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HIStory Teaser, Part 2: The Great Dictator

Willa:  This week Eleanor Bowman and I are continuing our discussion of the film Michael Jackson made to promote his HIStory album. As we talked about in our last post, the HIStory teaser caused quite a stir when it first aired, in large part because it appears to be modeled after the Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will. And as we talked about last time, there are in fact some interesting and important connections between those two films.

However, there’s another film that serves as an important intermediary between the two: Charlie Chaplin’s daring masterpiece, The Great Dictator. This film satirizes Triumph of the Will and other propaganda films like it, and in doing so deftly opposes and undermines Nazi ideology. And the HIStory teaser subtly references The Great Dictator, which profoundly complicates and shifts the meaning of HIStory, I think.

That’s what we’d like to talk about this week: the connections between Triumph of the Will, The Great Dictator, and the HIStory teaser, and how those connections influence how we interpret HIStory. Eleanor, thank you so much for joining me again to continue this discussion!

Eleanor:  Hi Willa. Thank you for the invitation. There’s nothing I’d rather do than think about and write about Michael Jackson, except of course listen to his music. To tell you the truth, I am still having trouble grasping not only the breadth and depth of MJ’s understanding and knowledge of world history and film history (when did he have time to figure all this out???), but also the incredible artistic facility with which he weaves together all this history in HIStory to fill this brief, brief film with so much meaning.

As we have been working on these posts, I have come to see HIStory as a complex collage of film references, each loaded with emotional power and packed with historical information. And all put together to tell Michael Jackson’s own story, his side of the story – the story of a powerful black artist who rises to fame in a dominant white society – by situating himself and his experience in a much broader context, providing insights into his personal experience as well as into the experiences of everyone ensnared in a system that is designed to elevate one group at the expense of another. HIStory really is a history lesson, a lesson in Michael Jackson, and a lesson in compassion – one that I have found absolutely fascinating, and I hope others will as well.

On the personal level, HIStory is a rebuttal to THEIRstory, the lies that were told over and over by the press and which took root in the public psyche. These lies were an example of what Hitler called “the big lie,” a lie so “colossal” that no one would believe that someone “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.” And similar to the terrible lies that Hitler told to discredit the Jews in Nazi Germany.

With HIStory, Michael Jackson defends himself by taking aim at the system that has just put him through hell. And he used both The Great Dictator and Triumph of the Will to accomplish his aim. MJ uses images associated with Triumph to liken the culture that has attempted to destroy him to Nazi Germany, and references the plot and theme of The Great Dictator not only to expose the evils of what Triumph celebrates, but also to offer an alternative vision, mapped to The Great Dictator’s famous final speech.

Willa:  That’s an interesting overview, Eleanor. Thank you.

Eleanor: You are welcome.

Willa: So if we approach these three films chronologically, I suppose we should begin by comparing Triumph of the Will, which came out in 1934, with The Great Dictator, which came out in 1940. First, The Great Dictator is a satire, so while Adolf Hitler is presented as noble and almost superhuman in the first film, Charlie Chaplin portrays him as arrogant and incompetent – the inept Adenoid Hynkel. To further undermine the mythic aura surrounding Hitler, Chaplin calls him the Phooey, rather than the Führer. Likewise, Hitler’s cabinet ministers Hermann Göring and Joseph Goebbels are transformed in Chaplin’s film into the bumbling Herr Herring and Herr Garbitsch (pronounced “Garbage”).

Eleanor: And interestingly, The Great Dictator followed on the heels of another satire of Hitler’s Germany starring MJ’s favorite comedy trio, the Three Stooges.

Willa: That’s right – their short film, You Nazty Spy. There’s a new book out about Hollywood’s response – or rather, lack of response – to the rise of fascism in Germany. I haven’t read it yet, but according to this article, it cites “the Three Stooges as among the very first in the cinema to expose Nazi Germany for what it was.” The Great Dictator, a feature-length film, came out later the same year.

So the mood of The Great Dictator is very different from Triumph of the Will, but so is the perspective and point of view. Everything in Triumph is on a vast scale – huge crowds, hundreds of thousands of troops, monumental  architecture – and the Nazi leaders are presented exteriorly, if that makes sense. What I mean is, the way the camera is angled we’re almost always looking up at them, as if they are statues on a pedestal, or gods on Mount Olympus. There’s no attempt to get inside their heads and show their thoughts and feelings. In fact, we aren’t supposed to see their humanity. Instead, they’re presented as almost mythic, godlike figures.

Eleanor: Right. Riefenstahl is using every trick of the trade to present the Nazis as the Übermenschen or “Supermen.”

Willa: Exactly. By contrast, The Great Dictator – like all of Chaplin’s films – is very much on a human scale, and it shows the poignancy of everyday human life, especially the lives of those living in a Jewish ghetto targeted by the authorities. This is emphasized by the fact that Chaplin plays two roles: that of dictator Hynkel issuing impulsive decrees, and that of a Jewish barber whose life is turned upside down by those decrees. We keep switching back and forth between scenes of Hynkel and scenes of the barber, so we see very clearly how the grandiose, unthinking, unfeeling, fascist beliefs of the dictator affect the lives of the barber and his friends, as well as their entire community.

So while these films address a similar topic – the impact of fascist ideology on a country’s future and identity, its sense of itself – the perspective, the mood, and ultimately the meaning of these two films could not be more different.

Eleanor:  Right. And, thinking about these films chronologically, a lot happened between 1934, when Triumph was made, and 1940, when The Great Dictator was made, and between 1940 and the end of WWII, to change their meaning and significance.

Willa:  Oh, that’s interesting, Eleanor.

Eleanor:  For example, in 1934, Hitler and the Nazis were being praised for giving Germany hope after their defeat in WWI, and for being a bulwark against communism, so the Riefenstahl film was lauded and applauded. By 1940, however, the war in Europe had broken out and Germany was beginning to make a lot of people very nervous. As a result, the tide of world opinion was beginning to change, and the same film was being viewed with a great deal of skepticism, as a propaganda tool of a very questionable regime.

To draw attention to the Nazi threat and undermine Hitler’s power and charisma, Chaplin made The Great Dictator, which premiered in NYC in October of 1940, a year before the U.S. entered WWII. Referencing the imagery Riefenstahl used to pump Hitler up, he used it to ridicule his grandiosity, to cut him down to size. Calling on his formidable talent for comedy, he exposed a far from funny situation.

Today, I think most people would look on using satire to critique the Nazis as inappropriate, at best. However, we have to remember that, in 1940, the full extent of Hitler’s insanity was not known and the “final solution” had not been fully implemented. In later years, Chaplin himself said “he would not have made the film had he known about the actual horrors of the Nazi concentration camps at the time.”

Willa: And that’s a very important point. Looking back, The Great Dictator may seem callous to us today, as if it’s trivializing a tragedy. But the atrocities of the concentration camps, for example, weren’t known in 1940 – and in fact, the worst atrocities hadn’t occurred yet, as you say. They happened late in the war.

U.S. attitudes toward what was happening overseas were really complicated at this time. The U.S. wouldn’t officially enter the war until Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, though we were providing weapons, money, and other aid to the Allies in 1940. In fact, the only peacetime draft in our nation’s history began in September 1940, a month before The Great Dictator was released. So the U.S. was preparing for war but was not actively involved in it yet – and was very reluctant to get involved after the carnage of World War I.

So I agree, Eleanor. To understand and appreciate The Great Dictator, it’s important to consider the historical context of when it was made – a time of great indecision in the U.S. as we watched the war overseas engulf country after country, and when the full horror of the Holocaust hadn’t unfolded yet.

Eleanor: Right, Willa. And, just as the revelations of WWII changed the way we emotionally respond to The Great Dictator, it completely reversed the way Triumph was meant to be viewed. Triumph had come to symbolize death camps and genocide – not the greatness of the Third Reich. And to complicate our discussion of HIStory and its use of these films, the years between 1940 and 1994 again changed the significance of these two films – radically.

By 1994, when HIStory was made, generations of filmmakers had used Riefenstahl-like imagery as a sort of shorthand to reference both Nazi atrocities and the arrogance underlying them, which is why we instantly recoil from its imagery when it appears in HIStory. In using this imagery, HIStory called on the deep and often unconscious emotions it arouses and coupled them with the mechanism of “guilt by association” to expose the evils of racism in our own American culture, and oppression in general. And by 1994, The Great Dictator was remembered not so much for its satire of the Nazi regime, but for the role the film played in Chaplin’s fall from grace, a fall that paralleled Michael Jackson’s.

Willa: That’s a very good point, Eleanor. And since Michael Jackson appears to have been very knowledgeable about Charlie Chaplin, studying his films and his life for decades, and even visiting his family in Switzerland, he almost certainly would have known how The Great Dictator contributed to turning the tide of public opinion against him.

Eleanor: Yes, I think that’s an assumption we can safely make.

The Great Dictator got Chaplin in a lot of hot water for a number of reasons. At first because, even as late as 1940, Hitler had supporters in the U.S. who did not appreciate The Great Dictator’s anti-fascist message. Later, as communism became the bête noire, being anti-fascist was viewed as being pro-communist – so even though Chaplin vehemently “denied being a communist, instead calling himself a ‘peacemonger,’” his reputation took a serious hit.

But, I have come to believe that his real “crime” was his internationalism, his vision of global harmony, and his criticism of nationalism in general, which he expressed in The Great Dictator.

Willa:  That’s another very important point, Eleanor – and another connection to Michael Jackson. As he told Rabbi Boteach in The Michael Jackson Tapes, “I feel like a person of the world. I can’t take sides. That’s why I hate saying, ‘I am an American.’ For that reason.”

Eleanor: That is so interesting, Willa. Michael Jackson’s global reach certainly attests to the fact that people all over the world responded – and continue to respond – to him as “one of us.” But, unfortunately, this kind of internationalism – or anti-nationalism – can result in being accused of being “unAmerican.” Which is what happened to Chaplin.

Willa: Yes, it did – and during the hysteria of McCarthyism, when that was a very serious charge.

Eleanor: As a result of The Great Dictator, specifically its final speech where Chaplin voices his own personal views, he came under attack, and by 1947 a movement was underway to drive him out of the country. Representative John E. Rankin of Mississippi told Congress in June 1947:

His very life in Hollywood is detrimental to the moral fabric of America. [If he is deported] … his loathsome pictures can be kept from before the eyes of the American youth. He should be deported and gotten rid of at once.

Chaplin’s demonization was aided and abetted with tabloid stories and legal charges of sexual immorality which very effectively destroyed his reputation and his credibility, to the point that when he left the U.S. for Europe in 1956, his visa to re-enter the country was revoked.

Willa: Which is just unbelievable considering his stature and his contributions to film and culture. And “demonization” is the right word, as Chaplin himself was fully aware. Karin Merx, one of the founders of the Michael Jackson Academic Studies website, recently told me an interesting story. Charlie Chaplin went for a sitting with photographer Richard Avedon just before leaving the U.S. for good. At the end of the sitting, he asked to do one more shot … and then faced the camera with his fingers poking out from his head, like devil horns. Here’s a documentary Karin shared with me where Richard Avedon talks about that (about 39:20 minutes in):

(Interestingly, just before he tells the Chaplin story, Avedon talks about photographing the Duke and Duchess of Windsor who, as you mentioned in our last post, Eleanor, were very supportive of Hitler. Avedon says he used to see them gambling in Nice, and he expresses the opinion that “they loved dogs, a lot more than they loved Jews.”)

Fifty years later, Michael Jackson was being demonized in a way remarkably similar to Chaplin. And in response, he struck the exact same pose for photographers at the Santa Maria Courthouse, as mentioned in an article by BBC News. Here are those “devilish” photos of Charlie Chaplin and Michael Jackson:

devilish photos of CC and MJ

Eleanor:  Wow, that is so fascinating. When you think about it, it is no wonder that MJ identified with Charlie Chaplin. There are so many parallels. I have even heard that Michael Jackson identified so closely with Chaplin that he once said, “I sometimes feel like I am him.”

Willa: Yes, he said that in an interview as part of the documentary, Michael Jackson’s Private Home Movies, which also includes a wonderful clip of him dressed as the Little Tramp and twitching his moustache, as Chaplin often did. Here’s a fan-made video for “Smile” that includes several photos of a Chaplinesque Michael Jackson, as well as screen captures from the Private Home Movies documentary:

These photos were taken from two different photo sessions, one early in his solo career and one late, so you can tell he admired Chaplin for a long time – for his entire career, basically – and identified with him too, as you said.

Eleanor: Yes, and sketches of Chaplin which MJ did when he was a child suggest that he had been interested in Chaplin from an early age, possibly because of Chaplin’s extraordinary ability as a silent film star to communicate without words, using the language of the body – just as MJ did.  (Here are a couple of links to Chaplin sketches. The first is to the sketch that was featured on Antiques Road Show. The second is to a Pinterest page of MJ’s drawings of many subjects, including Chaplin.)

But I also like to think it was because, even at an early age, an extraordinarily sensitive and empathetic Michael Jackson, deeply moved by the injustice he saw in the world, was drawn to Chaplin’s vision of peace and harmony. And referencing The Great Dictator to tell MJ’s story, HIStory brings to mind the startling parallels between MJ’s life and Chaplin’s.

Both Chaplin and Michael Jackson had a vision of global harmony; both realized that their visions required global change; both understood that global change depended on global communication; and, as it so happens, both excelled at global communication – Chaplin through the development of a powerful body language that he used with great success as a silent film star, and Jackson through the language of music and dance. And, as both were great artists who were also superstars with a global audience, they had the power to touch and change hearts and minds – all over the world.

As Chaplin says in The Great Dictator, playing the part of the Jewish barber, but speaking his own mind and reflecting the actual situation,

Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world – millions of despairing men, women, and little children – victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people.

And, as a result of their views, both became the object of vicious attacks, because of their commitment to global harmony, their skill at global communication which could actually bring about global change, and their star power represented a serious threat to those committed to hierarchy and nationalism, rather than democracy and internationalism.

Willa: Yes, I agree completely, Eleanor.

Eleanor: So, Willa, it seems to me that referencing The Great Dictator – specifically its final speech – in HIStory at this particular time of his life, Michael Jackson identifies his own demonization at the hands of the press and his unjust, and brutal, treatment at the hands of the law with Chaplin’s, and suggests that the allegations of sexual impropriety leveled at both himself and Chaplin were tools of a society which feared the political power of the artist to inspire actions that would bring about much-needed social change, a power Michael Jackson possessed (and still possesses) in spades.

And significantly, their commitment to global peace and understanding is symbolized by the international language Esperanto, which puts in an appearance in both HIStory and The Great Dictator. HIStory opens to the sound of words spoken in Esperanto, while The Great Dictator features Esperanto as the language on the signs in its scenes of the Jewish ghetto.

Willa:  Yes, that seems significant to me also. We talked about Esperanto a little bit in a post about this time last year, and provided a brief history:

Esperanto was invented in the late 1800s using elements of many different languages to help promote global peace and understanding. Specifically, it was created by L.L. Zamenhof to provide a neutral means of communication that bridged divisions of language, nationality, and ethnicity.

So it truly is an “international language,” as you said, Eleanor, with a mission of “global peace and understanding.”

Eleanor:  Right. And HIStory both puts it front and center and hides it in plain sight. I’m sure most people viewing HIStory (like those who see The Great Dictator), not recognizing the language or understanding the words, completely miss the significance – or just fail to notice its presence altogether.

However, thanks to a great discussion that you referred to above with guest contributor and Esperanto expert, Bjørn Bojesen, readers of Dancing with the Elephant not only were alerted to its use in HIStory (and history), but discovered the meaning of the words. (Also, in re-reading that post, I saw that Bjørn had noted in the comment section that Esperanto was used in The Great Dictator.)

HIStory’s opening words, spoken in Esperanto, translated into English, say “Different nations of the world build this sculpture in the name of  global motherhood and love and the healing power of music.” The words, spoken in Esperanto, not only reference the use of Esperanto in the The Great Dictator, but echo the sentiments in The Great Dictator’s final speech. And both the language and the words point to Michael Jackson’s own belief in the importance of global communication as a condition of creating global harmony, specifically his belief in music as a means of bringing the different nations of the world together in peace and L.O.V.E.

In researching the international language Esperanto, whose name, not co-incidentally, means “hope,” I have come to believe that it – and the internationalism it represents – is key to understanding HIStory.

In the post on Esperanto, the question was raised as to why MJ would use a language so few understand to open the film and introduce its theme. (The same question could be used about Chaplin’s use of Esperanto in The Great Dictator.) I think one of the main reasons was to arouse our curiosity – to prod us to identify the language and discover the meaning of the words. Because seeking answers to those questions leads us to find answers to larger questions.

For example, digging deeper into the history of Esperanto, it turns out that the use of Esperanto in both HIStory and The Great Dictator not only associates MJ with CC, but links both with the Esperantists in Germany and Russia, whose pacifist and internationalist tendencies were seen as subversive by both Hitler and Stalin and who were brutally punished and even executed.

In his work, Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler specifically mentioned Esperanto as an example of a language that could be used by an international Jewish conspiracy once they achieved world domination. Esperantists were killed during the Holocaust, with [Esperanto creator] Zamenhof’s family in particular singled out for murder…. Esperanto was forbidden in 1936. … [In] 1937, Stalin … denounced Esperanto as “the language of spies” and had Esperantists exiled or executed. The use of Esperanto was effectively banned until 1956.

Willa: Oh heavens, Eleanor. I had no idea. So those Esperanto words and symbols in the HIStory teaser really do carry a powerful message – a message that radically alters interpretation of the totalitarian images that dominate that film. I can see now why you said that “Esperanto … and the internationalism it represents, is key to understanding HIStory.” I’m starting to agree with you.

Eleanor:  Well, that’s good to know!  So, opening the film with words spoken in Esperanto, Michael Jackson lays claim to his own “dangerous” internationalist leanings, and reveals the danger his leanings put him in, identifying the source of his troubles as a culture that, because it considered him and his views as a serious threat, represented a serious threat to him – a threat that HIStory suggests, through the use of the notorious fascist imagery, is still present, lurking in the shadows. (“We’re talkin’ danger, we’re talkin’ danger, baby!”)

In the opening scene of the film, the blank screen and the words in Esperanto are accompanied by and juxtaposed to the staccato beat of jackboots, followed by the images of boots on the ground and a stone falcon – the turul – an ancient Hungarian symbol. (HIStory was filmed in Budapest. More on that later.) Then, an American swat team comes into view. Seemingly menacing and aggressive, they march toward the audience, rising from the bottom of the screen, à la Patton in the film of the same name. The scene then immediately shifts to images of workers ladling out rivers of molten metal, reminiscent of Soviet propaganda films illustrating Soviet industrial muscle.

Given who Michael Jackson was and what he stood for, opening an MJ film with imperialist and totalitarian imagery is jarring and indicates that there is more here than meets the eye, that something very interesting is going on – something that becomes a lot clearer once you recognize and understand the significance of HIStory’s use of Esperanto and understand the meaning of the words. For the words explain that these workers do not represent the workers of a totalitarian regime. Rather, they represent the different nations of the world who have come together to build a monument to a man who has dedicated his art to promoting world peace.

In addition to the statue, they have also forged a gigantic star that is yet another reference to Esperanto. For, as I learned in researching Esperanto, the star is the symbol for Esperanto, its points representing the five continents Europe, America, Asia, Oceania, Africa. A minute or so later, we see that the star of Esperanto also adorns MJ’s uniform – a star of peace worn by a pop star of peace.

Willa: That is so interesting, and reminds me of two important images from Triumph of the Will. The central scene in the film – the iconic one almost every filmmaker references when visually quoting that film, where Hitler is addressing hundreds of thousands of troops aligned before him in precise formation – that scene begins with a still shot looking up at an enormous iron eagle, a symbol of Nazi Germany. Then as the camera pans down, we see it is sitting atop a huge swastika inscribed within a circle.

By contrast, HIStory opens with a still shot looking up at the Hungarian turul or falcon. From what I’ve been able to gather, this is a complicated symbol representing different, even contradictory things to different people. But Wikipedia is a fairly middle-of-the-road source, and here’s what they say about it:

The turul is the most important bird in the origin myth of the Magyars (Hungarian people). It is a divine messenger, and perches on top of the tree of life along with the other spirits of unborn children in the form of birds.

And then we see workers forging a huge Esperanto star inscribed within a circle. So through these images, HIStory appropriates symbols of fascism and totalitarianism from Triumph and then subverts them, completely refiguring them.

Here are screen captures looking up at the iron eagle in Triumph of the Will, and at the turul in HIStory:

iron eagle and turul

And then here are screen captures of the enormous swastika within a circle from Triumph of the Will, and the Esperanto star within a circle from HIStory.

swastika and star 2

Both the swastika and the star are dark against a pale blue background, with a glowing light shining through openings in the giant sculptures from behind. And if you look carefully, you can see workers dwarfed by the star (in fact, a welder is sitting on one arm of the star – you can see the sparks from his blowtorch) so it must be enormous, even bigger than the encircled swastika it evokes and replaces.

Eleanor: Wow, Willa, those images are amazing and demonstrate Michael Jackson’s attention to detail and his deep understanding of the power of symbolism. Contrasting the Esperanto star with the swastika, and the star’s meaning with other, more traditional, meanings of the five-pointed star – the Soviet military machine or the badge of law enforcement or the stars that decorate an American army general’s uniform – and associating it with the pop star Michael Jackson, HIStory contrasts HIStory’s message and HIStory’s hero with traditional military legends and heroes. In HIStory, Michael Jackson offers us a vision of a world where human energy will no longer be poured into building tools of domination to serve the interests of empires and nations, but used to forge a new global community.

HIStory’s opening frames are followed by images of a vast army, its leader’s identity unknown, but tantalizingly hinted at by shots of his legs, sheathed in his signature thigh-high boots, which finally reach his beautiful face, revealing the leader of this army to be none other than Michael Jackson.

Although in HIStory, MJ never speaks or sings or dances, his face and body communicate plenty, and what they communicate to me is very similar to the words spoken by Chaplin, in the character of the barber:

I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone, if possible – Jew, Gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way.

Here’s a link to the complete text.

Willa: That speech is incredible – many call it the greatest speech in American cinema. I would encourage everyone to watch The Great Dictator in its entirety, if they haven’t seen it already (it’s available on YouTube, in segments – here’s a link to the first one), but certainly everyone should watch Chaplin’s final speech. It’s especially striking coming as it does after the speech by Herr Garbitsch, where he says:

Victory shall come to the worthy. Today, democracy, liberty, and equality are words to fool the people. No nation can progress with such ideas. They stand in the way of action. Therefore, we frankly abolish them. In the future, each man will serve the interests of the state with absolute obedience. Let him who refuses beware.

The rights of citizenship will be taken away from all Jews and other non-Aryans. They are inferior, and therefore enemies of the state. It is the duty of all true Aryans to hate and despise them. …

And then Chaplin, in the dual role of the Jewish barber disguised as the dictator (it’s a case of mistaken identity), rises and gives his speech advocating love among all people that you quoted earlier:

I should like to help everyone, if possible – Jew, Gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery.

Here is the final section of The Great Dictator, which includes both Garbitsch’s speech and Chaplin’s powerfully moving response:

Eleanor:  Thanks for these clips, Willa. Actually seeing these speeches delivered on film is a lot more powerful than just reading the words on the page.

Willa: I agree. And in this final clip we can also see the way The Great Dictator visually evokes the monumental scale of Triumph of the Will. Chaplin reenacts Hitler’s arrival by motorcade that begins Triumph, and also the intimidating monuments to power and the long columns of troops – something the HIStory teaser will re-create as well. Here are screen captures from Triumph, The Great Dictator, and HIStory, and you can easily see the similarities – namely, the gigantic emblem of the power of the state in the background of all three, and the seemingly endless sea of troops in the foreground.

Here’s a scene from Triumph of the Will:

Triumph - troops 2

The Great Dictator:

Great Dictator - troops

and the HIStory trailer:

HIStory - troops

Through images like these, The Great Dictator (and HIStory as well) captures the expansive scope of Triumph of the Will. But then it alternates these imperialist images with scenes of Jewish citizens oppressed and even murdered by their own government – by soldiers carrying out the dictates of the fascist regime.

Eleanor: Right. Although The Great Dictator was a satire, it dealt with deep pain and very explosive issues. Just as HIStory does. And, just like The Great Dictator, HIStory skated close to the edge in a number of ways. In a brilliant act of artistic economy, HIStory uses Riefenstahl’s imagery to reference both the Nazi horror show and The Great Dictator in order to situate Michael Jackson both historically and personally.

As this insightful post at MJJJusticeProject puts it,

Like his hero Charlie Chaplin before him, Jackson referenced the visuals of Triumph of The Will in an effort to completely corrupt the sentiment. Where Chaplin had satirised the film in his Oscar-nominated The Great Dictator, Jackson referenced the film in order to celebrate the victims of the Nazi regime and deride the mindset of those that still supported fascist beliefs.

Willa: That is a wonderful post that puts the HIStory trailer in historical context, and also places it within the context of the HIStory album – the album it was made to promote.

Eleanor: Placing Michael Jackson in the midst of Riefenstahl-like pomp and circumstance, where we would expect to find a dictatorial military leader (like Adolf Hitler) not a peace-loving pop star, the HIStory teaser evokes the scene in The Great Dictator where the gentle Jewish barber becomes a stand-in for the thinly-disguised Hitler character. Associating Jackson with the Jewish barber, while alluding to Nazi Germany, HIStory parallels the black experience with the Jewish experience – the black ghetto with the Jewish ghetto – and the treatment of Jews with the treatment of blacks in America.

Willa: That’s an interesting way to look at this, Eleanor – that Michael Jackson in the unexpected role of dictator parallels the Jewish barber’s experience in The Great Dictator, where he finds himself unexpectedly thrust into the role of dictator. Though one difference is that the barber looks very uncomfortable in that role, as if he really were thrust in that role against his will, while Michael Jackson doesn’t. He looks assured and confident in HIStory.

Eleanor: Well, Willa, to clarify, I don’t see Michael Jackson in the role of a dictator, but as replacing a dictator. Striding along at the head of his troops, he occupies the position where we would expect to find a dictatorial leader. But instead, we find Michael Jackson, a man who stands for the opposite of dictatorship. A man, who like the barber “does not want to be an emperor. That’s not [his] business. [He doesn’t] want to rule or conquer anyone.”

But, I agree with you that MJ is at ease, while the barber is anything but. But, after all, they were both being true to character: the barber wasn’t accustomed to being in the limelight, while Jackson, although not a political figure, was.

Willa:  That’s true.

Eleanor:  But, I am glad you brought up how MJ looks in those brief moments when we see him, because I have been wanting to mention his beautiful smile again. I think his smile is a visual representation of Chaplin’s song, “Smile,” which concluded the HIStory album – his radiance covering his pain, the type of pain that Chaplin was familiar with.

But getting back to the scene of Michael and the troops, I think it maps directly to another section of Chaplin’s closing speech in The Great Dictator. In fact, I see the speech as a kind of playbook for HIStory:

Soldiers! Don’t give yourselves to brutes, men who despise you, enslave you – who regiment your lives, tell you what to do, what to think and what to feel! Who drill you, diet you, treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder. Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men – machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! You have the love of humanity in your hearts! You don’t hate! Only the unloved hate – the unloved and the unnatural! Soldiers! Don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty!

As the leader of rank on rank of uniformed and uniform robotic soldiers, MJ provides an alternative to military leaders, the “brutes … who regiment [their] lives.” As a different kind of hero, he empathizes with all those who have been conscripted to do the work of the state, losing their humanity in the process. As the leader of these men, he identifies with them, rather than the regimes they represent, illustrating a greatness of heart that blames a system that, to quote Chaplin, “makes men torture and imprison innocent people” – not the people themselves. Torturers and tortured alike are caught in the evil web of empire.

Willa:  That’s an important point, Eleanor. It is significant, I think, that Chaplin addresses this part of his speech to the soldiers carrying out the dictator’s repressive orders, and appeals to their humanity. He doesn’t deny the harm they’ve done – he shows them harassing and even murdering civilians. But even so, he doesn’t demonize them. Rather, he implies that the soldiers are being victimized too by leaders “who despise you, enslave you … treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder.”

And as you say, Michael Jackson doesn’t seem to feel animosity toward soldiers or the police either, meaning the people on the ground carrying out orders. In fact, he aligns himself with them.

Eleanor:  Yes. That very eloquent salute to his troops conveys that message – feelings of empathy and respect, rather than animosity or hate, even for those who are tasked with carrying out the will of the oppressors.

Willa: Yes. As Susan Woodward pointed out to me in an email, after that enormous statue is uncovered we can see an emblem on one arm – it’s a patch with the word “POLICE” in bold letters beneath an Esperanto star.

Eleanor: Thanks to Susan. I hadn’t noticed that – need to go back and take a look.

Willa: I hadn’t noticed it either, but it’s an important detail, I think. Michael Jackson’s experiences with the Santa Barbara police, especially those carrying out the strip search, easily could have led him to feel animosity toward the police in general. But that isn’t the impression I get from HIStory. What he’s expressing is more complicated than that.

To be honest, it feels to me like an act of appropriation. Just as white singers and musicians have appropriated “black” music from jazz to hip hop and recast it through a white perspective, in HIStory Michael Jackson seems to be appropriating images of white authority (and what better example of race-based authoritarianism than Nazi Germany?) and recasting it through a multi-national Esperanto perspective. Or maybe a better analogy is the way groups like Queer Nation or a lot of young black hip hop artists have appropriated disparaging words that have been hurled at them in the past – words like “nigger” and “queer” – and now wear them as a badge of honor, and so drain them of their power to hurt them.

Eleanor:  Yes, an act of appropriation and transformation. Imperial and nationalistic power structures assume that conquering the other is a survival strategy of human nature, rather than a survival strategy adopted by human cultures. And they have assumed that he who is in possession of the technologies of domination have the upper hand. And yet our technologies – agricultural, industrial, military – are backfiring on us, creating a world that may in the not too distant future be uninhabitable for all of us, just as it has been made uninhabitable by war for some of us even now.

As Chaplin put it,

Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost….

Although we tout free will as a pre-eminently human characteristic, somehow we don’t seem to believe that we actually have the will to change the way we interact with each other, collectively or individually. But I think that Michael Jackson disagreed with that notion. I think that he believed that humans are capable of profound change, and he believed art was instrumental to that change, and he believed in himself and his art as a means of bringing about change at a fundamental level – imagining a very different “triumph of the will.”

Contrasting himself with the usual iron-fisted tyrant, Michael Jackson emphasizes the differences between his values, the values of an African-American artist who believes art can heal the world, and the values that lead to oppression, pointing out the evils of the system, while having compassion for those caught in it.

Willa:  That’s a beautiful summary, Eleanor. Thank you, and thanks also for joining me again to try to better understand this complex film. We’ll conclude this discussion in our next post when we consider some other significant references in HIStory.

Also, I wanted to let everyone know that the Library of Congress recently published an article by Joe Vogel about the Thriller album. We’ve added it to the Reading Room, so you can access it there, or you can jump to it directly via this link.

Eleanor:  That’s good to know. Thanks for making it available on Dancing.  And I look forward to working with you on the final part of this series.

HIStory Teaser, Part 1: Triumph of the Will

Willa:  Probably the one work by Michael Jackson that perplexes me the most is the promotional video for his HIStory album, commonly referred to as the “HIStory teaser.” It’s loosely based on Helene “Leni” Riefenstahl’s 1934 Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will, which is such an unlikely source of inspiration for a Michael Jackson video – in fact, I can’t imagine a less likely source! I’ve thought about this promo film for years, trying to understand it, but never arriving at a completely satisfactory answer. I’m always left with the nagging feeling that there’s something important happening with this film that I’m just not seeing.

So I was very intrigued when our friend Eleanor Bowman told me she’d been doing historical research for her three-book series, The Algorithm of Desire, and that her research had given her new insights into this unsettling film. Thank you so much for joining me, Eleanor! I’m really eager to hear what you’ve been discovering.

Eleanor:  Hi Willa. Thanks for inviting me to join this wonderful, ongoing – and much needed – conversation about Michael Jackson. It is always a pleasure, and I learn so much.

You are not the only one who has been perplexed by the HIStory teaser. In fact, I found it really troubling. Looked at superficially, it seems to provide proof positive that MJ was a megalomaniac.

Willa: Which is how many critics interpreted it. Diane Sawyer quotes one of those critics in her 1995 interview with Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley:

The critics have said that it’s “the most boldly vain-glorious self-deification a pop singer ever undertook with a straight face.”

(This part of the interview is about 21 minutes in.) She also questions him about the military imagery in a way that suggests he’s promoting Nazi ideology, which he denies. Diane Sawyer then shows the film and makes it pretty clear afterwards that she agrees with what those critics have been saying.

Eleanor: Which is no surprise. Neither the critics nor the media ever seemed to “get” MJ. For example, to believe he did it “with a straight face,” as Diane Sawyer suggests, is to miss the point of the film entirely. Such an interpretation makes no sense at all in terms of who MJ was and what he stood for.

However, the question remains, how does the HIStory teaser make sense, given what we know about MJ? Because, you can be sure it does. HIStory, like the man whose story it is, is a mystery, but a mystery with the clues laid out for us, often in plain sight. I have found that those things that seem to make no sense on the surface often point to an underlying, but hidden, logic, if you dig deep enough.

Willa: Yes, I’ve found that too. And sometimes the films that perplexed me the most, and were even kind of off-putting at first – like Smooth Criminal and You Rock My World – are really powerful once I’ve found a key for interpreting them.

Eleanor:  Right. And the HIStory teaser is no exception. Although billed as a teaser for the HIStory album, the HIStory teaser is a work of art in and of itself.  It tells Michael Jackson’s story – his story, his side of the distorted and misbegotten story that was being told about him at the time; and, as the word “HIStory” suggests, it shows how Michael Jackson’s own personal story, and his situation, fits into a larger history and is even emblematic of that history. So, the film references in HIStory, including Triumph of the Will, are there because he believed they were relevant to, and would give us an understanding of, his situation.

Just as “Dangerous is Michael Jackson’s “coming of age album,” as Susan Fast says in her book, Dangerous, HIStory – the film and the album – fleshes out who he was in context, the context of his own life as a visionary and an artist, the context of the African-American experience, and the context of imperial culture. It is a damning political critique, an astute cultural analysis, and a powerful personal declaration, revealing heretofore hidden complexities, hidden reservoirs of knowledge, hidden depths.

As you and other contributors to your site have often pointed out, Willa, Michael Jackson’s incongruities frequently make us uncomfortable. And, to me, the most incongruous incongruity of all is his appearance in the HIStory teaser surrounded by the trappings of the most vicious, the most oppressive, military dictatorships in recent history. The juxtaposition of MJ with these images questions our notions of who he is, what he’s about. (“What was he thinking?!”)  No doubt about it, HIStory is risky. But Michael Jackson was a risk taker …

Willa: Yes, I agree. It’s one of his defining characteristics as an artist, I think.

Eleanor:  But, Michael Jackson was never unconscious of what he was about, so he must have thought the HIStory teaser was worth the risk, given what he was up against. He needed a way to get through to people, and with HIStory he found it. HIStory challenges us – it gets our attention – it makes us uncomfortable enough, or mystified enough, to look beneath the surface.

Willa: And according to the Diane Sawyer interview, that was his goal. As he tells her, “I wanted to get everyone’s attention.”

Eleanor:  Well, he certainly got mine! And keeping the faith and reading between the frames as I studied this film gave me a deeper understanding of the man he was and the visionary he is, as well as a greater appreciation of the magnitude of the challenges he faced. Lastly, I see it as proof of his indomitable spirit and his enduring hope for the future.

Having been the object of a vilification campaign that would have flattened anyone else, brutalized by the police, and hounded and harassed by the prosecutor of Santa Barbara County – attacks that on the surface made no sense whatsoever given the lack of evidence against him and the mountain of evidence for him – he analyzed them in terms of the history of the culture to discover what was really behind them. HIStory gives us the results of that analysis. In HIStory, Michael Jackson turns the tables on his accusers, criminalizing the society that was seeking to criminalize him.

Using imagery associated with the evils of empire, but juxtaposing that imagery with images of a man whose deepest desire was to heal the world, HIStory contrasts Michael Jackson’s values with the values of the people acting against him and exposes the origins of those values. Presenting a new kind – a new species – of cultural hero, HIStory makes a compelling argument that the vicious attacks on Michael Jackson arose from the fear that, in his person and his art, he undermined all the assumptions that prop up an imperialist society, a society whose functioning depends on dividing, not uniting, frequently on the basis of race.

HIStory reveals the nature of the attacks on Michael Jackson as political and cultural, the take-no-prisoners approach, itself, proof of his political and cultural power and the magnitude of the threat he represented – and continues to represent – to the status quo – a power and a threat that Susan Woodward recognizes and analyzes in her very interesting book, Otherness and Power: Michael Jackson and His Media Critics.

Willa: I learned a lot from Susan’s book as well. In fact, she’ll be joining me soon in a post about it. But getting back to what you were saying about HIStory, it’s true that it was the first album to come out after the 1993 allegations broke, and the HIStory teaser kicked off the release of that album. And wow … he made it very clear he was not going to be shamed into silence by everything that was being said about him, and by what the police and press had put him through. The HIStory film is boldly defiant. That much is certain.

But it’s interesting that you also see it as directly challenging the “political and cultural” ideology behind it all – not just the allegations themselves, but the way those allegations tapped into pre-existing prejudices and unleashed the cultural fury that followed. I’m really curious to learn more about that.

Eleanor: Well, Willa, as it happens, I am happy to share my thoughts. As you mentioned, while working on my book this summer – and thinking about the relationship of empire to racism, specifically the role imperial cultural values played in the treatment of Michael Jackson – the “imperial” images from the HIStory teaser kept coming to mind.

My book deals in general with the power of myth to shape a society’s way of life, and specifically with the power of the creation myth in Genesis to shape and maintain the imperial way of life through instilling belief in a disembodied God who transcends matter. Genesis removes God, and the sacred, from nature and the material world, elevates him above it, puts him in charge, and creates humanity in his image, creating a transcendent worldview and value system based on division and hierarchy, dividing humanity from nature and mind from body.

Throughout the history of the Christian West, empire after empire has used this worldview to identify a select group or race or nation as those most perfectly “made in God’s image,” and defined them as the “fully human,” elevating them above everyone else, placing them in control, and associating them with mind rather than matter. Those who are controlled, rather than controlling, are defined in terms of body, mindless body. They are generally consigned to doing the less culturally valuable, physical work, and identified as less than fully human – if human at all. For example, in the U.S. Constitution (Article 1, section 2), the slaves were assigned only ⅗ the value of a free person.

Willa: We talked with you about the connections between this ideology of “transcendence” and how it leads to misogyny and racism in a post a while back. In that post, you discussed how “transcendence” is the central concept of Judeo-Christian culture, and suggested that Michael Jackson was literally embodying a new ideology, one of “immanence.” It was so fascinating – one of those conversations that really changed how I see the world. You also explained the dire consequences of this ideology of transcendence, both for humans and the environment.

Eleanor:  Yes, to me, Michael Jackson’s cultural significance lies in the fact that he is the avatar of immanence. Representing an alternative to the transcendent worldview, he also is the embodiment of anti-imperialistic values. So it is fascinating to me that in HIStory, he references Triumph of the Will, which was possibly the most effective piece of imperialist propaganda ever created.

I had always assumed that Triumph was filmed when the Nazi regime was at the peak of its power and that it was a straightforward documentary of an important Nazi gathering. But, actually, as you point out, it was filmed early on, in 1934, and the gathering was organized specifically for the film. So Riefenstahl was not documenting reality but constructing it, providing the visual images that would not only reflect the Nazi worldview, but create it. Riefenstahl was creating the myth that would create and sustain Nazi Germany.

Willa:  Wow, Eleanor, that is fascinating.

Eleanor: According to an article written shortly after her death in 2003, “No documentation of National Socialism today is released without pictures from this film, no other film has formed our visual impression of what National Socialism was, as much as this film.”

Willa:  This so interesting, and actually it ties in with something I’ve been very interested in for a long time – the power of art not only to reflect reality, but to create a new reality.

For example, two very important trends happened simultaneously in the 18th Century: the rise of a new social class that hadn’t existed before (the middle class) and the rise of a new art form that hadn’t existed before (the novel). In Desire and Domestic Fiction: a Political History of the Novel, Nancy Armstrong suggests that this new literary form didn’t just reflect the interests of this new social class, which is how scholars have tended to look at their intertwined history, but that the novel actually helped create the middle class. Armstrong argues that the novel created a new kind of social awareness where people were judged not by their social standing but by their “qualities of mind,” and that this new awareness created the ideological basis for social mobility, and therefore the middle class.

This is the exact same process you’re talking about with Triumph of the Will. It doesn’t document broad public acceptance of Nazi ideology so much as provide a vision of what a Nazi triumph might look like, and in that way helped to make it come true.

I see something very similar with Michael Jackson. Throughout his work, he isn’t just creating powerful art – though he is doing that – but also a new cultural awareness that makes social change possible. He shows us how our current social structures have failed, especially for those who have been excluded or rendered powerless by them, and suggests new cultural possibilities.

Eleanor:  Exactly. He is, as you say, creating “a new cultural awareness that makes social change possible.” Michael Jackson, like Riefenstahl, understood the power of art, in this case, film, to shape and influence how we see the world. Referencing Riefenstahl in his film, HIStory, he announces that he, too, is a myth maker, but he is creating a new myth to create a new reality. And, instead of celebrating and setting the stage for yet another empire and “deifying” himself, as the media and critics thought (see the Diane Sawyer quote above), his myth takes issue with the very idea that some are more equal than others and shatters the imperialistic myth altogether.

He knew that, for most people, HIStory’s Riefenstahl-like imagery – the monumental architecture, the broad expanses of boulevard and city square, rank upon rank of men marching in lockstep – calls to mind Nazi atrocities, not imperial glory, and he had faith that his fans, if not the critics and the media, knew the difference between what Michael Jackson stood for and what Adolf Hitler stood for.

Interestingly, as an African-American musician, MJ represented a group whom the Nazis despised as much as they did the Jews. Listening to “degenerate” African-American music (at that time, jazz) was prohibited by the Nazis and punishable by imprisonment or even death as part of their drive to purify the so-called Aryan race and culture. Here’s a really interesting article that deals with the Nazi’s fear and loathing of jazz, explaining that “in Nazi occupied Europe, … jazz was suppressed; … it bore the stigma of impurity, innovation, passion… all qualities totalitarians frown on (even anti-fascist theorist Theodor Adorno had a serious beef with jazz).”

Willa: This is a very important topic – something I knew nothing about until Midnight Boomer and Ultravioletrae discussed it in comments last June. I’d really like to discuss this in depth. Maybe we could all get together and do a post about it sometime …

So in the HIStory teaser, you see Michael Jackson both evoking and rewriting the narrative of empire and imperialism?

Eleanor: Yes. Costuming the soldiers in the uniforms of the Soviet Union, HIStory puts another nail in the imperial coffin, bringing back memories of the gulag and the KGB (“was doggin’ me”). Adding an American swat team, notorious in African-American neighborhoods for battering in doors and asking questions later, HIStory ups the ante, bringing the evils of empire up close and personal.

Associating Soviet totalitarianism and the American police state (coming soon to your neighborhood) with Nazi fascism, HIStory associates all three with imperial oppression, past and present. Adding Michael Jackson, a black artist with a remarkable vision and a great heart, and his history – both personal and racial – to the mix, HIStory offers hope for the future while reminding us of the past – including his.

Willa: And we know from his other work that this issue of empire is an important one to him. Repeatedly we see him subtly evoking our colonial past, and opposing the lingering consequences of colonialism and imperialism. For example, we’ve talked about that a bit in posts about the short films for Black or White, They Don’t Care About Us, and Liberian Girl. And this longtime concern with the ongoing effects of imperialism is a very important context for approaching the HIStory teaser, I think.

So you believe that, in HIStory, he extends that ongoing concern with empire to include fascism and other authoritarian social structures? That’s really interesting – and it helps explain why he would draw on Triumph of the Will as a model.

To be honest, I’d never watched that film before, but I found the entire thing on YouTube. (Just about everything is on YouTube!) Here’s a link:

I have to say, knowing what we know about how everything went terribly wrong with the Nazi movement, I approached this film with dread …

Eleanor: Before doing this post, I hadn’t seen it either, Willa, only snippets. And I felt the same way. In fact, I even approached HIStory with dread.

Willa: Triumph is very unsettling, as you said earlier. And that fascist imagery is another reason I was so reluctant to watch it. But it wasn’t at all what I expected. And in fact, there were some aspects of it that directly tie in with Michael Jackson in surprising ways.

For example, the film emphasizes that Hitler envisions Nazism as a youth-based movement. Hitler gives five very short speeches over the course of the film, and perhaps his best speech is addressed to what looks like a sea of 12-year-old boys. (This scene starts about 45 minutes in). Here’s what he tells them:

We want to be one people. And you, my youth, are to be this people. We want to see no more class divisions. You must not let this grow up amongst you.

So he’s directing his message to children, pre-teens, and his emphasis is that they are all “one people” – a very Michael Jackson sort of concept. Hitler goes on to say,

And I know this cannot be otherwise because you are the flesh of our flesh, and the blood of our blood. And in your young heads burns the same spirit that rules us. You cannot be other than united with us.

These words – “you are the flesh of our flesh, and the blood of our blood” – really caught my attention, for a couple of reasons. For one, while Hitler is saying that they are “one people” without “class divisions,” he did not in any way believe that all humans or even all Germans were “one people.” Just the opposite. He wanted to maintain absolute divisions between some groups of people, such as Jews and Gentiles, blacks and whites, heterosexuals and homosexuals, the able-bodied and those with disabilities, especially those with genetic disabilities.

He subtly alludes to this in his final speech in the film when he says, “the divisions of the past have been replaced by a high standard leading the nation. We carry the best blood and we know this.” So this issue of blood is a very important one for Hitler because he uses it to promote his ideas of racial purity.

Eleanor:  Yes, knowing what we know, these words make my own blood run cold. Hitler is not talking about just any blood, but “the best blood” – the blood of “our people,” who were created by God.

Nothing will come from nothing if it is not grounded on a greater order. This order was not given to us by an earthly superior. It was given to us by God who created our people.

In these words, Hitler references the first creation story in Genesis to buttress his own ambition, claiming that the social and political order imposed by the Nazis – fascism – comes from God, and that the German people (at least some of them) are made in God’s image, the image of omnipotent and omniscient and transcendent mind. Or as Riefenstahl puts it in the case of Hitler and the Nazis, in terms of “the will.”

Although born a Catholic, Hitler himself was not a believer, but the majority of the German people were. So to legitimize his own agenda, he contextualizes his own views within the framework of Christian belief.  Based on studying this film (and what I know in general about Hitler) it appears to me that he is marketing the Germans and the Nazi party and his own ambitions as representing the purest expression of divine will.

Willa: So is that where the title Triumph of the Will comes from? I’ve been wondering what that title meant …

Eleanor: Well, Willa, I am only guessing. But, will is a manifestation of mind and God’s will, as in “thy will be done,” is an important Christian concept which is pretty widely known. It is also highly probable that the term “will” is a reference to the title of Schopenhauer’s book, The World as Will and Idea. (In German, both titles use the same word for “will.”) As a great mythmaker, Riefenstahl is probably making a number of unconscious and conscious associations – getting as much mileage as possible out of a single word – just as MJ, through multiple associations, is getting tremendous mileage out of a four-minute film. Triumph is Riefenstahl’s rendering of Hitler’s version of the myth of transcendence. Hitler’s will, the will of the German people, and the German people themselves, are mythologized by Riefenstahl as the triumph of God’s will, but what we are really witnessing is the triumph of Hitler’s will.

Those who exercise their will to control others – the master race – are viewed as naturally and essentially superior to those identified with the body, providing a rationale for the systematic dehumanization, exploitation, abuse, and even eradication (in the case of the Nazis) of other peoples, especially people of other races. In Hitler’s world, only the Aryans, only those who carry the “best blood,” were viewed as fully human – all others were seen as vermin, something to be exterminated.

Willa: It’s really horrifying how this idea of pure blood or “best blood” was used to justify racism and genocide. But then looking at Michael Jackson, it’s fascinating that the image of blood is very important for him as well, for the exact opposite reason: to deny racial divisions and other artificial boundaries between us. It’s almost like a metaphor for what he’s doing throughout the HIStory film – he’s taking a cultural narrative propounded by Hitler and completely reversing it.

In Michael Jackson’s vision, blood is one element that unites us. All of us – all races, all religions, all nationalities – we all have blood in our veins. We all bleed when we’re wounded. Our human blood is one of the things that signifies us all as “one people” – truly one people. Michael Jackson beautifully expresses this in “Can You Feel It” when he sings, “We’re all the same / Yes, the blood inside of me is inside of you … Yes, the blood inside my veins is inside of you.”

Eleanor: Yes, he not only denies the validity of the concept that some are more human than others, he redefines what it means to be human in terms of connection, rather than separation, putting mind back in body and humanity in nature. His vision not only erases divisions, it is all encompassing. Expressed in “Planet Earth,” it extends the idea of blood kinship beyond the human, to all life throughout all time, when he says,

In my veins I’ve felt the mystery
Of corridors of time, books of history
Life songs of ages throbbing in my blood
Have danced the rhythm of the tide and flood

Unlike Hitler, who uses blood to symbolize a mind and spirit (and will) unique to the German people (“you are … the blood of our blood … united with us. In your young heads burns the same spirit that rules us”), Michael Jackson uses blood to symbolize the life force which is common to us all. All life, including humanity, is an expression of the sacred power within nature which pulses through our bodies and our veins.

His role in the HIStory teaser is to offer an alternative to the dominant and dominating paradigm and discredit it at the same time. By juxtaposing images of himself – a man who has demonstrated his “humanity” repeatedly – to images of empire, specifically those empires that have ghetto-ized (and worse) the oppressed peoples that he as a black man represents, HIStory exposes the imperial idea of the “fully human” as inhumane, as cruel and corrupt, promoting death instead of life.

In Michael Jackson’s world, no one is more “fully” human than anyone else.  No one is essentially more – or less – valuable based on race or sex or religion or nationality. In Michael Jackson’s world, the desire for kinship and connection and empathy replaces the drive to separate and achieve superiority. Compassion replaces control.

If one’s deepest desire is to join the select club of the fully human, as defined by imperial values, then that desire affirms those values, and the existing order. But if you reject the club and everything it stands for, and you have the power of Michael Jackson, then you could bring the whole power structure down. Which is why he was so dangerous.

Willa:  Yes, but his “power” is an interesting one because he derives his power in large part from desire – from our desire for him and for what he represents, his vision of the future. And this is going to sound really outrageous at first, so bear with me while I explain, but this is another important parallel between Hitler and Michael Jackson, between Triumph of the Will and the HIStory promo film.

I was really surprised by Triumph of the Will because it wasn’t the long speech justifying Nazi values that I was expecting. In fact, it doesn’t go into much detail at all about Nazi ideology, and Hitler’s speeches are very short – mostly 2 or 3 minutes long. The final speech is by far the longest, but even it’s only about 9 minutes. It’s a propaganda film, but swaying an audience through rhetoric doesn’t seem to be the point. Instead, the goal of the film seems to be to create desire – specifically, desire for Hitler and for a vibrant, healthy, strong Germany.

Triumph of the Will begins with 20 minutes of music and images – no dialogue. Twenty minutes is a really long time in a film, especially one that’s less than two hours long. And we see very little of Hitler himself in those first 20 minutes. Instead we see an aerial view of the beautiful architecture of Nuremberg (we as an audience are flying into Nuremberg as Hitler is) and still from the air, we also see massive numbers of troops, columns of troops – like in the HIStory film – marching to the place where Hitler will speak.

Then we see his plane land – there’s a quick glimpse of him descending the steps of the plane – and then we follow his motorcade into town. But we see much more footage of the crowd and their enthusiastic reception of him than we do of Hitler himself.

The point of all this is to build anticipation, to whet desire, and the HIStory film begins the exact same way. In the first half we see troops marching toward the center of town and steelworkers preparing for his arrival. We also see screaming fans, excited children, fainting women. But we see very little of Michael Jackson himself. We don’t even see his face until halfway through this first part, and even then it’s only brief glimpses.

So the first half of the HIStory film precisely parallels the first 20 minutes of Triumph of the Will. Both of these films are building anticipation, creating desire – and it’s a very similar kind of desire. It’s almost a type of romantic love, or even sexual ecstasy. That’s another reason that line “you are the flesh of our flesh, and the blood of our blood” really jumped out at me.

In the Bible, in Genesis, Adam tells Eve that she is “flesh of my flesh,” and this line is often repeated at wedding ceremonies. So when Hitler speaks these words, he is subtly implying that his relationship with his audience is like the bond between a man and a woman. And repeatedly in his songs and films, Michael Jackson implies the same thing – that his relationship with his audience is like a love affair. That idea is reinforced in the many crowd shots in both Triumph of the Will and the HIStory teaser, especially the shots of fainting women, swooning as if in a state of ecstasy.

Eleanor: You are right. Riefenstahl herself was in love with him, and I guess all of Germany fell in love with him – and he had admirers outside of Germany, including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. I was really shocked when I ran across this article on the Express website, published in 2009, which claimed that “The former British monarch told the journalist it would be tragic for the world if the Nazi ­dictator were overthrown. Hitler was not just the right and logical leader of the German people, the Duke insisted, he was also a great man.”

Willa: Wow, that entire article is shocking. I knew he supported Hitler at one time, but I thought that was early on – before the war. I didn’t realize it continued during the war, and even included passing information to the Germans and trying to sway Roosevelt against helping Great Britain. If this is true, it’s very fortunate that he abdicated the throne. I’m going to have to learn more about this …

But I think Riefenstahl’s relationship with Hitler was complicated. I recently read an interview where Quincy Jones describes having lunch with her, and he implies she was rather critical of the Nazi leadership, including Hitler, and said they were all addicted to cocaine. (Jones goes on to say that cocaine “closes down any fear or problem with violence,” which is interesting, especially in connection with the Nazi leadership.)

But of course, Quincy Jones met Riefenstahl long after World War II had ended, and the full horror of what had happened had been exposed. Her feelings were probably very different when she made the film in 1934, before the concentration camps and other atrocities had happened – back when Hitler appeared like a kind of savior promising a new beginning for Germany.

Eleanor: I read that article, too. Isn’t it interesting that Quincy Jones met Leni Riefenstahl?

Willa:  It really is.

Eleanor: In that article, he says he was a big fan. I wonder if MJ learned about Triumph from him. I had assumed it was through his interest in Chaplin. But, maybe not …

Willa:  I had the exact same reaction. It certainly adds another dimension to Michael Jackson’s use of Triumph in the HIStory teaser, doesn’t it?

Eleanor:  As you say, that meeting took place long after the events of World War II. At the time she was making Triumph she said,

To me Hitler is the greatest man who ever lived. He is really faultless, so simple yet so filled with manly power… He is really beautiful, he is wise. Radiance streams from him. All the great men of Germany – Friedrich, Nietzsche, Bismarck – have all had faults. Hitler’s followers are not spotless. Only he is pure.

To me, these are the words of a woman in love. So if Riefenstahl’s feelings are any indication of how people felt about Hitler, desire was a component to his appeal.

But comparing Michael to Hitler in this way is still almost more than I can handle. That’s how toxic this stuff is. That’s why what Michael did in HIStory was so risky.

Willa: I know what you mean. Comparing Michael Jackson to Hitler just feels wrong, on so many levels. Their beliefs, perceptions, vision for the future, emotional response to suffering – everything about them seems diametrically opposed. But Michael Jackson himself drew the comparison in his conversations with Rabbi Boteach, which were published in 2009 as The Michael Jackson Tapes. When talking with Rabbi Boteach about Hitler and the Holocaust, he was clearly horrified:

When I found out the count of how many children in the Holocaust alone died… [starts to break down]. What man can do something like that? I don’t understand. It doesn’t matter what race it is. I don’t get it. I don’t understand at all. I really don’t. What kind of conditioning… I don’t understand that kind of thing. Does someone condition you to hate that much? Is it possible that they could do that to your heart?

(By the way, the parenthetical note that he “starts to break down” while speaking of the Holocaust is Rabbi Boteach’s.) So Michael Jackson is completely opposed to Nazi ideology. Of course.

Eleanor: Of course. It is beyond me how anyone could believe otherwise.  But I guess they did, which is why they were willing to believe that the lyrics “kike me,” etc. in “They Don’t Care About Us” were anti-Semitic (further proof of his “Nazi leanings,” no doubt), when he was speaking for the Jews, not against them. The critics and the media and those who have invested and succeeded in the existing system are its gatekeepers. To defuse his power, they denied it, ridiculing him as an uppity, empty-headed pop star making a fool of himself by puffing himself up and identifying himself with imperial power, when he was clearly critiquing it, as an ideology of hate.

Willa: It is “an ideology of hate.” As he told Boteach, “Does someone condition you to hate that much?” And this ideology of hate is completely antithetical to everything he stands for and believes in.

But as his conversation with Rabbi Boteach continues, he goes on to say this:

Hitler was a genius orator. He was [able] to make that many people turn and change and hate. He had to be a showman and he was. Before he could speak, he would pause, drink a bit of water, and then he would clear his throat, and look around. It was what an entertainer would do trying to work out how to play his audience.

Eleanor: OMG, Willa. I will never be able to look at MJ, standing stock still for a full minute or so and then slowly taking off his Ray-Bans, in the same way again!

Willa: Well, I don’t think Hitler invented that strategy of delaying his “performance” to build anticipation, but he certainly used it very effectively – and so did Michael Jackson. It’s very unsettling to think about, but it’s true.

So it’s completely wrong to suggest Michael Jackson was a Nazi sympathizer as some critics have done, in part because of those passages from Rabbi Boteach’s book. In fact, Rabbi Boteach himself has repeatedly defended Michael Jackson and said the people accusing him are misinterpreting those passages – for example, in a Huffington Post article in November 2009, and another article a couple years later in May 2012.

But while it’s wrong to call Michael Jackson a Nazi sympathizer – far from it, he represents just the opposite – nevertheless, he understood the power of a compelling performer to sway an audience, either for good or evil, and it’s fascinating that that’s how he sees Hitler: as “a genius orator,” “a showman,” and a performer. Rabbi Boteach asks him about this, just to clarify:

Are you the opposite of Hitler? God gave you this phenomenal charisma and while he [Hitler] brought out the beast in man, you want to bring out some of that innocence and goodness in man.

Michael Jackson agrees with Boteach’s assessment, saying “I believe that.”

Eleanor:  Yes, from an early age, he believed he had a special role to play, a destiny. And, I believe that as well.

Willa: I don’t know if it was destiny or not, but he certainly became an incredibly powerful cultural figure – one who literally changed the world.

So it’s important to separate out Hitler’s skill as a propagandist from his ideology. Michael Jackson apparently felt nothing but horror for Hitler’s message, but expressed a grudging admiration for his charisma and his ability to convey that message. Hitler used his talents to promote prejudice and hatred – and in the HIStory film, Michael Jackson is appropriating some of his techniques to promote “love,” as he told Diane Sawyer. Or rather desire. I think it’s more about desire actually, but desire is closely aligned with love.

Eleanor:  Yes, and desire is clearly linked to charisma, although charisma remains a mystery, but a mystery MJ was very interested in understanding.

Charisma is more than a matter of technique. It is tied to the power of the message – and the messenger – to tap into deep and collectively-held emotions, to satisfy deeply felt needs and longings – as you say, desires – the deepest being those associated with survival. Hitler aroused desire in the German people, appealing to their drive to survive, by convincing them that their survival depended on him, and that, under his leadership, they would not only survive but rise again out of the ashes of WWI.

Willa:  That is such an important point, Eleanor, and highlights another important parallel between Triumph of the Will and the HIStory teaser: they were both filmed at a time of deep humiliation and presumed defeat. Triumph begins with these lines written across the screen:

5 September 1934
20 years after the outbreak of the World War
16 years after the start of the German suffering
19 months after the start of Germany’s rebirth
Adolf Hitler flew once again to Nuremberg to hold a military display

(This is a translation – the actual words are written in German.) So the film places itself within the context of Germany’s defeat in World War I and the crippling economic conditions that followed, which was truly a time of great “suffering” in Germany. And Michael Jackson created the HIStory film in 1995 following the false allegations of child sexual abuse, which was a time of great suffering for him. People around the world were twisting his message and calling him a child molester.

But despite this suffering and humiliation, both films announce that they will not be defeated, they will not be shamed. Michael Jackson will not allow others to put their labels onto him – he will define himself – and so will Germany. They will both rise again, on their own terms. As the text at the beginning of Triumph says, this film is documenting and celebrating “the start of Germany’s rebirth.”

Eleanor:  However, Hitler’s vision was not just a vision of rebirth, but a vision of conquest, a vision in which a reborn Germany proved their superiority to all others, and we know where that led.

Willa: Yes, absolutely. That’s why watching that film now, knowing what happened soon after, is so chilling.

Eleanor: And Riefenstahl’s film was very important in creating the desire to see his vision fulfilled – in making the connection between Hitler’s vision and their survival, in showing Hitler as their hero, their salvation. And the desire created, as you say is “almost a type of romantic love, or even sexual ecstasy.”

Collective survival, the survival of a people or a nation, involves more than relationships to other peoples and the land. It also involves sexual relationships which ensure survival from one generation to the next. So, appealing to the drive to survive also arouses sexual desire. And, it is very possible that Hitler used a phrase like “flesh of my flesh” – and Riefenstahl highlighted it in her film – as a deliberate reference to Adam and Eve and sexual love.

So Triumph can be read as a sexual display of sorts. The imagery in Triumph is all about dominance and power and strength, in other words, macho-ness. Think of all those images at the beginning of beautiful young males, emerging half dressed into the early morning mist. Associating images of male beauty with images of political and military strength associates military prowess with sexual prowess.

Willa:  That’s interesting. I hadn’t thought about that before, but it’s true that Triumph is filled with images of male power in many different forms …

Eleanor: And as you say, HIStory, like Triumph, builds anticipation and whets sexual desire. Just as we see very little of Hitler in the opening sequences of Triumph, we see very little of MJ. As a matter of fact, we don’t see much of MJ at all, but what we do see of him is really interesting. Before that great shot of his beautiful smiling face, we see his sexy boots and his skin-tight pants. We see him walking – and how he walks! That graceful swagger, the utter confidence.

And just before he salutes, a salute that conveys feelings of empathy and respect for his troops, and leaves the scene altogether, the camera focuses on … his crotch!  A very different kind of, but very effective, male display. Maleness, like humanity, embodied in Michael Jackson, has nothing to do with conquest, and desire for him has nothing to do with the desire to be conquered (à la the romance novels known as “bodice rippers”).

HIStory

To bring about radical change, to dig up the roots of empire, which he saw as threatening the survival of the planet and the human species – especially one particular member of the human species, himself – Michael Jackson had to use the power of his art to create a new paradigm of survival – a new algorithm of desire.

Willa:  Which is the title of your book series. So we’ve kind of come full circle …

Eleanor: Yes, how did that happen? The algorithm of desire defines the terms of collective survival – from day to day and from one generation to the next. Empires have based survival, both kinds, on the idea of “divide and conquer.”

To bring about radical change, Michael Jackson had to de-link the drive to survive – which drives our interactions with other lands and other peoples, as well as sexual desire – from ideas of separation and control, which meant that he had to redefine the erotic, which I believe he did. Through the power of his art to reach deeply into and touch our emotions, he created new associations. He rewired our brains. He changed what turns people on. A lot for one slim young man to take on – and accomplish.

Willa: Yes, it is. But redefining the erotic is something he successfully achieved throughout his career. I mean, he was the first black teen idol – an object of desire for millions of teenagers around the world: white, black, Asian, all races. That in itself is a powerful redefinition of the erotic.

And he was sexy in a very different way than most of his predecessors. He was incredibly hot, but not in a macho way. He redefined what it means for a man to be sexy.

Eleanor: Yes, she said yes….

Willa: Ha! That’s funny. So you believe that one thing he’s doing in the HIStory promo film is breaking the symbolic linkage between military might and sexual virility, between empire and machismo?

Eleanor: Exactly. What a great way to put it!  And what better way to discredit empire than by referencing the most notorious example of the paradigm of transcendence in recent memory, Nazi Germany. And what better way to reference Nazi Germany than by using the techniques of Triumph of the Will, which displayed both Hitler’s oratory and Riefenstahl’s art, and exploit them to forward his own agenda.

As we have discussed, HIStory was filmed at a very difficult time in Michael’s life. But, looked at more broadly. Michael Jackson appeared on the world stage at a time when people were losing faith in the old solutions and were desperately seeking something new. He knew that the tide was turning, and “the tide, when taken at the full, leads on to fortune” – so, he took it.

HIStory offers us the vision of a new kind of hero, one who is committed to compassion rather than conquest. The power of his art touches us so deeply it changes our lives – opening our hearts and our eyes, making us feel and see things differently, moving us to dance the dance of life, not death.

Willa:  And this idea of a “new kind of hero” is something we also see in Charlie Chaplin’s brilliant satirical film, The Great Dictator, which also works off of and against Triumph of the Will and served as an important influence for the HIStory teaser. That’s what we’ll focus on when we continue this discussion in a second post.

In the meantime, thank you, Eleanor, for joining me. You’ve certainly given us a lot to think about!