The obscure 2008 movie “Synecdoche, New York,” written and directed by Charlie Kaufman, originated when Sony Pictures Classics approached Kaufman about creating a horror film. Kaufman, best known for deeply wacky scripts like “Being John Malkovich,” agreed. But he wasn’t interested in making the kind of paint-by-numbers movie for teenagers that appears to take place in another dimension. Instead, he later said, he wanted to make a horror film for adults, “about things that are scary in the real world, and in our lives.”
I can attest that Kaufman succeeded. In fact, I found “Synecdoche, New York” so frightening that I’ll never watch it again. Slasher movies like “Friday the 13th” and its 11 sequels are ultimately pleasurable — they end and you wake up from the dream buzzing with the adrenaline evolution gives you to escape predators, yet realize you are not in fact being stalked by Jason Voorhees. But when “Synecdoche, New York” is over and the lights come up, you understand that what was hunting its characters is hunting you too, outside the theater, in reality.
No other movie had ever given me the same jolt of pure dread until I saw the new Field of Vision documentary “A Night at the Garden,” directed by Marshall Curry. (Field of Vision is a division of First Look Media, as is The Intercept.)
Curry’s film, watchable above, is just six minutes long, and is a tiny masterpiece. It should be taught in history and filmmaking courses, as well as in classes about human psychology.
On its surface, it’s simply about a rally held by the German-American Bund in February 1939 at the old Madison Square Garden at Eighth Avenue and 50th Street in Manhattan.
The Bund – meaning “federation” – never metastasized to any appreciable size. Estimates vary, but its dues-paying membership did not top 25,000. However, it was allied with the Christian Front, an organization inspired by the notorious anti-Semitic demagogue Father Charles Coughlin. Tens of millions of Americans tuned into Coughlin’s weekly radio show; one of his slogans was “Less care for internationalism and more concern for national prosperity.”
The Christian Front helped turn out a capacity crowd of almost 20,000 people. It’s particularly notable that this was possible in New York, then as now a symbol of liberalism, and suggests both organizations enjoyed significant passive local support far beyond those who attended.
The marquee outside reads that it is a “Pro American Rally” — to be followed the next day by the Rangers playing the Detroit Red Wings, and the day after that by Fordham facing Pittsburgh in college basketball. The night begins with marchers filing in with dozens of American flags and then standing before a huge backdrop of George Washington.
The main speaker is Fritz Kuhn, a naturalized German immigrant and head of the Bund. On the one hand, everything about him screams that he’s a buffoon and a grifter. He declares they are there “to demand that our government shall be returned to the American people who founded it” in a heavy accent that makes him sound exactly like Adolf Hilter. Even Nazi Germany’s ambassador to the U.S. found Kuhn embarrassing, once describing him as “stupid, noisy, and absurd.”
But on the other hand, no one in the Garden seems to notice or care. To the crowd’s delighted laughter, Kuhn speaks about how “the Jewish-controlled press” continually lies about him, depicting him as “a creature with horns, a cloven hoof, and a long tail.”
Then one man, 26-year-old Isadore Greenbaum, rushes the stage. Kuhn’s uniformed minions immediately seize and beat him. At some point, as the New York police grab Greenbaum and hustle him offstage, his pants are pulled down. Kuhn smirks, and the audience erupts in glee.
The movie ends with a soprano trilling the “Star-Spangled Banner.”
The next day the New York Times reported that the Bund had raised almost $8,500, the equivalent of about $150,000 now. Later that year Kuhn was convicted of embezzling all that and more — $250,000 in today’s money — from his devoted followers.
The Times article quotes leftist protesters claiming that they “were trampled by mounted police and brutally beaten by uniformed and plainclothes policemen” outside the Garden. A retired colonel complained that the costumes of many of the Bund men “would mislead the people” that they were “wearing a part of the United States uniform.”
Finally, the Times notes, the journalist Dorothy Thompson was present, and at one point was temporarily evicted for laughing. Years before, Thompson had been the Berlin bureau chief for the New York Post, and covered the rise of fascism before she was expelled from Germany in 1934. At the time of the Bund rally, she was married to Sinclair Lewis, who wrote “It Can’t Happen Here.”
Several years after the events of “A Night at the Garden,” Thompson contributed a famed article to Harper’s Magazine called “Who Goes Nazi?” In it she describes a “macabre parlor game to play at a large gathering of one’s acquaintances: to speculate who in a showdown would go Nazi. By now, I think I know.”
“Nazism,” Thompson said, “has nothing to do with race and nationality. It appeals to a certain type of mind. … The frustrated and humiliated intellectual, the rich and scared speculator, the spoiled son, the labor tyrant, the fellow who has achieved success by smelling out the wind of success — they would all go Nazi.”
But it had happened. It had simply dropped out of history. Curry found previous documentaries that used short snippets of film from that night, and engaged archival researcher Rich Remsberg to try to locate more.
Remsberg found footage scattered across the country, including at the National Archives and UCLA. There were two remarkable things about it. First, much of it was 35 mm, rather than the standard 16 or 8 mm for newsreels, so the images are surprisingly high-quality. Second, everything captured inside Madison Square Garden appears to have been shot by the Bund itself. The staging is done so skillfully it seems certain they had studied Nazi Germany’s cinematography.
Curry took the footage and used it to assemble a film that is crafty in the extreme. There are no talking head historians or narration to tell you what to feel. Instead, it leaves you with the space to decide how to feel about it for yourself.
Most notably, there is no mention of the present day United States. “Regular, nonpolitically minded Americans who watch it,” Curry hopes, “will become a tiny bit more aware of the way that, throughout history, demagogues [have] used sarcasm and humor and mob violence to whip up audiences that were otherwise decent people.”
In particular, he points to a pan of the roaring crowd after Greenbaum has been attacked and degraded: “You can see thousands of people who are in suits and dresses and hats who were probably nice to their neighbors.”
Perhaps the central moment of “A Night at the Garden” is a shot of a young uniformed boy on stage. He is maybe 8 years old, and part of the Bund youth; he appears smaller and slighter than the others. As the crowd humiliates Greenbaum and drags him away, the boy looks around for affirmation that he is not alone. Then he does a joyful jig, rubs his hands together, and performs his dance again.
This is a ferocious, simian exhilaration that can only be felt by someone who is emotionally a child. But there are always many chronological adults waiting for someone to give them permission to lay down the burden of an individual adult’s consciousness. To tell them: We’ve located the culprits causing all your frustration and pain. They look like us, like humans, but they’re not. They’re wearing a disguise. Dissolve with us into this howling mass of protoplasm, and you will be responsible for nothing.
This has happened, at various scales, innumerable times in our species’ history. It’s more profoundly a part of us than anything we think of as “politics.” Nazism and fascism are just the names we’ve given to the better organization and production values made possible by modern technology.
However, for this potential to come to fruition requires specific people making specific decisions at specific times. The title card in “A Night at the Garden” informs us this was February 20, 1939.
When I saw that date, I felt a small tug in my brain. Something else had happened the same day. What was it?
I looked through “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” and online World War II timelines, but could not find what I was looking for. I went on a long walk and tried unsuccessfully to figure it out. For 48 hours, I experienced the unpleasant sensation everyone has at some point: that you’ve forgotten something important, and won’t remember until it’s too late.
What was it?
While I am not Jewish, my father’s father was. His family came to the U.S. from Germany in the late 1800s and settled in Chicago, where he was born. After he married my grandmother, they eventually ended up in Washington, D.C. But he still had relatives in Europe.
For almost 80 years my family has saved a letter my grandfather received from his cousin Lilly Schwarz in Düsseldorf. My aunt, my father’s sister, is its current custodian. Even in 2017, its careful lettering exudes terror:
My dear Charles!
Finally I have got the address of you and will write at once. I think you will be informed by your mother about our worst things. … Now we have to wait till our number will be called up by the American Consulat in Stüttgart and that will take one or one and a half years. I am trying to emigrate for my waiting-time to England because one cannot stand all the things here. Have you or any of your friends, any acquaintances in England? Please if yes do me the favor and let me know the addresses. The only possibility to emigrate there is to have a job as a house-maid and then the Home-Office will give the permission to come and to work. …
I am interested in your personal things. Dear Aunt Helen wrote me you have a fine place in the treasury department. I can imagine that you are very busied and that this work is very satisfying. What about your wife and your little baby? I hope you are all in best health. …
Have you any idea or advice how to arrange our emigration quicker? By the way have you any connection to the government? I am supposing Washington as the seat of the government is the first town to experience the newest things. We all are expecting that the new conditions concerning the Jewish emigration will be published very shortly. You all cannot imagine how desparat the Jews are.
Is my English very funny? I am able to read English books and news-papers and I understand every word at any case always the same. I am studying the English language every free minute and have learned this winter English shorthand and know typewriting.
Please let us have a soon answer.
With many greets and much love to you all,
The tug inside my head urged me to find this letter, so I searched through old email until I finally found a transcript. Then I looked at the first line.
Lilly was 33 years old when she wrote to my grandfather. She was being stalked by a beast, and believed if she could make it to America she would be safe.
But she didn’t get here. The beast ate her. Two years later in October 1941 she was deported to the Minsk ghetto in Belarus, where she died.
When I saw the date on Lilly’s letter, I experienced a physical reaction I’d never felt before. It rippled through my body, from my head down to my toes and back again. On that day, she was more than a decade younger than I am now. She did not know that the beast hunting her was waiting in the United States too, just drowsing — and that at the exact moment she was writing her hopeless plea, tens of thousands of cheering, ordinary, banal Americans were trying to wake it up.
That’s why “A Night at the Garden” is a movie of true horror. It’s over in six minutes, but your fear will continue. You will realize that the beast is everywhere, because we take it with us wherever we go.
In most places, at most times, the beast is in hibernation. Many white Americans believe that’s always been the case here, although everyone who’s not white knows it’s stumbled about groggily for much of U.S. history. Still, it’s never quite reached full consciousness. And societies must roll snake eyes 10 times in a row for it to come to complete waking fury. As of this moment we’ve gotten maybe only four bad rolls, so the odds of it happening in the U.S. remain quite low. But I’ve learned for sure in the past year that they’re still higher than I ever imagined. On certain days, we can see the beast’s eyelids fluttering.
Because I feel such a strong sense of Lilly from her letter, I’ve sometimes imagined meeting her somehow on another plane of existence. I’d like to be able to tell my cousin twice-removed that her suffering meant something to us, that we learned from it, and did everything we could to keep the beast anesthetized. But that would be a lie. Americans are as ignorant and vain and blind as all the other people who’ve ever lived, and if you watch “A Night at the Garden,” and truly see it, you’ll understand that absolutely anything is possible.
Lilly Schwarz’s letter can be seen in higher resolution here.