Merriam-Webster reported in late November that the most looked-up word of 2016 was “fascism”:
‘Fascism’ is still our #1 lookup.
# of lookups = how we choose our Word of the Year.
There’s still time to look something else up.
— Merriam-Webster (@MerriamWebster) November 29, 2016
That’s more than a one-day Twitter trend! (Dictionary’com’s most looked-up word is not unrelated: “xenophobia.”) Merriam-Webster defines fascism as:
- A political philosophy, movement, or regime (as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.
- A tendency toward or actual exercise of strong autocratic or dictatorial control.
Several films, some made during the height of World War II, have addressed this dangerous movement, which many fear is making an unwelcome comeback thanks to a messy election, and it’s outcome. During times like these, wanting to look up to countless movie heroes, from Sheriff Will Kane to Harry Potter to Katniss Everdeen, who have stood up to threats of violence and intimidation in the name of freedom can not only motivate you to fight for what you believe in, but maybe even, give you hope.
Here are 10 notable films that are more timely now than ever.
The Mortal Storm (1940)
Set in a small town in Germany in 1933, it was the first Hollywood film to mention Hitler by name and subsequently led to all MGM movies being banned in Germany long before America entered the war. The film begins with the entire town celebrating the 60th birthday of Professor Roth (Frank Morgan, the Wizard in THE WIZARD OF OZ). He’s presented with a special award from his adoring students, who include Fritz (Robert Young) and Martin (Jimmy Stewart). That evening, his family celebration is interrupted by the news that Hitler has just been appointed Chancellor of Germany. Roth and his family, including daughter Freya (Margaret Sullavan) are concerned, but Fritz and Roth’s stepsons are thrilled.
The conversation quickly turns disturbing as Fritz proclaims, “It means Germany will be strong and powerful again. Master of Europe and all the world!” The professor tries to be hopeful. “Men have given great power to Adolf Hitler. Let’s hope responsibility brings wisdom.” When Freya tries to change the conversation by saying, “We’re getting very intolerant,” her stepbrother says, “We should be intolerant to anyone who opposes the will of our leader.”
Before long, books are being burned, non-Aryans (the movie never uses the word “Jew”) are being beaten and the Professor’s scientific views that the blood of Aryans and non-Aryans are the same gets him imprisoned. In a chilling scene, Martin and Freya are two of the only people at their local beer hall who don’t join in the singing of a Nazi anthem. As he was in so many films including MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, Stewart stands alone as a voice of reason and decency. The film has no happy endings for anyone, just the moral certitude that Fascism must be resisted in all its forms. (Buy on Amazon)
While this Hollywood classic is often celebrated for the nostalgic romance between Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, it’s also a powerful film about the Resistance. The scene of actress Madeleine LeBeau tearfully belting out the French national anthem as Nazi officers try to silence her and her fellow ex-patriates was widely shared on social media after the terrible Bastille Day attack on France. In the end, as all movie fans know, Rick and Ilsa both do the noble thing by choosing to serve the Resistance and not their own desires. In the excellent documentary CINEMA’S EXILES: FROM HITLER TO HOLLYWOOD, a segment on CASABLANCA details how just about everyone in the film had fled Nazi-occupied Europe, including director Michael Curtiz and Conrad Veidt, who — like so many other German actors in Hollywood in the era — ironically specialized in playing Nazis. (Buy on Amazon)
Rome: Open City (1945)
Few films capture the horrors of the German occupation (and their Fascist collaborators) like Robert Rossellini’s landmark of neorealism: After Rome was liberated by the Allies in 1944, he began filming in its war-torn streets early the next year war still raged on through the rest of Italy and Europe. The film features Aldo Fabrizi as Don Pietro, who was modeled on the real life priest Don Morosini, a martyr for the Resistance — but the truly unforgettable role belongs to future Oscar winner Anna Magnani. Her character Pina was based on a real woman who was [SPOILER] gunned down by Nazis in the middle of the street. Pregnant Pina is surviving like the rest of Rome: Breaking into a bakery with a crowd of starving women, then sharing the bread with her local policeman who dare not break the law himself. She’s on guard when a stranger asks after her fiancee, Francesco, and relieved when she learns he’s a fellow Resistance member, since Francesco has to keep a low profile. We’re still shocked by the famous scene where she runs after the German truck carting Francesco away: She’s shot repeatedly and dies in the arms of Father Pietro. It’s a sobering, brutal film that, once seen, is never forgotten. (On Filmstruck or Buy on Amazon)
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969)
Long before playing the stout-hearted but stern Professor Minerva McGonagall, Maggie Smith won her first Oscar for her role as a very different sort of educator. Here, she plays a 1930s Scottish schoolteacher who’s fond of talking up Mussolini and Franco (Spain’s Fascist leader who came to power in 1939) to her young female students. She boasts of her influence on them: “Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life.” As another faculty member snipes, “Jean knows nothing of politics or politicians. She simply invests all leaders with her own romantic vision.” When one of her students is inspired to join the Spanish War and is killed, Miss Brodie feels no remorse, insisting, “By the way she died, Mary McGregor illumined her life. She died a heroine.” Her fanaticism eventually gets her fired, but not before the damage is done. (Buy on Amazon)
The Conformist (1970)
Bernardo Bertolucci’s adaptation of the book by Alberto Moravia is an undisputed masterpiece of style that clearly influenced numerous films, including THE GODFATHER. But the film is about so much more than the elegant ‘30s decor. Jean-Louis Trintignant stars as Marcello Clerici, a wealthy man who’s recruited by the Fascist secret police. They want him to assassinate his former college professor, who’s now living in Paris and has become an outspoken anti-Fascist. Marcello, who’s barely even handled a gun, is an unlikely assassin, but he reluctantly agrees to the plan, even bringing his wife along on what seems like a social visit with the professor and his wife. In a telling conversation with his blind friend, Italo, they discuss what makes a man “normal.” Italo says, “He wants to find others like him. He is glad to find people who are like him, his own kind… he likes people similar to himself and does not trust those he feels are different. that’s why a normal man is a true bother, a true patriot…” Marcello finishes “… a true Fascist.” ?Marcello carries out his terrible mission and when Mussolini is overthrown, he quickly denounces his friend Italo as a Fascist. Marcello survives by conforming to the powers that be and that acquiescence is just as insidious as those who actively support the cause. (On Netflix)
The Wave (1981) (YouTube)
In 1967, California teacher Ron Jones conducted a social experiment in his high school to explain, as is so often asked, how Hitler could possibly have come to power during World War II. He called his movement “The Third Wave” and was shocked at how quickly it spun out of control. In the TV movie, students are soon sharing a special salute, pledging their loyalty and monitoring members who don’t obey the rules of “discipline and action.” Jones calls a rally to unveil The Wave’s national leader — in real life, he showed a blank channel, but in this riveting movie, the teacher (played by Bruce Davison) shows the assembled students their “new leader”: Adolf Hitler. He tells the shocked teens, “You traded your freedom for the luxury of feeling superior. You accepted the group’s will over your own convictions, no matter who you hurt. You thought you were going along for the ride, but where were you heading? How far would you have gone? You would have all made good Nazis.” He urges them to “question what you do, rather than blindly follow a leader.” It was remade in 2008 as the German film DIE WELLE. (On YouTube)
The Official Story (1985)
In this Argentinian film, which won the Best Foreign Film Oscar, Alicia (Norma Aleandro), an upper class woman in 1980s Buenos Aires, begins to suspect that her adopted daughter Gaby is the child of desaparecido, one of the “disappeared” who were murdered by the country’s military dictatorship. On her daughter’s fifth birthday, Alicia wonders about the girl’s birth parents, a topic her husband has strongly warned her never to discuss. Gaby cannot leave it alone, however, and begins her own investigation, which leads her to the truth about the bloody political climate she had been sheltered from her entire life. Aleandro won Best Actress at Cannes for her performance. (On YouTube)
The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003)
While the Fellowship fights many villains in this epic tale, one of the most disturbing is formerly good wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee), who decides it is better to join with the enemy than face defeat and death. He betrays Gandalf (Ian McKellen), renders nearby king Théoden powerless, breeds a nasty new breed of Orcs, and causes untold carnage. Denethor (John Noble), the Steward of Gondor, also sees the dreadful scope of Sauron’s might and gives into despair. While their fight often looks hopeless, it’s hard not to be heartened by the conviction of our heroes that evil is always worth fighting. (Buy on Amazon)
V for Vendetta (2006)
The film, based on the Alan Moore graphic novel, did so-so box office when it was released, earning less than NACHO LIBRE, JACKASS: NUMBER TWO, and the Robin Williams comedy RV. But the movie has since become a modern classic. The mask worn by vigilante “V” has become the face of activism in the 21st century, from hacker group Anonymous to MR. ROBOT to the Occupy Wall Street movement. The film, starring Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving and Stephen Fry, continues to speak loudly about resisting oppression at all costs. (Buy on Amazon)
The Look of Silence (2015)
Danish filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer’s searing documentary on the Indonesian genocide of the ‘60s is a companion piece to his equally harrowing THE ACT OF KILLING. He filmed both at the same time, since e knew he could never enter the country again after the films were released. While the first film focused on the killers (who gleefully —and surreally — recreate their crimes with various Hollywood motifs), this one focuses on Adi Rukun, an optician whose older brother was one of their victims. Unlike most of the citizens of Indonesia, who are still taught that the mass killings of “Communists” was just and good, Adi was raised by a mother who shared the horror of what happened to the brother he never knew. In a series of tense visits, he meets with the men who are known to have helped kill his brother. Unlike German citizens who are ashamed of (or try to deny) their Nazi past, these killers are proud of what they did and show little if any regret. Even Adi’s own uncle, who declined to help his late nephew, shrugs off all responsibility. In one of the most affecting documentary sequences ever shot, Adi meets with an assassin and his daughter. While the camera rolls, we see the daughter shift from pride in her father to horror at his memories of drinking his victims’ blood. It’s a chilling moment. Adi and his family are, luckily, still alive at last check, although the threats made against him during the film are not to be taken lightly. It’s a tough watch, but a very powerful one. (On Netflix)