Leo Hurwitz’s Strange Victory is among the masterpieces of American anti-fascist cinema, a genre that may not actually exist. This is, in part, because of the conventional wisdom that America has never had a significant number of fascists. Pay no attention to the hooded white supremacists in the corner, both of our political history and our cinematic canon. Ignore the sinister direction taken by certain senate committees in the context of the Cold War, a movement that had not yet peaked by this film’s 1948 release. Laugh at the demagogue running for president in 2016.
Of course, the fascist, racist and violent pageantry of the Donald Trump campaign is only the surface of why Strange Victory remains such an important film. It’s fortuitous that the Brooklyn Academy of Music is running the restoration of the film right now, but its relevance goes well beyond our contemporary crisis. Hurwitz’s accomplishment, in fact, is the powerful illustration of a phenomenon that has often transcended the specifics of any named ideology. He not only calls out individual political figures for their advocacy of Nazi policies, but navigates the much deeper waters of American society to find core fascist ideas.
The film is built from archival footage of the war and newly shot images of America at peace, pushed forward by insistently idealist voiceover. Hurwitz kicks things off at a newsstand, an appropriate setting for his central question: If the war is over, “Why is the news still bad?” Why is there still antisemitism and racism in America? Why is it that there’s “not enough victory to go around?” He invokes Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms as an accusation, pointing the finger at a nation that has refused to make good on the president’s promise to all of its citizens.
Hurwitz then proceeds to lay out his damning argument with relentless aplomb. He dives right into the origins of Nazism, making excellent use of archival footage of Hitler’s rise to power. These ideas, he says, spread through the propagation of deliberately hateful nonsense. “In the beginning there was the word. In the beginning there was the lie.” We watch the banners go up, the speeches ring out over the airwaves, the armies begin to march. But this parade of horrors is never too distant for Hurwitz to abruptly beam his spotlight from the Reichstag to the segregated movie theaters of the American South, or the great Northern universities with their religious and ethnic quotas.
His next task is to prove that “the ideas of the loser are still alive in the land of the victor.” Much of this is done through emotionally resonant portraiture, turning Strange Victory into a compendium of diverse American countenances. “Every face tells a story,” the voiceover asserts, and the aphorism is supported by as many as can be found. Hurwitz includes the blunt expressions of racism and demagoguery, of course, but the real impact is in the wearied faces of those who have faced discrimination their whole lives.
He has a particular obsession with the maternity wards of hospitals, where innocent children remain blissfully unaware of all the choices that have already been made for them by virtue of their last name or the color of their skin. He cuts between these new Americans and the physical evidence of old prejudice: racist graffiti, Jim Crow signage, the speeches of America’s leading racist politicians and agitators. Heartstrings are yanked in the name of dignity for all. This is hardly a subtle gesture, but subtlety is not in Hurwitz’s plan.
And in this context, it is an immensely intriguing example of style as well as political rhetoric. It is, is in a sense, a link between the bold humanism of New Deal nonfiction and the post-war cynicism of film noir. The assured voice of the documentaries of Pare Lorentz persists in Strange Victory, not to mention the similarly motivated portraiture of James Agee and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Hurwitz, after all, learned from Lorentz directly while working as a cinematographer on The Plow That Broke the Plains. The paternalistic charm of Roosevelt, which not only characterized his radio broadcasts but also found its way into Hollywood films and government-financed documentaries, is in the DNA of Strange Victory’s narration.
Yet he also foreshadows something much darker, and less intuitively hopeful. His description of war, for example, sounds more like something Sam Spade would say than FDR. A soldier who gets wounded but survives is someone who “experiences war approximately.” Only a soldier who dies “experiences war exactly.” It’s obvious how the false positivity of the end of the war has forever altered the attitude of intellectuals such as Hurwitz, who would later be blacklisted for holding such sobered beliefs. Film noir itself, of course, was intimately tied up in the words of other blacklisted artists. One wonders whether Hurwitz, at the sharp edges of this deeply activist film, also shared the hardened outlook of some of noir’s more pessimistic protagonists.
And then of course there’s the music, a revelation from mostly forgotten composer David Diamond. The score also vacillates between humanism and chaos. At times it seems to suggest Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” a 1942 composition that at one point was going to be titled “Fanfare for the Four Freedoms.” In darker moments, however, Diamond approaches the unsettling power of Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, written just a year later but already looking forward to the chaos of post-war Europe.
But perhaps the best comparison, both musically and cinematically, is to Robert Flaherty’s Louisiana Story. Released the very same year as Strange Victory, it could not be more different. Its Virgil Thomson score is rich and bright, in tune with the beauty and optimism with which it presents its subject Louisiana oil rig. It was, after all, commissioned by Standard Oil. It is, in a sense, the last of the idyllic American documentaries of the first half of the 20th century, paeans to the common man. Strange Victory is dead sober in comparison, and fired up. It is a herald of something quite new, a political jolt that even seven decades later might be useful in helping to wake up the nation.
Strange Victory runs from March 16th to March 22nd at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City.