Seven uncomfortably resonant foreign films about politics for the age of Trump

Other countries have seen this movie before.

Sergey Pokhodaev as Roma in “Leviathan.” CREDIT: Anna Matveeva, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Sergey Pokhodaev as Roma in “Leviathan.” CREDIT: Anna Matveeva, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

The holiday season is right around the corner, which means now is a perfect time to snuggle up indoors and watch a few movies. And the Trump era also happens to be right around the corner, which makes now an excellent time to prepare oneself for what’s coming.

Luckily, you can do both simultaneously. While President-elect Donald Trump is something new in American politics, his rise to power does have international precedents. Other countries have seen this movie before. And over the past few decades, brilliant filmmakers from around the world have produced films that reflect their own national brushes with authoritarianism.

Below are seven movies from around the world that might provide a glimpse of America’s near future.

From Russia: Leviathan (2014)

If it weren’t for the stunning cinematography and flashes of wry wit scattered throughout, this parable of Putin’s Russia would be unwatchably bleak. An extended riff on the Book of Job — with a politically connected Orthodox bishop filling the role of God — Leviathan tracks the downfall of small town car mechanic Kolya (Aleksei Serebryakov) as he fights to keep his property from being expropriated by the corrupt local mayor.

But this isn’t a David and Goliath story. Instead, it’s a story about the inescapable facts of Russian politics: The powerful get what they want, and the weak must either accommodate them or get crushed. No wonder Kolya spends a significant chunk of the film’s running time blitzed on vodka.

While Kolya is the film’s main audience identification character, his wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) might be its tragic center. Every character in Leviathan is caged by circumstance, but Lilya is doubly trapped as a woman in a deeply patriarchal society.

From France and Algeria: Z (1969)

Based on the real-life assassination of Greek parliamentarian Grigoris Lambrakis in 1963, Z charts the symbiotic relationship between right-wing vigilantism and anti-democratic forces in government. The film’s central crime is perpetrated by a gang of freewheeling thugs, but it only has its intended effect thanks to the collusion of police and military officers.

If there’s a shred of hope in the film, it is thanks to the dogged integrity of The Examining Magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignant) charged with investigating the murder of The Deputy (Yves Montand). The character of The Examining Magistrate is based off Christos Sartzetakis, a Greek prosecutor who later served as the country’s president.

From Germany: The Lives of Others (2006)

The power of the American surveillance state has only grown throughout the last two presidential administrations, so expect it to become ever more intrusive under President Trump. What better time to watch one of the seminal movies about a government that’s always watching?

Set in the waning years of the Cold War, The Lives of Others follows Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), an officer in the Stasi, the East German security force notorious for its panopticon-style approach to government surveillance. While the movie has some shrewd things to say about how constant spying changes the people being watched, it’s even more interested in how it changes the watcher. As Wiesler listens in on a group of East German dissidents, he gradually becomes attached to them and disillusioned with the oppressive regime to which he’s dedicated his life.

From South Korea: The President’s Last Bang (2005)

In 1979, Korean Central Intelligence Agency director Kim Jae-gyu assassinated South Korea’s thuggish dictator, President Park Chung-hee. The circumstances of Park’s death might sound like they belong in a taut political thriller, but The President’s Last Bang renders them as an absurd farce. The president himself (Song Jae-Ho) comes off as a pathetic, hedonistic lout, while his assassin (Baek Yoon-sik) is perpetually irritated and has a really nasty case of constipation. More Dr. Strangelove than House of Cards, this is a story about how the petty needs of small men can change a nation’s history overnight.

The film ran into some legal trouble when it was first released, thanks to a suit from Park Chung-hee’s son, Park Ji-man. The president’s daughter, Park Geun-hye, was president herself until last week — when she was impeached for her involvement in an utterly bizarre scandal involving a local cult.

From Italy: Il Divo (2008)

This isn’t a normal biopic. Instead, director Paolo Sorrentino’s kaleidoscopic take on the life of Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti (Toni Servillo) skips around the timeline, lapses into surreal digressions, and generally makes it impossible for viewers to separate the facts of Andreotti’s life from the fiction. That approach perfectly fits the film’s subject, an enigmatic figure who spent decades close to the center of post-war Italian politics and played a role in innumerable conspiracy theories.

Who bears ultimate responsibility for the death of Andreotti’s predecessor, Aldo Moro, at the hands of the Red Brigades? Did Vatican banker Roberto Calvi commit suicide, or was he the victim of a sinister conspiracy? Was Andreotti himself involved with the mafia, or was that a smear cooked up by his political enemies? Il Divo answers exactly none of those questions, choosing instead to submerge the viewer in a surreal twilight world of politics, where everything is a lie and nothing is fixed. Sound familiar?

From France: La Haine (1995)

When this film first came out in France, then-Prime Minister Alain Juppé — who recently lost a bid to become his party’s presidential nominee — held an official screening because, a spokesperson said, “this film is a beautiful work of cinematographic art that can make us more aware of certain realities.”

Those “certain realities” pertain mostly to life in the Parisian underclass. La Haine’s three central characters — a Jew, a man of black African descent, and an Arab — spend the film dealing with the aftermath of a bloody riot, while also trying to defend themselves against the twin threats of police brutality and skinhead attacks. But while the film is utterly unsparing when it comes to its subject matter, it’s also wildly entertaining — a testament to both the leads’ charged performances and director Mathieu Kassovitz’s visual panache. La Haine works overtime to earn the Spike Lee comparisons cited by so many critics upon its release in the United States.

From the United Kingdom: In the Loop (2009)

This film — about the governments of the United States and U.K. cooking up a dubious pretext for war in the Middle East — is very much an artifact of the Iraq War era. But it’s also a timeless satire of how the cowardice and myopia of mid-level bureaucrats can enable horrific policy decisions.

Loosely adapted by Armando Iannucci from his BBC sitcom The Thick Of It — perhaps the greatest television show about politics ever made, and also the basis for HBO’s Veep — In the Loop is all about bursts of frantic activity that add up to very little in the end. The film’s main antagonist, Linton Barwick (a riff on Donald Rumsfeld, played with terrifying zen by David Rasche) is the only major character who seems to genuinely want the war. But everyone else pretty much goes along with him, because to do otherwise would be bad for their careers. In the end, the film’s true villain is craven self-interest.