Back in November 2016, before the premiere of the first installment of the “Fantastic Beasts” spin-off series, J.K. Rowling told press that the story had been influenced by rising populism around the world. Her debut screenplay focused on happy-go-lucky “magizoologist” Newt Scamander scurrying around New York in pursuit or errant creatures, but on the fringes lay dark forces waiting to take center stage – namely evil wizard Gellert Grindelwald.
Now Rowling’s follow-up “The Crimes of Grindelwald” arrives in cinemas. Anyone who read or watched the Harry Potter series knew where the story was heading. What we didn’t know was that it was heading there quite so soon.
Last seen carted off by the magic police, on his return Grindelwald is a seductive orator who loves a stump speech. He’s distrustful of the state, obsessed with lineage, preaching a supremacist vision declaring non-wizards are not “lesser” but “other” and a threat waiting to bloom. It’s wizards first he says, his manifesto built on fear. Yet Grindelwald draws characters we thought we knew to his cause.
Rowling’s script takes 1920s European history, filters it through her magical world and adds dashes of contemporary American anxieties. It’s not particularly subtle – but then nor does it seem to want to be. And it’s not the only film this autumn flexing its political muscles.
A political slate
After a summer in which Vox bemoaned a lack of clear-headed politics in recent blockbusters, we have ourselves a season of big screen discontent.
Fascism is under the microscope, on scales both large and small. The latest “Fantastic Beasts” joins a growing list of releases tackling the subject in vary degrees of directness.
In summer’s last gasp we already had one under our belt: “Operation Finale,” based on the true story of Mossad agents in 1960 who captured Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Argentina and took him to stand trial in Israel. Then in October, two versions of the 2011 terror attacks committed by Norwegian far-right extremist Anders Breivik, “22 July” by Paul Greengrass and “Utoya: July 22” by Erik Poppe.
Both retellings landed trailing ethical questions about entertainment derived from recent terrorist incidents. For his part, Greengrass told the BBC his film wasn’t about the attacks, rather “how Norway fought for her democracy” when faced with a far-right ideologue. Through due process in the courts, the nation’s values won out.
Luca Guadagnino’s “Suspiria” remake, released October in the US, took Dario Argento’s cult classic about a German dance school run by witches and injected it with post-World War II trauma, asking if the stain of fascism is destined to pass between subsequent generations.
Meanwhile in the documentary department, Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 11/9” hit headlines in September comparing Hitler to President Trump, the director arguing that democracy was not a given.
There’s more material to come. “Thor Ragnarok” director Taika Waititi is deep in production for “Jojo Rabbit,” a WWII satire in which a young German boy with an imaginary friend (played by Waititi in Hitler get up) is forced to confront his naive worldview.
And Guillermo Del Toro announced last month he will write and direct a stop motion “Pinocchio” set in 1930s Mussolini-era Italy.
Del Toro described his Pinocchio as “an innocent soul with an uncaring father who gets lost in a world he cannot comprehend.” The boy puppet’s complicated history, including a period when he was appropriated by fascist propagandists and indoctrinators in Italy, adds an extra dimension to what promises to be a complex retelling.
Entertainment and advocacy
What’s the end goal here? Entertainment yes, but also something more.
“‘Operation Finale’ isn’t just a museum piece, it has things to say about today,” said its director Chris Weitz. Waititi went with: “This film is going to piss off a lot of racists and that makes me very happy.”
Both comments point to relevancy and advocacy. But there are issues controlling the message. In a digital age when images can be so easily stripped of intended meaning, cinema’s ability to advocate for a political position also leaves it open to appropriation or subversion. The “meme-ification” of pop culture has seen to that.
So should creatives continue feeding these images into the pop culture machine? In holding up characters like Grindelwald for scrutiny in the expectation of condemnation, do filmmakers create another poster boy for those who would espouse his views?
Case in point: You can find corners of the internet where “The Man in the High Castle” – a cautionary alt-history drama where the US is divided between the American Reich and Japanese empire – has been adopted by those who agree with its politics.
“The Crimes of Grindelwald” not a zero-sum game; many, many times more people who watch the film will be appalled by its villain than see Grindelwald as a brother in arms. But acting as a canary in the cultural coalmine is not without the risk of having your death rattle willfully mistranslated.
It’s not a new problem – the schism between creator and creation was established in literary theory in the 1960s – but with this recent glut of films hanging out fascism for a bashing, it’s one worth bearing in mind.