It’s not every day that you see a crowd of heavily armed men in civilian clothing in downtown Manhattan. But several months ago, while selling Socialist Appeal at Zuccotti Park—at that time “ground zero” for Occupy Wall Street—that is precisely what I saw. A group of hundreds in winter coats armed with an assortment of automatic and semi-automatic rifles. I stood there dumbfounded, then a woman asked me to, “keep moving, we’re filming, sir.” As it turns out, they were filming one of the scenes from The Dark Knight Rises.
The atrocious murders in Aurora, Colorado have once again raised the debate over gun rights. Rush Limbaugh has accused The Dark Knight Rises of being some sort of sneaky campaign ploy against Romney and the Republicans. And much of the Left has raised the alarm at the “fascist” and “reactionary” themes found in the film and an apparent discrediting of the Occupy movement.
Major blockbuster films rarely seem to crash into the real world like The Dark Knight Rises has. But what is more significant is that the real world seems to have crashed into the film itself. This wouldn’t be the first major Hollywood film to have anti-capitalist themes. James Cameron has made a name for himself in this department, particularly with Aliens and Avatar. Paul Verhoeven, director of Robocop and Total Recall, took on capitalism at the height of “Reaganism.” But what makes Dark Knight Rises different is that it touches on the growing consciousness of the class divisions within society and open class conflict, not merely the cold, inhuman greed of individual capitalists.
In a scene prominent in the film’s trailer, Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman, ominously warns the billionaire Bruce Wayne, “You think this can last? There’s a storm coming Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches ‘cause when it hits you’re all gonna wonder how you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.” A line so relevant today that it surely gave all viewers chills, although some for very different reasons.
There are many other zingers that directly appeal to today’s growing class consciousness. When Bane and his cohorts break into the Stock Exchange, a presumably wealthy trader tells him, “This is the stock exchange, there’s no money you can steal!” To which Bane replies: “Really? Then why are you people here?”
Outside, a police commander questions taking action declaring, “I’m not risking my men for your money!” The stock exchange manager tries to convince him by saying, “It’s not our money, it’s everybody’s.” This prompts the following response from a rank-and-file police officer: “Really? Mine’s in my mattress.” After Bruce Wayne loses his fortune Selina Kyle observes that “the rich don’t even go broke the same as the rest of us.”
One thing that must be accepted at the very outset of a film of this nature is that Batman is a billionaire vigilante. It is the nature of the genre to have a general populace that is at the mercy of a struggle between the hero and the villain. The role of the masses in these films is purely passive, leaving them to be molded by the evil intents of the villain or the courageous acts of the hero. They are mere onlookers. Despite the themes of class struggle, The Dark Knight Rises is no different. There is therefore a marked absence of “the masses” as an independent force. After Bane’s takeover of Gotham, it is presumed that most residents are hiding in their homes while Bane’s thugs—the new state—roam the streets.
Interestingly, there are many comparisons that can be made to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Metropolis was released in 1927, after nearly a decade of revolutionary upheaval in Germany, and the film reflects this. The film has very strong class struggle themes, but it is also extremely contradictory. This reflects the political confusion within Germany at the time, particularly amongst the middle class. Incidentally, Fritz Lang ended up fleeing Germany from the Nazis, yet Metropolis co-writer, Thea Von Harbou, wound up joining the Nazi party.
Metropolis depicts a world in which the working class lives underground and is worked to exhaustion to keep the city of the wealthy running. The main protagonist, Freder, is the son of the wealthiest man in the city, Joh Frederson. Joh Frederson asks the help of a mad scientist, Rotwang, to use a robot he invented to take on the appearance of a leader of the workers with the purpose of discrediting her. Rotwang has other plans to use the robot to incite a revolt amongst the workers, encouraging them to destroy the machines and kill Joh Frederson’s son.
However, by the end of the film, the leader of the workers and Joh Frederson shake hands, presumably ending the class conflict. Given the contradictions of the Metropolis, it is not surprising that it was one of Adolf Hitler’s favorite films. In fact, Fritz Lang was even propositioned by Joseph Goebbels to help with the Nazi’s propaganda.
Decades later, Lang was to say of the film, “I was not so politically minded in those days as I am now. You cannot make a social-conscious picture in which you say that the intermediary between the hand and the brain is the heart. I mean, that’s a fairy tale—definitely.” On this, we would wholeheartedly agree with Lang.
Many on the left accuse The Dark Knight Rises of being a “pro-fascist” film, arguing that Batman represents counterrevolution. They believe that Bane is supposed to represent the Occupy movement, and that this was all part of Nolan’s right-wing political agenda. They contend that the aim of the film is to lead people to believe that revolution can only lead to the chaos and disorder.
Firstly, one has to assume that Bane’s revolt actually represents a genuine revolution and is something progressive, before Batman can be presented as representing the counterrevolution. The rhetoric used by Bane does indeed exploit the frustration and class anger of average Gothamites. Nonetheless, this analysis lacks a real understanding of the nature of fascist movements such as Hitler’s and Mussolini’s. When the question of fascism is factually considered, it makes far more sense that Bane and the League of Shadows represent fascism—not Batman. Bane’s thuggish methods and even the way he speaks and gestures are reminiscent of Mussolini.
It is often forgotten that the rhetoric used by fascist movements in the 1930s often sounded radical and left-wing. The Nazis demagogically played on the anger and confusion of the ruined petty bourgeoisie—the small shopkeepers, farmers, etc.—as well as criminal elements and backwards workers. This was the only way in which the could build a mass base to be used as a battering ram against the powerful German labor movement. As soon as the battering was completed, the Nazis proceeded to destroy the more volatile elements of their base, starting with the “Night of Long Knives,” when Hitler had many leaders of the Stormtroopers arrested and later executed, and the organization as a whole disbanded.
Christopher Nolan, whatever his politics may be, likes to pose moral questions to the audience. This is present in all of his films in some capacity. For example, in Batman Begins, capital punishment is briefly taken on, as well as the distinction between petty criminals who are driven to crime by impoverishment, and bosses of the criminal underworld. In The Dark Knight Rises the mythology built up around the (literally) two-faced politician Harvey Dent and the passage of the “Dent Act”—akin to the Patriot Act—is also explored. However, the films themselves do not answer the questions for us, leaving it open to debate as to what Nolan’s intent was.
Christopher Nolan is not a Marxist. He is, however, a talented filmmaker. The Dark Knight Rises is relevant and effective in the way it reflects today’s reality: the crisis of capitalism and the rise of class struggle. Today’s artists find themselves increasingly compelled to confront the “big questions” in society in order for their work to be relevant. As the crisis of capitalism continues and the class struggle intensifies, artists will be compelled to not merely ask questions, but to decisively “choose sides” and offer answers to those questions.
As Leon Trotsky explained in an article on the Futurist movement: “Art, it is said, is not a mirror, but a hammer: it does not reflect, it shapes. But at present even the handling of a hammer is taught with the help of a mirror, a sensitive film which records all the movements. Photography and motion-picture photography, owing to their passive accuracy of depiction, are becoming important educational instruments in the field of labor. If one cannot get along without a mirror, even in shaving oneself, how can one reconstruct oneself or one’s life, without seeing oneself in the ‘mirror’ of literature? Of course no one speaks about an exact mirror. No one even thinks of asking the new literature to have a mirror-like impassivity. The deeper literature is, and the more it is imbued with the desire to shape life, the more significantly and dynamically it will be able to ‘picture’ life.”
Film, music, and other cultural reviews reflect the opinions of the authors; not necessarily those of the Socialist Appeal Editorial Board.