A Night at the Garden (2017) dir. Marshall Curry
This is America. Don’t catch you slippin’ up!
“Never forget” is the axiom of choice in the wake of disasters. And while society might do a decent job of keeping the Holocaust, Pearl Harbor, 9/11 and other major atrocities alive in the collective memory, some of the less violent, if no less dramatic, events tend to evaporate. The not-insignificant minority of support of Hitler’s Germany in the US (and the general public skepticism about joining the war) is rarely a part of the American narrative of World War II. “A Night at the Garden” unearths a particularly mind-boggling moment in this era: a sold-out rally held by the Nazi sympathizers of the German-American Bund. 22,000 people filled Madison Square Garden to capacity in February of 1939, mere months before the invasion of Poland and the start of the war.
The selected footage deftly sketches the facts of night itself and the way it sticks in the throat of a proud American. Police and protesters in the streets of New York, the supposed bastion of US progressivism. Racism and sports share a marquee. A parade of American flags. A row of Nazi salutes. A cameraman’s fingers rotate the camera’s turret and magnifies the image of Bund leader Fritz Kuhn, a buffoon of a man by all accounts including accounts by other Nazis. Here he draws applause and laughter from the crowd as he claims the media is out to get him and promises a return of America to white Gentiles. A young boy dances for his friends as a protester is beaten. A towering likeness of noted slave owner George Washington looks on.
Curry, twice nominated for short-subject Oscars, is content to keep a subtle distance for the most part. He has a judicious eye for footage curation and apparently some detective skills, tracking down this footage from archive sources on opposite coasts. Other than the selection and melding of clips from different sources (some in 35mm!), there’s only two spins added in post: the music score which is effective if a touch heavy-handed, and a slow-motion rendering of the moment a protester has his pants pulled down and is forced off the stage. The slow-motion keeps the small moment within the greater moment onscreen longer and gives an utterly forgotten gesture new life and significance.
The depressing parallels between this short and the present are yet another reminder that America is making some painful and long-deferred payments to the historical record. Once there may have been comfort in the idea that a silly bigot’s Madison Square Garden hootenanny could fail to make a blip on the historical record. But failing to make a blip can also mean failing to learn the lesson.
- I highly recommend this essay by Jon Schwarz for more background on this film and his striking personal connection.