Saturday, 20 April 2019

The Crimes of Grindelwald

Notes on the pressing politics of the film:
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018)

Undoubtedly, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018) is a flawed film. Flawed in the sense that even now, thinking about the conclusion several months after the initial viewing, I'm still reminded of the unanswered questions, the character inconsistencies and the bizarre narrative loose-ends that defined the overall experience. Some (but not all) of these issues will be cited towards the end of the text, but for now I wanted to focus exclusively on a facet of the film that was successful; specifically the film's pointed political subtext, which feels necessary, and perfectly tailored to its intended audience.

The film's predecessor, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016), had been something of a revelation for me. Seeing the film for the first time early last year (and with no prior relationship or emotional investment with the "Harry Potter" mythology) I'd expected something that was at best mildly entertaining, if not thematically disposable. Surprisingly however, the first "Fantastic Beasts" film wasn't just entertaining as a work of fiction, it was also interesting and genuinely progressive; elevating the standard CGI fantasy tropes and second-hand Potter references with its relevant themes, unconventional characters and astonishingly powerful subtext.

What I loved most about "Fantastic Beasts" was that it seemed to go against the conventions of the average Hollywood blockbuster; creating a central character in Newt Scamander that was shy, socially-awkward, pacifistic, non-confrontational, passionate about nature, intellectual without being smug and sensitive to the suffering of others. I also loved how the film was largely about the dangers of prejudice; how the relationship between the 'wizarding' and 'non-wizarding' worlds was used as a metaphor for historical segregation, and how the third act of the film carried an incredibly moving commentary on the realities of abuse trauma; how the pain of abuse can manifest within the victim as a figurative darkness that destroys everything.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them [David Yates, 2016]:

 Prejudice preys on the weak. Percival Graves, avatar for Grindelwald, fills Credence with hate and bitterness.

This second instalment takes the same sub-textual, socio-political ideas a step further. From the moment Johnny Depp's black-clad, leather-booted Grindelwald steps out onto the cobbled-streets of 1920s Paris, it's clear the filmmakers are evoking the Nazi occupation. In both his ideology and general appearance, Grindelwald from the start is a fascistic archetype; his pale skin and shock of white hair evoking the image of the Aryan Übermensch. Similarly, the way Grindelwald encourages his fellow wizards to join the cause by playing on the second-class nature of humans and our capacity for war and prejudice, carries with it some very ominous similarities to the "know-your-enemy" fear-mongering used during the rise of National Socialism (to say nothing of the similarly divisive language of certain far-right commentators currently gaining momentum across Europe and the U.S.)

To make the association obvious, the film's standout sequence has Grindelwald delivering a speech to a vast public assembly within the grounds of what appears to be a grand Albert Speer-like amphitheatre. As he outlines his 'anti-human' ideology, the title-character conjures up a CGI nightmare of mid-20th century atrocity; one that will no doubt appear astonishing to a child-audience unfamiliar with the horrors of Auschwitz or the bombing of Hiroshima, but one that also carries a tremendous sense of weight and emotional catharsis for the adult-audience as well. For me it was by far the most radical scene in the entire film and one of the great cinematic sequences from any film of 2018.

In terms of its stylisation the scene is shot and organised like a Leni Riefenstahl film. It frames Grindelwald against the seething masses of his gathered followers there to hear him speak. It cross-cuts his impassioned call for revolution with close-ups of his stoical audience gazing in contemplation. As an example of the filmmakers using blockbuster techniques to engage in something that feels pointedly political and essential to the current cultural conversation, the entire sequence seems astounding; creating an obvious metaphorical counterpoint on the lure of prejudice that is far more intelligent and nuanced than anything in Guillermo del Toro's widely acclaimed but simple-minded "love conquers all" fable, The Shape of Water (2017), and far more applicable to its target audience as well.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald [David Yates, 2018]:

Grindelwald's informal address to the assembly becomes a genuine political rally. One in which the rogue wizard attempts to turn the tide of popular opinion against the non-wizarding world. The look, the design, the rhetoric spouted by the title character and the general iconography are each indicative of a deliberate effort to connect the past...

Triumph of the Will [Leni Riefenstahl, 1934]: the present.

Donald Trump Holds Campaign Rally in Dallas [Tom Pennington/Getty Images, 2016]:

In doing so, the filmmakers are not just drawing a parallel between the politics of 'then' and the politics of 'now'; they're attempting to use the  inherent distance created by the story's fantasy context to safely explore ideas of fascism, extremism and the way politics can be infected by populism (which can itself satiate a view of prejudice, disillusionment and fear).

The whole sequence remains incredibly significant to our understanding of the film's politics, and more specifically to its commentary on the politics of populism. It shows how a charismatic politician can play on the prejudices of individuals in order exploit their sense of disillusionment, and how well they can twist and exaggerate public fears in order to gain power and achieve their own political ends. In this sense Grindelwald is also a surrogate for the current President of the United States, Donald J. Trump. That the filmmakers present their 'Trumpian' avatar as someone seductive, charismatic, even convincing - and not as some evil two-dimensional monster that's as physically repulsive as they are morally so - suggests a great deal of nuance. Just as cigarettes, alcohol and unhealthy foods aren't historically sold in hideous packaging that show the reality of what the individual is consuming, neither is fascism.

For all the cheap targets one can fall back on in ridiculing Trump's position - the childish body-shaming, the jokes about "orange-skin", etc. - the bitter truth of the matter is that he spoke to the people; he spoke to their fears and concerns, told them things would get worse, positioned himself as the only man in America willing to do something about it. As much as one might find his stance deplorable, or his attitude childish or narcissistic, the fact remains, he spoke and the people listened.

In presenting a reflection of this in the context of the film, screenwriter JK Rowling succeeds in showing how previously rational, likeable and even sympathetic characters, such as Credence and Queenie, can have their heads turned by extremism. The way political parties can manipulate a particular perspective, arguing that left is right or down is up; convincing people that the changes that pose the greatest threat to the most vulnerable of society are changes for our greater good. It's a remarkable example – even more so given its appearance in a film aimed at young children – of how fascism throughout history has succeeded; not through violence and threat, but by exploiting innate human weaknesses.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald [David Yates, 2018]:

Grindelwald's premonition of the approaching human atrocity sees a projection of the bombing of Dresden, the death camps at Auschwitz and finally the bombing of Hiroshima. Keep in mind the film's 1920s setting, its backdrop of the financial crisis and the looming poverty and austerity of the Depression, and compare it to the modern world, its financial instability, its suspicion, its fear of the other, etc. All factors that make a populace easy to manipulate.

Twin Peaks: The Return - Part 8 [David Lynch, 2016]:

An adequate screenshot of the atomic bomb blast that closes Grindelwald's propagandist vision wasn't available at the time of writing, but let's contrast and compare it to this significant moment from the 8th episode of Twin Peaks: The Return. Here, David Lynch and co-writer Mark Frost present a kind of Twin Peaks origin story in which the detonation of the atomic bomb becomes a sort-of catalyst; a moment that seemingly gives birth to the darkness that eventually corrupts us all.

By the end of the film even the previously pacifist and non-confrontational Newt Scamander has been forced to 'choose a side.' This parallels the same journey of the titular boy wizard character in Rowling's other well-known property, "Harry Potter", who begins the series in a state of innocence and/or wonder, and ends it as a battle-scarred warrior framed against a landscape of violence and devastation. For Rowling the implication seems to be that some wars are justifiable; that even the pacifist or the innocent must eventually cast aside their anti-war ideals to fight the good fight.

On a personal level, I'm not sure I agree with this, but nonetheless, it's been the prevailing attitude throughout history and unfortunately unlikely to change. If the "Harry Potter" saga eventually became a kind of figurative mirroring to the millennial experience as shaped by a culture of terror attacks and war in the middle-east, then one could assume that with this film Rowling is drawing a line from the past to the present in order to create not just a reflection but a warning. A call to vigilance rather than action, both in the presentation of Grindelwald (and the real-life associations therein) as well as in the acknowledgement that the wars such people incite, have, historically, forced people into action; that with this in mind we should stamp-out fascism at the very root (the ideology; the belief) so that such wars need never happen again.

Which is why I think the message of the film is significant, especially in the lessons it provides to its young audience. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald may be a flawed work - a film that at no point ever feels like a complete narrative with a beginning, middle and end, but like a necessity, only existing in order to justify a third instalment in the franchise; a veritable mess of subplots and conflicting characters, half-written back-stories and unanswered questions - but it's a work that still communicates something to the betterment of society.