Piotr Uklański, The Nazis (1998), courtesy of the artist and The Broad Museum.

Piotr Uklański, The Nazis (1998), courtesy of the artist and The Broad Museum.

My Favorite Nazi

Piotr Uklański, "The Nazis" (1998) [CREATURE, The Broad Museum, through March 19th]

They gaze at us with supreme confidence. They are gods after all, aren’t they? Or leaders certainly – leaders of men. That is to say, soldiers – and they are all men, though anatomical details beyond the head are concealed beneath those often strikingly well-tailored uniforms. Not a Leni Riefenstahl or even Ilse Koch in the bunch. This is a man’s world, defined by patriarchy, pecking order or chain of command, duty, tribute, loyalty, order of battle, war, victory, defeat, spoils, and spilled blood. 

Or equally strikingly, they are not gods at all. A few of them are almost pedestrian in their ordinariness; and a few others – seemingly surprised or bewildered to be here; unguarded, vulnerable, transparently not cut out for such a role – clearly don’t belong here at all. Which makes us all the more delighted to see them in this line-up.

They condescend to a sidelong glance, ready to look away in a split second, dismissing us with the offhanded contempt that falls upon anyone beneath their station. They smile suavely, arrogantly, sometimes charmingly. They sneer with contempt or scowl contemptuously. They stare, squint, survey, surmise, inspect, glare, cast chilling eyes. They variously disarm us, signal grim, murderous intent, knock the wind from us, or silence us into mute incomprehension.

‘What did you do in the War, Daddy?’ Can it be told? Why Daddy fell in love with many of his fellow daddies; and you can hardly blame him. Right beside (or more likely beneath) those Alexandrine (or Norse or Vulcan) gods were the earnest, callow, unaffected (or disaffected) if not innocent, beguiling and comical cut-up faces of the boys and young men who served beneath the steel-eyed commanders.

Most of the faces here belong to known stars, which sets up a dialogue of casting psychology. It’s not always easy to predict which stars make the most fearsome or truly convincing Nazis. Omar Sharif, dark and Egyptian, does a pretty good job of it here. You wouldn’t want to cross him in an SS uniform. By and large, the most convincing specimens are not especially blond or ‘Aryan’-looking – though some of the blond(er) stars are English, which seems to be a built-in handicap. (There are exceptions of course, e.g., Ralph Fiennes.) You’re almost guaranteed to fall in love with an English Nazi – or at least have a giggle. Some of them are simply wrong. Jean-Paul Belmondo is perfectly ridiculous in the role – Inspector Clouseau in SS guise. Speaking of whom, Peter Sellers is also here – for all practical purposes auditioning his look in Being There. But for something undefinably American, some of the Americans approximate the look with unusual success. Reagan was not bad as a Nazi. (Obviously already on his way to becoming the Republican he eventually ended up.)

The casting dialogue extends to the comparison or contrast with their actual lives; also the twists and turns of the picture-making business itself. You might assume Robert Ryan would be an amazing Nazi – and he is. But he’s actually playing an American impersonating one in the film from which the portrait here is clipped; and in real life, he bore no resemblance whatever to some of the psychotically vicious characters he played on screen. (Off film locations and soundstages, he was a devoted civil rights activist throughout his career.) Then there are those who we know can play it as hard and tough as it gets, who somehow convey just the faintest glimmer of vulnerability. (Consider, e.g., Lee Marvin.) It’s called acting; and that’s why they’re stars.  

Contrary to what The Broad Museum’s website text claims, Piotr Uklański’s The Nazis tells no stories. We, the viewers, supply the stories – and there can be thousands of them for each given shot. You might want to call them portraits; and some of them satisfy such criteria. They’re certainly not merely the stuff of 8×10 publicity or casting shots (though a few of them have probably made it to such press packets and agent’s portfolios). Some of them are so disarming, they might almost pass for candid shots. (Who needs a gun?) Instead, they are actually movie stills. Not stories – but moments, single (possibly cropped) shots, some more emblematic than others.

Amid all the darks and shadows of such stories (and we understand them as frequently grim, terrifying, soul-destroying), there are inevitably moments of light, of relief, recovery or refreshment, even humor and humanity – or at least the quality of being ‘humane.’ Can there be such a thing as a fascism with ‘a human face’? – as was once debated so earnestly amongst left-leaning intellectuals about its supposed antipode, communism.. Well yes: it’s called humanity. The most terrifying species of predator that ever tortured this planet is not without its charms, however dubious and always variable. The irony is that most seemingly ‘human’ of qualities is what gives the lie to the fascist mask that defers or defaults without deliberation to blind authority or obedience.

Most of the stills here are moments taken some distance, mental or physical or both, from battle – though still within the general theatre of war – as distinguished from the theatre of violence that seems to be a permanent and well-fetishized accessory to war (the torture chambers of military, fanatical insurgents, renegade occupation jailers, secret police forces and intelligence agencies everywhere, the violent punishments and public executions of various rebel and insurgent armies, the parades of prisoners of war, etc.). These moments are outstanding for their relative lack of theatricality, though they are not without glamour.

Fascism has never been dependent upon theatre. Its fundamental elements – authoritarianism, nationalism, and, on a basic psychological level, the authoritarian personality itself – are as common as dust. It doesn’t even really satisfy the criteria of a legitimate political ideology. As ersatz ideology, it’s as strained and impoverished as its art. The construction and propagation of fascism as a framework (it can never be a foundation, per se) for governance, statecraft or national identity, however, takes a great deal of theatre.

What distinguishes these movie stills, the movies they’re culled from, the great actors who impersonated these characters who happen to be written as Nazis, as well as the writers, directors and other film artists who created these spectacles, is their mastery of story. Fascist art is never about telling stories, but about creating legends and myths (albeit myths without much ‘mythos’). Denying psychology (or at least psychological complexity) altogether, and with plot reduced to its most linear rudiments, story scarcely exists in this domain except as the most depleted cultural expression. But then that’s the problem with fascism and what we loosely call fascist art: it’s not about enriching, enlarging or expanding (or for that matter ‘conserving’ or preserving) a civilization, but about razing it to its foundations.

Its theatre is similarly depleted, though its staging may be daunting in its spectacular scale. However expansive the stage, the frame and field of focus feel strained and constricted. It’s about creating a focus for a new reality and the gods created for it. For all its emphasis on spectacle, it doesn’t have to be particularly sophisticated, though. A one-ring circus will suffice – smoke, sawdust, bright lights and mirrors. One ‘Big Star’ under a Super-Trouper will do as long as the star lives and breathes the Olivier mantra with every breath he takes on stage: ‘Look at me. Look at me. Look at me….’ (And maybe off-stage, too….) The theatrical compact here (in distinct opposition to the social compact) is not suspension of disbelief, but surrender of all belief except what is invested in the star-performer. In lieu of the catharsis achieved in the best classic tragedy what is offered is the possibility of abnegation through delirium, a kind of submission viewed as ultimate attainment. (The alignment of American fascism with ‘evangelical’ Christian zealots is no accident.)

The question of what fires an audience for such spectacle, such submission, is one many of us have been asking for the last year or so – and are likely to be asking through the next several months of government by ‘shock and awe.’ But there are a thousand stories for each ‘face in the crowd’ and it only takes a moment for anyone of them to blink.