In episode two of the “I am Anne Frank” storyline, Sister Jude persists in her investigation and contacts a Nazi hunter named Sam Goodman (Mark Margolis), who provides a historically accurate description of Project Paperclip, the American intelligence operation responsible for recruiting hundreds of ex-Nazi scientists into the national security state. Goodman relates how the Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency falsified records of desired scientists to prevent scrutiny and expedite immigration, allowing potential war criminals like Arden (aka Gruber) to live freely in the US.
Meanwhile, Anne’s story starts to crumble when a man named Jim Brown (David Chisum) arrives at Briarcliff looking for his wife, Charlotte, claiming the incarcerated Anne is suffering from post-partum depression. Brown explains how Charlotte became obsessed with the Holocaust and atrocity photos from Auschwitz, adopting Anne Frank’s persona after mastering her story. Anne’s anger at antisemitism, the tattoo, her intimate knowledge of the event is the result of her “condition.” Brown brings his wife home, but soon returns after she tries to smother their baby. Arden seizes the opportunity to lobotomize Anne and neutralize the threat her memory poses. The episode ends with Anne (Charlotte) floating through life like a Stepford wife, packing away her wall of photos and clippings detailing the Holocaust. One photo depicts a young Arden in an SS uniform standing behind Adolf Hitler.
American Horror Story’s Anne Frank storyline concerns the construction and annihilation of memory. The Anne who is committed to Briarcliff is fully immersed in the growing Holocaust awareness taking hold in the United States after the Adolf Eichmann trial. Whether she is the real Anne or not is almost irrelevant – Briarcliff Anne understands all that matters is the diary of a “fifteen-year old martyred girl.” Sister Jude’s snide comment about how millions of school children will be relieved belies America’s facile understanding of the Holocaust, then and now. For decades reading The Diary of Anne Frank represented children’s only exposure to the black hole of the Holocaust. Parents and teachers preferred they take away her maudlin maxim, “In spite of everything I still believe people are really good at heart” and little else. Anne Frank belongs to everyone. Her true story is edited, redacted, and mythologized to the point that Briarcliff Anne’s wild tale seems plausible.[i]
Critics were taken aback by AHS’ stunning example of Holocaust impiety. Halle Kiefer wavered between fascination and horror watching the story unfold, “Oh lord, Anne Frank was a real person. It just isn’t done! Am I being too delicate about this?”[ii] Arden lobotomizing Anne destroyed her memory of his crimes and eliminates her fascination with the Holocaust. She packs the imagery away in a box and performs the roles assigned to her – dutiful wife and mother. Ryan Murphy accurately described season two as “a horror show for women in many regards.” Like Rosemary in Rosemary’s Baby, Anne is medicalized, infantilized, and silenced by an indestructible patriarchal structure. Their stories are too “hysterical” to be believed, even when know they are probably true. Anne’s lobotomy is indicative of America’s willful forgetting of Nazi crimes and our diminishing interest and memory of the Holocaust. The fact that an ex-Nazi hired by the US government is holding the scalpel is not totally insane.
FXs successful series American Horror Story (2011- ) (AHS) embeds its impressive ensemble cast in a different narrative each season, taking viewers on a journey through America’s aberrant obsessions and preternatural fears – murder houses, clowns, witches, serial killers, the ascension of Donald Trump and his followers, and most recently, the Apocalypse. Showrunners Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk underscore American history’s brutal treatment of minorities, women, the LBGQT community, and the physically and mentally handicapped. The horror in these distinctly American stories derive from the oppressors and the oppressed engaging in a bloody cycle of cruelty and vengeance amid an apathetic, complacent, and affluent society slouching towards Armageddon. “I really think American Horror Story is about the darkness of society,” Murphy notes, “It was always conceived to be a social statement on different things.”[i] America’s peculiar talent for ignoring its history, specifically anything painful or disturbing, is woven into each season’s blood soaked storyline.
Season two revolves around Briarcliff Manor, an early 1960s era asylum in remote Massachusetts populated with a combustible mix of the criminally insane, mentally and physically handicapped, and what the Third Reich called “asocials”. Operated by the Catholic Church, Briarcliff Manor is nominally run by Sister Jude Martin (Jessica Lange), a sadistic nun who abuses staff and patients alike in a vain effort to exorcise her personal demons. Sister Jude (like St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes) is locked in a power struggle with medical director Dr. Arthur Arden (James Cromwell), who demands total autonomy over patients’ “treatment” in furtherance of a depraved research agenda. Briarcliff Manor is, in Arden’s words, “a receptacle for human waste. Each patient is an example of evolutionary failure.”[ii]
The Holocaust is alive and thriving at Briarcliff Manor. Formerly a tuberculosis ward where forty-six thousand perished, the asylum is now the domain of Sister Jude, an incarnation of Dyanne Thorne’s Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS (1975), and the icy cold and unmistakably Teutonic Dr. Arden.[iii] We see piles of shoes on cold cement floors, an underground “death chute” taking bodies of failed experimental subjects to an incinerator, and an efficient staff issuing fake death certificates to mask the killing process.[iv] Arden’s demeanor, penchant for torture, restrained sexuality, and indifference to human suffering suggests an archetypal Nazi doctor. When patient and suspected serial killer Kit Walker (Evan Peters) is caught infiltrating Arden’s lab searching for evidence to secure his release, Arden’s paranoia takes hold, accusing the boy of spying on his brilliant work. Arden asks is if he is Stasi [East German intelligence] or KGB. “I understand there are even elements in the U.S. government,” Arden sneers, “Oh yes, Jews and fellow travelers.”[v]
Who is Arden? Where did he come from? A new arrival to Briarcliff may have the answer, but there is a catch – the woman dropped off by the police is convinced she is none other than Anne Frank. When “Anne” (Franka Potente) encounters Arden in the common room, she is shaken to her core, “You were there! In Auschwitz! Nazi Schwein! Don’t you remember me, Dr.? I’m Anne! Anne Frank!”[vi] Dragged off to join the other lunatics, we are understandably skeptical of the deluded Anne, but her accusations regarding Arden ring true. Ryan Murphy compared the Anne Frank story to the Anastasia case because “there were many women who came forward after the diary and said, ‘Well, I’m the real Anne Frank,’ and they were struck down. Many of them were found to be mentally ill and suffering from schizophrenia . . . .”[vii] Subjecting Anne Frank to the vagaries of an asylum in 1960s America seems particularly cruel, but somehow fitting.
The two-part episode “I Am Anne Frank” inserts the Holocaust and its attendant “Nazi next door” narrative directly into Briarcliff’s dysfunctional reality. The episode begins when the woman claiming to be Anne Frank is brought to Briarcliff after stabbing ruffians during a bar fight for making antisemitic remarks. “I broke a beer bottle, I stabbed them,” she boasts, “They will live, but they will never forget.”[viii] Anne immediately begins a diary at Briarcliff, addressing the entry to “Kitty” like the real Anne did:[ix] “15 of November 1964 [note the European style of writing dates]: The walls are closing in. I can hardly breathe. It’s Amsterdam all over again. But there are eyes everywhere. The eyes of madness and disease. These people are resigned to die here. We were never resigned. We always held on to a shred of hope.”[x] Sister Jude drags the woman into her office, “Anne Frank, is it? What a relief it will be to millions of school children to know that you survived.” Anne promptly tells her tale, explaining how easy it was to remain anonymous amidst thousands of corpses at Bergen-Belsen and disappear into Germany’s rubble, living day to day as a pickpocket until meeting an American soldier. Her GI husband is conveniently dead, killed during the Korean War. When Anne’s father publishes the famous diary, heavily edited as we know, Anne decides it was better to keep her secret: “People finally started paying attention to what they had done to us, all because of a martyred, fifteen-year-old girl. She had to stay fifteen. And a martyr. I could do more good dead than alive.”[xi] Sister Jude is unconvinced and offended. “Your story is indecent,” she proclaims.” “No!”, Anne claps back in anger, “You are indecent! You have a Nazi war criminal working here!” Anne narrates a flashback depicting a young Arden (played by James Cromwell’s son, John Cromwell) stalking the children’s barracks at Auschwitz for twins for Mengele’s experiments and passing out candy to young girls he wanted to “save.” “And when they came back – if they came back – something had changed,” Anne says, “He made them sick. Whatever he had done to them, they were afraid to speak out. They had been sworn to secrecy.”[xii]
According to Anne, Arden’s real name was Hans Gruber (or Grüpper).[xiii] As much as Sister Jude despises her nemesis, she does not believe Anne. Exasperated, Anne unveils her tattoo – A 40603. “I know where I came from, Sister. Can you say the same about your ‘Dr. Arden?’”[xiv] Part II is next week.
[ii]American Horror Story: Asylum, “Origins of Monstrosity”, directed by David Semel, November 21, 2012.
[iii] See Brian E. Crim, “She Wolves: The Monstrous Women of Nazisploitation Cinema” in Selling Sex on Screen: From Weimar Cinema to Zombie Porn, eds. Karen Ritzenhoff and Catriona McAvoy (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), 103.
[iv] The Nazi “euthanasia” program known as T-4 issued false death certificates for children either poisoned to gassed to death in dozens of centers in Germany and Austria.
[v]American Horror Story: Asylum, “Nor’easter”, Season 2, Episode 3, directed by Michael Uppendahl, October 31, 2012.
[vi]American Horror Story: Asylum, “I Am Anne Frank: Part 1”, Season 2, Episode 4, directed by Michael Uppendahl, November 7, 2012.
[vii] Stack, “American Horror Story”: Ryan Murphy on Anne Frank debut.
[xi] “I Am Anne Frank: Part 1.” The woman’s story resembles that of Ingrid Pitt, a Polish girl who survived the Holocaust and married an American soldier, who she later divorced. Pitt was an actress known for working in the horror genre. See Jensen, “American Horror Story recap.”
The Sci-Fi Channel’s reimagination of the original Battlestar Galactica (BSG) series (1978-79) in the early 2000s earned critical praise and a passionate fan base by addressing critical issues of the day, specifically terrorism and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.[i]BSG blends elements of the classic space opera with timely commentary on racism, religious intolerance and extremism, and humanity’s fraught relationship with technology. “The Cylons were created by man,” the series’ opening text reads, “They were created to make life easier on the twelve colonies. And then the day came when the Cylons decided to kill their masters. After a long and bloody struggle an armistice was declared. The Cylons left for another world to call their own.”[ii] The armistice abruptly ends when the Cylons infiltrate the colonies’ defense network and launch a coordinated nuclear attack on every human settlement and military installation, leaving only the antiquated Battlestar Galactica and a collection of random ships stranded in space.
The 2003 miniseries introduces the characters and their complicated personal relationships with each other during intense and unrelenting stress and trauma. Bill Adama (Edward James Olmos), quietly hoping to end his career with Galactica’s decommissioning ceremony on the day of the attack, is thrust into the position of saving what’s left of the human race while overseeing a cantankerous crew filled with drunks and insubordinate pilots, including his estranged son Lee (Jamie Bamber). Moreover, Adama must defer to the lowly Secretary of Education Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell), the sole survivor in the cabinet and therefore newly inaugurated President of the Colonies. The two reluctant leaders navigate the hazards of civil-military relations during an unprecedented emergency.
The Cylons, no longer just a clunky race of metal Centurions with roving red eyes and metallic voices, are led by intricate “skin jobs” who appear human, practice monotheism (the humans are polytheists), and rule by consensus. For the next several years the two races will try to destroy each other while seeking the fabled home of the Thirteenth Tribe of Kobol – the planet Earth.
BSG’s most controversial storyline concerns the Cylon occupation of New Caprica, a failing colony populated by fleet members exhausted by the failed search for Earth. Critics noted references to the American occupation of Iraq, including a violent insurgency and ruthless counterinsurgency, terrorist attacks, the use of torture, and a puppet government. In other words, the Americans are the Cylons and the Iraqis are the “good guys.” Show creator Ronald Moore responded to the outcry:
“A lot of people have asked me if the Cylon occupation was our way of addressing the situation in Iraq, but it really wasn’t . . . . There are obvious parallels, but the truth is when we talked about the episodes in the writers’ room we talked more about Vichy France, Vietnam, the West Bank, and various other occupations; we even talked about what happened when the Romans were occupying Gaul.”[iii]
Moore referenced the Holocaust frequently in the series, especially during the New Caprica episodes.[iv] The Cylons arrive in force, marching hundreds of Centurions into the human settlement in a scene reminiscent of Nazis parading through Paris through a crowd of stunned onlookers. Gaius Baltar (James Callis), who is President of the Colonies after defeating Roslin, collaborates with the Cylon invaders to save himself and keep power. Like the Judenrat (Jewish councils) formed to carry out Nazi policies in Poland’s ghettos, Baltar’s regime is at the occupier’s disposal.[v] John Cavil (Dean Stockwell), the most anti-human Cylon, loses patience with New Capricans and presses for reprisals to “reduce the human population to a more manageable size, say half.”[vi] The resistance is led by Galactica executive officer Saul Tigh (Michael Hogan) and Chief Galen Tyrol (Aaron Douglas), but they disagree over tactics, specifically deploying suicide bombers to kill human collaborators. “Some things you just don’t do, Colonel,” Galen says to the fanatical Tigh, “not even in war.”[vii] The storyline culminates with the Cylons orchestrating their own Babi Yar, a mass execution in a remote forested area outside the settlement. The visual cues are unmistakable – this is the “Holocaust by bullets.”[viii]
Normally a classic military SF story featuring ship to ship combat, the New Caprica interlude explores the brutality of this genocidal war at the ground level. Both the Cylons and humans lived with the knowledge that “All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.” The cycle of creation and self-destruction surely must break, but the series finale seemed to indicate otherwise. All of this has happened before. The question remains, does it have to happen again?
[i]BSG earned eight Emmy award nominations and won the distinguished Peabody Award in 2006.
[ii]Battlestar Galactica, Episode #1.1, directed by Michael Rymer, Amazon, December 8, 2003.
[iii] Quoted in Steven Rawle, “Real-imagining Terror in Battlestar Galactica: Negotiating Real and Fantasy in BSG’s Political Metaphor” in Kaveney and Stoy, 144.
[viii] On September 29-30, 1941, SS and German police units and their auxiliaries murdered the Jewish population of Kiev at Babi Yar, a ravine northwest of the city. This episode was one of the largest mass murders at an individual location during World War II. According to reports by the Einsatzgruppe to headquarters, 33,771 Jews were massacred in two days. See “Kiev and Babi Yar”, Holocaust Encyclopedia, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/kiev-and-babi-yar [accessed June 20, 2019].
Released soon after the Soviet Union acquired the atomic bomb and the “flying saucer” mania gripping the country after the Roswell, New Mexico incident, Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (Day) is, M. Keith Booker maintains, “a courageous film” and the first “truly important work of American science fiction cinema.”[i]Day critiques nuclear weapons, inflexible Cold War ideology and militarism, advocates for the peaceful application of science to solve problems, and seems to comment on the McCarthy era paranoia overtaking collective reason.[ii] The film begins dramatically when a saucer lands in downtown Washington, D.C. With the world’s cameras trained on the craft, a humanoid figure named Klaatu (Michael Rennie) emerges and offers peace and goodwill, but he is immediately shot by a nervous soldier after revealing an object. Gort, an intimidating, faceless robot staggers out of the saucer and disintegrates guns, tanks, and artillery until Klaatu orders him to desist.
Recovering in a hospital, Klaatu informs presidential aides he must speak to the world’s leaders, but is told this is politically impossible. Klaatu escapes and befriends a young widow (Patricia Neal) and her son Bobby (Billy Gray). Bobby volunteers to show Klaatu national landmarks like Arlington National Cemetery and the Lincoln Memorial. At Klaatu’s request, Bobby introduces Klaatu to “the smartest man in the world,” the renowned scientist Professor Barnhard (Sam Jaffe). Klaatu, a representative of an “organization for the mutual protection of all planets” threatened by Earth’s acquisition of atomic bombs, rocketry, and history of violence, tells Barnhard he is here to issue a warning. Klaatu, now the subject of a manhunt, is shot dead. Gort resurrects Klaatu long enough to lecture the assembled scientists outside the saucer: “This Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. Your choice is simple: join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration.”[iii] Klaatu and Gort return to the saucer and depart for the heavens.[iv]
Day does not reference the Holocaust directly other than have Klaatu obliquely condemn war and violence, but the presence of Gort and the film’s heroic depiction of science and scientists influenced subsequent science fiction where Holocaust imagery figures prominently. Gort is not Klaatu’s servant, but a robot “policeman” the confederation created and entrusts with awesome destructive power. The interplanetary police force is empowered to punish “aggression” with extermination. Earth, with its combative nature and nascent atomic capabilities, is a proven threat to intergalactic peace. Professor Barnhard convinces Klaatu to limit’s Gort’s initial demonstration of power to a worldwide blackout rather than eliminating a city, or something worse. Klaatu implies there will be no second warning. Joshua Pardon notes Gort’s golem-like function “could be a subconscious projection of humanity’s own fear . . . of the destructive power that it wielded over itself.”[v]
As politicians bicker and frustrate Klaatu’s mission, scientists instinctively realize the significance of this unprecedented event and collaborate with the alien visitor. Day depicts scientists as eminently reasonable and noble at a time when many eminent scientists were marked as foreign, Jewish, and perhaps too progressive for the Cold War. However, Day is silent about scientists’ leading role in advocating and profiting from the national security state. Did not Earth’s scientists draw Gort’s ire by building weapons of mass destruction in the first place? Day also accepts the historically problematic premise that advanced societies should “correct” less advanced ones if their behavior is deemed threatening.[vi]Day captured the imagination of a culture anxious about the volatile mix of unfettered science and politics. Perhaps we yearn for a Gort to do for us what we are unable to do for ourselves. Klaatu’s race seems progressive and rational. What happens when deeply flawed and irrational humans build a Gort not to regulate our self-destructive tendencies, but to amplify them? Bring on the Terminator.
[i] Quoted in Joshua Pardon, “Revisiting a Science Fiction Classic: Interpreting The Day the Earth Stood Still for Contemporary Film Audiences,” Journal of Popular Film and Television, 36, no. 3 (September 2008), 149.
[iii]The Day the Earth Stood Still, directed by Robert Wise (Twentieth Century Fox, 1951), DVD.
[iv] Interpreting Klaatu as a Christ figure seems obvious. “Like Jesus he is killed by soldiers carrying out the orders of the political and military authorities,” writes Krin Gabbard. Klaatu is killed, resurrected, delivers a sermon telling humans they are not alone and god-like forces will be watching over them, and then disappears into the heavens. See Krin Gabbard, “Religion and Political Allegory in Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still,” Literature/Film Quarterly 10, no. 3 (1982): 150-54. Douglas Cowan argues the reason Klaatu is a Christ figure “is not because he is or Robert Wise intended him to be, but because the cultural dominance of Christianity has intruded into the interpretive process to make him so. See Douglas E. Cowan, “Seeing the Saviour in the Stars: Religion, Conformity, and The Day the Earth Stood Still,” Journal of Religion & Popular Culture, 21, no. 1 (Spring 2009), 3.
Coming on the heels of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, Richard Donner’s The Omen mined further the prospect of the Devil wreaking havoc on the ostensibly prosperous and peaceful West, specifically by using a child to accomplish the task. The Omen trilogy does not reference Nazism or the Holocaust directly, but the films chronicle the rise of the Antichrist in the venue where he can best destabilize civilization and unleash humanity’s worst instincts – politics. Damien’s adoptive family, the Thorns, are at the pinnacle of a mature capitalist economy governed by a handful of transnational corporations. Sociologist Neil Gerlach argues Antichrist films are critical dystopias revealing the weaknesses and corruption of modern social, political and economic structures, as well as institutionalized knowledge. Science can do nothing to stop the Antichrist; in fact it serves as an additional tool in his arsenal. That the Antichrist is a voracious capitalist make sense, Gerlach argues, because he is the embodiment of “the perfect post-Fordist man, waiting to transform society into his own selfish, ‘me generation’ image.”[i]
The Holocaust relied on science, law, technology, and a robust bureaucratic state – the hallmarks of the post-Enlightenment age. How else would a modern Antichrist achieve world domination than similarly undermine the institutions governing our existence, suddenly turning them into agents of destruction? It is not only effective, but utterly demoralizing. Moreover, the Antichrist will act with our consent. The Omen has no monsters, demons, or vivid apocalyptic landscapes, just a child nurtured in a familiar postwar power structure – corporations, government, elite military schools, and hallowed democratic bodies like Parliament. Consequently, it is difficult to fear Damien because his monstrosity is not obvious to us. In fact, we may be pulling for him to bring down the whole rotten artifice enabling his meteoric rise to power.
Damien’s racial and economic privilege is instrumental to his quest to become the all-powerful Antichrist. Satan obviously agrees since he arranged for him to be raised by the Thorns. “[T]his is a film about whiteness,” Andrew Scahill writes of The Omen, “It is a film about whiteness become monstrous, a film about white privilege and the invisible labor that upends it . . . .”[ii] From the governess who hurled herself out of a window at Damien’s fifth birthday party, screaming, “It’s all for you, Damien!” to the minions paving the way for him in school, corporate culture, and politics – sacrificing themselves and countless others – Damien ascends to the pinnacle of power on the literal and figurative corpses of his social inferiors. Why would anyone suspect Damien for benefitting from the system in place? Critic Wheeler Dixon mistakenly described Damien as “the blond young son” of Robert Thorn, noting the “Nazi-like precision” of Damien’s plotting.[iii] Damien is famously raven-haired, not blonde, but Scahill attributes Dixon’s careless mistake to our tendency to equate blondeness with whiteness. Damien should be blonde given his cocoon of wealth and privilege revolving around an elite military school and the global reach of Thorn Industries. Damien’s path to power required eliminating rivals and subjugating the Third World to poverty and famine, Scahill writes The Omen II “explicitly invokes the iconography of the Hitler Youth movement to link education, white privilege, and colonialism.”[iv] Damien does not manipulate economic and power structures with shocking supernatural powers. The Antichrist simply must work within the established bounds of formal institutions.[v]
Entrenching Damien in the corridors of power, a precocious child who blithely casts aside inept adults powerless to stop him makes this antihero the implicit hero. Damien has a goal and ruthlessly pursues it, perhaps unintentionally providing a service by revealing the internal rot of our civilization. Audiences in the late 1970s could identify with this subtext. Robin Wood argues we root for Damien’s “systematic destruction of the bourgeois Establishment.” Furthermore, “The Omen would make no sense in a society that was not prepared to enjoy and surreptitiously condone the working out of its own self-destruction.”[vi] It is coincidental The Omen and The Boysfrom Brazil were released so close together, yet the two address similar themes integral to post-World War II horror – feelings of anxiety, helplessness, and blurred boundaries between order and disorder.[vii] Moreover, the films suggest the next Hitler or the Antichrist could just as likely emerge from an American family as he could Hell or the dark well of history. The Omen is deeply unsettling, but also wryly amusing because Damien, Neil Gerlach concludes, “is what America is becoming in the late modern period.”[viii] Damien intends to enact genocide using the tools of a modern-nation state and the bottomless resources of an international conglomerate. The Holocaust is a model for the Antichrist and proof the past is prelude when it comes to genocide. It is not Damien, or even Satan who should frighten us; it is our complacency, our powerlessness, and ultimately our complicity in making the Antichrist’s victory inevitable.
[i] Neil Gerlach, “Narrating Armageddon: Antichrist Films and the Critique of Late Modernity,” The Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, vol. 24, no. 2 (Summer 2012), 219.
[ii] Andrew Scahill, “’It’s all for you, Damien!” Oedipal Horror and Racial Privilege in The Omen Series’” in Lost and Othered Children in Contemporary Cinema, Andrew Scahill and Debbie C. Olsen, eds., (MD: Lexington Books, 2012), 98.
Joel Schumacher’s Lost Boys (1987) reinvigorated the vampire genre by situating a teenage coming of age story in a small coastal California town beset by biker vampires. Starring a host of popular young actors, Lost Boys enjoyed tremendous commercial success and quickly entered cult status. Schumacher revisits the genre with Blood Creek (2009), a smaller and much darker film set in rural West Virginia in which a Nazi scholar torments a family and the surrounding countryside with bizarre occult rituals. The film begins in 1936 when a family of German immigrants, the Wollners, receive a letter from the German government offering desperately needed financial relief in exchange for hosting a visiting professor. The family accepts and await the arrival of Richard Wirth (Michael Fassbender), an SS academic dispatched to America in search of ancient runestones purportedly deposited in the area by Viking explorers.
Using the Wollners as test subjects, Wirth seeks to harness the supernatural powers of the stones in bloody experiments designed to achieve immortality. The Wollners trap Wirth in a cellar but are forced to sacrifice locals to sustain both themselves and Wirth for the next seventy years until one victim, Victor Marshall (Dominic Purcell), escapes. Seeking revenge, Victor brings his brother Evan (Henry Cavill) back to the Wollner house and unwittingly free the now monstrously deformed and powerful Wirth. The Wollners reveal their dark secrets to Evan, particularly the practice of kidnapping and draining victims’ blood to keep Wirth and the ageless Wollner family alive. The Marshall brothers forge an alliance of convenience with the Wollners and plot to kill Wirth. Once Wirth is decapitated, the Wollners rapidly age and perish, but not before revealing SS leader Heinrich Himmler sent eight additional agents like Wirth to retrieve runestones in the area. The film ends with Evan packing a car with weapons, maps, and the secret to killing the Nazi occultists bleeding Appalachia dry.
Joel Schumacher called Blood Creek a “Nazi zombie vampire movie” inspired by the Third Reich’s obsession with the occult. An admirer of Fritz Lang, Schumacher approximates the look and feel of German expressionism.[i] The film’s disturbing premise is that the Nazis were right– blood is mystical, powerful, and the key to immortality. Wirth declares the runestone on the Wollner farm proof “Nordic Gods were here” and that “those who came before rule the blood.”[ii] The film unwittingly gives credence to Nazi mythology and occult pseudo-science by portraying Wirth as a superior being whose presumptions about the power of blood and the runestones were correct all along. Wirth’s ultimate goal is to acquire a third eye, a reference to the ancient Aryan religious belief that an inner eye provides perception beyond normal sight.
Wirth acquires the eye and extraordinary strength by consuming the blood of the weak, who are captured and presented to Wirth in an abandoned metal boxcar resembling the distinctive red boxcars synonymous with decades of Holocaust representation. Wirth failed to complete his mission of providing Hitler immortality, but he wreaks havoc on American soil in a quest for racial superiority. The Wollners are not without blame even if they too are victims of the infernal plot. Victor condemns them for inaction. He drags Mrs. Wollner (Joy McBrinn) to a window overlooking the boxcar and forces her to admit she did nothing to help him.[iii] As Evan marks the locations of other runestones a swastika takes shape on his map. Resolved to extirpate the Nazi zombie vampires entrenched in his unique American sub-culture, Evan, a veteran, jumps into a pick-up truck with a sizeable American flag emblazoned on its side and disappears into the bucolic landscape. Blood Creek portrays Nazi atrocities on American soil, not just in the past when the Third Reich projected evil globally, but in a post 9/11 environment marked by fear of terrorism and internal rot.[iv]
[i] Joel Schumacher, director’s commentary, Blood Creek, directed by Joel Schumacher (Gold Circle Films, 2009), DVD.
Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (2005) explores Father Merrin’s origin story, firmly entrenching his trauma and temporary loss of faith in a Holocaust narrative. Directed by Paul Schrader, Dominion begins in 1944 with a young Merrin (Stellen Skarsgǻrd) serving as a parish priest in a small Dutch town. An SS unit arrives seeking retribution for resistance activity in the area and herds the townspeople into the square. SS Lieutenant Kessel (Antonie Kamerling) forces Merrin to choose a few victims for arbitrary executions or watch the entire town murdered. Anguished and praying futilely, Kessel mocks a prostrate Merrin, “God isn’t here today.”[i] Merrin relents and picks a few morally compromised men, but the episode breaks him and prompts the priest to abandon his faith.
A few years later we encounter Merrin in a remote corner of British East Africa excavating an ancient Byzantine church along with a young and devout priest, Father Francis (Gabriel Mann). The remainder of the film depicts Merrin confronting Pazuzu after the demon possesses a young crippled boy named Cheche (Billy Crawford). The encounter forces Merrin to rediscover faith and courage to save his colleagues, helpless tribesmen, and prevent a massacre, this time at the hands of the British army. In a crucial moment during the exorcism of Cheche, Pazuza seduces Merrin with the chance to rewrite his past and return to that fateful moment in 1944, but Merrin realizes making a different choice would have changed nothing. Merrin accepts there is no changing the past and returns to Rome with renewed purpose.
The Holocaust pursues Merrin to Africa when he befriends Rachel (Clara Bellar), a survivor of the Chelmno death camp who serves as the village doctor. Merrin and Rachel are connected through their shared tragedy and survivor’s guilt. Rachel processed her trauma and serves as a guide of sorts for Merrin, who is still embittered by his experience. Rachel’s thoughts on evil are both the product of living through the Holocaust and the incommunicability of experience. She acknowledges most people simply will never understand. Rachel also teaches Merrin he is not alone. “No one wanted to believe,” she tells Merrin. “It is so much easier to believe evil is random, an ogre, not that it is a human condition, something everyone is capable of.”[ii] Rachel’s guilt mirrors Merrin’s, and by extension all survivors who climbed out of the abyss while so many others perished. “It’s amazing what you’re capable of when your physical survival is at stake,” she shares with him, “things you think you could never endure.”[iii] Pressing further, Rachel tells Merrin, “We are the same, you and I.”[iv] However, whereas Merrin condemns God and eschews human contact, Rachel’s faith is strengthened and renewed as she devotes her life to healing the sick and protecting the weak. Sensing Merrin’s rage and abandonment of faith, Rachel offered her own perspective, “Sometimes I think the best view of God is from Hell.”[v]
Pazuza, who is threatened by Rachel’s influence on Merrin and the villagers, tries to undermine Merrin’s empathy and attraction to her. “She never helped other prisoners,” the demon taunts, “she traded her body for food, she betrayed her friends.”[vi] Merrin is closest to defeat when the demon offers him absolution from guilt. “There is one thing you can do,” Pazuzu offers a shaken Merrin, “you can cease to care.”[vii] Ultimately, Rachel saves Merrin from a life of nihilistic self-loathing. Decades later when Father Karras asks Merrin, “Why this little girl?” during Regan’s exorcism, we know his answer originates with the Holocaust.
Dominion, Barry Langford observes, suggest Nazi crimes “are simultaneously a manifestation of eternal, atavistic evil and the ‘entry point’ for this endlessly circulating malevolence to interfere in human affairs. Thus, an ‘explanation’ of sorts is proposed for the Holocaust, an event whose enormity renders it explicable only in metaphysical terms.”[i] Pazuza does not need the Holocaust to exist and thrive, just prolonged periods of human despair, weakness, and depravity. The Holocaust is the ideal portal through which an eternal evil can enter modernity and guide us towards our well-deserved apocalyptic end.
Welcome to Banshee, a scenic wonderland best described as a demented Brigadoon. This small town in rural Pennsylvania acts like a black hole, attracting various international criminal overlords, drug cartels, neo-Nazis, heavily armed Indian racial activists, renegade Army units, and one ex-con jewel thief posing as Banshee’s sheriff. The world of Banshee runs on a magical dark energy – violent, chaotic, hypersexual, and relentless. Cinemax’s Banshee (2013-16) resembles the immensely popular Sons of Anarchy (2008-14), Kurt Sutter’s Shakespearean biker gang soap opera. Both shows seem to occur in an alternate universe where the normal rules of civilization, physics (when it comes to bullets and fighting), and narrative logic seldom apply. Like Banshee, SOA also features an endless parade of violent encounters in a similarly mythical town called Charming. In this northern California enclave, criminals, terrorists (the IRA for some reason) and inherently corrupt law enforcement leave piles of bodies in their wake week after week.
The drama in both shows revolves around a rough, charismatic anti-hero. Banshee’s is Lucas Hood (Antony Starr), whose real name is never revealed. Released from prison after fifteen years and on the run from his crime lord boss Rabbit (Ben Cross), the enigmatic master thief tracks down his ex-lover Anastasia (Ivana Miličević), Rabbit’s daughter, in Amish country.
On his first night in town he witnesses the new sheriff murdered during a robbery gone bad. Seizing the opportunity, the ex-convict assumes Lucas Hood’s identity to both hide from Rabbit and buy time to reconcile with Ana, who is now Carrie Hopewell. Ana is married to the district attorney and has two children, one of who is Hood’s. Hood struggles to maintain his new identity as a lawman while still embracing crime alongside his partners Job (Hoon Lee) and Sugar (Frankie Faison). Ana even comes out of retirement, drawn to Hood yet committed to preserving her safe, suburban idenity. Hood quickly runs afoul of the local kingpin, Kai Proctor (Ulrich Thomsen), a wayward son of the Amish community who built an impressive and enduring criminal empire in the heart of little Banshee.
Whether it is evading Rabbit’s hordes of Eastern European hitmen, Proctor’s golem-like freak bodyguard Clay Burton (Matthew Rauch), or Redbones tribal gang leader Chayton Littlestone (Geno Segers), Lucas Hood acts as an unwitting agent of chaos for Banshee, simultaneously attracting and repelling threats to his adopted town.
Why do I love Banshee? Of course it is frivolous, escapist fare. Maybe that’s the answer, but its more than that. Banshee revels in its own absurdity and commits fully to crazy storylines in which this picturesque town becomes the center of the criminal universe. There are amazingly choreographed fight scenes between Hood and several monstrous men who could snap him like a twig in real life; equally energetic love scenes with women who, while stunningly beautiful, are complex characters with all the advanced fighting skills of their male counterparts; and Hood’s brooding and dark past, while cliché to an extent, is strangely compelling. The performances are strong. Antony Starr and Ivana Miličević are a smoldering ill-fated couple. Proctor’s excommunicated Amish niece Rebecca Bowman (Lili Simmons) is much more than a pretty face, she’s Proctor’s equal when it comes to ruthless Machiavellian maneuvers. Fans of The Wire will love seeing Frankie Faison as Sugar, the ex-boxer bar owner who becomes Hood’s confidante and ally. And Job, the trans computer genius played by Hoon Lee might have the most passionate fan base of them all.
Maybe because I just finished a re-watch of Mad Men, but I can’t help but think of Lucas Hood as a Don Draper character, and not just because they both steal someone’s identity to escape a disreputable past. We know Don Draper is Dick Whitman and as Mad Men unfolds Don’s armor is stripped off of the character, leaving him a painfully vulnerable, sobbing mess. Too many lies, too many reinventions, but perhaps the series’ conclusion suggests Don Draper has finally reconciled with Dick Whitman. True growth and a chance for happiness might exist.
Hood became Hood to recapture a love that can never be with Ana. Like Don, Hood brings much of the chaos on himself, although the turmoil in Banshee is decidedly external and rarely internal. Banshee ends with the menacing Proctor finally brought down by his own avarice, at enormous cost, and Hood finally leaves Banshee on his Harley for a fate undetermined. Sugar urges Hood to open himself up to life, not just run away. “The past has kept you locked up long enough. Today, there is really one question left to ask yourself. What are you going to do now?” This seems to be the sentiment guiding Don Draper’s exit as well.
It is not exactly meditation and the ding of a bell signaling commercial nirvana, but there is optimism for a character who has suffered (and has caused so much suffering). Maybe Hood can leave one destructive identity behind and find some peace with himself. The Banshee Chamber of Commerce no doubt wishes him a long overdue farewell.
Sydney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker (1965) is a searing portrait of a Holocaust survivor immersed in the desolation of an East Harlem pawnshop in the early 1960s. Approaching the anniversary of his wife’s murder in a concentration camp brothel, Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger) is flooded by debilitating memories of his murdered family as events force him to confront his complicity in the seedy underworld of crime and prostitution. Nazerman’s only human connections outside the endless stream of “pathetic creatures” unloading what’s left of their lives for a few dollars is Jesus (Jaime Sánchez), his enthusiastic and idealistic Puerto Rican employee, Tessie (Marketa Kimbrell), the beautiful but broken widow of Nazerman’s deceased best friend with whom Sol carries on a passionless relationship, Mendel (Baruch Lumet), Tessie’s decrepit and dying father-in-law, and the kindly Marilyn Birchfield (Geraldine Fitzgerald), a social worker who tries to befriend Sol amid his spiraling crisis. Sol’s American relatives live in a faceless Long Island suburb and bicker excitedly over a trip to the “old country” which claimed their family. Living off of Sol’s ill-gotten wealth, the family is oblivious to his turmoil, let alone the incommensurable horror of the Holocaust. Sol is in “a self-imposed exile in a soulless graveyard of memory. . . .”, to quote one discerning review.[i] Once a professor of literature in a verdant and welcoming Germany, Sol lives out his days in the ghetto channeling two millennia of antisemitic stereotypes. A pawnbroker, the Wandering Jew, Sol agrees to teach Jesus “gold” and crushes the youth’s spirit when he exclaims bitterly that money is the only thing that matters in the world. Nazerman’s body is still here, but his spirit, his humanity died in the camp. The Pawnbroker explores the post-traumatic degradation of the individual measured against the wider degradation of society.
Sol’s environment is ostensibly far removed in time and space from the concentration camp, but Lumet’s use of flashbacks conflates the two in Sol’s mind. Sol exiles himself daily to the impoverished ghetto community of East Harlem as if subconsciously seeking out an American variant of the human misery he left behind in Europe. Sol’s American relatives badger him into loaning them money for a European vacation, desiring the “sights, sounds and smells” of old Europe. Sol quips bitterly, “Rather like a stench, if I remember.”[ii] But the stench is not in the past, on another continent; it is his present as well. Sol toils amid pervasive violence and crushing poverty as his clients wander into the pawnshop hawking anything and everything while he impassively absorbs their sad stories.
Lumet, Frank Cunningham observes, “visually reveals both the pawnbroker and the street youths as similarly victims of their social and psychological environment.” Lumet films Sol and his wretched customers as if trapped behind the bars of the pawnshop. Sol is as much a prisoner of his circumstance as the “creatures” he trades with, although he has the means to escape. “The cage of Nazerman’s experience is visually reinforced at several places in the film’s narrative,” Cunningham concludes.[iii]
Sol Nazerman’s pawnshop helps launder money for a criminal named Rodriguez, played brilliantly by Brock Peters. Rodriguez’s money comes primarily from prostitution and theft. Sol presumably knows this, but he is indifferent to this reality until his traumatic memories begin to intrude. Sol’s wife was raped repeatedly by SS officers in a concentration camp brothel before succumbing. In one flashback Sol is forced to watch. When Jesus’ girlfriend (Thelma Oliver), a prostitute, tries to seduce Sol, disrobing and asking for money, Sol’s trauma sends him reeling. He loses himself in a city whose collective misery he finally begins to see and feel. Summoning some semblance of courage, Sol goes to Rodriguez’s pristine white apartment and confronts him about their arrangement. Rodriguez is a cultured, wealthy, homosexual criminal dressed in a tailored white suit who seems to know and admire Sol despite the unequal relationship. Rodriguez insists on addressing Sol as “professor,” which makes Sol wince every time he hears it, a painful reminder of a past life. Rodriguez clinically and cruelly dissects Sol’s sudden burst of moral righteousness.
In a perverse sense, Rodriguez is Sol’s spiritual navigator by virtue of demolishing what’s left of his heretofore impenetrable wall. It is not the kindly Marilyn Birchfeld or the eager protégé Jesus who returns Sol the land of the living – it is the icy gangster Rodriguez. The Pawnbroker never tries to conflate the Holocaust with urban blight and systemic racism in America; Lumet is much more subtle and talented for that. However, the film does remind us the root of all evil is indifference to other people’s suffering.
All characters in The Walking Dead (TWD) suffer from moral injury, a form of post-traumatic stress disorder common in extreme situations like warfare or genocide. “Moral injury,” George Hagman notes, “implies that one’s experiences are not just inconsistent with previously held moral expectations, but have the power to negate and possibly pervert them.” The truly frightening and tragic realization in TWD is that moral injury “is a legitimate and understandable adaptive response to real experiences of moral collapse, or worse, the perpetration of ethically nihilistic acts, or outright evil.”[i] Those who take pleasure in killing walkers or use them for any number of unorthodox purposes are portrayed as abnormal and dangerous. The Governor deployed walkers in gladiator games meant to amuse Woodbury’s residents; he kept severed walker heads in fish tanks so he could watch his enemies suffer in eternity; and he hid his walker daughter in a secret compartment, feeding her raw meat. Negan also uses walkers as weapons against the living and depraved decorations. An educated audience surely recognizes similarities between this abhorrent behavior and the horrific stories of Nazis collecting trophies from murdered Jews, displaying human skin lampshades, extracting gold teeth, and forcing Jews to perform or compete in twisted games for the SS’s pleasure.
The effects of moral injury in TWD are most dramatically manifested in children, especially Lizzie (Brighton Sharbino). Like many children Lizzie is disconnected from the old world and its attendant rules and ethics; the only life she knows is the zombie apocalypse. Consequently, Lizzie and her younger sister Mika (Kyla Kenedy) sympathize with the walkers, seeing them as pets or a different incarnation of people they once knew. Traumatized concentration camp prisoners, George Hagman writes, similarly experienced “an almost fatal state of desensitization accompanied by identification with death and the dead.”[ii] Hagman argues convincingly that Lizzie, a vessel of the values and ethics signifying the new post-apocalyptic world, “may be the most terrifying person in the series.”[iii] We first encounter Lizzie and Mika behind the fences of the prison Rick’s group has transformed into a functioning society, complete with gardens, livestock, an improvised school, library, and hospital. Carl catches them waving and naming the walkers pressed against the perimeter fence. “They’re not dead,” Lizzie says, “they’re just different.” Carl, who bears the scars of his own moral injury, admonishes the sisters, “They’re not people, and they’re not pets.”[iv] Carol (Melissa McBride), who begins the apocalypse a cowering housewife before becoming one of the shrewder and more resourceful characters, adopts the girls as her own after their father is killed by walkers. Carol is intent on preparing them for life’s harsh realities. When Lizzie tells Carol the walkers are just people who come back, Carol is slow to grasp how delusional Lizzie has become. Carol assures her, “People aren’t who they were.” Lizzie is adamant, “Yeah, but they’re something. They’re someone. We all change. We don’t say the same as we started.”[v] For Lizzie, walkers are part of the circle of life, a rite of passage for all of us.
Months after the Governor destroys the prison and scatters Rick’s group to the four winds, Carol, Tyrese (Chad Coleman), Rick’s baby Judith, and Mika and Lizzie fend for themselves in the Georgia countryside. Lizzie is getting worse. We see her contemplate smothering Judith to keep her from crying. One evening Lizzie asks Carol about her daughter Sophia (Madison Lintz), who is killed soon after the apocalypse. “She didn’t have a mean bone in her body,” Carol says. Lizzie is perceptive, but chilling in response, “Is that why she isn’t here now?”[vi] Lizzie later entices a walker to the farmhouse they are residing in temporarily, dressing it in flowers and playing “tag” on the lawn. Carol destroys it, sparking another Lizzie outburst, who again will not accept that the walkers are dead. In her mind Carol “killed” the walker.
Lizzie commits arguably the most horrific act in the series when she plunges a knife into her sister Mika to “bring her back” and prove to Carol and Tyrese that being a walker is natural, better. Carol and Tyrese discover Mika’s white corpse and Lizzie with knife in hand, ready to murder baby Judith next. Carol knows there is no recourse. Carol walks Lizzie into a grove of flowers, offering her soothing and comforting words, and shoots her in the back of the head. Hagman writes the “combination of loving support and murderous intent in this scene is terrifying.”[vii]
Lizzie is irretrievably damaged in a world populated by the damaged, but we are also stunned by Carol’s decisiveness. Carol realizes Lizzie violates the boundaries between the living and the walking dead by inviting the walkers into the broader post-apocalyptic community.