A Nazi by Any Other Name
There is nothing inherently evil about the swastika, standing in military formation, raising a hand, sporting a small mustache, wearing dark leather, or any other such practice that is remembered from Nazi Germany. The theories of Roland Barthes, a precursor to the Deconstructionist movement, helped to point out that when objects or images bring to mind an automatic meaning, they tend to be based on arbitrary connections. Even words that we use to refer to objects have nothing to do with the objects directly; there is no reason for us to call an inked writing utensil a pen any more than there is for us to give it a different name. Names and symbolic meaning can get so tied up in an object or an image that we, as viewers and consumers, cannot separate the two from each other. The swastika was originally a Hindu symbol of peace, and even then, the connection was arbitrary. Now, when we see a swastika — or any similar symbol, as in the insignia of two x’s in Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator — we automatically associate it with the Nazi party and the ideologies and atrocities that come along with it. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It is, however, an important aspect to consider when evaluating the way Nazi imagery is used in film, and how inseparable the connection between an arbitrary signifier and its various connotations can seem. Movies fail in their usage of this imagery when it is used for nothing more than an affirmation of evil; characters remind the viewers of Nazis, and Nazis are bad, so, therefore, these people are bad. The failure is one of weak storytelling and of irresponsibility toward the viewers.
The Star Wars saga offers an interesting case study for the use of Nazi imagery in film. The original trilogy, debuted between 1977 and 1983, featured references to Nazi Germany in the totalitarian leadership of the Empire and its army of faceless soldiers known as stormtroopers. They stood in military formation and committed acts of evil, but the film’s deployment of Nazi imagery was still somewhat subtle.
The prequel films, released between 1999 and 2005, are flawed in many ways, but credit to them is due in their attempts to show the dangers of totalitarianism worming its way into democracy, not by obvious images of Nazism, but with bureaucratic debates and Patriot Act allegories. Both trilogies develop an idea of evil without using Nazi references as a crutch. These films are not dependent on external knowledge or tenuous connections to symbols in order to establish their villains. As Barthes points out, symbols tend to get flattened into simplistic understandings of ideas when used as references. If a film were to establish a sense of evil purely through its use of reference, there would be a lost depth to the story; the imagery triggers the recollection of an idea, boiled down to its simplest understanding. To examine the idea behind a reference with more depth, there would have to be effort carried out by the film to parse out the purpose of its usage. When it comes to Nazism, there are themes of dangerous nationalism, group complicity, mental compartmentalization, abject cruelty, “following orders,” anti-Semitism, pageantry, and more. These are ideas that can be discussed or reconsidered when brought up outside the context of Nazism in order to shine a new light on their meaning. When Nazism is boiled down to just be a shorthand for these are the bad guys, it creates flat, uninteresting storytelling, devoid of nuance.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the seventh film in the series, took the original trilogy’s minor references to Nazism and went all in on the imagery, with a military assembly including a screaming leader standing in front of a giant insignia, voice echoing across the crowd, telling assembled legions of banner-bearing soldiers that the First Order will destroy the government of the Republic. In this instance, there are clear references being made to the military assemblies and grand, insignia-backed speeches of Nazi Germany. The soldiers’ outstretched-arm salute at the end almost seems redundant.
The use of Nazi imagery acts as a form of intertextuality. The text of the film is using the simplified language of historical text, where imagery is understood to be in reference to something else and the meaning comes from a recognition of that which is being referenced. As in Barthes’ theory of how inseparable meanings are from the images they accompany, intertextuality offers the opportunity for the easy deployment of meaning. It also offers the opportunity to find comfort in recognizing something seen before. In The Force Awakens, there is one scene that does a great job at expressing what intertextuality is. One of the heroes, Rey, finds a lightsaber immediately recognizable to audience members as an object from previous films, but it is an object devoid of that same meaning for her, as she has not seen the previous Star Wars films. She touches the lightsaber, and that single object, loaded with meaning, has its depth visually fulfilled in the form of a confusing vision that has Rey going from moment to moment, unsure of what it all means – she sees images that are all connected to the lightsaber and its relevance to the Star Wars saga. In this overall vision, the lightsaber stands for the call to adventure of Joseph Campbell’s storytelling concept, the Hero’s Quest, as well as for the journeys of Anakin and Luke Skywalker through the previous six films, bridging the old, known stories with the new tale of Rey’s path. Rey does not understand everything that she sees, and intertextuality can create similar instances wherein viewers who see the same reference will interpret it differently. Still, at the end of the vision, she hears the words “These are your first steps.” Understanding the way humans create and reference meaning is important for storytelling, but just as much sois the ability to create new meaning. Intertextuality is not an inherently bad thing, and it is truly being used well when it is purposeful and there is something new coming out of the references made. Just as stories fail without development — if characters haven’t changed by the end, we would likely feel there was no point to the story’s telling — the use of references requires development as well. If imagery being used is not updated through the film to have additional meaning, it seems redundant; we already knew this meaning, there’s no point in repeating it exactly somewhere else.
The Force Awakens’ use of Nazi imagery is an example of bad intertextuality. The references flatten the meaning without adding anything new. During the film’s military assembly scene, the large insignia immediately evokes the image of swastika banners in Nazi Germany, but there is no depth to it beyond the simple understanding that this symbol means that the people standing in front of it are bad guys. The only form of reference made by the film to Nazism is in the imagery. There is nothing in the character of the First Order, the military faction, that relates to the 20th century National Socialist Party of Germany other than evil, therefore the connection lacks depth.
It is not the goal here to prescribe exactly how Nazi imagery should be used, but there are a few themes that come to mind that are good examples of how Nazism could be explored in a more intellectually responsible way through its imagery.
One complex idea is that raised by Stanley Milgram’s infamous study on obedience, published in 1963. Those who volunteered to join the experiment would ask questions to people in another room and were told to deliver a shock of increasing voltage for every wrong answer. There was no actual shock; actors pretended to be screaming in pain, but the shockers didn’t know that. And there were plenty administering the shocks who, when given instruction or encouragement, brought the voltage up to a level that was labelled as potentially fatal. After this experiment, average people began questioning whether they themselves would just be “following orders” — as so many former Nazis claimed — had they been German soldiers during the Holocaust. Humanity’s capacity for evil when given instructions and permission could be something meaningful that could be explored through Nazi imagery.
Additionally, a film could explore the way nationalism gets mixed with bigotry, wherein a people will be targeted unfairly in order to glorify the country that houses them. It could consider the noble people — referred to by Holocaust museum Yad Vashem as “righteous among the nations” — who defied cruelty and saved their neighbors in danger, or those who quickly turned against them, turning in persecuted people to the authorities and taking their property. There are plenty of complex ideas at play within Nazism, but storytelling that ignores this in favor of a simplified explanation ends up feeling weak.
There is something else at play in the simplistic use of Nazi imagery, and that is the implication of obviousness. The Nazi imagery of The Force Awakens stinks of superfluity and ends up only serving the purpose of visual confirmation of evil; they look like Nazis, so they must be bad guys. There is an implication about how easily recognizable evil is. One just needs to look for the salutes or the high-stepping, the insignias or the screaming leaders. But evil does not necessarily come in such obvious packaging, and one can look at the Nazis themselves to see that. Hannah Arendt’s coverage for The New Yorker of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a high-ranking Nazi official, in the early 1960s helps to explore this issue of recognizable evil. Arendt describes Eichmann, a man whose testimony is cliché-ridden and neglects a lot due to forgetfulness. She points to the pride he took in his achievements and advances within the Nazi ranks and his faux-expertise in a time when solutions to “the Jewish Problem” were being sought out. Eichmann comes across as a middle-management type: self-serving, seeking promotion, working in the office to try to get ahead. One looks at him and does not immediately think “Nazi.” This is part of Arendt’s conception of “the banality of evil,” an understanding of the way evil can fail to appear obviously evil. She writes, “Eichmann was not Iago and not Macbeth, and nothing would have been farther from his mind than to determine with Richard III ‘to prove a villain.’” He did not fit into the kind of villainy one would expect to see in Shakespeare’s expressions of evil. According to Arendt, Eichmann was just a man looking for advancement in his workplace who hadn’t given much of any thought to the consequences of his actions. Arendt states, “It was sheer thoughtlessness — something by no means identical with stupidity — that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period.” Even when it comes to the evil of the Nazis themselves, it is not always quite obvious how evil they are.
During the time of Hitler’s rise to power, news reports did not immediately deem him to be evil. He had the Hitler mustache, but it was just a mustache back then. The imagery of his soldiers shouted nothing about Nazism being evil because Nazism was not a known factor at that point. The New York Times published four different stories in the run-up toward World War II, talking about Hitler’s homes and his off-duty persona, downplaying the anti-Semitism and extremism he espoused in favor of adulation for the decor and appearance of his houses. In 2017, the Times released a piece entitled “A Voice of Hate in America’s Heartland” that seemed to indicate how relatable and down-to-earth a neo-Nazi was. Difficulties in recognizing evil existed when Hitler rose to power and continues to exist today.
The message of obvious, recognizable evil is irresponsible. The Nazi imagery used in film tends to communicate the ease of recognizing evil — look for the marches, salutes, uniforms, insignias, and shouting autocrats. This is far from the only cinematic representation of evil available, but that does not diminish the significance of Nazis as symbols of evil. Support can be found in an assertion of internet discourse known as Godwin’s Law that states, “As an online discussion continues, the probability of a comparison to Hitler or to Nazis approaches one.” It is just as binding as the five-second rule of dropping food, but, still, slogging through comment sections on the internet is enough to confirm the fact that Nazism and Hitler are ready reference points for many people, to the point where the formulators of the law intended to stop gratuitous references to the dictator and his party when they have no relevance to the argument at hand. In online discourse, Nazis are already an oft-used shorthand for saying something is bad or wrong. To continue using this reductive connection between images and meaning serves no purpose and removes nuance from our understanding of Nazis and the era they were in.
Star Wars has served as a basis for much of this discussion, but it is far from the only film to use Nazi imagery in an unsuccessful manner. The Lion King had a goose step march in its song “Be Prepared.” The film version of Fahrenheit 451 had its book-burning firemen in black leather. The Terminator and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows have characters given tattoos or scarring reminiscent of concentration camp numbers on arms. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword has the whole military ceremony, salutes, dark clothing, and yelling leader included. These examples add little new to the discussion because each work adds little to nothing to its use of Nazi imagery.
These films lose the very meaning they attempt to create by invoking known symbols. Their use of Nazi imagery harms the integrity of the plotting, while also including an irresponsible assumption of obviousness. Symbols only have the meaning we give them; they are arbitrary by nature. And when we reinforce the arbitrary aspect of the connection, ignoring nuance in favor of bold, obvious images, we fail as creative and responsible storytellers.
By Benjamin Wallin
Benjamin Wallin often writes about movies.
Illustrations done in collaboration with the New Media Artspace at Baruch College. The New Media Artspace is a teaching exhibition space in the Department of Fine and Performing Arts at Baruch College, CUNY. Housed in the Newman Library, the New Media Artspace showcases curated experimental media and interdisciplinary artworks by international artists, students, alumni, and faculty. Special thanks to docent Maya Hilbert a for creating artwork for this piece.
Check the New Media Artspace out at http://www.newmediartspace.info/