The fourth annual Arrowverse crossover event – bringing together characters from The CW’s Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow and Supergirl – was called “Crisis on Earth-X” and I…enjoyed it? I’ve written previously about my visceral hatred for superhero TV show crossovers, and “Crisis on Earth-X” certainly doesn’t avoid all the problems of the genre, but, as a self-contained story – as a TV movie, essentially – it’s certainly the most successful Arrowverse crossover yet.
It was about Nazis.
And I don’t mean the villains were Nazi analogues like the Death Eaters in Harry Potter or the Empire in Star Wars. They were the political and military leadership of an alternative Earth where Nazi Germany won the Second World War, Adolf Hitler ruled the world until his death in 1994, and the current Fuhrer is Oliver Queen (Green Arrow) of Earth-X. And they weren’t pulp adventure Nazis either, where you never see or hear any of the really bad stuff the Nazis did, because it’s just assumed that, you get it, they’re the Nazis. No, in “Crisis on Earth-X”, some of the heroes end up in a concentration camp with prisoners wearing Stars of David and pink triangles. The Felicity Smoak of Earth-X is brought before the Fuhrer to be executed because she is, and they specifically use this word, a “Jewess”. Our grand team of heroes includes people from groups specifically targeted in the Holocaust – in addition to Felicity, Martin from Flash/Legends is Jewish, Alex from Supergirl is a lesbian, Sara from Arrow/Legends is bisexual – as well as several black and brown superheroes, both groups famously not into white supremacy, and they’re all given time to react appropriately, beyond the general revulsion with, you know, Nazis. The villains aren’t fudging it either – they give long, assured speeches about the virtues of eugenics and racial purity. “Crisis on Earth-X” did not flinch at all from showing a highlights reel of Why the Nazis Were Bad.
But it’s also a superhero crossover between four shows that vary a lot in tone, but all have at least some sense of humour, so there are jokes. And the villains are Nazi versions of two of our heroes – as well as the Dark Arrow, there’s his wife, Overgirl, the Supergirl of Earth-X. So that’s a whole thing. And there’s no point in putting a bunch of superheroes together in a story if you’re not gonna have them team up for some awesome action scenes, so there’s some of those. And this isn’t just one CW show, this is four combined into one, so you know there’s just tons of relationship drama (it’s set on the weekend of the Flash’s wedding, for one). There’s a lot going on that’s not about Why the Nazis Were Bad, and not all of it jibes.
Basically, the whole time I was watching “Crisis on Earth-X”, I was thinking one of two things:
- “Wow, this is a bit serious for a superhero romp.”
- “Wow, this is a bit silly for a story about Nazis.”
Both these responses have been stuck in my head ever since. It’s not like I’ve never seen Nazis used as action villains before, and it’s not like I’ve never seen humour under the shadow of Nazi Germany. But there’s something about “Crisis on Earth-X” that makes each sour a little. What makes it especially strange, I think, is that there’s a long and treasured history of Nazis in superhero stories that dates right back to the dawn of modern comics.
Part 1 – Pulp Fascism: a Brief History of Punching Nazis
Captain America was created to punch Nazis – the cover of Captain America Comics #1 portrays him decking Hitler. He was created by two Jewish writers, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, who were infuriated by the USA’s refusal to enter World War II and thought the image of an all-American hero punching Hitler in the face would spur fellow patriots to action.
It’s hard to believe now, when even an all-consuming superhero media boom hasn’t stymied the near-collapse of comics readership, but Kirby and Simon’s cover would’ve been at least seen by most Americans. In 1941, comics were still distributed almost exclusively at newsstands and grocers, and were widely consumed by people of all ages, especially among the working class. We think of comics – somewhat fairly – as a medium dominated by superheroes, but superheroes were just one genre co-existing alongside horror, romance and crime, as well as Disney and Warner Bros’ funny animal comics.
Captain America Comics #1 was released in March 1941, nine months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and Kirby and Simon received plenty of hate mail for their provocative cover, just as Charlie Chaplin had been criticised for The Great Dictator. But once the USA entered the war, Captain America was joined by his contemporaries, and not just his fellow superheroes. No less a patriot than Daffy Duck went behind enemy lines to fight the Nazis in “Daffy – The Commando”, just one of the many propaganda shorts featuring the stars of Warner Bros’ and Disney’s stable of cartoon animals. The whole machinery of the American entertainment industry was put behind the war effort, though of course entertainment unrelated to war was still produced, as a form of morale-boosting escapism. Many propaganda films from the era are well-remembered to this day – especially Casablanca, one of the finest films ever made – but they represent just a tiny fraction of what Americans consumed. There were comics, of course, but film serials, radio shows, and even lifestyle magazines were marshalled to persuade Americans of the moral necessity of the war, not just against the Nazis but also, and maybe even more so, against the Japanese. But once the war over, it was the Nazis who persisted as the ultimate villains in popular culture, and not for nothing: they were and are indisputably some of the most evil people who’ve ever existed. What’s interesting, though, is how their portrayal changed after their defeat.
The shared feature of Nazis in popular culture before and during the war is that they functioned as a call to arms, first for America to join the war and then for Americans to enlist, buy war bonds and do whatever else the government required of them in order to defeat their enemies. But after the war, the Nazis were used for a variety of purposes. Obviously, there’s Holocaust films, both documentary (e.g. Shoah) and narrative (e.g. Schindler’s List), which attempt to sear the horrors of the Holocaust in our collective memory, so that it will never be permitted to happen again. The Nazis were the arch-villains of world history, and plenty of pop culture simply celebrates the Allies’ efforts to defeat them, especially the seemingly endless supply of World War II movies, which often trade in nationalist and militarist tones designed to laud the moral authority of the Allied nations, neatly evading any topics – like, say, the bombing of Dresden or the internment of Japenese-Americans by Roosevelt – that might complicate the popular understanding of their heroism. And there was a whole subgenre of the exploitation film centred around Nazis, called Nazisploitation, best exemplified by the infamous Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS that used Nazi imagery to titillate the audience.
But the most common way that Nazis are portrayed in post-war popular culture is simply as the ultimate bad guys. If the bad guys of your story are the Nazis, no more explanation is necessary. You don’t need to sketch out the conflict between your heroes and villains with any more detail – when the Nazis are your bad guys, the good guys need no special motivation. If I started listing every use of the Nazis as villains with no context provided – no context needed – I would likely perish from this Earth before I was done. The most iconic such uses are obviously Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which do not feel the need to convince you Indy is the good guy in this scenario by showing you Nazi atrocities. You know the Nazi atrocities, and you go on to derive a lot of satisfaction, as would anyone, from watching Indy punch them in the face.
Or at least that’s the theory.
Part 2 – What’s So Funny About War, Hate and Ethnic Cleansing?
“Crisis on Earth-X” arises out of a long lineage of heroes punching Nazis, but its contemporaries in that lineage are two films: Captain America: The First Avenger and Inglourious Basterds. Both films are set during World War II and the title characters of both are soldiers fighting in Nazi-occupied Europe, but tonally, they couldn’t be more different.
Captain America: The First Avenger is possibly the most sanitised iteration of “Nazis as villains, but let’s not think too much about why”. Though it takes place primarily behind enemy lines and follows Captain America and the Howling Commandos as they liberate Europe, it never once even hints at, let alone portrays, specific Nazi atrocities. Moreover, its villains aren’t even real Nazis. HYDRA is the perennial evil organisation of Marvel Comics, most consistently portrayed as an explicitly Nazi organisation typically headed by the Red Skull. Though First Avenger features the Red Skull as their leader, and HYDRA originates as the “special weapons” division of the SS, they quickly break away from the Nazis and try to take over the world for themselves. HYDRA are still fascist, but they essentially adopt a kind of fantasy fascism with no overt prejudice or bigotry, where the lines that delineate fascist conceptions of “the strong” and “the weak” are no longer based on race, gender, sexuality, disability, etc. but instead, it seems, on nothing in particular. First Avenger is pretty tonally similar to the rest of the Marvel movies – there’s jokes and sentiment and bloodless action, none of it super memorable, and all eventually fading in the memory to become a mild, warm feeling you once felt in a cinema. Importantly, First Avenger never even considers morally justifying the heroes. Like most superhero movies, and Marvel movies especially, the goodness of the heroes is taken as a given.
Inglourious Basterds is not like First Avenger. The enemies are actual Nazis, and they do actual Nazi things, literally right from the start of the movie. It is a dark, dark film, with whatever the opposite of bloodless action is, and though there’s lots jokes, it’s all pure gallows humour that only highlights the bleakness around it. (The jokiest of its characters – Brad Pitt’s Aldo Raine – even has a neck scar from when he survived a hanging, because Quentin Tarantino is not subtle.) But what’s most surprising about Inglourious Basterds is its moral seriousness, which is not something one usually expects from Tarantino. The film is committedly, unequivocally anti-Nazi, but it doesn’t reciprocally portray the Basterds as unambiguous heroes. While not based, as far as I know, on actual war crimes committed by Allied forces during the war, the Basterds nonetheless do some pretty fucked-up things to enemy soldiers, including torturing and scalping them. The film doesn’t do this to make the Nazis less bad, as so many “not so different” stories do. You don’t come away from Inglourious Basterds feeling any sympathy for the Nazis or thinking the Basterds are “just as bad”. Rather, it shows the proximity of the Basterds’ callousness and brutality to Nazism, that ultimate of evils, in order to subvert more common WW2 narratives that glorify the Allies, as exemplified in a scene where the Nazi leadership watch a movie that shows Nazi soldiers vanquishing Allied soldiers with exactly the same uncritical and celebratory lens that movies from the Allied nations use to portray their own soldiers. The Nazis are the villains, obviously, and the Basterds are right to fight them, but being the heroes doesn’t make everything they do heroic.
“Crisis on Earth-X” exists somewhere between First Avenger and Inglourious Basterds. The humour leans way into Marvel’s toothless snark territory, but its Nazis are not Space Nazis without any specific prejudices. They’re the real deal, albeit still in a superhero world. The action isn’t as gore-filled as Tarantino’s, but it’s not as bloodless as First Avenger’s. Captain America didn’t even kill the Red Skull in that movie – he accidentally kills himself – whereas the Green Arrow just stabs the Dark Arrow in the heart. But in taking on the burden of making explicit why the Nazis are evil, and showing their evil in practice, “Crisis on Earth-X” also draws attention to the goodness of its heroes – especially in a scene where Overgirl and a captive Supergirl debate whether their superpowers give them the right to rule or the duty to protect – and that creates one of the crossover’s first issues. Because even if, like the Basterds, the heroes are still the good guys in this fight, the only one who hasn’t shown any moral ambiguity in their respective series is Supergirl, and so their portrayal as unambiguous heroes in just this context makes for some really weird and uncomfortable moments. The one that sticks in my mind most is when the bulk of the heroes end up in a concentration camp on Earth-X and Alex Danvers, the human sister of Supergirl, remarks that “it’s hard to believe a place like this actually exists, on any Earth”.
Leaving aside the fact that Nazi concentration camps presumably existed on her Earth, since no one needs to explain what Nazis are, she is herself an agent of a secret government agency that runs what is essentially a black site for alien and superhuman prisoners, in a show where aliens, including Supergirl herself, are generally portrayed as refugees on our planet. It is really weird for the show to pick Alex of all people as a mouthpiece for horror at arbitrary and punitive detention on racial lines. It makes the gears in my head grind for just a minute whenever I try to process it, not least of all because Supergirl already has trouble making its aliens-as-refugees themes click with the fact its heroes all work for, basically, the CIA and operate out of a building whose lower levels are, basically, Guantanamo Bay for aliens and superhumans. That agency’s director, J’onn J’onnz aka the Martian Manhunter, is a genocide survivor and refugee whose family died in a concentration camp and even then the show has never tried to tackle any kind of tension he might feel about running such an authoritarian institution. “Crisis on Earth-X” laudably declines to use the Nazis as cheap villains without taking on the burden of what makes the Nazis bad, but it creates a weird tension when it selectively applies its moral seriousness to the villains and not the heroes. The sting is particularly keen in the case of Arrow, which has repeatedly and often admirably grappled with its heroes’ use of illegal detention, surveillance and torture, and largely avoids ever portraying them as unambiguous heroes.
Still, the moral seriousness of its portrayal of the Nazis is certainly one of the crossover’s strengths. But the narrative and aesthetic elements definitely number among its weaknesses. Some of the problems arise from strange narrative choices, like the storyline of Dark Arrow trying to save Overgirl from a terminal illness, which humanises them in ways that don’t connect with the rest of the crossover’s themes, and some from the snarky humour, which often makes the heroes come across kind of blasé in moments when they should be freaking out over all the Nazis. The worst part, for me personally, at least, was the writing team running headfirst into the incestuous undertones of the Barry/Iris relationship by having Joe’s wedding toast explicitly refer to the fact that he raised the both of them. But the bulk of the problem comes from a simple and deeply disquieting fact: the Nazis are really, really cool.
Part 3 – You Are What You Wehrmacht
I hope it goes without saying that I hate the Nazis, but just in case: I hate the Nazis. When I say the big problem with “Crisis on Earth-X” is that the Nazis are cool, what I really mean is that the Nazis look cool. Dark Arrow and Overgirl have sleek black costumes with red accents that look way cooler than those of Green Arrow and Supergirl. Their Nazi foot soldiers have badass black metal gas mask helmets with glowing red eyes. The opening shot of the whole crossover is a swooping dive through the sky of a city on Earth-X with a swastika-adorned zeppelin.
All this is happening within one of the coolest contexts in pop culture, the evil alternate universe. There’s a reason Star Trek writers keep going back to the well of the Mirror Universe – there’s just something cool, for some reason, about seeing evil versions of your heroes. And so it’s not just Dark Arrow and Overgirl’s costuming, but to see the same actors playing their characters so differently (especially Melissa Benosit as Overgirl). The same effect holds true with the Nazi version of a non-superhero character: Quentin Lance is the father of Laurel and Sara Lance, the Black and White Canary respectively, and his Earth-X doppelganger is a major in the SS who had his Sara murdered for her attraction to women. He is a reprehensible character – stomach-churning, if I’m honest – but he’s also smart and looks strong and intimidating in his uniform, and Paul Blackthorne plays him with a genuinely compelling hammy energy. He is, while disgusting, also kind of cool. In the last episode of the crossover, the much-hyped Nazi superweapon is revealed to be a Nazi version of the Legends’ time-travelling spaceship, the Waverider, and even with my profound disgust for Nazis, there was a part of me going “wow, that’s pretty awesome”.
The persistent and potentially even growing attractiveness of Nazi aesthetics is well documented, most famously in Susan Sontag’s essay “Fascinating Fascism”, which deals primarily with (I yet dare hope) failed attempts to rehabilitate the Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. While it can seem crazy if you’ve never seen it to imagine anyone who’s not a fascist being obsessed with fascist aesthetics, it has been disarmingly common in all kinds of post-war art. There’s the use of swastikas by British punks, who did it to shock and affront their parents, the generation who lived through the Blitz (see: Siouxsie Sioux circa 1976). The bewilderingly popular Slovenian avant-garde band Laibach, named for the historical name of Ljubljana under German occupation, use fascist imagery in their music and performances, and make deliberately ambiguous statements whenever questioned on its meaning (“We are fascists as much as Hitler was a painter”). In 2001, a young Italian fashion designer named Francesco Barbaro was condemned by Jewish advocacy groups for a swastika-themed runway show, and though they’re rarely so blatant, he’s not the only fashion designer to draw on Nazi fashion (Hugo Boss made their uniforms, after all). More recent examples include the fucked-up music video for Nicki Minaj’s “Only” (for which she apologised) and the work of Charles Krafft, an artist long celebrated for his “ironic” use of Nazi imagery in kitschy ceramic, who was exposed five years ago as a white nationalist and Holocaust denier.
There are lots of reasons why Nazi iconography and imagery have captivated people in the decades since the Reich’s defeat, not least among them the simple contrarian impulse to take an interest in whatever society regards as taboo, but the main reason is that fascist aesthetics, and Nazi aesthetics in particular, were designed to be captivating. Nazi fashion, architecture and art were deliberately made to be impressive and monumental and beautiful in order to make Nazism itself more attractive. From the dramatic and geometrically perfect staging of the Nuremberg Rallies to the grandiose buildings of Albert Speer to the sharp, iconic uniforms of the SS to the really and truly excellently made propaganda films of Leni Riefenstahl, the Nazis were concerned with making their regime look beautiful. Divorced from history and context, much of Nazi aesthetics appeals to somewhat timeless and universal ideas of beauty.
When we speak today of resurgent fascism, I think an unfortunately underdiscussed element of the problem is exactly that – the persistent appeal of Nazi aesthetics, particularly as a recruitment tool. The famous SS uniforms, for example, were, by all accounts, very uncomfortable to wear, especially the heavy boots that, as Sontag puts it, “made legs and feet feel heavy, encased, obliging the wearer to stand up straight”. But visually, they’re striking and intimidating. It’s easy to imagine their wearers felt powerful and imposing, not because of how they felt to wear, but because of how they felt to be seen in, the looks of fear, awe and respect in people’s eyes when you walked past.
It’s hard to talk about modern Nazi recruitment without talking about Internet subcultures, so bear with me here. If you dive into the weird world of online fascism, you won’t find a lot of explicit, overt recruitment. There are dedicated websites for the committed white nationalist, but recruitment largely happens within Internet communities with internal cultures that are not Nazi-focused. Furries, for example, are people who roleplay or dress up as anthropomorphic animals, often as a sexual fetish, and they are, by and large, perfectly normal people from all backgrounds with a quirky hobby. They often share pictures of their “fursonas” (furry personas), that depict them as the anthropomorphic animal of their choice. And, naturally, since furries come from all backgrounds, you will find Nazi furries whose fursonas are dressed in outfits inspired by SS uniforms, including the red swastika armband and grey belted jacket. Now, a lot of these people will deny outright that they’re Nazis in real life, and some of them may well be telling the truth, because there are lots of people who use Nazi aesthetics for their visual appeal and not their political connotations. But when people are able to bring Nazi aesthetics into online communities without being challenged, that necessarily includes real Nazis who aren’t using them purely aesthetically or “ironically”.
Embedded within these communities, they’re then able to interact with other people, target people vulnerable to radicalisation and gently recruit them, a process known as “redpilling”, after the iconic scene from The Matrix in which Morpheus offers Neo the choice between a red and blue pull, one to wake him up to the reality of the world and one to return him to the illusion under which he’d been living. Furries, to their great credit, have steadfastly opposed attempts by white nationalists to work within their communities, but there are many online communities – particularly the imageboard 4chan, Reddit forums for so-called men’s rights activists and “incels” (involuntarily celibates) and the YouTube sceptic/atheist community – where they’ve been able to operate with impunity. And if you look at those communities, you’ll find a lot of people mixing Nazi aesthetics with memes that have arisen in those communities. The most famous example is Pepe the Frog, a webcomic character who was popularly repurposed on 4chan in the “feels bad, man” meme, which depicts his dejected face, and which was used as an expression of sadness, especially by young straight men rejected sexually by women they were interested in. Through years of remixing and permutation, the character is now chiefly associated with white nationalists like Richard Spencer, who was explaining Pepe’s evolution into a symbol of his ideology right before he was punched in the face on live television.
The use of Nazi aesthetics in the recruitment process is not accidental. If they had better, subtler means, I have no doubt that white nationalists would use them, but Nazi aesthetics are the perfect tool for targeting the disaffected young white men who are the bread and butter of Nazism. Simply put, the appeal of fascism and its aesthetics are one and the same: the feeling of power, the feeling of domination, even as one submits to a greater, collective will, the will of a great historical tradition – which is why Nazis, both in the past and present, love to appropriate the symbols of classic Greek and Roman art, as well as Norse mythology – the feeling of striving for excellence, of approaching and achieving perfection.
The horrible, disgusting, awful thing is that there is something attractive about that unless you’re inoculated from its effects by a life-long dose of contempt for fascist ideals, and our society does not provide that inoculation. Sure, we teach an overview of the Holocaust in second-level history, and most people have, in my experience, seen at least one Holocaust film (Schindler’s List, usually), but we don’t teach them about the underlying social mores that provided fertile ground for fascism to grow in, or explore the psychology of how fascism was able to appeal to ordinary citizens. If we deal with that question at all, we treat people in the past as if they were just hopelessly backwards, as if the same thing couldn’t happen today when all evidence suggests it can. We don’t explore fascism as part of a continuum of right-wing ideology that shares common traits with the beliefs of people we treat as perfectly respectable, and how easily those beliefs can become the first steps into fascism. We don’t explore the economic conditions that facilitate the growth of fascism – poverty, inequality, unemployment – or even give an accurate accounting of Nazi crimes, which are typically limited to the Holocaust and maybe Kristallnacht, but rarely include, at least in any detail, political repression, union-busting or euthanasia. And we don’t teach people about fascist rhetoric – which often uses the guise of reasonable or common-sense ideas to ease people into accepting its horrific conclusions – so they can identify it when they see it.
In addition to failing to inoculate people from fascism, there are many ways our modern capitalist society actually primes people to accept it. Modern capitalist society values power and domination above all else, with not just wealth, but specifically influence, the ability to change the world through the power of your wealth, as the ultimate measure of worth in society. One of the biggest news stories every year is the announcement of TIME’s 100 Most Influential People, because we don’t laud people’s moral virtue or civic character, and the only people working to change the world for the better who get any recognition are those whom the political and media elite have anointed as “influential”. Modern capitalist society celebrates exactly the forms of excellence most amenable to fascist ideals – the physical excellence of the athlete and the mental excellence of the genius – over moral excellence. It continues to practice the prejudices and bigotries of fascism, not as a bug, but as a feature, assigning the burden of poorly-paid physical labour primarily to non-white people, often in the form of prison slavery, and expecting women to act as unpaid producers and rearers of children, refusing at every opportunity to provide the services – like free childcare or a living wage for homemakers – that would allow them to make a free choice in whether to work outside the home or within it.
At its core, our society teaches people to put their own interests above all else, atomising and individualising them in a way that’s very isolating and makes their lives less meaningful. It deprives people of a sense of community and shared values, creating a void that fascism offers to fill. And what makes the community of fascism particularly attractive is that it offers you a path to all those things you’re supposed to have according to the strictures of modern capitalist society. It tells you that you are physically and intellectually superior to most other people in the world just because you’re white. It tells you that you’re not only permitted to indulge your worst prejudices, but that you are morally right in doing so. And when it waves that uniform in front of you, it tells you that when people look at you, they will be impressed or terrified, and either way, you will feel powerful.
Here’s a picture of Overgirl in “Crisis on Earth-X”:
(As if to make my point for me, I got that picture from a thread on the ComicVine forums called “Q: who is Hotter CW Supergirl or Overgirl” in which most people voted for Overgirl.)
After thinking about it for four and a half months, I’ve decided what made me squeamish during “Crisis on Earth-X” wasn’t anything about its seriousness or its silliness, but its coolness. The logic that seems to underpin the use of Nazis as stock villains is that everyone knows how bad the Nazis were, and their real-world knowledge provides all the context necessary. But a survey released on Holocaust Remembrance Day found that Americans are woefully uninformed about the Holocaust and that millennials in particular seem shockingly ignorant on the details, which suggests knowledge of the Holocaust is not carrying on through the generations. While comparisons with past surveys have challenged the notion the Holocaust is fading from memory, it seems indisputable that people do not know as much as they should about one of the greatest injustices ever wrought in our history. And if our knowledge is inadequate, our understanding is atrocious: a study of schoolchildren who’d been taught about the Holocaust found that while most knew it primarily targeted Jews, there were significant gaps in understanding of why it happened, or when or where or even who did it. The fact is that education on the shameful history of fascism has been insufficient to prevent its resurgence in recent times.
“Crisis on Earth-X” takes the Nazis more seriously than most similar portrayals, but in the absence of that deep intellectual and moral understanding of who the Nazis were, what they did and why what they did was evil, it also put lots of aesthetically attractive Nazi imagery into the world that I worry could be easily appropriated by modern fascists. American History X is a fervently anti-fascist film about two brothers who are recruited by neo-Nazis and the later efforts of one to deradicalise the other, but it’s also beloved by neo-Nazis, who screen edited versions that cut all the stuff about how Nazism is bad and just leave in the scenes of extreme violence against black people. And Overgirl herself says in the show, she’s “everything they want to be. Blond, white. Aryan perfection.” I wouldn’t be shocked to find fascists passing around videos of Overgirl waxing lyrical about the virtues of the Reich or sharing fan art of her. They already do the latter with Taylor Swift, and she doesn’t even wear a Nazi uniform.
But even if it’s not deliberately appropriated, it seems clear to me that “Crisis on Earth-X” wasn’t thoughtful enough with how it used Nazi aesthetics, from the villains’ costumes to the swastika-adorned zeppelin to the red-eyed gas masks of the stormtroopers. I’m not saying fictional portrayals of Nazis should avoid using Nazi aesthetics altogether, since that would be basically impossible, but it can make better choices in how it portrays them. SS officer uniforms may be striking, but ordinary German infantry wore unexceptional uniforms barely distinguishable from those of their enemies. Why make the stormtroopers look so powerful and intimidating when you could have made them, well, soldiers? And it’s not just costuming, but more subtle things like framing of shots.
This is hardly unique to “Crisis on Earth-X”, but think about it: when was the last time you saw a Nazi flag or banner in a film hanging limply in the rain, with dim lighting, in a flat shot, or from a high angle, looking down on it? It’s never done like that, is it? It’s always blowing triumphantly in the wind, or hanging long and straight and proud, shot from a low angle so the audience is looking up at it, so it feels like it’s bearing down on us, like it’s dominating us. I’m not even saying you should never shoot a Nazi flag or banner like that. I’d never want to make a hard and fast rule like that, because it would only make me look like an eejit when someone trots out the exception. But, so much of the time, it feels like fictional portrayals of Nazis aren’t putting any thought into how their aesthetic choices interact with the existing qualities and connotations of Nazi aesthetics. They just default to a familiar visual grammar that often unintentionally reproduces exactly the effects that Nazi aesthetics want to have on their audience. “Crisis on Earth-X” isn’t the worst culprit when it comes to these common foibles, and it’s worth reiterating that it improves on many other similar portrayals by actually showing the crimes of Nazis and taking their evil seriously instead of just using them as stock villains. But I have to reckon with the fact that it was sloppy with its use of Nazi aesthetics in a way that reinforced their dark appeal.
There’s a tendency to react to art with such problematic elements by rejecting the whole thing outright, but that’s the wrong response, not least of all because it would, realistically, require that we reject essentially all art, since no art is perfect. But the opposite tendency, of trying to ignore morally troublesome aspects of art, or to talk about aesthetics completely separately from moral content, is also wrong. No one does either of these things all the time, and most people who do one are just as likely to do the opposite, because neither is as motivated by deeply-held beliefs about the nature of art as they are by an avoidance of discomfort. It is unpleasant to be aware of yourself enjoying art with repugnant moral content and the easiest escape is to reject either your enjoyment or your repugnance, to set them aside. But while it’s easy, it’s also disingenuous and unproductive, and one of the reasons why fascist aesthetics have been able to persist.
The proclaimed separation of aesthetic and moral content is exactly what the advocates of Leni Riefenstahl appealed to in their attempts to rehabilitate her. They didn’t just insist that Riefenstahl’s films could be appreciated in spite of their Nazism. They tried to insist Riefenstahl’s films weren’t really about Nazism, but “always concerned with beauty”, as Sontag points out. It was more than just showing her films at festivals – Riefenstahl herself was invited to speak at them with nary a question about whether Nazi ideals of beauty might have fascist undertones. She went on to have a successful late career in photography and was a guest of honour at the Olympics in 1976. At the very least, Leni Riefenstahl was a Nazi collaborator, and it beggars belief that anyone accorded her such respect, regardless of her artistic contributions. Her films are important, of course, and excellently-made, but true understanding of them can only come from analysing them in the context of Nazism, not by setting it to one side. Molly Ringwald recently wrote a retrospective on the films she made with John Hughes (Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink) in the context of the long-overdue movement against sexual assault and harassment in the entertainment industry and I think it’s a masterclass in the right approach to problematic art – don’t reject the good because of the bad, and don’t ignore the bad because of the good. Instead, do the only honest thing, which is to hold it all together and live with the ambiguity and imperfection of it. See the beauty and appreciate it, but acknowledge and condemn its flaws.
So, in that spirit, a review:
“Crisis on Earth-X” was pretty good overall, and a massive improvement on previous crossovers. I did not care for any of the romantic drama, especially the Oliver/Felicity and Oliver-X/Kara-X stuff, but it otherwise did a great job of using the characters and their relationships to drive the narrative. The action setpieces were really good and they made a lot of smart choices with their limited CGI budget, but most of the humour felt out of place. I was uncomfortable with how cool they made the Nazis look in a time of resurgent fascism, but I appreciated that they didn’t evade the reality of Nazi atrocities and it was pretty great to watch a coalition of people from all walks of life, many of them targets of Nazis in the past or neo-Nazis in the present, team up to kick the crap out of a bunch of Nazis. And Melissa Benoist is still one of the best actresses on TV.
2 thoughts on “Oliver in the High Castle: Nazis in Pop Culture”