Though Madison Square Garden has hosted its share of performances that the American public might find, to varying degrees, personally offensive — a late summer Nickelback concert back in 2012, for instance — the most chilling event it has held is one that most people don’t even know about. A night that was all but wiped from our national memory almost immediately after it occurred, easy as an Etch-a-Sketch shake, replaced by brighter and less troubling things.
To see footage of it now is to feel like you’ve caught a new episode of The Man in the High Castle, or maybe Black Mirror, or whatever dystopian prestige drama would feature a crowd of 22,000 people cheering for a man who promises the return of “white Gentile rule” to the United States as he stands before a massive portrait of George Washington, sandwiched by swastikas.
It’s a pro-America rally where everybody is doing the Nazi salute, where the lone protester — Isadore Greenbaum, a 26-year-old Jew from Brooklyn, who yelled “down with Hitler!” — was beaten, his pants ripped off, and dragged to a police station, where he was charged with disorderly conduct. The event was held by the German American Bund whose leader, Fritz Kuhn, was a recently-naturalized American citizen who was really learning anti-Semitism from some of its most devoted local practictioners (he worked for Henry Ford) and would later be arrested for embezzling Bund funds, imprisoned, stripped of said citizenship, and deported to West Germany.
If you do know about this rally, chances are it’s because of filmmaker Marshall Curry’s documentary short, A Night at the Garden, which is up for an Oscar this Sunday. Curry’s film is available online, for free, for anyone to see, and recently made headlines when Fox News rejected a national ad for the film, citing “inappropriate imagery.” The 30-second spot, “It Can Happen Here,” was going to air during Sean Hannity’s show. As in the film, there is very little explicit commentary in the ad to connect the past to the present; the event is presented as it unfolded in real time, and the audience is expected to do that dot-connecting for themselves.
Just after arriving in Los Angeles for the Academy Awards and all its satellite schmoozing-and-celebrating pregame-events, Curry spoke with ThinkProgress by phone about discovering this story, making his documentary, and why Americans could forget something so ostensibly unforgettable. “It contradicts the view that we would like to have of our country,” he said. “I think we would like to all think that, as soon as Americans heard about Nazi ideology, they rejected it immediately.”
How did you first hear about this rally? Was it something you’d always had in the back of your mind as a documentary subject?
So I didn’t know about this rally at all until a friend of mine who is writing a screenplay about New York in 1939 told me about it. When i looked it up, I saw there were historical documentaries about other subjects that had maybe five or ten second clips of this. I was completely intrigued by them. They showed Madison Square Garden with that big George Washington hanging up, and American flags, and swastikas.
I thought, if there’s five to ten seconds of this thing out there already, there has to be more than that somewhere. So I got an archival researcher who is also friend to find it, and he found pieces in the National Archives, in the UCLA archives, and elsewhere. Some of it was on film that had never been scanned high-definition before. Some was audio that didn’t have matching video, or video with no audio. And he gathered it all. When I got and started looking through it, I was just shocked by it.
How much original material were you working with, once you had it all in one place?
I think there was probably less than an hour of footage total. And when I saw it I thought that i really wanted to make something out of it.
With an hour of footage, you could really go in either direction: narrow and focused, as you did, or the opposite, like, the Ken Burns treatment where this is 15 hours long and there are lots of talking heads and historical experts. What made you decide to go the route you did and get this down to under ten minutes?
I did consider that Ken Burns approach! But almost on a whim one day, I just decided to try cutting it as if it were a vérité documentary, where the audience was just dropped into this crazy, surreal event and the audience had to figure out what it was and what was going on. And found that it had a real power to it that a straight history lesson might not have. The way that it sucks the audience in as viewers try to figure out what it is and what’s going on.
The way that it’s edited, it has a few headfakes in it that are designed to pull you in. It starts with the title, A Night at the Garden, and you see Madison Square Garden, so you think, maybe this is about a basketball game. And you see the marquee that says “pro-America rally,” and you think, maybe it’s a typical patriotic event. But then you notice that people are giving the Nazi salute and there are swastikas there, and you think, wait, this seems different from the normal patriotic, pro-America rallies.
And then you think, well, maybe this was in the [early] 1930s, before people understood what Nazism was really all about. Until the speaker takes the stage and says it’s time to take America back from the Jews who are destroying it, and a protestor is beaten up on stage, and you realize that this audience in the Garden knows exactly why they’re there. So I edited it with the goal of having the audience go through that progression.
What was going on in the world and the country when you found this footage and starting piecing the documentary together?
What’s interesting is when I first found the footage, it was before Charlottesville, before the murder [of Heather Heyer] and the riots.
I saw the footage as a comment on Trumpian demagoguery, but it didn’t have anything to do with Nazis, per se. I just thought it was a comment on the way that demagogues, throughout history, use the same tactics over and over: they attack minority groups, they attack the press, they cheer violence against protesters, they wrap their divisive and hateful ideology in the symbols of patriotism. At that point, that’s all that I wanted people to take away from it, was: wow, these tactics of 1939 seem familiar to what I’m seeing today at Trump rallies.
But then Charlottesville happened, and I realized that it was no longer a metaphor. We were actually talking about real Nazis again in America! So that was a point at which I sent over the rough cut, which i’d been noodling around with as a side project, over to Laura Poitras and Charlotte Cook at Field of Vision, a documentary filmmaking company, and they jumped on board immediately and funded the rest of the production.
What’s interesting about that timeline is, If you’d released this movie after Trump was elected but before Charlottesville, and you went around pointing out these parallels between Trumpism and Nazism, I think you would have gotten a lot of flack for that by people who would say, basically, not everything is the same as Nazis, not every guy you don’t like is the same as Hitler. Whereas Charlottesville made something that was already pretty apparent that much more literal.
Truthfully, I don’t think Donald Trump is a Nazi in the sense that, he wants to create death camps for Jews in America. But i think that the tactics that he uses and that demagogues have used for a thousand years are the same as the tactics that the leader of this [Nazi] group uses.
When you see the film, there’s no mention of Trump, but the similarities both to Trump supporters and Trump, they are unmistakable without having to be said.
And truly, I hoped that by just showing the footage of the event without commentary and without connecting the dots for people, that it might get past people’s partisan filters a little bit, and that people who support Trump might watch it and just have a moment of reflection where they think, Gosh, this seems vaguely familiar to me! Maybe I need to be a little more vigilant when I notice politicians today use these tactics.
Speaking of getting this film in front of people who voted for Trump: What did you make of Fox News pulling a national ad for the movie, which was supposed to air during Sean Hannity’s primetime show, citing “inappropriate” imagery?
I thought it was appalling. What Fox said the reason was for rejecting it was that it contained terrible Nazi imagery. But within 24 hours of them saying that, reporters were pulling up examples of them having run similar imagery from Dinesh D’Souza’s “documentary” or from other ads that they’d run. So that explanation was, on its face, not true.
So then you have to say, why didn’t they run it? And the answer is, they see a connection between what happened in 1939 and the president that they support, and they didn’t want their audiences to see that connection. That’s the only explanation I can think of for why they wouldn’t share this piece of historical footage with their audience.
And I’ll say that in the past, there have been advertisements that Fox, CNN and MSNBC all agreed were beyond the pale. That racist, anti-immigrant Trump ad, they all agreed! But this is not that. Only Fox rejected it. MSNBC and CNN both aired the ad. And I think that that shows that they rejected it for political reasons, and because they, frankly, don’t trust their audience to be able to watch historical footage.
You did want people to make that connection between Nazism in 1939 and Trumpism today. And it looks like they did. So, in one, odd way… mission accomplished?
I guess they did! I was hoping at the time that their audiences would get a chance to watch it, because I think if we were able to speak directly to Hannity viewers, many of them might be sobered by the connection between what was happening in 1939 and what Trump was doing.
So like you, I had never heard of this rally until very recently. Until I learned about your movie. And it wasn’t like I hadn’t learned about World War II or the Holocaust before. It seems like we are not alone here, that most Americans have no clue this rally ever happened. To what do you attribute our collective amnesia about this pretty massive event?
Almost nobody who I’ve spoken with has ever heard of this thing, much less have they seen the footage. I feel like this footage should be part of every high school class about the Holocaust and World War II. Because it’s a cautionary tale for how vulnerable even Americans are to terrible ideas and the hateful demagogues.
I think that the reason we don’t know about it is because it’s embarrassing and it contradicts the view that we would like to have of our country. I think we would like to all think that, as soon as Americans heard about Nazi ideology, they rejected it immediately. And the truth is, the vast majority of Americans did reject it immediately. I would hate for people to think that this rally represented a majority view of Americans. I don’t think they did. And the New York Times coverage of the rally from 1939 made clear that most people in New York were repulsed by this group.
But that said, when 20,000 New Yorkers come out for a rally, you know that that many more support the group without showing up, and we know that there were people, mainstream people, spouting these kinds of positions, from Charles Lindbergh to Henry Ford to Father [Charles] Coughlin, whose radio show reached 30 million Americans, and on which he said good things about Mussolini and Hitler.
So I feel like the danger of Trumpism is complacency. It is the assumption that America could never go off the rails. And I think that the film shows that Americans, like every other human on the Earth, have dark sides that can be stirred up by effective demagogues, and that we have to be vigilant about that, and we have to push back on anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic, racist philosophies and rhetoric.
It’s really stunning how much of our history we don’t study because we feel conflicted about it, or because we want to be patriotic.
It’s a real problem, when a country can’t face its history. And I don’t think the point of digging up dark parts of American history is to beat up America or to make everybody walk around feeling guilty. To me, the point of digging up dark parts of our history is to caution us so that we don’t fall into those same traps again. But you’re right, nobody likes to hear bad news.
Was there anything especially powerful in the footage that you needed to cut to keep to that progression you were describing earlier? Anything you wish you didn’t have to cut?
What I tried to do is just cut everything to the bone and just let you have the bare essence of the evening. So the rest of the footage is similar to the footage that I have. There’s more footage of people marching in, more of the speech Fritz Kuhn is giving. But I feel like the selections of his speech that I included covered the heart of what he was saying.
I hope that this short will encourage other filmmakers to make more examinations of this time. The footage that we’ve gotten, the short that we made, we are putting it on YouTube and Vimeo and Facebook, and we encourage people to pirate and share. We’re not trying to make money off it. We’re not trying to claim ownership to this. We just want this story to be examined and to become commonly known part of our history.
To me, if it could be like that footage of Civil Rights protestors being hosed, something that every American knows about that’s a cautionary story about what can happen when leaders stir us up against each other, that’s our goal for this footage. That every high schooler would know this story and be sensitized to the risks of demagogues who separate us and scapegoat minorities.
Last night, members of our team projected footage from this event on the outside of Madison Square Garden. And it’s really cool looking! We hired and worked with a visual artist who owns a portable, super-strong projector. People were walking by and looking up and saying, “What’s going on?” It feels like the ghosts of that event are haunting Madison Square Garden and are back to warn us about our current political situation. So it was a very cool and eerie projection and event.
I bet people didn’t even realize it was historical footage. Probably they thought it was a promo for The Man in the High Castle.
I think so! Today, our publicist sent us a link that one of the executive producers from The Man in the High Castle, David Zucker, was being interviewed about it in Deadline:
In the time since High Castle’s debut in 2015, there has been a widespread political shift in the West with the election of Donald Trump and right-wing populism parties rising up all over Europe. As the series now moves into its final season, I wanted to get a sense of, as much as you can, how you feel that the series has mirrored the time in which it has existed?
It’s not just today. One can look at A Night at the Garden, the Oscar nominated short documentary, where one can literally look at actual footage in 1939 of what transpired in this country. If certain things hadn’t taken the course that they did during that era in history, who knows how that organization may have prevailed in mid-century America, and to what degree, you know, is that sort of informing some of the debates that are transpiring today?
It’s crazy. They’re having a Hollywood conversation about a TV show and mentioning our short. I do think the footage is surreal in the same way The Man in the High Castle is surreal. Everything feels familiar and completely distorted at the same time. That’s the feeling I got watching it.
One moment that really landed that way for me is the bit where — are they Girl Scouts? These young girls in what look like Girl Scout uniforms are marching in down the aisles.
To see the audience reaction [in the footage], that was the thing that was most disturbing to me. You see these people in the crowd in their suits and dresses and ties and hats, and they are people who would be my neighbors in Brooklyn right now, and they come in and they just laugh and cheer as this man attacks people who are going to be murdered by the millions in the next few years. And at that point, the concentration camps were being built, but the scale of horror that is about to happen as a result of that philosophy is not yet known. It’s just flabbergasting to me.
There’s another shot in there of a little boy who kind of jumps up and down and does an excited dance and rubs his hands together while the Jewish protester is being beaten up. That boy was in the background of one of the shots, so I zoomed and reframed it so he would become the focus. I thought his excitement at being part of a mob revealed something about human nature that we needed to be wary of if we’re going to defend against the kind of mob mentality that people like Donald Trump are trying to stir up.
How did you land on the title A Night at the Garden?
I think it just hit me. I don’t know! My wife will probably remind me that she thought it up. I wanted something that felt very common and very un-alarming, because that’s what’s so amazing about this rally, was that it’s not Nuremberg and it just happened in the most famous arena in all of the United States. There was something ironic, almost, about the lack of alarm in the title, that I liked. It sounds like it’s just going to be a sporting event. And when you look at the marquee, right underneath pro-America rally is ‘hockey!’ It’s just another event in New York’s Madison Square Garden! I liked the common-ness of that. The unexceptional nature of that title.
I agree with you. When people talk about Trump and creeping fascism, and there’s a push to not overreact and to not get dire with it — I do feel like people are waiting for scary music to be blasting in the streets. And it’s like, they’re not going to score the movie until later! Things will be packaged as if they are unexceptional, as you say.
That’s exactly right. And with this group, the fact that their leader had a German accent kept the group from becoming more popular than they were. There’s a famous quote [by Halford E. Luccock] about that: “When and if fascism comes to America it will not be labeled ‘made in Germany’; it will not be marked with a swastika; it will not even be called fascism; it will be called, of course, ‘Americanism.’”
That’s what’s so frightening about the alt-right and the rise of Trump: It does have an American accent. It has an American sense of humor. It knows how to use social media. It knows how to speak to Americans, and to push our buttons and summon our worst demons. And I think that makes it so much more dangerous than a Nazi party that presents itself as Nazis.
It is amazing, considering the alt-right is trying to position themselves as the ultimate patriots, that they’re not trying to distance themselves from swastikas. Are you surprised that the actual Nazi symbol is still so present in their ranks? I would think it could’ve gone the way of the toothbrush mustache, right? A symbol beyond revival for anyone trying to pass themselves off as the most pro-America American out there.
I agree, and I’m stunned that things like swastikas are creeping back towards the mainstream. But i’m much more concerned about the Trumpian right wing stuff that allows a guy running for president to say that he wants to keep people of a certain religion out of our country, and then still get elected president, and get 90% of Republican approval even then. That is much more frightening to me than swastikas.