A decades-long observation of the film medium has attuned Rüdiger Suchsland to the political heartbeat (and skips) of his country – from Weimar to present-day Germany. For him, it’s clear: the AfD and right-wing extremists have declared a war on democratic culture. Now he warns it’s time to take a stand and unite to fight back the scourge of rampant fascism infiltrating our cultural institutions. Ahead of his Critics’ Week debates on the topic on February 19, during which he’s hoping to draw out the fundamentals of a “charter of commitment to democratic principles” to help the cultural world better combat the far-right, we sat down with Suchsland for a hard talk about the limits of tolerance in the face of extremism, whether German TV is responsible for ‘making’ Pegida and how Hollywood cinema has prophesied America’s current predicament.
You’re known as a film critic and director, someone who reflects about movies and makes historical documentaries about Weimar times and Nazi cinema. More recently you came out as a staunch far-right fighter. Why step into politics?
I’ve always been interested in what movies tell us about their times. Like the people of the Frankfurt School did, I consider film to be a medium that reflects a society’s subconscious. And sometimes movies have a prophetic power. That’s an idea developed by Weimar-era author Siegfried Kracauer in Caligari to Hitler [published in 1947]. His idea was that if you know how to read cultural products – not high-brow, but everyday culture, you can understand a society much better than by just listening to its words. And definitely, if you look at his writings, both as a fiction writer and film critic, you can see that a lot of his observations feel very prophetic in retrospect.
People observe a lot of things in the moment – it’s just hard to anticipate what will turn out to be right in 100 years. To see in the chilling madness of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari the signs of things to come in Germany is so much more obvious in hindsight!
I think it’s a bit too easy to say, yeah, in retrospect everything is clear. Take the Hollywood film production from the 1980s leading up to Trump’s election: you can totally see Donald Trump is coming, or someone like him! An entrepreneur who wants to take world power. Characters like Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, or the nice gambler played by Michael Douglas in The Game. And we have the comics figures of the Joker in the Tim Burton Batman films, or Rob Downey Jr’s Iron Man, and the list goes on. Even The Simpsons predicted that Donald Trump would be president [season 11 episode 17, March 2000]!
“The far-right and their party have declared a war on democracy. A war which isn’t fought with guns – maybe later – but with images and words.”
So you’re basically saying that films record and reflect their times if you know how to read them. Meanwhile they can also be a tool, a propaganda tool. That’s something you explored in your work about Nazi cinema, right?
Yes, but propaganda isn’t just a Nazi or a totalitarian regime tool. It also means advertisement as we know it. Techniques used by Leni Riefenstahl or Goebbels are present in election TV spots for Obama or for Angela Merkel. It’s too easy to call one side propaganda and the other side PR or just information. It’s no coincidence that Edward Bernays, who was a nephew of Freud and invented the term propaganda, was an advertisement director. His 1928 book Propaganda was used by Goebbels and other Nazis. After the war he said, ‘well my term’s been discredited, we cannot use it anymore. Let’s call it PR.’ So, for him, it was more or less the same thing. The far-right and their party have declared a war on democracy. A war which isn’t fought with guns – maybe later – but with images and words: media wars, with media weapons. And it’s a war about language.
So what happened last year in Hessen? The boss of the public film fund, a certain Hans Joachim Mendig, had a private meeting with AfD bigwig and MEP Jörg Meuthen, which we know because the latter published a picture of the two of them smiling into the camera all over his social media last July. What prompted you to react?
On Meuthen’s page, it said ‘we had a very constructive talk’ and we know that it’s political Chinese, which translates as ‘We liked each other and we agreed on certain things’. And Mendig didn’t deny. He did not react at all. The media didn’t report on it, and I only became aware of the whole story in September, when it got picked up by city magazine Journal Frankfurt. That’s when I wrote about it in my blog and the news started to circulate. People wrote to me saying we should do something about it. So my friend Lars Henrik Gass, who’s the head of the Oberhausen film festival, and I wrote an open letter in which we asked Mr. Mendig to resign. We got hundreds of signatures and after less than two weeks, he was withdrawn from his post. For me the whole thing was a symbol for what could be done. Mendig meeting AfD’s Meuthen was just a symbol, maybe he was a bit stupid to do this publicly. It’s clear that there is much more of this going on in secret.
This would just be the tip of the iceberg?
One hears a lot of things which are hard to prove. I suspect, at least, some film producers and some functionaries in film funding organisations to be keen on a talking relationship with the AfD – not out of political conviction but out of sheer pragmatism. But then we need to keep in mind that the AfD is only the political arm of a bigger extreme-right movement. You have the terrorists of the NSU – just killers, bloody killers. And you have the demonstrators of Pegida, maybe just nice citizens who fight the ‘the system’, but Pegida is also a neo-Nazi organisation that calls for Merkel to be hanged or Green politicians to be raped. So they, too, are violent.
There’s also the far-right’s new political elite, AfD’s MPs. Once democratically elected, they have more clout and are slowly gaining access to governmental and executive bodies. Beyond the Hessen example, do you think they have a strategy to spread their influence?
Definitely. They know that their march to power is going to be a long one. So culture is the field where they can have easy success, where they can score points fast. There’s a strategy of intimidation, of keeping people silent – just cast a black guy or a woman as Hamlet, and you can be sure to get threats from the AfD. Sometimes only a digital shitstorm, sometimes a demonstration, but it could also be people showing up at the house of the director or of the actor. Meanwhile, there are more subtle strategies – to influence the zeitgeist through language, for example. Look at the way they’ve succeeded in making acceptable ideas which 20 years ago would have been considered extremist. Or how they hijacked the meaning of words. Now when you hear about Migranten, you immediately see people with dark skin, probably young men, poor and potentially problematic. It’s not a neutral technical term anymore.
It’s not only the meaning of words they’ve hijacked, but also the very concept of counterculture. They’ve succeeded to stand as ‘system’s outsiders’ – the good Volk fighting the oppressive liberal-left elite. They now are the ones fighting for ‘tolerance’, ‘freedom of speech’ and against censorship. How do you deal with that?
If we want to fight them, we have to look at them like we would look into foreign tribes – to understand their rituals, to understand their language and to understand the real meaning behind certain symbolic gestures. And yes, I see that they look to position themselves as the new APO [extra-parliamentary opposition], the new counterculture to the left-liberal system. They say we’re censored, the press is lying. And of course, they do so in a very clever way, using the new media as a counter public sphere.
Many of them don’t read traditional media anymore, deeming them too ideological. They find what they want or need on digital platforms. The AfD is currently producing a documentary series for YouTube…
It’s symptomatic of their double strategy. On the one hand, they are in their new digital media bubble, calling the mainstream media the ‘lying media’; but on the other hand, when major press outlets run headlines which serve their opinions, they say ‘ah see, even the Spiegel says it’. And when it fits, they will also use the classic media. Gauland has regularly written guest articles in the FAZ!
Recently, the far-right has been using social media shitstorms to pressure TV stations to comply with their demands – mostly to remove content they disapproved. And, amazingly, they succeeded almost each time! In a sequel of Polizeiruf 110, a FCK AFD sticker could be seen for a split second in a police chief’s office. After AfD people complained, the ARD pulled it out of the Mediathek to edit the sticker out. There were similar anecdotes with MDR and Phoenix last year – and they always apologised! What does it show about the zeitgeist?
It’s a complicated issue. In principle, I’m totally for works of fiction to be left alone. But sometimes, it’s more complicated. Like when historical fiction is misleading. There was that recent case of historical ‘fake news’ in the ZDF series Das Boot, where at some point they more or less say that Wall Street financed Hitler’s war. And with Wall Street, you don’t need to spell it out, it has the subtext ‘the Jews did it’. I’d assume the filmmakers didn’t have a Nazi agenda, but I think this kind of historical fiction should not be allowed – at least not on public TV – because it gives too many people the wrong idea. The channel has a responsibility.
But what kind of ideas did the public WDR channel give the world when he gave in to the right-wing pressure in what’s come to be known as the ‘Omagate’? A satirical video in which the lyrics of a famous children’s song were changed from ‘Meine Oma fährt im Hühnerstall Motorrad’ (My grandma rides her motorbike in a hen house) to ‘Meine Oma ist eine Umweltsau’ (My grandma is a polluting pig) triggered a storm of outrage that ranged from insults to death threats. WDR Thomas Buhrow not only apologised but also had the video deleted. Why?
Well, I am quite sure that Tom Buhrow is a man of good will. I think he knows today that he was over reacting and I hope at least that he is reading very closely the open letter of dozens of TV writers who sharply criticised his move. He should have trusted his staff a bit more. It was an overreaction. We shouldn’t respond to hysteria with more hysteria.
“From Joker to Trump and to Joker again.”
Traditional media are not used to dealing with social media trolls…
The traditional media should just slow down, and realise that they should stick to what they can do better: thorough research, in-depth content and good, informed discussions. Right now, in the age of new media, they are the hare in The Hare and the Hedgehog, they’ll never be winning the race, and will have a heart attack one day. Even if you don’t like the Oma video (and I personally think it wasn’t so tasteful), it isn’t the same as war between Iran and the US. There’s a difference there, but our emotional seismograph is always at 120! A society which is in a state of constant indignation ends up becoming very indifferent. Because, ultimately, nothing counts anymore. We don’t need to react to every AfD provocation.
Another dilemma for the media, especially TV stations: should you give a voice to AfD and Pegida and invite them to debate – or should we ignore them? What’s your take?
On public TV, it does not work to have total tolerance. Public media have the mission to safeguard the conditions of democracy, at least the conditions of their very own existence. So why give airtime to people who are using it to destroy the democratic fundamentals? Talk shows, like Anne Will – which would be considered, if you asked someone on the street, as an information programme – are in fact all about spectacle, about entertainment. And it is my personal opinion that the ARD made Pegida big, made AfD big. One example: when Anne Will does not invite someone from the Citizens Movement to debate with the Pegida guys, but only SPD, Green or CDU politicians, she puts Pegida in the comfortable position of being the only spokesman of the ordinary people; and then you have the ‘system’ guys. That’s how you perpetuate this idea of Pegida being the voice of The People. I don’t think that media should just be a reflection of the current situation. Or of the audience. I think you have to educate the audience. But we also need education of the media itself. We need to not let them slip out of their responsibilities.
So, you agree with ZDF deciding that Björn Höcke will not be invited to talk shows anymore?
Yes, absolutely. If you look at the language of Björn Höcke, he’s a fascist. To be honest, there are many I would not invite. Definitely fewer politicians. I cannot take those political talk shows seriously anymore. Because the discourse of the extreme-right people isn’t about argumentation. It isn’t about facts; it is about setting agendas. If you ask the question ‘Are migrants more criminal than the Germans?’, then you have already set the agenda in the title of your show. I’d rather watch something like the Heute Show, or Böhmermann’s satirical Neo Magazin Royal. Or, you’d be shocked – Markus Lanz. It’s not officially a political show, but he did some very good political interviews. And he takes his time. In Anne Will, no one can finish their thought. Lanz doesn’t give airtime to the right-wing rabble-rousers.
But why do you think others do, and keep inviting them to their talk shows?
Some of them are scared. And some of them are just audience whores. Even if 80 percent of the audience hate the AfD, they’ll watch it for the spectacle. There is a lot of voyeurism in our society, a lot of infantilism. And I think the media should not cater to this mentality. It should counter this mentality. In my opinion the public media cannot be neutral. It should be partisan – openly partisan. They should say, “we are not giving space to those who want to destroy our democracy”.
What about showing the AfD or right-wing extremists on film? There was a controversy at DOK Leipzig a few years ago over Lord of the Toys. The documentary depicts the lives of a few braindead YouTubers – it never found a distributor. Is this censorship?
My personal opinion is that by showing a film like Lord of the Toys and awarding a prize to it, you are giving the message that it’s an important film, that people have to see it, that they have to engage with these topics and questions. It’s legitimising it. Also at DOK Leipzig two or three years ago, there was that documentary on [AfD leader and MP] Meuthen. And it was just following Meuthen everywhere he went. To Brussels, to Baden-Württemberg, and at the end, Meuthen seemed to be quite a nice guy – of course he did not give very radical or insulting speeches in front of this camera. He was not making nasty jokes about foreigners.
So, should we censor such films?
I’m not in favour of censorship. I stand by freedom and tolerance, but then so did the filmmakers, intellectuals and artists of Weimar. They had their equal rights for women, the eight-hour day, a big welfare state, the Bauhaus and many other avant-garde movements. But they were unable to fight Hitler, whose party, five years before he got to power, only had three percent of the national vote. So, do we know what will be in five years? What will you say when the next generation asks if you were there in 2020s Berlin when the new Nazis came up? When you could have fought back, but instead were busy defending tolerance?
So you see the analogy with Weimar to be relevant. Do you see it as intellectuals’ duty to take a political stance?
Intellectuals should not stay neutral. They have something to say, and there are some people who want to listen to what they say by reading their books or listening to their speeches. I’m absolutely in favour of the new Engagement of intellectuals. And, in a way, I may be split between my position as an artist and a journalist who wants as much tolerance as possible and the political citizen who totally subscribes to Karl Popper’s opinion that we should not tolerate intolerance. As for Weimar, I don’t like the analogy too much for a simple reason: Weimar failed. So, if we say it’s like Weimar, we are giving in. I think we can learn from Weimar – that’s different. Unfortunately, our well-off societies are victims of their success. They don’t want to see certain dangers; they look away…
Who’s looking away?
The well-to-do Berlin Mitte people who don’t want to think of the AfD rising to power, for example. They want to think about how to ‘get rid’ of their trash in a more politically correct way and how to have better food. Both good ideas, but maybe it’s not as important as ‘getting rid’ of Bjorn Höcke.
Are you referring to the liberal Left’s reluctance to address morally uncomfortable issues, like immigration for example?
Absolutely. I think they don’t want to address it because all the answers are not satisfying in a moral way, and not very comfortable in a political way. Like building some borders, at least in terms of immigration law, and rejecting some people which conjures up some nasty mental images and would look pretty bad for a country with a past like Germany’s.
Let’s get back to the very beginning of our conversation. You said one could get a diagnosis of a society’s illnesses by just looking at the films it produces. So, what do you see in the films now?
As I said before, by looking at Hollywood films, I could easily see something like “From Joker to Trump”, as an analogy to Kracauer’s “From Caligari to Hitler”. And it’s very interesting that we’ve got Todd Phillips’ Joker since, with Joaquin Phoenix’s character being no clown, but a loser turned murderer. A psycho, a serial killer. And suddenly, he is also promoted as a hero and maybe some people say: I identify. And now we have 11 Oscar nominations. So, this film is considered to be a great movie, an important movie. And I think the discourse around this film is symptomatic. It’s showing something which is happening today and might happen tomorrow as well. So we could say “From Joker to Trump and to Joker again”.
What’s the diagnosis for Germany?
For Germany, I’d write a book titled “From Yella to Merkel” in reference to the Petzold film and the Berlin School. It’s a cinema of avoidance – of non-communication, of ghost-like asexual female characters. Yella is already dead, remember? At the end she realises it. A zombie in the new economy, that’s what Yella is about. I think that’s a pretty adequate image of the Germany we live in.
“By humanising Hitler, making him just another human being, we’re banalising evil. It is an obscene political message to say that we could all be Nazis.”
What about mainstream German cinema? Those low-brow TV-funded productions?
When it comes to mainstream films, images are purely illustrative, it’s about illustrating content. It is not telling anything visually. The perfect counterpart of the non-communication of the Berlin School. Take all those Nazi films: how are Nazis shown in German cinema? They are shown as the talking killer. The killer who, before he kills, explains why he’s killing, whom he’s killing, how he will kill and for sure that he used to be a good guy. He wanted to be a priest or a policeman and out of circumstances he became a serial Nazi killer. Look at films like Der Untergang where we have Hitler as that regular guy. Even left-liberal journalists liked it for ‘humanising Hitler’. So, oh my God, we see that we could all be Nazis, and kudos to the Germans for being so self-critical again, showing that they could all be Nazis! My reading of the film is totally different. By humanising Hitler, making him just another human being, we’re banalising evil. It is an obscene political message to say that we could all be Nazis, because in 1933 many people, not just Jews, not just Communists, were not Nazis. Thomas Mann could have had a great job in German cinema. He went into exile.
“We could all be monsters” is indeed an ambivalent statement: it could just be humility, but it is also a way to apologise for any future wrongdoing. Give up responsibility, right?
It’s obscene in the same way as saying, ‘we could all have been resistance fighters’. And with politics, the truth of the matter is that the proof is not in the talking – it’s in the doing. If, God forbid, we have a new dictatorship in Germany, you’ll see people you would have never expected acting very brave, and risking their lives. And others, that you would have thought would fight for their ideals to be the first ones to succumb. That’s what history tells us.
So it’s not about great ideas. It’s about courage.
And the courage is not only on the left side. There was one famous speech by Francois Mitterand, in which he said ‘We are not the good and they are not the evil. The problem is that they think they are the good, and we are the evil.’ In a way it’s my existentialist position. I don’t know what I would do. But what I know for sure is that I abhor those AfD extremists, I think they’re dangerous and I’ll fight them as much as I can. Because if we don’t now, tomorrow might be too late.