“It is (I know how obscene this sounds) Nazi chic.”
—Roger Ebert on Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter (1974)
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus has largely escaped scrutiny thanks to its release in the midst of a public resurgence of white supremacist violence in the United States—someone at publisher Bethesda was surely counting their blessings when Donald Trump was elected.
Like katamaris rolling downhill, any art created since November 8, 2016 has accrued a nimbus of undue gravity. Everything “since Trump” has become “about Trump,” in a frenzy that’s half intellectual laziness and half blind panic. In a piece I have not stopped thinking about since its publication in February 2017, critic Josephine Livingstone warned us against this kind of easy gratification, which “relies on a vision of cultural politics that is tied necessarily to the state.”
One of the dangers of this critical myopia is that we “succumb to binaristic thinking—is the art against Trump or escaping from Trump?” Livingstone writes. The center-left impulse to use the ostensible anomaly of Donald Trump to whitewash American history—see the baffling rehabilitation of George W. Bush, whose administration started an illegal war of aggression within living memory—finds a smaller, less dangerous echo in the critic’s free use of Trump as a legitimizing totem.
”Nobody wants to feel useless,” Livingstone writes, and cultural criticism can feel like rowing a boat upstream at the best of times. Desperate binarism is an understandable impulse, but it should never go unexamined. Wolfenstein II’s marketing cannily played into America’s heightened political climate and, by proxy, this popular critical tendency. It’s hardly the first game to allow violence against digital Nazis but it was the first since Trump was elected, and Bethesda’s PR framing worked perfectly.
But Wolfenstein II is a game which vomits forth unexamined American exceptionalism once it’s done the due diligence of acknowledging that sure, America made some mistakes; a game which (per Reid) correctly recounts the documented historical relationship between Nazi policies and Jim Crow laws and then inexplicably forgets all that in its enervating second half. It has nothing to say about how fascism works and little to say about America’s history of hate that hasn’t been said better elsewhere. Its chief fascination, in fact, is with Nazi aesthetics. Its fatal mistake is ignoring what those aesthetics meant.
Nazi Germany used art and culture as another arm of its world-burning political ambitions. The Guardian’s Ian Beacock, reviewing Benjamin Martin’s recent book on this subject The Nazi-Fascist New Order for European Culture, notes that the European Axis powers claimed a “sacred duty to defend national art against the degenerative force of global cosmopolitanism … [the Axis] was also the founding charter of a dynamic civilization.” Purity in art, as in genetics, was the aim—judged by ”its reflection of a single national tradition.”
Adolf Hitler, of course, was a painter, and his ideas about art were twinned with his virulent nationalism. In a 1938 speech, he—conveniently, given his prosaic watercolors—argued that “cultural creative work, since it is the most sensitive expression of a talent conditioned by blood, cannot be understood, far less appreciated, by individuals or races who are not of the same or related blood.” This rhetoric cleanly folded into the smelter of Nazi ideology. Their sentimental, brutal pan-Germanism flattered itself with the notion that its exceptionalism was so exceptional it took German blood to even recognize.
In her 1975 essay “Fascinating Fascism,” Susan Sontag cooly dissects the mythology of Hitler’s favorite propagandist Leni Riefenstahl. The “very conception” of Riefenstahl’s 1935 Hitler hagiography Triumph of the Will, Sontag writes, “negates the possibility of the film maker’s having an aesthetic or visual conception independent of propaganda.” The film was commissioned explicitly to glorify the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party; it does so with nauseating effectiveness. To argue that the film can be appreciated in a vacuum as a technical achievement—as the Criterion Collection implicitly did last year by including Riefenstahl’s 1938 Olympia in their 100 Years of Olympic Films boxset, though they were hardly the first—is to ignore the explicit function of those techniques. It is to depoliticize that which exists to be political. To wit: a 2015 IndieWire listicle of the 100 best movies by female directors put Triumph of the Will at number six, with a blurb that climaxes with this monumentally glib one-liner: “[S]ay what you will about Hitler, but he had more faith in a woman behind the camera than do most contemporary movie studios.”
For Sontag, and many other theorists, Nazi art cannot be decoupled from Nazi ideology. One is the vehicle for the other. The Nazi aesthetic carries violence within it and was specifically designed to do so—a leather-bound death drive. Sontag concludes her essay by connecting the then-fashionable eroticization of SS uniforms to the shared theatricality of both Nazism and S&M (slightly ungenerously to S&M, I’d say), and the shiver of forbidden, transgressive sexuality that springs from a union of the two. “Never before in history was the relation of masters and slaves realized with so consciously artistic a design,” she writes. “The color is black, the material is leather, the seduction is beauty, the justification is honesty, the aim is ecstasy, the fantasy is death.”
This is not to argue that Nazi iconography is insubvertible or verboten—Terry Eagleton calls aesthetics an “amphibious concept” that is almost intractably complex—but its presence in art is like a black hole. It is so specific, so immutable in meaning that the thoughtless deployment of swastikas, red-and-black, and SS uniforms threatens to swallow everything around them. Filmmakers have long struggled to depict the horror of the Holocaust; the elaborate set-design recreations of concentration camps in films like Schindler’s List (1993), Life is Beautiful (1997), and Son of Saul (2015) call attention to themselves without revealing much complexity.
Other filmmakers have found more success in restraint. Spanish filmmaker Agustín Villaronga’s 1986 art-shocker In a Glass Cage brilliantly refrains from showing explicit Nazi iconography until its climax, at the moment of maximum impact. Not until Villaronga needs to drive home his point—that fascism twists its victims into willing perpetrators—does an SS uniform appear on-screen. It’s a film full of grotesque images where the most horrific one remains the uniform-as-synecdoche. It understands how loaded, how powerful the Nazi aesthetic remains.
Czech director Juraj Herz’s 1969 The Cremator is similarly judicious with its use of Nazi imagery; cinematographer Stanislav Milota throws out every expressionist trick in the book to render a world of imperceptible moral decay, a death-by-thousand-cuts slide into fanatical Nazi complicity. As its protagonist Karl gleefully relays his plans for a massive oven that could incinerate hundreds, even thousands of bodies—living or dead—Milota frames him not against any recognizable Nazi imagery but against painter Hieronymus Bosch’s enigmatic triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights. The juxtaposition twists Bosch’s strange, playful erotics into a staggering vision of a forthcoming hell on Earth.
The character of Karl vividly illustrates Hannah Arendt’s oft-cited “the banality of evil,” from her 1963 Eichmann in Jerusalem. Karl, like key Holocaust architect Adolf Eichmann, invests himself in Nazism as a vocation, and in the extermination of ethnic groups as a problem to be solved. Karl is rudderless, grasping at any bit of wisdom he can find; like Donald Trump, he comes out of any conversation repeating what the other party just told him. There is only a handful of explicit on-screen Nazi images in the film, and Karl has no real affinity for Hitler and his ideology. In his characterization there’s an further echo of Arendt’s words: “[I]n politics obedience and Support are the same.”
I hope I have complicated the easy notion that in order to explore Nazism one must literally, representationally depict the Nazis. The image of the Nazi has to be undermined, to be defamiliarized in order to recoup meaning—partly because, as Roger Berkowitz claims, Hannah Arendt’s foundational writing on fascist psychology has been “violently misunderstood.” She is quotable, but her work only reveals itself in totality. Arendt’s words have been wielded as cliche more often than not, and the barking SS officer, riding crop in hand, has similarly become a villainous caricature. A cruder summation of the issue of depiction would be the old saw that the movie monster is scariest when half in shadow.
Wolfenstein II is festooned with Nazi iconography. Given its halfhearted, unfinished scrawl of a plot, it’s fair to say the game exists to answer the apparent question “What if the Nazis built a base on Venus?” Something to consider: one of the many in-game collectibles is concept art of wild alt-universe Nazi technology, traces of a narrowly avoided past that should be too awful to even comprehend, instead turned into something like historically wrenching Pokemon cards. A Nazi-occupied America was “such a fun theme to explore,” said MachineGames’ senior game designer Arcade Berg.
The fêting of Wolfenstein II as a trenchant text in an era of nascent American fascism should be belied by how superficially it treats a Nazi world order: a comic gang of smartly dressed assholes who have no apparent motivation beyond the eradication of B.J. Blazkowicz. The Nazis want to destroy B.J.; B.J. wants to destroy the Nazis. B.J., as Frau Engel notes in the game’s predecessor, The New Order, looks Aryan, a fraught tension that’s forgotten in The New Colossus. B.J. is just not a Nazi, a blond-haired, blue-eyed monument to good old American grit.
On one hand, B.J.’s incorruptible Goodness is surely as believable within the game’s diegesis as his foes’ determined Badness. On the other, the game seems to believe that these are immutable qualities; that is, B.J. is good because he has always been good. Here I’d point to Frau Engel’s daughter, Sigrun, who is established as a parallel to B.J.—living under an abusive parent in thrall to a toxic ideology. Engel berates Sigrun for her weight and her diet like one of the parents in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory—”You disgrace your blood line, your race!” Engel screams after Sigrun says she had a “small slice” of cake. Sigrun even tries to stop her mother from killing resistance leader Caroline Becker; she doesn’t appear to be complicit in anything her mother does.
Near the game’s climax, Sigrun decides she’s had enough of Blaxploitation caricature Sister Grace calling her a Nazi. She slaps Grace full across the face, throwing her to the ground, and then lifts her by the neck. “Don’t ever call me a Nazi again,” she cries. “I am not a Nazi. You do not have the right to label me something I am not—as someone less than yourself. As someone less than human.”
This is a revealing choice of words. Engel calls Caroline “subhuman” as she chops off her head; Sigrun sees Nazis as subhuman. These divisions mean nothing when the characters are so flatly written, with any conflicts resolved as soon as they come up, but obviously the latter is borne out through play as B.J. blasts his way through hundreds of anonymous Nazi soldiers. He proves himself better than his abusive, self-serving father, symbolically linked to America’s racist past, by hacking him to death with an axe. The potential character dilemma here, that B.J. is forced to kill his father to escape his violent influence, is entirely glossed over.
Having done their due diligence by showing Blazkowicz renounce his father’s Nazi complicity, MachineGames indulge in pure, uncut “America is Great Because America is Good” for the rest of the game. B.J., Sigrun, the United States: righteousness is in their blood, as a sort of exaggerated counterpoint to the Nazi obsession with tainted blood. It’s a bizarre, jingoistic conclusion to a work that previously problematized, albeit to the minimum extent required, that same image of America as the city on the hill.
But, as Reid has talked about with both Wolfenstein games, Wolfenstein II is ultimately an absurd gloss on American history. “What’s interesting about America is that it’s a country very much founded on the idea of freedom,” said creative director Jens Matthies. “To have that be under totalitarian control [is] a very interesting juxtaposition.” This naive attitude explains the game taking its subtitle from Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus,” the poem which adorns the base of the Statue of Liberty and represents another of America’s visions of itself which it has routinely failed to live up to. Note that at the end of The New Order, B.J. recites “The New Colossus” as he lays dying, with his partner Anya having literally taken the torch from him to lead the fight against the Nazis. It felt desperate, even touching, then; smug and unfounded now.
What is the #resistance fighting for, at the end of Wolfenstein II? To reclaim their country from external corruption? The presence of real-world revolutionary signifiers, however diluted, reminds us that for anyone outside the white American upper class, the founding principles of the United States were never actually put into practice. The men who wrote this country into existence were hypocritical slaveowners who had a way with words. The Constitution is as carefully designed an aesthetic statement as the SS uniform: a vehicle for a rapacious, self-serving ideology that materially destroyed untold human lives.
In subsuming America’s own sins into a cartoonish Nazi regime, Wolfenstein II threatens to absolve a legacy of hate whose wounds remain open to this day—and moreover, is one tiny symptom of a greater selective liberal amnesia that wishes to compartmentalize Donald Trump as a historical aberration rather than the grotesque, gnashing culmination of American empire. In that way, perhaps, it is as timely a text as you could find.
Astrid B writes about movies and videogames on the internet. Follow her on Twitter.