Three years ago, against the backdrop of Anders Breivik’s trial and on the eve of the staggering result by Golden Dawn in Greece, I picked up an old film magazine outside the train station in Bologna. This one. 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.
|‘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.
Originally published at Overland