Fascism and cinema at the Toronto International Film Festival
Karra Elejalde in ‘While at War’

TORONTO—While we’re on the theme of fascism and Nazism (see my review on Jojo Rabbit), it should be noted that there were several other new films at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) that addressed this increasingly popular subject.

Fascism is defined as an authoritarian, nationalistic right-wing system of government and social organization. It’s appeared throughout history in many disparate countries, including Nazi Germany, Franco’s Spain, Pinochet’s Chile, to name a few. Many people think we’re flirting with the idea here in the United States. It’s a common topic of discussion as many major films have been made that recreate and help us better understand the emergence, development, and practice of this intolerant and destructive force.

Some of the more than 350 films at TIFF 2019 offered a chance to reexamine some of these monumental societal upheavals that resulted in the death of millions and total destruction of civil society.

Patricio Guzmán is a Chilean filmmaker who has dedicated his life and talents to documenting the tragedy that occurred in his country after the people democratically elected the Popular Unity candidate for president, Senator Salvador Allende in 1970. Opposed by the United States government, which was actively involved in a military coup, Allende was brought down and replaced by the dictator General Augusto Pinochet.

Guzmán was a cameraman at the time and filmed the entire historic period in an award-winning three-part documentary called The Battle of Chile. The footage was smuggled out of the country at great risk and Guzmán had to flee his homeland. Since those traumatic times, he has made 28 films, all about Chile. Of note is The Pinochet Case (2001), Salvador Allende (2004) and Nostalgia for the Light (2010). They are all filled with history, passion, and love for progressive Chile. His newest offering is The Cordillera of Dreams, once again a meditative essay on how his homeland suffered from fascism.

The Andes mountain range separates Chile from its eastern neighbor, Argentina. It’s considered the “backbone” of the region, and Guzmán here reflects on the role and importance it plays in Chilean history. The panoramic mountains are gorgeously filmed as we enter a time and place more than 40 years ago. The times are brought back by interviews with and archival footage from a fellow filmmaker, Pablo Salas, who actually remained in Chile after the coup and documented its development to the present time. Amazing footage of activists opposing the Pinochet junta, risking their lives to rid the country of fascism, and historic events leading up to removal of the dictator in 1988, make the film a lesson in struggle and a must-see for progressives.

Over in Spain, we are witness to a coup that took place in 1936 to overthrow the left-wing Spanish Republican government. In a new film entitled While At War, by award-winning Spanish-Chilean director Alejandro Amenábar, the popular author and rector Miguel de Unamuno decides to support the uprising to help bring normalcy to a chaotic country heading into war. But once Generalísimo Francisco Franco enters the fray with his Nationalist Army, many of Unamuno’s former colleagues go missing. The writer has connections in high places and visits Franco and his leadership to try to save some of his friends but quickly realizes the brutality of the dictatorship. His final speech of regret to his colleagues at the University of Salamanca is in the historical record as a plea for reason and sanity. The Spanish Civil War resulted in almost a million deaths and brought a fascist government to power that lasted until 1975. The title refers to a clause in a war paper that limited Franco’s powers to only “while at war.” But it lasted much longer.

Renowned American director Terrence Malick has transitioned into films of profound philosophical questioning. Famed for A Tree of Life, To the Wonder and The Thin Red Line, he has come up with his latest offering, A Hidden Life, about a conscientious objector in Austria in 1936. Like the other films mentioned here, we are seeing how people deal with the rise of fascism. This treatment is mostly impressionistic, with sparse dialogue enhanced by stunning visuals of the Austrian countryside where farmer Franz Jägerstätter lives with his ordinary family about to face the onslaught of war. When approached by military officials, he refuses to sign the Hitler oath and is arrested and imprisoned.

Although the film is well directed and intentioned, I question the choice of focusing on a person who simply refuses to be in a war. That’s a noble and morally sound position, but Franz speaks seldom, doesn’t explain his reasoning to others or even speak out against Hitler and fascism, to a world that will soon be engulfed by the worst destruction humankind has ever known. Over 50 million people died and destruction covered a wide range of the earth. There were many who chose to protest, to fight and to work and even give their lives to end the scourge of fascism. To those, we owe the ultimate gratitude. And there are other great films about them.


Bill Meyer
Bill Meyer

Bill Meyer frequently writes movie reviews for People’s World, often from film festivals. He is a keyboardist at Bill Meyer Music and a current member of the Detroit Federation of Musicians. He lives in Hamtramck, Michigan.