I’ve been thinking a lot about Henry Bean’s 2001 film The Believer. In it, Ryan Gosling plays a self-hating Jew who joins a fascist group with the intention of killing high-profile Jews in New York. I’m less thinking about what the point of the film is and more about a specific scene at the beginning that stands out. Here’s the tail end of it:
That’s Billy Zane as Curtis Zampf, a wealthy intellectual attempting to mainstream a modern fascist movement. His speech leading up to his proclamation of why he’s a fascist will probably sound familiar, and the script had more dialogue that was apparently cut. Here’s the full speech, edited for formatting:
CURTIS: Where I grew up in South Boston twenty years ago, when a kid walked down the street, everyone knew who he was. If he ran out in front of a car, some old Mick’d yell at him, “Jimmy Dunne, get back on that sidewalk and stay there.” The day he graduated high school, he’d go see his uncle down at the gas works, or the priest’s brother in the shipyard, get his apprentice papers, eight years later he’d be making $16.50 an hour, have four kids, play ball on Sundays in Columbus Park, and when he died, the whole town’d get drunk and cry over him. Today, when that kid walks down the street it’s full of trash and half the faces are black. The shipyard’s closed, all the jobs at the gas works are set-asides, and by the time he drops out of school, he can barely get a job at Burger King. So he drinks, smokes crack, and when he hangs himself on the front porch at twenty-three, the only people at his wake are a couple of buddies and his mother. The boy’s father won’t find out he’s dead till six months later.
CURTIS: The soul of this country is being destroyed, and all the government can offer is free trade, mutual funds, and IPOs.
GUY: You sound like a leftist.
CURTIS: I used to be. No, seriously I called myself an anarchist. I stood up for the oppressed. I opposed state power.
OLD MAN: Don’t you still?
CURTIS: I oppose the present state because it’s weak. It has been ever since the left emasculated it over Vietnam. But I think the average man is crushed less by accumulated capital than the loss of community or real leadership, the personal emptiness he simply cannot fill on his own. That’s why I’m a fascist. It’s the only form of government that addresses our deepest needs.
Most of the film is about Daniel Balint (Ryan Gosling) wrestling with himself over the faith he abandoned as a child and the pent-up rage and self-loathing (fostered by his belief Jews allowed themselves to be massacred in the Holocaust, and that makes them—and by extension him—inherently weak) that have led him to become a virulent anti-Semite. Unfortunately, there isn’t much else like the above scene where the impetus of a modern fascist movement or its methods or “ideology” (for lack of a better word) are described, except toward the end of the film when Danny meets again with Zampf (along with the equally sinister Lina Moebius, played by Theresa Russell) about how they want to use traditional, elite-respected channels to spread their ideas: “We want to build bridges to certain positions in the political mainstream. Works like The Bell Curve, Sociobiology, Earth First, the Genome Project. We want to have lectures, invite blacks and Jews and liberals, Chomsky speaks, Stanley Crouch.”
Though the film doesn’t dwell much on Zampf and Moebius, it captures something fundamental about fascism, whether intentionally or not. Zampf is a well-spoken, well-educated, wealthy, charismatic, handsome man who is willing to at least temporarily shelve his hatred of Jews, ethnic minorities, and liberals to give his movement the air of intellectual heft it needs in order to sit itself at the table of serious ideas. At the same time, he and Moebius quietly allow Balint and his thuggish friends to pursue a cruder path of executing Jews and deface synagogues with a fairly loose agenda and organization. What’s captured about fascism is its inherent irrationality, the ability to promote fascism as real intellectually and morally acceptable alternative to the present form of government while simultaneously shrugging off the targeting of specific groups.
Arguably the most enigmatic scene is when Balint, whom Zampf and Moebius have discovered is a gifted speaker, gives a speech to a group of affluent right-wingers with its expected substance to be virulently anti-Semitic. But Balint’s speech both is anti-Semitic and not. He argues that Jews have used victimization throughout their existence to further their existence, and that explicitly hating Jews plays into the scheme they’ve devised for self-preservation. Instead, he suggests that the way to eliminate Jews, even though it would make them even more powerful, is to “love them.” Watch it yourself:
The script gives a clearer explanation of what the audience’s reaction is supposed to be: they respond positively when asked whether they want to see Jews destroyed. They become silent when he asks whether they want them to become more powerful than ever before. And they are shocked when he instructs that they must love Jews in order to defeat them, though doing so would elevate them to the level of God. At this point, the crowd gives up. Moebius admonishes Balint and severs ties with him.
But what one of the final scenes reveals is that Balint’s idea, given as he was in the midst of a change of heart, is paradoxically accepted by the fascists. When a reporter asks Moebius for her reaction to the murder of Ilio Manzetti, a prominent Jewish banker, and the murderer is suspected to be Danny Balint, the following exchange occurs:
REPORTER: You’re saying that when [Danny Balint] first appeared at your house, you had no idea he was Jewish…
MOEBIUS: None whatsoever. But I have to admit, I’m not terribly surprised.
REPORTER: What do you mean?
MOEBIUS: I think anti-Semitism today is largely a Jewish phenomenon. Wouldn’t you agree?
REPORTER: In the Third Reich, weren’t a number of high-ranking Nazis of Jewish origin?
MOEBIUS: Yes, and they were said to be the most virulent proponents of the Final Solution. Really, who but a Jew would want to kill Ilio Manzetti simply because he was Jewish? Who thinks about such things?
And this illustrates one reason it’s so difficult to pin down fascism. As Balint points out, the hoodlums he runs with and the average joes he encounters in meetings have no idea why they hate Jews or blacks—they just do. For them, as Balint explains, it’s the same feeling they get when they see a rat scurry across the floor. At the same time, its intellectual proponents (in the movie’s case, Zampf and Moebius) are completely aware of the crass and unacceptable nature of outright anti-Semitism, and in any of their speeches they never allude to it. Before Balint delivers his tirade to the potential donors, Moebius instructs him not to discuss Jews at all. This is the central irrationality that fascism relies on—that, for example, a tenant that seems pertinent to its appeal and end goals (anti-Semitism, in this case) both is and is not essential to the ideology. To the mouth-breathers it’s everything. To the intellectuals it’s a nuisance for the lower classes to dwell on. And yet they’re on the same side with no clear objectives other than power and violence.