There are three central issues at stake in Ordinary Fascism (Obyknovennyi fashizm, 1965): the return of fascism, the exposure of parallels between Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism, and the Soviet Union’s effacement of Jews from Holocaust representation. At the time the film was released, recycled images of Nazi crimes in previous documentaries, newsreels, and newspapers had made warnings against fascism trite; in principle, no one who had lived through World War II needed to be convinced that fascism was bad and should be prevented from returning (Taran). Furthermore, direct comparisons between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were not allowed, and censors had explicitly told director Mikhail Romm when the script was approved that he should not emphasize Jews (Gershenson 67). Why, then, almost twenty years after the war, would the officially acclaimed director Romm and two novice screenwriters, Maya Turovskaya and Iurii Khaniutin, set out to create a film that apparently could not address the very issues they were interested in? Moreover, the censors themselves wondered, if they were mostly going to be reusing old footage, what was the point of making a film that had been done before? A renewed analysis of Ordinary Fascism and its context can answer these questions.
Several factors made the 1960s ripe for a new look at the Nazis in the Soviet Union. The last major Soviet documentary on the subject had been the Nuremberg trials chronicle The Judgment of the Nations (Sud narodov, 1946), which the Soviets themselves had lost interest in due to the beginning of the Cold War (Hicks 197). In the meantime, a new postwar generation had grown up and, for the older generations, fascism was no longer an immediate threat, with the most infamous Nazis dead or locked up. In addition, Khrushchev’s movement toward de-Stalinization in the late 1950s left the exposure of Stalin’s crimes fresh in viewers’ minds. As a result, Romm did not need to make comparisons of totalitarianism explicit, but merely to evoke them. Lastly, by this time a growing group of Jewish artists, like Romm, had begun to address Stalinist antisemitism, which had in no way disappeared from the Soviet Union. Thus, the time was right in the USSR for another reminder of the dangers of totalitarianism and an exhortation that an atrocity on the scale of the Holocaust must never happen again.
However, to reach audiences, Ordinary Fascism needed a strategy different from the Soviet documentaries produced during and immediately after World War II, which had a dry focus on establishing legal evidence for an international tribunal (Hicks 187). The film needed to provoke a visceral response, but could not simply return to the emotional pitch of the early war propaganda, which by that time would have been too hackneyed to be effective. Instead, Romm settled on a juxtaposition between the ironic and the traumatic, between cynical skepticism and sincere incredulity. On the one hand, he makes use of footage, themes, and a style of editing similar to earlier Soviet World War II documentaries; The Judgment of the Nations in particular serves as a touchstone. Yet what was truly new to Ordinary Fascism was the tone of Romm’s voiceover, which alternates between sarcastic and intimate, sometimes clashing with the images and sometimes reappropriating and reinterpreting them. Thus, Romm takes the same old tropes and iconized images from earlier Soviet documentaries and unsettles them with his narration. By alternating between a parody of fascist aesthetics and traumatic archival images, Romm recontextualizes Nazi atrocities and thereby spurs Soviet audiences to reflect critically on the Holocaust.
Romm, Turovskaya, and Khaniutin’s choice to use parody alongside depictions of the Holocaust (though not parody of the Holocaust) is not an obvious one and was a complete departure from earlier sober Soviet documentaries. Even today, the use of comedic or ironic devices, such as parody, sarcasm, and humor, within representations of the Holocaust is a controversial topic in the field of Holocaust studies. While this paper will not attempt to argue for or against the ethics of such representations, a brief inquiry into some of the defenses of parody may reveal insight into why the creators of Ordinary Fascism made this decision.
Those who argue on behalf of the comic mode in Holocaust representations tend to see attempts at “realism” as entrenching the iconization of images of the Holocaust in popular culture, thus presenting a kitschy lens to the traumatic past (Ashkenazi 87–8; Montresor 127, 129). As an example of this genre, Ofer Ashkenazi looks at Oliver Hirschbiegel’s film Downfall(Der Untergang, 2004), while Kovalov points to similar humanizing depictions of Hitler, such as Aleksandr Sokurov’s Moloch (Molokh, 1999) and Aleksei German Jr.’s The Last Train (Poslednii poezd, 2003). Kovalov includes these among the evidence of a growing complacency toward fascism in Russia, along with neo-Nazi youth movements and the warm welcome of Nazi documentarian Leni Riefenstahl and the festival prize that she was awarded in St. Petersburg in 2001. Thus, he claims, Ordinary Fascism’s warning against fascism is just as important today as it was in the sixties. Whereas the process of iconization results in a desensitization to and a lack of reflection upon the icons, devices such as humor and parody rely on defamiliarizing such images in order to allow new interpretations (Montresor 127). Montresor argues that the ironic distance afforded by such modes provides “empowerment over” the object of parody (130). Likewise, Ezrahi claims that this distance allows for new meaning-making, and thus provides a way to “revolt” against history and create a counter-history (294). This new process of meaning-making occurs in a larger social context; for example, in Ashkenazi’s view, humor has the power of both reconciliation – creating a sense of social belonging – and criticism – ostracizing those who violate social norms (93–5). Therefore, when Hitler is parodied, such as in the popular YouTube meme generated from Downfall, it is a rebellion against the past, an achievement of power over the fate of his historical legacy, and a rejection of his ideology.
Some have suggested a similarity in the structures of ironic distance and trauma (Ezrahi 301; Waggoner iii), and humor and irony have had some success in the treatment of trauma through their ability to create a distance from which a situation can be approached anew (Garrick). For this reason, Montresor calls parody a “weapon of confrontation” with the traumatic (132). Along the same lines, Ron Eyerman’s description of the distinction between collective and cultural trauma bears a structure analogous to Ashkenazi’s formulation of humor. He asserts that collective trauma “shatter[s]” collective identity, but at the same time gives birth to a new discourse regarding that identity; in the process of cultural trauma, this re-interpretive discourse reforms group identity (Eyerman 43). Thus, the choice to include parody in Ordinary Fascism would seem to involve, at its core, a concern with re-analyzing the discourse regarding the Holocaust in the Soviet Union. According to the above theories, the insertion of a distance between the audience and the long-established iconography of Nazism in the film encouraged viewers to rethink cultural attitudes toward the Nazi atrocities.
As a compilation film, Ordinary Fascism is clearly indebted to earlier films for its archival footage. In addition, the film’s predecessors had a large influence on Romm’s thematic foci and style of editing. Given that Western studies of Holocaust films have paid little attention to Soviet cinema until recently, it is perhaps unexpected that the Soviet screen was the origin of several “firsts” in the genre. Soviet filmmakers were the first to represent Nazi persecution of Jews, and, contrary to later Soviet policies that discouraged the representation of Jews on screen, these early films explicitly portrayed the characters as Jewish. Ruddy’s Career (Kar’era Ruddi, 1934, re-released 1938), as well as Professor Mamlock (Professor Mamlok), Peat Bog Soldiers (Bolotnye soldaty), and The Oppenheim Family (Sem’ia Oppengeim), all released in 1938, coincided with Soviet protests against Nazi pogroms that year, when Soviet artists and journalists publicly decried Nazi antisemitism. All of these films were banned after the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was signed in 1939 (Gershenson 3–4, 13–4). During the war, in the special newsreels Majdanek (1944) and Auschwitz (Osventsim, 1945), the Soviets were the first to film Nazi death camps, although they rarely represented the victims as Jewish (Hicks 157, 174). The Unvanquished (Nepokorennye, 1945) was the first film to depict the Holocaust on Soviet land, and parts of it were shot at Babi Yar, where Nazis executed over 100,000 people. Despite the film’s depiction of the victims as Jews, it was lauded by Soviet critics (Gershenson 40). Before Stalin’s later antisemitic policies, Soviet filmmakers had begun exploring ways of representing the Nazis’ crimes, and Romm was able to draw from these films.
Ordinary Fascism’s similarities to The Judgment of the Nations perhaps most clearly demonstrate the influence of earlier documentaries. Originally, Soviet authorities had been very invested in The Judgment of the Nations, as it was the culmination of several previous documentaries that anticipated the international tribunal at Nuremberg with a particular focus on evidence-gathering. As a result, they appointed a high-profile team to create the film: director Roman Karmen, who had directed the aforementioned Majdanek newsreel; editor Elizaveta Svilova, who had edited Auschwitz and, most famously, Man with a Movie Camera (1929); and writer Boris Gorbatov, who was one of the first journalists to see Majdanek as well as the author of the novel on which The Unvanquished was based.
Svilova gives The Judgment of the Nations the distinctive touch of Soviet montage. In one sequence, for example, she blends images of Rudolf Hess at the trial with footage from Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens, 1935) to establish his complicity (Fig. 1). Hicks points out that Karmen sought to use the Nazis’ nervous tics as metaphors for their guilt. Thus, Hess rubbing his forehead began to represent the defense used by Hess and other Nazis that they did not remember anything about their crimes (Hicks 200). This symbol is juxtaposed with Hess saluting Hitler, Nazi night rallies, book-burning, and finally speeches of Goebbels and Hitler. Meanwhile, the narration characterizes the Germans as brutes (the words “savage” [dikar’] and “beast” [zver’] recur), and, as the voice rises to an emotional pitch, the montage begins to suggest that their pagan god Hitler hypnotized them with fire. If Hess cannot remember what he did when he was under hypnosis, then the narrator seeks to remind him by showing him Riefenstahl’s documentary. The voiceover thus directly addresses Hess at the trial: “You don’t remember this…? Now we will remind you.” The sequence cuts to Hess’s introduction of Hitler, with diegetic sound from the Triumph footage, and the narrator asks “Do you hear…? Do you see…?” Consequently, viewers have the sense that Hess is being shown the footage that they are watching; he is being made to confront his crimes. This sequence reinforces the Soviets’ concern with legal evidence: for Hess, the documentation of film is undeniable.
Several points here have clear parallels in Ordinary Fascism. Romm himself acknowledged his debt to Eisenstein’s theory of “montage of attractions,” wherein the juxtaposition of disparate elements leads the viewer to a new ideological conclusion (Izbrannye proizvedeniia. 319–21). Similar to Karmen’s attempt to catch the Nazis’ nervous movements as grotesque manifestations of their inner corruption, Romm uses freeze-framing to capture them with unflattering and distorted expressions. Moreover, the Judgment voiceover experiments with appeals to emotion in the form of direct address to the Nazis and the melodramatic bombast of earlier anti-fascist propaganda. This experimentation with emotional manipulation also bears similarities to Romm’s project, although Romm usually speaks to the audience directly. Likewise, at another point in The Judgment of the Nations, the narrator assumes the voice of Wilhelm Keitel and addresses a document shown on screen: “Yes, that’s my signature.” Romm uses the same technique at one point to mimic Hitler’s speech; over a series of photographs of Hitler, Romm reports, “Me with a mountain background. Me with an ocean background. Me and a squirrel. Me and a girl.” Here the difference between the two voiceovers also becomes clear: the rhythmic and rhyming speech of Romm (as Hitler), along with the picturesque or Kodak-moment quality of the photos, ironizes the horror of Hitler’s hideous nature and thus paints him as an absurd figure. The narration of The Judgment of the Nations, on the other hand, is always serious. Finally, Romm uses the same scene of book-burning (along with one of the same shots of Goebbels) to demonstrate the Nazis’ uncultured savagery (using the same word, “dikar’”). This sequence in Ordinary Fascism takes on irony three minutes later, when Romm quotes Hitler saying that the Nazis were descendants not of Neanderthals, but of the Ancient Greeks.
A few other commonalities link the two films. Beyond Triumph of the Will, which both documentaries appropriate extensively, they often use the same footage from other sources, much of which had been established as iconic of fascist fervor and Nazi atrocity: scenes of German soldiers smiling, used to demonstrate their joy in invading and slaughtering; both stills and film of corpses and crematoria in the camps after liberation; the piles of hair and personal effects that the Nazis saved in warehouses; buildings in Russia being blown up during sieges; and German pogroms, including one shot in particular where the word “Juden” is visible in the background (though not long enough for the original audience to have caught it without the ability to rewind). Due to censorship, Karmen and Romm had to limit their identification of the victims as Jewish and use more subtle methods to imply this fact. In both films, Julius Streicher in particular embodies Nazi racial prejudice. In The Judgment of the Nations, Gorbatov describes him as an “inciter of antisemitism,” which he even connects to the death camps: “the spiritual father…of Majdanek and Treblinka.” Then he notes, “He liked to call himself ‘The Number One Antisemite.’” Romm characterizes Streicher as the “main proponent on matters of racism…and antisemitism.”
Released after Stalin’s death, Ordinary Fascism is able to put more focus on Jewish victims, despite the censors’ warning. For this reason, the film includes clear depictions of Jews during Nazi pogroms (Gershenson 64–5) and, near the end, modern-day shots of a Jewish cemetery defaced with antisemitic graffiti, which Romm used to assert that Nazi fascism has not vanished. Despite this small mention of the Jews, however, both films in general use the typical Soviet device of universalization, that is, portraying the Nazi targets as all Soviet citizens, based on Stalin’s maxim of “Do not divide the dead” (Gershenson 2). The voiceover in The Judgment of the Nations, for instance, comments over a shot of concentration camp prisoners, “That’s our people behind the [barbed] wire” (emphasis mine). In Ordinary Fascism, Romm describes the Nazis’ future plans “to destroy in a short period of time sixty million Russians alone, not counting other peoples.” There is no mention that these people will be predominantly Jewish.
All in all, it is clear that Ordinary Fascism is rooted in the same modes of discourse and representations of Nazi atrocities as earlier Soviet cinema. Nonetheless, the innovation of Romm’s film is that, because the temporal distance and somewhat more open political climate of the sixties required less sobriety, he was able to introduce some amount of flippancy toward the Nazis into his commentary.
Finally, The Judgment of the Nations can help explain Ordinary Fascism’s opening sequence, which provides the first defamiliarizing shock of the film. Soviet representations of the Holocaust often used images of children to stir viewers’ emotions, and both of these films return to this trope (Hicks 177–9). Although Ordinary Fascism has three lengthy segments on children that punctuate the film’s beginning, middle, and end, The Judgment of the Nationsexplicitly approaches the theme only once. Minutes before the end of the film, shortly after images of the corpses of the Nazis who had been sentenced to death at Nuremberg, the viewer begins to get a sense that the horror of Nazism has been destroyed and the world can now move on. The voiceover reads, “Children have been born into the world who do not know the word ‘bombing,’” as a short scene of children playing in nature appears. Suddenly, with the children still on screen, viewers hear a loud non-diegetic blast, which a split second later is then revealed to be a drum. Afterward, the montage moves into images of an alleged return of fascism in West Germany. This sequence bears a great similarity to Ordinary Fascism’s opening scene. The first six minutes of the film focus on present-day children, their drawings, and their relationships with their mothers. A seeming continuation of this follows, in which a mother on the street lifts her child up to her chest. The film cuts to a still photograph of a graphic match of the mother and child, now with a soldier aiming a gun at them. The sound of a shot is heard as the picture zooms in.
Romm writes that he structured the opening this way in order to first “make the viewer forget that he came to watch a movie about ‘ordinary fascism’” (Izbrannye proizvedeniia. 322). In regard to The Judgment of the Nations, Hicks mentions the “shocking effect” of alternating images of Nazi atrocities with scenes from the Nuremburg courtroom (197). Likewise, Kovalov discusses the “‘shocking’ effect” in Ordinary Fascism of the contrast between images that are “unbearable to perceive” with those that are “especially banal.” Romm alternates scenes of fascist pomp and various twentieth-century cultural phenomena, both of which he lampoons, with horrific shots of Nazi murders and destruction. Thus, both films make a point of first disarming viewers in order to rattle them with images of the war and the Holocaust. In Ordinary Fascism, the iconic depictions of the Nazi atrocities are placed in between moments of parody and thereby removed from their usual contexts and consequently able to shock the viewer anew, twenty years after World War II.
While montage in Ordinary Fascism may help resituate the iconography of Nazism and the Holocaust in a new context, it is the unique voiceover that “re-reads,” or re-interprets, these images (Beilenhoff and Hänsgen 146). Given that most of the footage was filmed by the Nazis, Romm serves as a “counter-voice” to displace the perpetrators’ point of view. Thus, when Romm assumes the voice of Hitler to mock him, he represents both Hitler’s voice and his counter-voice (Beilenhoff and Hänsgen 147). It is through this dialogic voice that Romm attempts to “revolt” against historical fact (Ezrahi 294) and achieve “empowerment over” Hitler (Montresor 130). Another point where this occurs is in Romm’s description of how the Nazis used the pseudoscience of skull measurements to explain their theories of racial superiority. The montage alternates between pictures of actual skulls, the heads of Nazis, and various other cultural figures (Pushkin, Marx, Einstein, etc.). Clearly, there is no distinction between any of these heads, and most of the Nazis are also wearing hats in the photographs. Nevertheless, the voiceover sarcastically informs viewers that each Nazi has the “right” (“pravil’nyi”) skull (Streicher has the “ideal” [“ideal’nyi”] skull), while everyone else has the “wrong” (“nepravil’nyi”) one. Romm occupies the Nazi discourse in order to mock it, noting its absurdity and thus rejecting it. In terms of how Ashkenazi describes humor, this move both bonds the audience, who get the joke, and establishes the racist as a social other.
In general, Romm’s voice is directed outward at the viewer, “you” (“vy”). At the very beginning of the film, he states that he wants to reflect on the phenomenon of fascism “together with you” (“vmeste s vami”), and in this way begins to invite the viewer’s trust. His conversational tone, his quips, and his occasional confession in the first few minutes secure that trust. For example, he admits to us that his team filmed some people without them knowing, but feels bad about it. Then he makes a few jokes about their hair and style of dress. However, once the film abruptly cuts to the photograph of the soldier taking aim at a mother and child, along with the non-diegetic gunshot mentioned above, it becomes clear that Romm has tricked his viewers. He lures them into a false sense of security to more easily wound them with the traumatic image. Romm is betting on a deeper and stronger psychological response if viewers are unprepared to see such images, that is, if the images do not appear in an expected context. Through this device, the film reawakens the audience’s vigilance against fascism, defamiliarizes the images of the Holocaust, and provokes critical analysis of the parallels between Nazi and Stalinist totalitarianism.
In an interview regarding the film, Turovskaya uses similar terminology to Viktor Shklovskii, who argued that art, through ostranenie (“making-strange,” defamiliarization), distances us from habituated perception by making the commonplace seem foreign. She says, “Estrangement is the very moment of transition from the impossibility of seeing to sight. This is a distancing, a removal from the automatism of perception” (Taran). Likewise, as Beilenhoff and Hänsgen note, around the time of the film’s release, Jay Leyda described compilation films as inherently defamiliarizing, insofar as they recontextualize the original material (141). Most tellingly, they quote Romm himself as seeing montage of attractions as a “contrasting arrangement of surprising, shocking, affect-charged moments” (144). The inclusion of parodic elements does most of the work in defamiliarizing the traumatic footage. At times, Romm simply leaves the viewer to observe the bodies of victims in complete silence; in the thirty seconds of still photographs of corpses that follow the non-diegetic gunshot at the beginning of the film, for example, there is no voiceover and no music. The silence gives way to reflection: there is nothing to distract the viewer from thinking about the images. Later, as the camp prisoners’ identification photos are shown on screen, between moments of silence Romm quietly, slowly, and plaintively reminds viewers that the prisoners are looking at “us” (“nas”). This is defamiliarizing in its very reversal of the mechanics of film: the movie is now watching the audience. The effect on viewers is self-consciousness and self-reflection: what is their relationship to these people in the present day?
Gershenson calls Ordinary Fascism the first film to get Soviet people to “reflect critically” on World War II (64). In fact, according to Turovskaya, making Ordinary Fascism caused Romm himself to see the similarities between Stalinism and Nazism:
When we started the movie, Yurii and I knew what we wanted. We saw that Nazi Germany had too much in common with the Soviet system. Mikhail Il’ich [Romm] didn’t want to see this. He was a man of a different era. In the thirties he became a great director. And these many parallels hurt him, they were unpleasant for him. But for the same reason why it was so painful for him to go through this material, he made a film about just that. (Taran)
For this same reason, the film was pulled from theaters in 1967, although proof of this explanation did not turn up until 1979. At that time, an official explains that the “subjective” quality of the film allows for the possibility of audience misinterpretation, “especially in respect of externally similar events under socialism” (Turovskaya 163). For example, near the end of Part I, viewers watch a rather lengthy clip of Mussolini giving a speech, and Romm notes that the right side of the screen is blacked out, and explains that there must have been someone there who Mussolini no longer liked. The technique of blacking-out those who have fallen out of official favor (or worse) was commonplace in Soviet film and photography; for example, after Lenin’s death, Stalin had Trotsky erased from photographs. The many scenes of parades and marching taken from Triumph of the Will may also have reminded the Soviet audience of home. Over one montage of fascist pomp, Romm notes that the Nazis began with large parades meant to show that the history of Germany was only a “prelude” to the Third Reich. This, in fact, is not very different from the deterministic Marxist-Leninist view of history, wherein all previous events take on the import of leading to the establishment of communism.
Why would Romm take the risk of drawing these parallels? Along with several other Jewish artists, Romm had invested himself in exposing Stalin’s antisemitic policies. Jewish artists had been feeling the effects of this repression at least as far back as Stalin’s purges. When Karmen was making The Judgment of the Nations in 1946, for example, Stalin sent Chekists to keep watch as he worked on the film (Hicks 198). Romm was aware of this trend as early as 1943, when he sent letters to the head of the Propaganda Department, as well as to Stalin himself, about his worries concerning growing antisemitism in the Soviet Union (Gershenson 245n26). In the early sixties, the Eichmann trial sparked a modicum of renewed interest in the Holocaust, as did the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials (1963-1965), scenes of which were included in Ordinary Fascism’s original script (Khaniutin and Turovskaya). In 1961, poet Evgenii Evtushenko published a controversial poem about Babi Yar in protest of the failure to build a monument there, and Dmitrii Shostakovich wrote a symphony based on the poem later that year. Both were rebuked by critics, but neither received official sanctions (Korey 153–4; Gershenson 57–8). Romm himself gave two speeches in 1962 about Jewish filmmakers who were killed in Stalin’s purges and also defended Evtushenko’s poem (Gershenson 58, 67).
In the meantime, Soviet power continued its policies of marginalizing Jewish identity, as in 1963 Khrushchev condemned Evtushenko’s poem and dismissed the idea that there was a “Jewish Question” in the Soviet Union (Gershenson 58). Several fictional films released in the mid-sixties thematized Jews as victims of the Holocaust, the most daring of which was Goodbye, Boys! (Do svidaniia, mal’chiki!, 1966), directed by a protégé of Romm’s, Mikhail Kalik (Gershenson 94). In addition to using a similar style of montage to Ordinary Fascism, this film included a flash-forward to the Holocaust, a device repeated a year later in the film Kommissar (made in 1967 but not released until 1988). Although most of these works received negative press or were shelved altogether, their very existence marked a small but important sign of discontentment with Soviet authorities’ effacement of Jewish victims of the Holocaust and signified increasing reflection on Soviet antisemitism.
The thrust of Ordinary Fascism, then, lies in its use of defamiliarization to get audiences thinking. Romm’s commentary fluctuates between irony and seriousness; he makes sarcastic remarks about the Nazis, but condemns the horrific consequences of their actions. The voiceover thus alternates between a monologic and dialogic relationship to the images that it describes. Romm’s distinct brand of parody was an innovative but risky move. Nonetheless, in the historical moment, the filmmakers saw much at stake. Twenty years after the end of World War II, Nazism was beginning to seem like a distant memory. In the Soviet Union itself, however, Turovskaya and Khaniutin saw that the signs of totalitarianism were much more recent. One mark was the continued repression of Jewish identity, specifically in regard to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust. Given the careful censorship (another mark of totalitarianism), the filmmakers could not make these claims directly in the film. Yet by reusing standard archival footage and many of the same tropes as previous documentaries, they were able to convince the censors that the film was nothing much out of the ordinary. At the same time, by adding the element of irony to the voiceover, they prompted the audience to re-analyze these old documents and their usual context within Soviet discourse. Influenced by classic montage theory, they hoped, like Eisenstein, that the viewers themselves would draw the “right” conclusions.
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