Nazi Iconography in Star Wars and Modern Day Art


(This piece was previously published on December 15th, 2015)

As millions have eagerly awaited to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens in 2015, the media blitz has been massive. Every conceivable topic that can be explored on the subject has been explored. Notably, an interview with director JJ Abrams revealed what inspired him when creating the film’s villains. “That all came out of conversations about what would have happened if the Nazis all went to Argentina but then started working together again.”

Abrams is referring to the remnants of the Third Reich which fled Germany after their defeat in World War II. Nazis are in a sense the villains of one of the most anticipated films of the year. What may be most shocking about this revelation however, is that this is not the first time Nazis have been used as an inspiration for a Star Wars movie.

“The Nazis are basically the same costume as we used in the first film and they are designed to be very authoritarian, very empire-like,” George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, states on the commentary track to the Empire Strikes Back. The entirety of the fictitious Galactic Empire is based on the very real empire that was the Third Reich. The Empire’s soldiers are known as Stormtroopers, similar to the Nazi stormtroopers or Sturmabteilun. A führer is also represented in the form of The Emperor. They occupy planets in the same way the Nazis occupied countries. Much of the overall design of the Empire is taken from Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 Nazi propaganda feature Triumph of the Will.

Lucas is anything but subtle in the association between the two. He wants you to know his villains are bad, so he made them up to look like some of the most famous villains in all of history. Yet what does this say about those who dress up as Stormtroopers for Halloween? Are they simply not just dressed up as Nazis with a fresh coat of paint? Surely people watch Star Wars for entertainment, but this has appeared to allow them to tip toe around the fact that the villains we all seemingly love are based upon despicable people. Are worship of Star Wars and our constant imitations of it has kept the art associated with the Nazis alive and well. So it begs the question, is it morally ethical to repurpose Nazi iconography in modern art?

In 1975, political writer and filmmaker Susan Sontag published an essay entitled “Fascinating Fascism”, in which she dissects the work of Leni Riefenstahl. Riefenstahl had long claimed she simply made documentaries, her films were merely representations of history. Sontag refutes this, pointing to the fact all of Riefenstahl’s films made under the Nazi regime were propaganda features which are films designed, shot and edited to promote a certain cause. They cannot be mere reflections of history since they do not reflect what was happening, they reflect what the Nazis wanted to promote. “Fascist art glorifies surrender; it exalts mindlessness: it glamorizes death,” writes Sontag.

No matter how you spin it, Triumph of the Will promotes a Nazi agenda. Though Sontag goes on to state Riefenstahl’s films are some of the best made features in history, she states,

“Nobody making films today alludes to Riefenstahl, while many film makers (including myself) regard the early Soviet director Djiga Vertov as an inexhaustible provocation and source of ideas about film language.”

It is telling that for Sontag’s generation, none of them took inspiration from Riefenstahl. Sontag and peers were alive when the horrors of the Nazis were still fresh in the minds of the public. The only references to Riefenstahl’s propaganda at the time was in American propaganda for purposes of vilifying the Nazis and in satires such as Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, which also vilified Nazis. Yet Sontag wrote her essay in 1975 while unbeknownst to her, a new generation of filmmakers were studying Triumph of the Will in film schools.

It was in film school where George Lucas was first introduced to Riefenstahl’s work and in 1977, only two years after Sontag’s essay was published, Lucas would visually reference Triumph of the Will in Star Wars. Lucas would not be alone, as many of his contemporaries would follow suit. Ridley Scott recreated the opening shots of Triumph of the Will to represent they tyrannical Rome in Gladiator. Peter Jackson would be inspired by both Lucas and Riefenstahl when creating his massive armies for The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, photographing the sprawling Uruk-hai troops in the same way the Nazi rallies were.

The images have been embedded into popular culture, and popular art today owes a lot to Riefenstahl’s work. However, many films today are inspired by Star Wars; it changed the face of the film industry and cemented the summer blockbuster as the primary form of entertainment. Filmmakers constantly allude to it in everything from Guardians of the Galaxy to Independence Day, which includes Lucas’ textualization of Triumph of the Will. Yes, the pro-American, Fourth of the July spectacle that is Independence Day contains elements of Nazi propaganda. Yet it is not seen as such, it is seen as alluding to Star Wars, as all these films do. The original meaning has all been but lost. It is an erasure of the context.

Numerous art pieces have made it a point to express how our modern culture repurposes and repackages Nazis and their art. In 1993, Calvin Klein released a series of ads for their newest perfume entitled Obsession. The ads feature black and white photos of stark nude bodies, emphasizing the details of the body and giving off a sense of authority. Some ads even featured statues, sculpted to perfection, many of which had been sculpted in Germany during WWII. Artist Maciej Toporowicz took note of the ads and came to the conclusion that contemporary advertisement shared much in common with Nazi propaganda. To test his theory, he created a piece entitled Obsession in 1994. It consisted of over 200 posters, all of which where black and white photos of Nazi or Holocaust imagery with Calvin Klein adverts imposed on top of the image. Figure 1 depicts one of these posters featuring a Nazi statue with the words Obsession, the Calvin Klein fragrance, written bellow it.

The posters were scattered around New York City. Though Nazi iconography should be something one would be alarmed to see plastered on a wall, many people thought the posters were part of the new Calvin Klein campaign. Calvin Klein did not endorse Toporowicz’s piece and it soon became a controversial news piece. This mattered little to Toporowicz as it had proved his point, the iconography had been engrained into advertising culture to the point where most had become oblivious to the original context. We have, in a way, come to admire Nazi art. If Nazi-esque images are prevalent in our ads to the point we cannot notice it, it must mean the ads are effective.

Why else would advertisers recycle such images? Even our depictions of Nazis have drastically changed. The Nazis, an art installation by Piotr Uklanski, explores pop culture’s fascination with Nazis in film. The installation is a collection of 122 headshots of actors portraying German soldiers in popular films, as seen in Figure 2. The piece represents how prevalent the Nazis themselves are in our media. The installation goes to show just how ubiquitous Nazis are in cinema, and how confidently they are depicted. Numerous actors represented are notable sex icons, like Marlon Brando. It is striking that many of the Nazis are portrayed by people the general public sees as desirable, though Susan Sontag notes,

“If the message of fascism has been neutralized by an aesthetic view of life, its trappings have been sexualized. This eroticization of fascism has been remarked, but mostly in connection with its fancier and more publicized manifestations, as in Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask and Storm of Steel, and in films like Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising, Visconti’s The Damned, and Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter.”

As the public has grown more and more acceptable of Nazi iconography, the more the aesthetics of it appeals to us. This is why it works when advertisements use images such as these, because rather than protest in disgust, we accept it as fashionable. Though is it really bad if what was once Nazi iconography is now common place?

Figure 2

Why do we like villains? While in terms of Star Wars it may seem sadistically ironic that fans dress up as Nazi caricatures, what attracts them to the villains in the first place is the story itself. In the case of Indiana Jones, many fans dress up as the villains, actual Nazis in this instance. Why would anyone do that? The simple answer is that those characters and their looks are considered classic in the film world.

We love to watch and hate bad guys; our culture is built around them. Breaking Bad was a show centered around a drug dealing antagonist and audiences craved it. The show won numerous awards and has been hailed as one of the greatest television shows ever made. It is not a new trend either. “There is a long history of the romantic or glamorous villain throughout literature and film. Universal horror films were built on the attractive and sometimes sympathetic monster,” says Dr. Stacey Abbott of London’s Roehampton University.

A hero’s story is straightforward and limited. They can be swayed by evil, but he or she must remain good. A villain can have all the fun, and they can represent a dark or “forbidden” side of life we never get to witness. This can be alluring to an audience and we often gravitate towards it. Most people are aware of the simple fact that the villain, while entertaining, is still evil. They are alluring and fascinating precisely because we know they are evil. If one sees a slasher villain in a horror movie, they are not going to go out and start stabbing people, because they understand there is still a difference between the hero and the villain. People will replicate the hero naturally as films often depict this as the correct choice. Evil may look fun, but it never pays as the saying goes. We are also removed directly from any consequences of rooting for a villain during a movie since a film is often a work of fiction. An audience may see a villain committing unspeakable acts of murder, but it is all fake. The audience knows it is fake because what you see on screen can not be real, film is an illusion. Even documentaries have to be edited, and when you put two images together they create meaning. So even a representation of real life is artificial and false in a sense.

This is why the Nazis have had continued popularity in cinema. Yes, it has a real world equivalent, but most audiences inherently know what they are witnessing is fake. Film can never do something like the Holocaust justice because there are too many facets to cover in one film. This combined with the continued popularity of villains, it is no wonder that in 1998, Uklanski had so many faces for his installation because Nazis as villains are popular and easy to understand. Most people know Nazis are inherently bad guys, that is why they have become a stock villain. They are even villains in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as the main opponents of Captain America. Nazis still reign supreme on people’s list of worst things ever to happen in the world. Just because they pop up in film and pop culture often does not mean everyone has embraced The Third Reich. If anything, the continued popularity has shown just how much the world still despises them, with being compared to Hitler still being a popular insult.

Does this excuse our appropriation of Nazi iconography though? It was never truly the Nazi’s iconography to begin with. The swastika, which is commonly identified as the logo of the Nazis, was originally a symbol steeped in religion. It has basis in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism; dating back over 2000 years. Nazi propaganda, which has been noted has seemingly been taken up by modern American marketing, was itself inspired by American advertising. Paul Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda, cited Edward Bernays’ Crystalizing Public Opinion as his main source of inspiration and guide for how to led the Nazi propaganda department. Bernays is often noted as the father of public relations, who’s work led to the modern adverting boom. This was n0t lost on American advertisers either. The American trade publication Printer’s Ink publicized in 1933 that, “Made general by American advertising methods…Hitler and his advertising man Goebbels issues slogans which the masses could grasp with their limited intelligence…..Adolf has some good lines.”

That sentiment is one of pride, American advertisers could see they had been the root cause of the Nazi’s techniques. Though many would avoid bringing this up after the war once the full extent of the Nazi’s crimes became known, the evidence is clear the propaganda machine and icons were not wholly something the Nazi’s developed themselves.

Nazi iconography also takes much of its style from Ancient Rome, with the Eagle and the Roman Salute being very much preexisting things well before the Nazis ever used them. Art is constantly remixing and decontextualizing itself. In some countries a piece of art may be acceptable while in others it could be considered outright offensive. Does this make either country right or wrong? No, because it has a different historical context in different places. That historical context changes as well, as each new generation remembers and depicts older events differently. The further removed we are from the original event; the less significance it has. We still associate a lot of the images discussed here with the Nazis, but maybe in 2,000 years we will identify it as representative of something else. The Nazis are still relatively recent history, with people who fought in WWII still alive today. For at least another century, we will think heavily about the Holocaust and we will think much more critically about these images than hundreds of years from now. When Susan Sontag critiqued Leni Riefenstahl’s latest book in “Fascinating Fascism” she noted,

“Admittedly, if The Last of the Nuba were not signed by Leni Riefenstahl one would not necessarily suspect that these photographs had been taken by the most interesting, talented, and effective artist of the Nazi regime. Most people who leaf through The Last of the Nuba will probably look at the pictures as one more lament for vanishing primitives, of which the greatest example is Lévi-Strauss on the Bororo Indians in Brazil in Tristes Tropiques.”

By the 70’s, people could look at Riefenstahl’s work and not see the Nazi history. The history is there, but if you remove the context and keep the aesthetic, the context will slowly vanish into nothing. Sontag also criticizes Riefenstahl’s earlier features that contain a lot of mountain climbing. She asserts that, “a visually irresistible metaphor of unlimited aspiration toward the high mystic goal, both beautiful and terrifying, which was later to become concrete in Führerworship.” Except that same theme could easily be applied to the American dream, working one’s way to the top. Context is important, but some themes are universal, both good and bad people can strive for similar ends.

Figure 3

So yes, at some point all of this art will loose its context. Who knows, one day it may even be used for a good cause. That is the nature of art. In many cases a lot of the films that reference Triumph of the Will do so in a critical manner. J.R.R Tolkien long denied his Lord of the Rings novels had anything to do with WWII, but Peter Jackson inserting the Triumph of the Will imagery challenges this notion. It shows that while Tolkien may not have intended it, there certainly are some similarities. Jackson creates a subtle criticism of the source material. Perhaps most telling of all is once again Star Wars. The most distinct reference to Triumph of the Will comes not from The Empire but from the Rebels. The ending awards ceremony closely mirrors that of a Nazi rally as seen in Figure 3. Why show his heroes through the lens of fascism? It is to show that any government can turn to fascism, it is always present. The rebels may win today, but when they take over they themselves may suffer the same fate. A stark commentary for a children’s feature.

In the end, while it is understandable many would be put off by the ever present Nazi iconography, that iconography itself is slowly disappearing. What we keep that is knowingly related to the Nazis is seemingly critical of them and everything else just seems to be America taking back what it gave to the Germans in the first place. Art has many meanings and it always changes. This is why sometimes films can go from being considered horrible to a classic only years later. Only time will tell, and hopefully it will turn out for the best.


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