How Fascism grows and how you can stop it
With „Das is unser Land“, the Beligian director Lucas Belvaux has made a bold film about the new right-wing parties. Phil Butland was at a pre-release screening for us
Bob Fosse‘s great anti-fascist Film “Cabaret” from 1972 showed the rise of the German Nazi Party through the eyes of the artists and the middle class participants of the cabaret scene in the Weimar Republic. As the film develops, we become increasingly aware of the danger of the Nazi attacks taking place slightly off-camera. At the end of the film, when the Nazis take over the cabaret and a member of the Hitler Youth sings “Tomorrow belongs to me”, we are driven to ask “how could that have happened?”
In contrast to Fosse, the Belgian director Lucas Belvaux wants to tell us exactly how Fascism is growing in his adopted country of France. His new film “Das ist unser Land” (original title “Chez Nous”) may become as important a film as “Cabaret”. But unlike “Cabaret”, “Das ist unser Land” dispenses with vagueness and allusion, as Belvaux tries to shine a bright light on current political developments.
This film does not take place in Berlin, but in Hénart, a small industrial town in Northern France. It is not happening in the past, but today. And – just as in Marine Le Pen’s France – it is about a party which is fighting for the losers of our society, without truly breaking from its Nazi past.
The film’s main protagonist, Pauline (Émilie Dequenne) is a health visitor and the daughter of a Communist. She doesn’t vote and feels alienated from politics. “I’ve been working for 15 years, every day is worse. Only the faces of our politicians change”. Nonetheless she feels “somewhat left wing of course”. And she is convinced that society needs radical change.
With the help of Dr. Berthier (André Dussollier), a doctor with a suspect political past, Pauline meets Agnes Dorgelle (Catherine Jacob). Dorgelle is the leader of the electoral alliance Rassemblement National Populaire (RNP). The alliance is a successor to the Patriotic Block, a Nazi organisation that was founded by Agnes’s father. But Dorgelle’s election campaign puts more stress on fighting social misery than on crude racism.
In one of the key scenes of the film, RNP electoral candidates are taught no longer to “use racist expressions … Say pack – everyone understands that. Communitarian is also ok. Fundamentalist, Jihadist, Islamist… all good. But not camel rider, wog, dirty foreigner or nigger. No way. But if other people use this vocabulary, we’re not moralists…”
The parallels with Marine Le Pen and her tactless father Jean Marie are clear and intended. As the film goes on, a number of different people state that “Agnes Dorelle is not her father”. But just how far has the apple fallen from the tree? Is the RNP really a new party, “neither left nor right” as both Berthier and Dorgelle claim? Or is it just a means of better selling and building a Nazi organisation?
Part of the answer to this question lies with Stanko (Guillaume Gouix), an ex-schoolfriend of Pauline, with whom she starts a relationship. Stanko’s past is just as suspect as that of Dr. Berthier, but while the doctor was an MEP and part of the leadership of the Patriotic Block, Stanko was a member of their militia. When they meet, Berthier tells him “all you had to do was to agree to wear a suit. Then you’d still be with us.”
This does not mean that the party has totally broken from its right-wing thugs. Every appearance of Dorgelle is accompanied by racist attacks. The party’s agitation against Islam and migrants has murderous consequences. And Belvaux shows us how this is no unfortunate coincidence, but part of a strategy of throwing scraps at the Nazi cadre while Dorgelle distances herself from them in public.
“Das ist unser Land” topicality is tragic. The film shows brilliantly how – despite its clear and shocking racism – it is possible for ex-Leftists like Pauline, to support the Nazi party, to vote for it, and ultimately to stand for it as a mayoral candidate. The film makes no apologies for the Nazis, but it does show how a Fascist party can become attractive to many people. The political left must also carry some of the blame. It was the failure of left-wingers like Pauline’s father to effect real change, that forced her to look for solutions elsewhere.
Nonetheless, “Das ist unser Land” is not a pessimistic film, and it trusts its audience to draw its own conclusions. This means that the Nazis on the screen are not just evil stereotypes but plausible and convincing – which makes them even more dangerous. As Belvaux says “I do not demand that the audience identifies with the actors. The idea is much more that they walk in their shoes, envisage their situation, and to understand why they went in this direction.”
With this understanding of how political art can work, Belvaux has been able to make a bold and brilliant intervention in the fight against the Nazis. When asked about his motivation, he said “My hope is that the film provokes a discussion. I have tried to explain how populism functions as a great swindle. How it uses politics as a marketing instrument, and treats citizens and voters as customers, in order to meet its aims.”
“Das ist unser Land” depicts much more than the resistable rise of Marine Le Pen. It also shows us the political corruption and hopelessness that made such a rise possible. Le Pen and her Front National hated the film and tried to use the courts to prevent its release. But the new neoliberal French president Emmanuel Macron would be just as unimpressed. You could hardly get a better recommendation that that.
The original version of this review appeared in German on the marx21 Website