Grindelwald’s rhetoric: Trying for metaphor in the age of Brexit and Trump (FBCoG #7)

Seventh blog post about Fantastic Beasts:  The Crimes of Grindelwald.


Yes, the Fantastic Beasts film series is about World War II.  It is significant that Queenie and Tina Goldstein are Jewish, and that will become more apparent in later films.  The final showdown between Dumbledore and Grindelwald takes place in 1945.  The series locations will continent-hop, with the next installment purportedly set to film in Rio de Janeiro.

It may be that you don’t trust J.K. Rowling and David Yates to write an international story about characters who are Jewish or people of color, with a gay wizard as a central figure.  Considering that there are three known Jewish characters in Potterverse, all named Goldstein; two acknowledged queer characters; and representation of people of color that is often tokenist and sometimes truly hurtful (there is no redeeming the flippant racism of the Ilvermorny backstory on Pottermore)… I would advise viewers to go into these films remembering the demographics of the people who created them.  I would urge anyone who is looking for accurate representation in art to seek out exciting work from artists who create from perspectives that encompass queerness, people of color, Jewish experience, and many other identities that aren’t centered in this series by Rowling and Yates.

Mindful of that context, then, let’s look at some aspects of Crimes of Grindelwald.

Some viewers have wondered if the World War II imagery that Grindelwald uses in his rally means that Grindelwald, and the movie, are saying:  If the characters in this series oppose Grindelwald, they will bring on World War II and the Holocaust.

I don’t think that’s the intended message.  It looks to me like we’re being shown Grindelwald’s rhetorical strategies for whipping up crowds to manipulate them for his own purposes, and one of his tactics is to accuse an enemy of exactly the kind of criminal intention he has himself.

When he and his followers kill a French Muggle family to steal their home for headquarters, Rowling adds another fascist reference to Grindelwald’s character by having him say of the house, “This will be suitable after a thorough cleanse” (emphasis mine).

His follower, Rosier, says with satisfaction, “When we’ve won, they’ll flee cities in the millions.  They’ve had their time.”

Grindelwald shushes her, giving an impromptu lesson in propaganda:  “We don’t say such things out loud. We want only freedom. Freedom to be ourselves.”

Rosier continues, anyway:  “To annihilate non-wizards.”  She’s slow to catch on to this lesson in doublespeak, giving Rowling a chance to underscore what this group has as its goal.

Grindelwald spells out some refinements for her benefit, as well as the benefit of the audience:  “Not all of them. Not all. We’re not merciless. The beast of burden will always be necessary.”

(Excuse me for a moment while I run around in my mind, screaming, “Gross.”  Shudder.  Shudder.  Shudder.  Shudder.  Shudder.)

Grindelwald is shown repeatedly to be a manipulator who tells people whatever they want to hear in order to influence their behavior.  He’s peerless at this skill.  Seraphina Picquery reveals that they removed his tongue as punishment, although it turns out that they didn’t manage this in time to prevent him from talking his body double into receiving the amputation instead; the punishment proves ineffectual as well as barbaric.  His lies do not have internal logic; they do not need to.  He bypasses his listeners’ logic and speaks only to their fears.  He plays on Queenie’s desperation to marry Jacob by claiming that he wants wizards to be free to love, knowing she won’t pause to reflect that his pureblood platform does not support wizard-Muggle marriages.

This parallels, in a direct and blatant fashion, LGBTQ voters who somehow claimed, in 2016, that Trump would prove supportive of LGBTQ rights.  I don’t know what made people think such an argument could be supported and I’m not about to go looking.  Since 2016, between repeated and baseless attacks on trans people’s basic human rights, erasure of LGBTQ people in census categories, appointment of homophobic justices and policymakers, double prejudice against asylum seekers fleeing gaybashing, and on and on, we’ve built up a terrifying mountain of evidence to the contrary.  Absolutely none of it was a surprise.  All of it was telegraphed… and yet, this argument was made at all.

We have known since Deathly Hallows that Grindelwald’s aim was to build an army to subjugate Muggles, who vastly outnumber magical folks.  Dumbledore told Harry, even then, that Grindelwald wanted the Resurrection Stone to create an army of Inferi.  The Dumbledore of Crimes of Grindelwald knows exactly what kinds of tricks Grindelwald will employ.  He tries to warn Travers, “Your policies of suppression and violence are pushing supporters into his arms.”  When Travers doesn’t listen, Dumbledore warns Theseus, “If Grindelwald calls a rally, don’t try and break it up. Don’t let Travers send you in there.”  Theseus tries to act on this warning, but Travers overrules him.

When Grindelwald inhales from his skull-hookah at his rally, in what seems likely to be a reference to Nazis’ heavy use of drugs, he exhales what he claims to be “my vision of the future that awaits if we do not rise up and take our rightful place in the world.”  This is when the movie shows imagery of World War II.  Based on what we have seen of Grindelwald’s aims and strategies, though, he’s lying.  Contrary to his claim, these images are not anything he’s trying to avert.  He’s simply showing his own fantasies of what he is trying to cause.  All he has to do is play on his listeners’ fears and heighten their emotion, then turn their hostility toward a common enemy.

After inciting his followers, he claims, “That is what we are fighting! That is the enemy—their arrogance, their power lust, their barbarity. How long will it take before they turn their weapons on us?”

He then goads his followers until one of them inevitably loses control and draws her wand on an Auror who responds with violence, playing into Grindelwald’s hands.

The parallels between this scene and mob rallies such as the Make America Great Again crowds could not be plainer.  As many observers have noted, Trump and his people accuse foes, incorrectly, of crimes that they themselves commit; it is one of their primary tactics, and it galvanizes their base whether the accusations are disproved or not.  In this instance, the overwhelming whiteness of the Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts casts is functional rather than indicative of institutionalized racism:  white people make up almost all of Grindelwald’s crowd, as is true of such rallies in current events.

It turns out to pose a bit of a problem, though, that when this series was first planned, we had not yet entered the Trump and Brexit eras.  The first Fantastic Beasts film premiered the weekend following the 2016 U.S. presidential election; ticketholders attending J.K. Rowling’s promotional event at Carnegie Hall walked past thousands of protesters at Trump Tower.  At that time, the first draft of Crimes of Grindelwald had already been written.  These first two Fantastic Beasts films were plotted out during an era when Godwin’s Law was still in effect, before Godwin himself suspended it.

In other words, when Rowling was writing those scripts, Nazis were still being mentioned rhetorically, as metaphors.

When she originally created Grindelwald, and the formative Dumbledore-Grindelwald clash of 1945, they were meant as metaphors for World War II.

We are in the post-Godwin’s Law era now.  I’m not sure how a writer can strike the right note, or anything approaching it.  Is the barely-coded Nazi Grindelwald too on the nose, or too subtle?  I think Rowling was probably following the usual rules of good storytelling by showing us his persuasiveness without spelling out that we should not believe a single word out of this liar’s mouth, but in the current climate, I would suggest to artists that subtlety is not the best strategy.  I wish the film had given one or two more blatant moments spelling out that Grindelwald doesn’t believe a word he is saying and is only playing on his followers’ emotions in order to exploit them.

This would have helped with Queenie’s storyline.  It feels alarming in the extreme that she has gone to Grindelwald’s side, considering that Rowling has written precisely three Potterverse characters identified as Jewish and she has not earned her audience’s trust that she can portray them well.

It seems that Grindelwald has won over Queenie by a combination of drugging her, lying to her, and simply persuading her as he persuades others, appealing to her fears.  A hallmark of his tactics is that he depends upon his followers to make an active, seemingly unforced choice to join him, as we see in this conversation about Credence.

KRALL

Well, we know where the boy is, don’t we? Why don’t we grab him and leave!

GRINDELWALD

(to KRALL)

He must come to me freely—and he will.

GRINDELWALD returns his gaze to the vision of CREDENCE suspended in the center of the drawing room.

GRINDELWALD

The path has been laid, and he is following it. The trail that will lead him to me, and the strange and glorious truth of who he is.

What Credence wants most is the truth of who he is.  What Queenie wants most is the freedom to love a Muggle.  (Whether that Muggle reciprocates is an open question after the events of this movie, of course.)  Grindelwald appeals to their desires to obscure their ability to see his true motives.  If he can get people to join with him of their own volition, because of desires that overpower their good judgment, he turns their inner conflict and lack of self-trust to his own advantage, against them.  They might later come to their senses, but they will blame themselves, knowing it was their own weakness that encouraged them to ignore warning signs about Grindelwald.  He gets people to be complicit in their own downfalls, resulting in the kind of profound shame that is written on every line of Dumbledore’s guilty face when he is forced to admit, “I cannot move against Grindelwald.”

Queenie does fall for Grindelwald’s persuasiveness.  We also see Rosier drugging her with tea from an insistent teapot, not introducing this natural Legilimens to Grindelwald until after she’s drunk the tea, not letting Queenie leave without meeting Grindelwald.  When Queenie first sees Grindelwald, she leaps to her feet and draws her wand, snarling at him to stay back:  “I know what you are.”  What, not who.  We don’t know what she means by that “what,” but in a film series that is focused upon the humanization and dehumanization of monsters, any such word choice will prove to be significant.  Grindelwald approaches her and starts his persuasive talk, lying to her that they will not harm her because she’s an “innocent.”  Once he has stepped toward her and even touched her wand, his manipulative powers have overwhelmed the resistance of this naive and desperate witch.

(One wonders why Grindelwald needed to recruit Queenie.  We see him using her in the last scene to tell him what Credence is thinking.  Is there something about Credence that makes it difficult for Grindelwald to read his mind, creating a need for him to rely upon another Legilimens?  After all, he couldn’t see who the Obscurial was in the first movie, although he could see the immense power of the Obscurus.  Does it have to do with the blood bond?  But I digress.)

I can understand the worry that Rowling may be using World War II and Holocaust history in a throwaway manner as an easy plot device for this series.  Based on the scripts and films, I do not think she is doing that.  I think that is her story, and there is no other:  the mechanics of fascism, the dehumanization that results in genocide and unwanted humans and monstrous rage, and the counter-strategy of recognizing the dignity and worth of all beings, including monsters and beasts.

Whether she can earn the trust of viewers in writing the characters of these stories… we shall see.

The writer and director are only two of the people creating these characters.  The actors, and what we know of them outside of their characters, embody them in a way that writing cannot.  The Asian face of Nagini, conspicuously non-white at the rally and whispering to Credence that this crowd will kill their kind for sport, says something without words.  The mixed-race face of Leta Lestrange, ostracized by her white classmates, shows us something.  I know I feel trust in the performance of Claudia Kim, showing what it feels like to be an Asian woman in a white-dominated environment.  I feel trust in Ezra Miller as a queer Jewish actor and Zoe Kravitz as a Jewish woman of color.  I felt trust in Samantha Morton as a survivor of the kind of institutional upbringing that Marylou Barebone enforced.

In an interview with Esther Zuckerman of Thrillist, Ezra Miller gave some perspective on how he understood his character’s reaction to Grindelwald’s lure:

This is like an ISIS recruit or a military recruit, [who] I see as very similar characters in the world. Essentially they both were people who were left [with] a deficit of identity. You know? A deficit of real connective tissue of culture, of family, of education. And so they, in their thirst for purpose and identity, were easily manipulated by people who wish to use them as pawns for their ultimate agenda or objective.

Credence is like this military recruit now, or like this ISIS recruit, anyone who’s ever been recruited to fight in a battle that is not their own. Credence becomes that figure, and what’s been manipulated, it’s his own trauma. And this is what they do. This is how people are systematically turned into murderers, into monsters, into the people who then become an enemy to someone else. They use trauma, they manipulate belief. They will utilize someone’s religious beliefs as a means to create an enemy, sometimes even for their own cause, just to perpetuate war. These are observable historical tactics.

Know that this is how, historically, hegemons get people to be their pawns. So that’s happened in a big way. The film ends with a would-be general putting a gun in a private’s hand, saying, “Here’s who you are now, you’re a soldier of this denomination and this country’s allegiance. And here’s why you’re angry and here’s who is your enemy.” He gives him a gun, a name, and an enemy in one.

I could use some stories about how to combat this kind of manipulation and its consequences.  I’m on board for the next three films.  I’m pretty sure I’ll need them.


Previous blog posts about Crimes of Grindelwald:

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