What were THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD?: a spoiler-filled dissection of the film
THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD is one of those fractally wrong films, but any dissection of it should probably begin with how the bones of it are fundamentally broken: It wants to tell a story of oppression, with a thinly veiled Hitler-analogue, where the oppressed get little to no presence within the story.
Unlike the Harry Potter books, where the conflict is between the pureblood and the muggleborn, Grindelwald’s goal is dominion over the muggles. He makes this clear in his great speech at the climax of the film and his message there is what will presumably spur on his rise in wizard politics.
But the broken metaphor goes further, the finale plays out like a centrist parable of how any attempt to shut down hate speech from the Alt-Right would only radicalise them further and make other flock to their cause. The Aurors arrive at Grindelwald’s rally in which he outlines how the wizards must take over all muggles for their own good (to prevent World War II) and Grindelwald makes a big show of how his audience are not the violent ones. A twitchy auror kills (or perhaps simply wounds, it is unclear) a woman and Grindelwald urges the gathered crowd to spread the word of what they have seen. Only after they’ve all left does Grindelwald unleash his blue fire monster and the big action finale begins and multiple aurors are consumed in flame.
It was very hard for me watching Crimes, which is attempting political commentary and relevance, not to think of Charlottesville. Not to think of how this is a ham-fisted attempt at criticising no platforming policies and Antifascist demonstrations. Not to mention, the woman who died at that rally was not a Nazi. Heather Heyer died fighting Nazis.
It cannot be stressed enough that this film is ultimately trying to say that silencing hate speech is playing into the hands of Nazis. It’s a recurring theme, perhaps the film’s only clear one. Dumbledore, that great font of wisdom, warns against the aurors that being brutal towards Grindelwald’s supporters because that’s just playing into his hands.
And then it comes to pass. Excatly as he had foretold.
Crimes was admittedly filmed in late 2017 and presumably written before that, but that doesn’t excuse how frustatingly irrelevant and nonsensical the points it is straining to make feels.
For all that Grindelwald is obviously sugar-coating his more odious beliefs, telling his more loyal followers that they don’t say things outright but merely believe in “freedom”, the film allows him platform after platform uninterrupted. He strusts and seduces, aruging that he doesn’t hate muggles but merely views them as different and in need of guidance. He wants to protect them from themselves. He thinks there will always be a need for beasts of burden. And so on and so forth.
The good guys, on the other hand, remain strangely mute. Dumbledore frowns and sighs on the subject of Grindelwald, gazes longingly at apparitions of their more innocent days but never does he utter a word of refutation. The ministry wrings it hands, fearing escalation and sends assassins out for Credence (who somehow survived the last film), but they have nothing to say ideologically on the subject. They barely bring up how Grindelwald is literal wanted terrorist. Everyone who isn’t Grindelwald seem purposefully opaque in their own beliefs and where they stand. For all that Theseus Scamander claims that everyone will have to pick a side, the anti-Grindelwald side is deeply undefined. Even our hero, Newt states that he would not take part in this impending war, saying he doesn’t “do” sides. What finally lures him to Paris seems more to be the prospect of seeing Tina Goldstein again rather than subverting Grindelwald’s plans.
Even more than that, the characers are strangely mute on the actual titular crimes of Grindelwald. What he intends or has done is all portrayed with very little horror. For a character meant to be wizard Hitler, there is this obliviousness. And perhaps it is intentional, to potray an apathetic world allowing evil to happen, but that doesn’t ring true.
Grindelwald begins the film in prison and I vaguely remember he was a wanted terrorist in Fantastic Beasts, but there remains weightlessness to his crimes, unlike Voldemort or even Sirius Black. The reader is very aware that Voldemort killed Harry’s parents, tried to kill him and quite a lot of other people. When Sirius Black escaped Azkaban, it is repeated to Harry again and again that Sirius is a murderer and not to be trusted.
In contrast, Grindelwald’s actual crimes are never detailed to the audience. Few of them affect the named characters. He kills a family with a toddler in Paris but there is no fallout to this. The audience witnesses this, but Queenie never asks about the portraits on the wall of the nice house that Grindelwald and his followers are operating out of. No auror talks about missing muggles and none of the wizards worry aloud about this. Dumbledore wants to save Credence but utters no words about all the muggles of Paris who are endangered.
This all is perhaps why there are those in fandom who conclude that Grindelwald is justified in his actions, because the film offers no alternative to them nor seeks to dismantle his arguments.
For all that ongoing plot may be the rise of Grindelwald, the film itself is structured around Newt’s hunt for Credence, who appears to be an important pawn in a strange prophecy. Newt is tasked by Dumbledore to save Credence, whilst the Ministery attempt to him in order to prevent the prophecy from coming true and Grindelwald desires to recruit him for his own reasons.
But Credence is also at the ideological center of this maelstrom. One of the very first scenes of the film is a conversation observing how despite his imprisonment, Grindelwald keeps seducing onto his side the guards outside his cell. It sets appears to me to be the underlying theme of Crimes: Why do wizards side with Grindelwald? And in the figure of Credence, a volatile but powerful Obscurial that both Dumbledore and Grindelwald seem intensely interested in recruiting, is this question further crystalised.
It is deeply unclear how he survived the end of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them? and one might still be reeling from the strange jumble of dark unresolved themes in between the endearing magical animal sequences, but there are no answers here about that. Many a reviewer have picked up on Credence’s subplot being one of destructive repression under abusive religious parenting, but that is not continued here. Dumbledore mentions how he hopes Credence may recover if he if truly loved by his birth siblings, but the mechanics of the Obscurial and even Credence’s exact emotional state remain opaque. We do know, however, that the friendship of his companion, Nagini, is implicitly inadequate for quieting the parasitic Obscurus.
Instead of a character study of Credence and why he ultimately decides to go with Grindelwald, we get instead a twisting mystery (complete with red herrings) about his parentage. For a film that is trying to refute racist ideologies, Crimes is perversely obsessed with lineage and blood. Credence believes that his parentage, his birth mother, holds the key to who he is and nothing and no one in the narrative argue against him on this front. He’s apparently right. Blood is destiny for him.
Credence’s search culminates in the Lestrange crypt with characters tearfully revealing reams of backstory, of how Corvus Lestrange had abducted and raped Laurena Kama, how Laurena’s grief-mad husband made his son, Yusuf Kama vow to destroy what Corvus Lestrange loved most, how Corvus Lestrange tried to protect his son Corvus II by sending him to America, how Leta Lestrange swapped her baby brother with another random (and coincidentally pureblood) infant. And so on and so forth.
But it all feels weightless as it remains largely irrelevant to our viewpoint protagonist of Newt Scamander and none of that gives any answers. As Corvus drowned and Leta does not recall whose cradle she robbed. It is only when ensconsced in Nurmengard Castle that Grindelwald reveals to Credence that he is a Dumbledore and presumably was recruited for leverage against Albus Dumbledore himself.
There is nothing narratively satisfying about Credence siding with Grindelwald. There is little insight into Credence beyond he’s lost and scared and desperate. There is no further reason to Newt’s failure to find him beyond he was just late to everything and vaguely bad at it. Credence and Newt barely manage a conversation throughout the film. It all seems driven by a string of convenient coincidences, with the screenplay manouvering characters from one set piece to another without creating a central theme or point.
It is difficult not to keep returning to the fact that this is a story about Wizard Hitler where he gets to do all the talking.
It’s also worth noting here that the intention might have been for Grindelwald to be blond-haired and blue-eyed as per the Aryan ideal, aggressive colour grading means that he appears paper-white in the film (with one pale blue eye and one black one) making him seem more like an evil albino.
But beyond the uncomfortably queer-coded Grindelwald, we have the protagonist of Newt who remains only tangentially related to the grand sweet of history around him. Eddie Redmayne continues to give the character a lot of endearing awkwardness and his subversive, quiet masculinity is still here but is far less central to the narrative, just as his titular fantastical beasts are no longer driving the plot.
It’s also worth noting that despite Yates’ assurances that Dumbledore would be very explicitly gay in the film, he just isn’t. He utters a line that he and Grindelwald were closer than brothers, but that could as easily be read as foreshadowing the blood oath they swore to each other.
It is in fact very hard to put one’s finger on what is driving the plot beyond a string of searches, chases and parentage arguments that culminate in Grindelwald’s rally. It is perhaps because of this odd hollowness to the plot that one just begins to fixate on all the characters in the margins who simply don’t get their due. It is partly in frustration that I end up craving all the other stories that exist in this world that I am only getting the edges of.
I doubt this is entirely intentional, given how sympathetically Queenie is framed and how little everyone seems to freak out about mind-control and memory alteration in the wizarding world, but Queenie’s arc reads to me as a refutation of interracial romance solving racism and it is quite possibly my favourite part of the film.
Despite Jacob being very much in love with her, Queenie has mind-controlled him into the engagement. Newt notices the magic and talks her into undoing the magic. Jacob is understandably angry about being mind-controlled and he explains that he doesn’t want to marry Queenie because it would make them both criminals under American wizard law, which enforces segregation between No-Majs and wizards. Their argument escalates with Jacob calling Queenie “crazy” and she storms off. She fails to find her sister Tina in Paris and after wandering lost in the rain, she is taken in by Grindelwald’s underlings and eventually meets with him. He assures her that he is nothing like what people say and is in fact fighting for the freedom to love. By the end of the film, she pledges her loyalty to Grindelwald, telling Jacob that the dark wizard is fighting for what they want.
Queenie is the only female character who has a drop of agency in the entire film and there’s a certain whiplash to how charming she was in the last film.
She’s now shown to not really care about Jacob’s feelings. She treats him like a toy or a pet, thinking it completely reasonable to have mind-controlled him into an engagement and going to London with her. No one quite calls her out for this and throughout the film, Jacob remains deeply in love with her and eventually attempts a reconciliation. He mutters to himself that he should be grateful that someone like her would find his thoughts interesting enough to read. Having her join Grindelwald feels like the narrative finally acknowledging how horrifying their relationship was.
And this, to me, feels like a subversion of the oft-repeated trope that an interracial romance is all it takes to solve racism. It’s a poisonous trope because it is very possible to feel sexual desire for someone whose race, whose gender you disdain. Many white parents are deeply ignorant of the prejudices their mixed race children face. For all that it may be appealling for the idea of love to be an antidote for hate, having an Asian fetish does not make one less racist. And by the same token, Queenie and Jacob’s love for each other, however real, has not made Queenie consider muggles people worthy of agency and basic rights. As can be seen in the way she treats Jacob. She also seems oblivious to the fact that Grindelwald is operating out of a muggle’s house (the photos don’t move), asking no questions as to how they came into possession of it. She seems less naively taken in by Grindelwald’s lies and more unable to perceive he and his followers’ callous disregard for muggles because she shares that disregard.
However, it is also worth noting that as Queenie and Tina are coded Jewish with their surname Goldstein. So for all that I have this probably atextual reading of her arc that I’m keen on, having her join wizard Hitler by the end of the film is decidedly Not Okay.
I said on twitter that if someone told me there was a revisionist Wicked-style fanfic focused on the untold story of Nagini where she’s an Asian woman with a degenerative hereditary condition, I would absolutely eat it up. There is the potential for telling a brilliant story, but only if it’s willing to argue with canon and put Nagini in the center of the story.
For all that I was uncomfortable with the reveal, I wanted very much to like her.
But in the end, there is very little to like. Nagini has hardly any lines. It might even be better if she didn’t have lines because currently her silence doesn’t so much feel like a deliberate choice that says something about her as no one in the production thought her interesting enough to give her any lines of significance.
Nagini is introduced by the ringmaster of a circus freakshow who tells her backstory as being from Indonesia and that she may appear a beautiful woman, she is in fact born with a blood curse that means she will eventually transform irreversably into a snake. His speech is sleazy and dehumanising, dwelling on her exotic beauty as he forces her to transform for the crowds. She escapes with the help of Credence but she never changes out of her blue performing outfit with the plunging neckline and high slit.
That she never changes out of it is not only an impracticality (all the other characters wear long, warm coats). It’s also that she doesn’t develop outside of the parameters of her performing “alluring snake woman” persona. The dress and her coiling hairstyle are both snake-themed. The dress is sexual and exoticising, presumably something that was forced upon her to wear. As they approach Hogwarts at the end of the film, she has a coat draped over her shoulders but even that seems half-hearted and hints more at someone having given her a coat than an expression of herself. This is the equivalent of Leia never changing out of her slave girl bikini for the rest of the film. It’s both narratively and thematically nonsense.
But it’s not just her costume. Nagini doesn’t get to speak enough to define herself beyond what the ringmaster has said about her. There’s just nothing else to her character. We know her to be friends with Credence, but how that friendship came to be is not depicted within the film itself. Nor do their talk much about his obsessive quest to find his birth mother. She seems introduced in order to give him someone to voice his brooding thoughts at but even that is strangely lacking from the film.
Surely a woman with a hereditary condition has a lot to say about the idea that blood is destiny, but we never hear any of that. Does she have goals of her own? A lost family that she wants to track down? Might she want revenge on the ringmaster or to free her friends from the circus? We don’t know.
She just follows him from scene to scene, looking vaguely and beautifully worried.
At the end of the film, Credence has abandoned her to join Grindelwald, whose ideology holds her as an abomination. Again, we have no insight into how she is reacting to this, only that she’s joined the character party of Theseus and Newt in going to Hogwarts. What will become of her after that? Where will she go? Where does she want to go?
This all makes the pre-film hype about her inclusion feel all the more frustrating. We were promised a character. But we don’t actually learn any more about her from watching the film than the trailer and JKR tweets. She has no impact on the plot itself beyond being part of the string of coincidence that allows Credence to be tracked.
I still remember the interview in which Claudia Kim says she’s excited for us the audience to meet the new Nagini and I’m honestly still waiting.
Speaking of characters that take part in the string of coincidences, we have Tina Goldstein, who does almost nothing of consequene in the plot. She is in Paris to track down Credence and thus provides the reason why Queenie and Newt go to Paris, but she doesn’t actually accomplish much herself, having been kidnapped by Yusuf Kama. A misunderstanding over a magazine article means her relationship with Newt has reset to awkward flirtation again.
Leta Lestrange is somewhat less shortchanged in terms of screentime, but she still deserves far better. There’s a lot of promise to her character, as arguably the first likeable Slytherin and her scenes with Newt have a certain poignance but the love triangle with Theseus doesn’t quite coalesce. She is defined by her dark secret that we don’t learn until too late where it becomes just another in a long string of reveals about Credence. This article from The Mary Sue (“Leta Lestrange is a Massive Disappointment”) is excellent further reading on her, especially how on the trope of the tragic mulatto.
I love the costumes of Crimes and long been a fan of Colleen Atwood. The trim suits, the periods dresses and the long coats are all beautiful. I covet much of it.
But, that said, the films have clearly given up on any visual differentiation between wizarding world fashion and muggle fashion. It has even given up on much of the Secret World conceit, with barely any entering of hidden areas or worrying about being seen by muggles.
It’s a design choice that has implications for the wizarding world, such as there possibly being a reactionary cultural backlash rejecting muggle fashions and returning to the goold old days of robes at some point between 1920s and the 1990s.
Speculation aside, it also means that in any given street reaction shot it is impossible to tell if the extras are muggles or wizards. Am I seeing wizards be surprised and scared or are these muggles who are now in danger? Arguably this could feed a thematic point that wizards and muggles aren’t actually so different after all, but it again lacks teeth and a feeling of intention.
There’s a lot more troubling world building around the edges of the story, with JKR seemingly intent on making the past of the wizarding world more dystopic and less wondrous. We see far more house elves slaving silently in the background of the film. We are also introduced to a servant who is a “half-elf”, presumably meaning house elf given her stature, number of fingers and harder to trace magic.
The Crimes of Grindelwald paints an uncomfortably dark world that has little of that escapist coziness of the books. Perhaps this is a good thing given all the problematic subtext of the original but this is a darker world that adds very little. I’m the first to defend exposition as interesting if correctly contextualised, but all of this is merely unpleasant, with neither nuance nor insightful commentary.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them ended on a dark note for me, for all that the music was swelling, Credence Barebone was dead and those that tried to save him had failed. There was little to celebrate.
And this? This is even worse.
 The problematic absence of good muggle characters as well as how JKR depicts “Britishness” in the original heptalogy is something I’ve written about before, but it works well enough in the confines of its own narrative as the focus is on prejudice faced by the muggleborn. Hermione is herself muggleborn as well as Lily Potter, Harry’s mother, and we see how the sneers and slurs spoken by schoolyard bullies escalates to murder and societal oppression. In Chamber of Secrets, we learn that Hogwarts founders fought over whether their school should admit muggleborn students, culminating in Salazar Slytherin building a secret chamber and vowing to purge the school one day of muggle influences. Voldemort overthrows not the muggle government in Deathly Hallows but the Ministry of Magic.
 Many people have written about it as an imperfect metaphor for racism, but it personally rings most true as a story about the scholarship kid at a British public school. But that’s a blogpost for another day.
 Rowling confirms this in interviews, but even before that Grindelwald was first introduced as an evil German wizard defeated by Dumbledore in 1945. It is a recognised trope in secret world or urban fantasy settings that there would be fantastical equivelents to real historical touchstones and Grindelwald was thus read as Wizard Hitler. Later books give more details of his pureblood supremicist ideology and his base of operations being Nurmengard, a reference to the anti-Jewish Nuremberg Laws.