The November election of Donald Trump will undoubtedly prove to be one of the more significant events in recent American memory. We Americans are now standing in a unique place in history: we are living under a regime that inarguably has fascist characteristics and now must decide how best to face that threat. Films can give us both insights into fascism and the way it affects human beings and potential appropriate responses to fascism. This week I will be examining Come and See (1985, dir. Elem Klimov) and The Conformist (1970, dir. Bernardo Bertolucci) to examine the violent and non-violent strength of Fascism.
Come and See is a profoundly dirty film. Everyone down to the last extra is absolutely caked in filth for the entire movie. The sound of buzzing flies and a profound sense of decay can be found in almost every scene. The effects of the German occupation of Belorussia on the bodies and souls of the peasants manifests itself through this filth; the evil perpetuated by the roaring tide of fascism is so extreme it makes the entire world unclean. Come and See is unique for its singularly accurate and unglorified depictions of the war on the eastern front. Civilians are massacred, an entire village is herded into a church then burned alive while a female SS officer eats lobster. There is no glory fighting for the Soviet partisans either; they are forced to steal from villagers and conscript young boys into their ranks just to survive. Worst of all they cannot protect Florya, the young protagonist, from the absolute horror and atrocity of the fascist occupation.
The oppressiveness of the world in Come and See is largely expressed through the manipulation of sound. Dialogue in the film is often drowned out by sounds that would normally be insignificant background noises. When Florya and Glasha are eating in Florya’s house after the rest of village has been massacred, the sound of flies becomes so overpowering that it is almost impossible to hear anything else. The frantic unnaturalness of this effect mirrors the ever more frantic and deteriorating mental state of the characters. Similarly, an earlier scene uses an incredibly loud ringing noise, meant to mimic hearing loss after a bomb goes off, to show the total disorienting effect of violence on the protagonist. The overwhelming sounds amplify the feeling of helplessness and fear that permeate the entire film.
The world of the film is constantly unpinned. Most of the camerawork is handheld and shaky, and many of depictions of the atrocities are done in long takes. The disorienting cinematography, the misplaced sounds, and even the appearance of the film itself–as it was shot on tape–all bely the intense distorting effect of fascism on the world of the villagers. Fascism is not some abstract evil for these people, it is destroying the physical and psychological fabric of their lives. The formal construction of the film constantly reminds its viewers of how devastating fascism is for a population. A captured SS officer tells the villagers to their faces that they must be eliminated: “some nations have no right to exist” he calmly explains to the faces of the survivors from a village freshly razed by the Nazis.
Contrasted with this, The Conformist explores the nonviolent strength of fascism, and outlines a very different set of concerns regarding fascism than Come and See. The protagonist, Marcello Clerici, wants nothing more in his life than to be normal. The film often portrays him as an outcast, he is frequently following or spying on others, always looking from the outside in. He even marries a woman he does not especially care for just so he can raise a family in order to more closely conform to societal norms. This drive to go unnoticed and not upset the status quo traps him into becoming a fascist.
The film expresses this largely through Clerici’s relationship to the setting, and more specifically to the fascist architecture of Italy. He is constantly going to meetings in enormous marble chambers that resemble giant mausoleums. The walls of these buildings are decorated with neoclassical Italian frescos and Italian Futurist murals, demonstrating the fascist obsession with a mystical past and the drive towards a more efficient and technical future. Clerici is completely dominated by these alien fascist landscapes. They limit his movement, ensuring he walks only in straight lines with a short, almost shuffling step. Fascism here enacts a subtler violence against the individual: instead of destroying the body it confines it and forces it to adhere to certain guidelines. Here Clerici’s will to conform can only result in his active collaboration with the fascist system. The desire not to upset the status quo can only result in explicit support for dominant fascist system.
Because of this it is easy to condemn Clerici for ordering the assassination of his old college professor and his wife, a former prostitute who is also Clerici’s lover. Even though Clerici refuses to actively participate in the murder, leaving it up to his fascist cronies instead, his guilt is palpable. He may not have ordered the assassination, but he provided the assassins with the information they needed to get the job done. The film makes a strong statement that being involved with fascist bureaucracy is morally equivalent to murdering people in the name of fascism. Clerici’s desire to conform ultimately dooms him by associating him with the fascists. There are no innocents, even those who do not directly pull triggers are still equally complicit in fascist violence than those who do.
Come and See lays out the explicit danger inherent to a fascist regime and shows how fascist atrocities destroy the physical and emotional lives of their victims. The Conformist reveals that those atrocities are only made possible through legions of otherwise innocent civilians who cooperate with fascism out of complacency or a desire to conform to social norms. The great violent evils that fascism is capable of are supported through the nonviolent desires of individuals to conform and be accepted. The Trump administration has begun normalizing racist, xenophobic, and nationalistic behavior, and if the American people do not explicitly reject this behavior and continue protesting the rightward shift in America, they may become implicit supports of fascist violence.