At the beginning of winter I was steeped in Arendt, now I’m tarrying with Virilio. Two similarities between their analyses of Hitler’s regime keep coming up: the creation of a society of total illusion and a state that constantly sabotages itself by excessive waste.
In Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt continually underscores the role of propaganda in Nazi society, but also, perhaps more importantly, the ability of the regime to render “facts” inoperative. What emerged was a populace that was utterly plastic. She writes:
In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and nothing was true… The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.
Of course, the leaders were not tactically clever at the level of discrete lies (a close look at actual Nazis, through trials and biographies, cuts through the popular idea of Nazis as horrific automatons by revealing a hodge podge of idiots mobilized into the task of uncritical annihilation), but at the level of creating a political medium of illusion. In War and Cinema, Virilio comes at the same observation from another angle.
Perhaps it has not been properly understood that these miracle-working dictators [Hitler and Mussolini] no longer ruled but were themselves directors. In his final speech at the Nuremberg trial, Albert Speer stated:
Hitler’s dictatorship was the first in an industrialized state, a dictatorship which, in order to dominate its own people, used all technical means to perfection…thus, the criminal events of recent years were not due only to Hitler’s personality. The enormity of these crimes may also be explained by the fact that Hitler was the first who used the means offered by technology to commit them.
The cinema was one of these means.
When Hitler was crossing Munich by car in the autumn of 1939, he discovered that his favourite cinema, the Fern Andra, had changed its name [Fern Andra was a popular Austrian actress in foreign films. The cinema changed its name to the Atrium]. This sent him into a wild fury.
Hitler, who closely observed the crowds flocking to celebrate the black masses of cinema, declared one day in 1938: ‘The masses need illusion — but not only in theatres or cinemas. They’ve had all they can take of the serious things in life.’ The Nazi Lebensraum was less the fulfilment of Bismarck’s grand political schemes — although these formed the substance of Hitler’s speeches — than the transformation of Europe into a cinema screen, for a people ‘suddenly horrified by the everyday, the ordinary, and fascinated by the unusual’ (Leni Riefenstahl).
As Virilio notes throughout War and Cinema, what’s especially novel about cinema is the ability to manipulate time and space in an unprecedented way that reconfigures our perception, our way of seeing. Virilio calls our attention to the ontological scandal of Démolition d’un mur by Louis Lumière, the first reverse film, bringing a wall back into being that the audience saw destroyed before their very eyes.
The Nazi regime is a medium of illusion, one that says the wall is still standing when it so clearly fell over. When Virilio notes that Bismarck was the substance of Hitler’s speeches but not for that reason the Lebensraum of Nazism, he’s making a point familiar to readers of Marshall McLuhan–the medium, not the content, is the message.
This medium of illusion is sustained by the need to waste, however, and here the Nazis get caught up in their own film. In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt describes the pride with which Adolf Eichmann, responsible for the logistics of getting Jewish people to the camps, never wavered from his task. As the Nazis were losing the war, resources weren’t diverted from the extremely costly and largely irrelevant, from the perspective of sheer militaristic efficiency, task of exterminating the Jews.
But in the film of Nazism, of which Hitler was the auteur director, this waste is exactly what sustains the drama of the cinema of everyday life. Even while some in the Nazi hierarchy started to abandon the genocidal project, either out of military expediency or by reading the writing on the wall, Eichmann fought for his relevance and remained faithful to the vision of his director, which was importantly cited in support of his anti-Semitism at his Jerusalem trial. Arendt, for her part, rejected that evidence, controversially, one might add. She did so, however, by gesturing toward the medium of Nazism, understanding the filmic quality identified by Virilio, though she doesn’t describe it as such.
The connection between waste and illusion is made even more explicit by Virilio. When the war took a decisive turn against the Nazis, director Veit Harlan was commissioned to make a film that showed a decisive Nazi victory against the British, to be filmed at an actual battle site in Norway. As Virilio explains, the British learned about the plan, where Hitler “had promised Harlan several warships and a hundred aircraft to parachute in thousands of men.”
Virilio goes on to explain: “At a time when the German army was retreating on all fronts, the Fuhrer once again demanded that it should be placed entirely at the disposal of the film-makers; that was a military order. In a context of universal shortages, six thousand horses and nearly two thousand men were committed to the battle scenes, and waggon-loads of salt were brought up to simulate the snow that had to cover the harbour jetty.” He lists even more dramatic projects designed to shape the land for the film, including building special remote-control canals to create a flood.
Arendt and Virilio both see the tendencies of Nazism as not only still available but obviously exported after the fall of the Third Reich. Attention to the medium, and not the content, of Nazism helps explain why and how. The Nazis, it turns out, are not monstrous geniuses but sometimes competent actors in a film directed by a failed painter, one who, unable to represent reality in art, turned reality into art, a scene of abject destruction. Nazism is a grand cinematic project, complete with big budgets and special effects. But the drama between war, cinema, and politics doesn’t end with the Nazis. Arendt concludes Origins with a cautionary word about techniques of domination and exclusion popping up in the so-called “free” world of the capitalist west. Virilio goes on to discuss the Reagan era in the US in particular, where a movie star finally becomes a world leader, complete with big budget propaganda efforts of his own, not least “Project Democracy.”
It probably goes without saying that these connections have only become more important with the election of a star from “Reality TV,” characterized by the extreme waste of public funds for personal security, foreign intervention, the creation of winners and losers, heroes and villains, etc. Trump doesn’t have to be a “Nazi” or a “fascist”–he’s already a director, caught up in his own film, willing to waste missiles for publicity bombings capable of captivating Republicans and Democrats alike.