It's Happening Here
Trump’s America and totalitarian dystopias
From the politically turbulent 1960s and ’70s, two films by British directors, Kevin Brownlow’s It Happened Here and Peter Watkins’ Punishment Park, are among the most iconic examples of movies that appear to be prescient of Trumpian society, rife with repression, ignorance, and violence.
It Happened Here (1965) shows fascism as a banal way of life: It’s the waning days of WWII, and a victorious Nazi Germany is occupying the United Kingdom. With black-and-white, documentary-like cinematography reminiscent of wartime newsreels and Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (released just three years after It Happened Here), the film follows Pauline, a middle-class nurse eager to get back to her daily routine, even within a National Socialist England. After being evacuated from her small town, she goes to London and joins the Immediate Action Organization to help forge the new nation. "We've fought a war and lost it,” she argues to one of her friends. “There has been a terrible amount of suffering on both sides, so why prolong that suffering: The only way to get back to normal is to support law and order."
In this case, law and order means Nazi stormtroopers intermingling with the local population, suppressing protest and removing families from their flats. Meanwhile civilized Britons sit around discussing the supremacy of the Aryan race and banishing Jews to Madagascar, as if this were a reasonable political strategy. When the nurse tries to make her own beliefs known, the State’s priorities come first: "We don't accept your decisions,” says her superior, “you accept ours.”
If progressive political commentators are worried today about the normalization of an “alt-right” ideology under President Trump, It Happened Here offers a vivid picture of a pacified populace, willing to accept a little bit of fascism as long as it means peace and jobs. While there is a U.S.-backed resistance movement in the film, the everywoman protagonist experiences no change of heart or political awakening; she is merely captured by the other side (which proves itself to be no less barbaric than the Nazis). National Socialism, it seems, offers the people of England a new way of life, and as the film shows, many of them are only too happy to accept it.
In Peter Watkins’ Punishment Park (1971), resistance is far more prevalent, but just as futile. Inspired by the presidency of Richard Nixon, the escalation of the war in Vietnam, and the brutal suppression of dissent in the U.S., Punishment Park also uses a documentary-like mode to portray its near-future scenario as something that’s entirely plausible. Taking his cue from a real American law, Title II of the Internal Security Act of 1950, which allowed for the detention of U.S. citizens suspected of subversion, Watkins proffers a skewed system of repressive justice.
Political dissenters are subject to interrogations and tribunals, then released into the desert, where they're pursued by heavily armed gangs of police for fifty miles under the sweltering sun. Watkins crosscuts between scenes of the kangaroo courtroom, with its stand-ins for Chicago Seven activists Abbie Hoffman and Bobby Seale shouting back at a mostly white jury composed of a housewife, an FBI agent, and other tools of the state, and the gritty Hunger Games-style pursuit taking place outside, with multicultural, longhaired, dehydrated hippies running for their lives.
If the film presents a progressive’s worst nightmare, it’s simultaneously a giddy wet dream for the NRA. The mostly white cops, in sunglasses and helmets, proudly display and brag about the killing capacity of their rifles. Meanwhile the on-the-run activists discuss with an off-screen reporter the best way to react to the Police State and its training exercise. Do you respond passively or violently? Do you participate in the game or refuse to take part? “We have to do something to stop all the hate,” says one activist. But the consequences are the same: Resistance is futile in Punishment Park, with all options culminating in an oppressive bloodbath.
Not so coincidentally, just a few years later, Paul Bartel’s dystopian Death Race 2000 would take Punishment Park’s realistic Nixonian hell and push it to cartoonish extremes, featuring an unruly mix of road rage, tabloid entertainment, resistance fighters, and a dictatorial leader named “Mr. President,” who spouts conspicuously Trumpian lines, like, “I have made the United Provinces of America the greatest power in the known universe.”
In a more subtle fashion, recent European cinema from the likes of Michael Haneke and Yorgos Lanthimos offer viewers not-so-veiled allegories about morally bankrupt and dysfunctional societies. The ever-cynical Haneke has made several such blistering portraits, but most apropos for our times are Time of the Wolf (2003), which follows the degeneration of humans during an apocalypse, and The White Ribbon (2009), a critique of violence and authoritarianism within a patriarchal German town— and the dangerous Aryan youth born from its malice.
Meanwhile Lanthimos’ deadpan dystopias Dogtooth (2009) and The Lobster (2016) find people trapped—physically and psychically—and subject to extreme measures of social control and sudden brutality. Dogtooth, Lanthimos’ second film, purports to be some kind of cruel comedy of the absurd, but it also offers an apt metaphor for Trumpland. Three twenty-something siblings live in an aristocratic estate, under the guidance and beatings of their parents. The young adults know nothing of life outside their walled-in compound, and what they do know about language and the universe has been skewed by their tyrannical father, who also happens to use a VHS tape as a weapon. The children are taught incorrect meanings of words (i.e. “sea’’ means “leather chair’’), and that the outside world is filled with horrific dangers. When a cat ends up in the back yard, panic ensues, and the animal is gruesomely killed. The father takes it as a teachable moment: “The animal that threatens us is a ‘cat,’” he says, educating them about its penchant for “eating human flesh.” “If you stay inside, you’re protected.”
Not only do the father’s xenophobia and despotic qualities resonate with our current political times, but the children’s methods of coping suggest the problems of living within it. With little else to do, the young adults anesthetize themselves to the point of passing out (what better analogy for apathetic citizens) and bide their time with sexual and masochistic games. When the moment of revolt finally comes, as it often does in these films, it arrives with self-mutilation and uncertainty. Not the triumphant moment of resistance one might be hoping for, but alas, that’s the standard for these cautionary tales. Not the triumphant moment of resistance one might be hoping for, but these days, we'll take anything we can get.