The German and Italian film efforts even in this year of war are united again in a common Festival that must bear witness to the artistic creations in the field of cinema of this past year. Nothing could document better or more clearly the determination in the cultural sphere and the creative force of these two young peoples. Whilst the film industry of our enemies lies in a state of disarray, if not in complete ruin, the German and Italian film industries, in spite of all the external difficulties, driven by the spiritual impulse of two great revolutions, are producing more and more admirable and accomplished works. During this week-long Festival, in the traditional setting of this peaceful cultural competition, the film workers of the two countries will shake hands in comradely fashion and strive to draw from the reciprocal creations and aspirations new impressions and suggestions for their future work.

In this spirit I wish harmony and complete success to this German-Italian film festival.

These aren’t the words of a monster. They are the words of a bureaucrat, perfectly if unexceptionally suited to the occasion. To the extent that they glorify fascism and war, they do so no more nor less than those of the other politicians, journalists and intellectuals called upon to chronicle the Festival by the editors of Cinema. The most striking echo is in the account by Michelangelo Antonioni – yes, that Michelangelo Antonioni – of the night of the inauguration, a piece in which the then 28-year-old director talks of the film industries of Germany and Italy as being imbued with the moral health and spiritual strength of their people, and draws a contrast with the parlous state of French cinema, seen both as the mirror and as the contributing cause of the moral decay and weakened resolve of that nation.

What does it mean, when the words of Joseph Goebbels and Michelangelo Antonioni become interchangeable, if not that there is a pervasive cultural logic that speaks through both of them? And isn’t this logic one of acquiescence? For fascism is acceptance, fascism is respectability. Fascism is thinking that producing a sophisticated film magazine occupies a different reality than a meeting of Blackshirts. Fascism is thinking that dedication to your art will absolve you of having sat through a screening of Süss the Jew.

I have no parallels to draw between any of this and Anders Breivik or Chrysi Avgi, other than to say this: that the opposite of acceptance is denunciation, is mobilisation, is struggle. These, now as much as then, are our intrinsic values as well as our best available response to the fascisms that return and to those that never went away.

Comments

  1. Giovanni, I thought this post brilliant – and sobering. The pervasive cultural logic and acquiescence you describe, that mundane bureaucracy, doesn’t only make me think of fascism and its resurgence. It makes me think about the persecution of Palestinians and Indigenous Australians, too, and how these things will be viewed when people look back at our cultural artifacts.

    In reality, there are many things we turn a fascistic eye to (‘fascism is acceptance, fascism is respectability’), things seen as unfortunate but complicated, and thus acceptable.

  2. I had no idea that Antonioni was a fascist. Was he ever held to account for his past? And how did he transition from that to his persona as a chronicler of sixties hedonism?

    • Antonioni made realist films and films about personal alienation from the 40s onward.

      I don’t think the quick hit ‘chronicler of sixties hedonism’ does him justice, nor that a statement based on line-toeing cultural essentialism should lead to the assertion ‘Antonioni was a fascist’.

      According to a couple of online sources, Antonioni was fired from a job on the editorial staff of the Fascist film magazine, Cinema:

      In 1940 he moved to Rome, where worked as a bank teller and joined the editorial staff of Cinema, the film magazine of the Fascist party. Although it was edited by Benito Mussolini’s son Vittorio, it published apolitical and even antifascist articles.

      He was fired from editing a film magazine in Rome for lack of loyalty to the Fascist cause.

      I suppose the question of his fascism is very much on topic in light of the post’s remarks about acquiescence.

      • Yes, that was a bit flippant. I don’t really know much about him, other than Blowup, which I thought was almost zen in its tedium.

        • It’s a bit like the ‘Heidegger was a Nazi’ chestnut in my opinion. We don’t want to believe that people of such talent could be collaborators, but in some cases they were.

          People can change, and if there’s evidence (as in Heidegger’s case) that they disassociated themselves from extreme right politics as its full meaning became clear, I’m inclined to take their works at face value.

          You might find Antonioni’s Italian trilogy (L’Avventura, La Notte and L’Eclisse) more interesting than Blow Up, I certainly did. They have a very sharp philosophical edge.

          Another film of his, Red Desert was screened over here in WA recently. Massively redolent of Ballard.

          They are brilliant films, in my opinion Blow Up’s good but not in the same league – but of course tastes vary, and they are a bit slow.

          • Red Desert is a fantastic film. I think the Trilogy is pretty good too.

      • I should point out that I knew anything about this side of Antonioni – of whom I’m as big a fan as they come – until I picked up this magazine. That said, I think the article with his signature in issue #110 of Cinema is sufficient for us to say that he was a fascist, as it is unequivocal in toeing the rhetorical and political line of the Fascist Party. The likelihood of his being a card-carrying member of said party must also rate as extremely high. Was he a reluctant fascist? Maybe. We know he was fired from the magazine. If it was a matter of disloyalty, it certainly did not originate in his account of the opening of the Venice Film Festival. And finally if we want to talk in term of acquiescence, and I think we should, this piece of evidence seems amply sufficient to brand him a fascist at the time of its writing.

        On the subject of the magazine itself, while it is true that Vittorio Mussolini was something of an oddball, known for giving his writers an unusual degree of freedom, I wouldn’t go as far as to suggest that the magazine harboured actual antifascist sentiments. Issue #110 is – I don’t know how else to put it – very fascist. And, as I’ve tried to argue in the post, it is fascist also by not being fascist in every single paragraph, by giving the odd glimpse of a slightly broader idea of culture, less servile and functional to the regime. But this output was useful to the regime too.

        (While he’s not featured in this particular issue, Cinema employed Cesare Zavattini, who later became one of our foremost screenwriters and the chief theorist of neorealism. Mussolini Jr sure knew how to pick them.)

        • Thanks for taking the time to make such a detailed reply.

          It’s a bit sad for me, mostly for the same reasons—I’m a fan of Antonioni’s films and don’t want to feel as if they’re ‘tainted’ by fascism. But it’s probably not right (or perhaps, necessary) to examine his politics from a predetermined starting point of wanting to excuse them.

          I suppose I’ll do a bit more reading in the area and come to my own conclusions.

    • Antonioni was a fascist. So was Roberto Rossellini. So was Federico Fellini. Aldo Fabrizi – the actor who played the priest in Rome, Open City, remained a nostalgic of the regime until the end of his life. Very few people in Italy were held to account for anything, and changes of heart – genuine or otherwise – were rationalised, lived and made public in as many ways as there had been prominent fascists.

      • Hi Giovanni – first, thanks for the OP which was a great read. Can you post a link or recommend some related reading on the subject?

        • You mean on how Italy and Italians left fascism behind? It’s a topic that I’ve covered from time to time on my other blog – under the label of un-becoming, a word used by Graziella Parati to describe this phenomenon, which has very little in common for instance with what the Germans experienced – but I couldn’t really point you to any single resource. I suspect there isn’t one, which is symptomatic in and of itself. I am however looking forward to two forthcoming books: one by Parati on autobiographical writings in the immediate post-war period, and one by historian Giacomo Lichtner on representations of fascism and the resistance in the cinema after 1945. Hopefully I’ll get to review them here in due course.

  3. Wow! The sharp, pointy edges of futurism really spike the eye in these posters. The fascism is apparent in the posters too, although they’re not all that different to Soviet posters of the same era. Do we need another word to replace fascism in respect of our own contemporaneity, to see it for what it really is?

  4. It’s such a difficult question. It is a cliché to say that we should strive for precision, and refrain from using the words fascism or fascistic to talk about movements or phenomena not deserving of the name. But then in practice we all have different ideas about what does and what doesn’t devalue the word and render it useless – at which point, yes, we’d need a new word.

    It’s certainly turning out to be something of a theme in a number of recent posts here, isn’t it? And even within such a small sample we probably disagree to a fairly significant extent about what each of us is prepared to call fascist.

  5. Now that giant woman, here spreading ‘the light of fascism’ reminds me of another giant woman spruiking milk in a much later Italian film. (And not just for the obvious reasons.) I can’t remember the name of the film or the director and it’s driving me insane. I think the woman stepped down from a billboard in the film, but I’m not sure. Does anyone know the film I’m half remembering? All I can get on Google is analysis of Starbucks’ chai lattes.

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