Milos Stehlik, Facets Founder and Artistic Director, discusses the normalization of fascism in The White World According to Daliborek.
Having premiered at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival to generally sympathetic reviews, The White World According to Daliborek is the one film that I would happily burn.
It disturbed me and made me angry.
Directed by Czech filmmaker Vit Klusak, the film is a portrait of 36-year-old Dalibor, who lives in a small town, makes low-grade horror videos for the internet, and admires Adolf Hitler. He is vehemently anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, and racist. By the way, he also lives with his mother and they constantly bicker. The filmmaker found him through Dalibor’s videos on YouTube and ultimately convinced him (and paid him) to appear in the film.
Why is this film so upsetting? Because of the way it normalizes extreme statements and behavior. Roger Ebert, in one of his famous statements, called film an “empathy machine.” Here is that empathy machine used to “entertain.” We get to “empathize” with Dalibor because he has trouble making connections with women, has a lousy, low-wage menial job spray painting metal parts, and because he lives with his mom and her new boyfriend, who is a racist himself and urges Dalibor to embrace violence.
Dalibor, in another words, can be “one of us,” the harmless, weird uncle or cousin who spouts vile rhetoric but who we know, underneath it all, has a heart of gold. The “humanization” of the protagonist makes the racism and potential for violence seem less dangerous or threatening.
This is classic propaganda, of course: just check out the happy Germans celebrating life in Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda masterpiece, Triumph of the Will, even as they take part in the Nazi regime’s orchestrated hymn about the superiority of the Aryan race.
At the end of The White World According to Daliborek, Dalibor, his mother, her boyfriend, and Dalibor’s female school friend, travel to Auschwitz. There they meet an octogenarian Auschwitz survivor, who talks to them about her experience. This is posited with Dalibor’s arguments denying that the Holocaust ever happened — the gas chambers were there to kill lice, and so on.
This scene is obviously staged, and awkwardly so, making it all the more infuriating — it’s the filmmaker’s reach for the pornographic “cum shot.”
There are other precedents for this kind of normalizing (read fascist) cinema. We live in an age in which this normalization of extremist statements or behavior goes on every day in the news. Vit Klusak’s film offers thanks in the credits to Joshua Oppenheimer, whose highly-praised Act of Killing and its sequel, The Look of Silence, gleefully engages former Indonesian death squad leaders in reenacting their real-life mass killings through Hollywood crime scenarios and musicals.
Oppenheimer is a great admirer of Werner Herzog, who argues that there is no truth in documentary, which may be true, but then goes on to create a drama while portraying it as documentary.
I remember the late Dieter Dengler, a German-born American Navy pilot shot down in Cambodia, the subject of Herzog’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly, talking about how Herzog insisted that Dieter exaggerates an even more harrowing escape from his captors through the jungle by saying he ate raw snake, and so on. Later, Herzog fictionalized the Dieter story in his film, Rescue Dawn.
This dramatic license is dangerously deployed by commercial cinema that reaches millions rather than mere thousands. Take Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, which — contrary to all evidence — conveniently tied the use of torture to eliciting information leading to the capture of Osama bin Laden.
If you’ve managed to read this far in an article that proselytizes while being woefully short of recommendations for new films to watch, bear with me just a bit longer. In my view, this fascist cinema extends to films that aim to create passive, sugar-addicted, materialistic zombies out of kids just so that they can help fuel a consumerist economy.
It’s why Facets’ very extensive range of programs for kids and teens is at the heart of a struggle to help grow a generation of thinkers and creators. The Facets’ children’s programs are not so much about film appreciation or even learning about filmmaking. They are about helping grow critical thinkers who can distinguish fact from fiction, who are independent, self-sufficient, self-confident, and involved.
The power of media to shape how we think, who we elect, who we trust, and the relationships we can build or sustain far outweighs Facets’ capacity to place that power within the reach of each individual.
Only your support can help us sustain and grow these programs.
Author: Facets founder and Worldview film critic, Milos Stehlik takes us on a tour of film history each week with our Member newsletter. Get advanced access by becoming a Facets Member today.