Susan Sontag’s Fascinating Fascism & Anton Kaes’ History and Film: Public Memory in the Age of Electronic Dissemination

I was re-reading Susan Sontag’s Fascinating Fascism on the bus on the way to class the other day, when a tall, bearded fellow whom I recognized from around campus came onto the bus and sat in the seat next to me. From the moment he sat down, I realized he was looking over my shoulder at what I was reading. I think I’d just passed the sentence having something to do with “fucking and sucking” (linking Sadomasochism and Fascism), and, despite having headphones in my ears to focus on the reading, he nudged me and asked what class this reading could possibly be for.

“Hitler on Film,” I replied. He read a few more lines, then looked at me, gently shook his head, and pulled a bible out of his backpack. “I think I’ll just read something a little less controversial, thanks,” he said. Once the seat across from us opened up, he switched spots.

It’s interesting to see just how heavily the concerns of a piece of writing like Fascinating Fascism still strike us, and while Sontag spends much of her article purposefully pointing the finger at Leni Riefenstahl as an “artist” who must be held accountable for what she’d done in the past, this exchange on the bus also made me feel as though I was somehow expected to also be held accountable for what I was reading — as though an article like Fascinating Fascism is somehow obscene.

I particularly liked the ideas behind Anton Kaes’ History and Film: Public Memory in the Age of Electronic Dissemination, expressed most clearly via his re-cap of the public reaction to the Holocaust miniseries of 1978. The strongest words in the article, however, belong not to Kaes, but Elie Wiesel: “The film is an insult to those who perished and those who survived […] a work of semi-fact and semi-fiction. Isn’t this what so many deranged ‘scholars’ have been claiming recently all over the world? That the Holocaust was nothing else but an ‘invention’?”

Clearly, it’s not simply Hitler who’s become a mere Simulacrum on-screen, but the entire doings of the Third Reich itself.

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