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It’s rare to see a film so painfully at war with itself as The First Purge. I hadn’t seen an entry in the franchise since the original, which seemed utterly unconcerned with the obvious political implications of its premise. Since then, it seems the series has steadily stumbled into deeper engagement with those undertones. Each entry has gotten a little more interested in politics. The last one was subtitled “Election Year.” This one announced itself with a poster featuring a red baseball cap. It’s hard to blame them for the bluntness of this approach. The time for subtext in American political art is over. The only question was whether or not the franchise’s creators had the capability to tell these stories in a nuanced and intelligent way.
The answer, it turns out: Not really! But you have to admire its intentions. The First Purge is a film that so badly wants to provide insightful social commentary. The way it rewrites the original film’s premise is quite clever. The Purge, an annual event where all crime is legal for twelve hours, was apparently conceived of as a way of getting residents of low-income neighborhoods to kill each other off, a free pass for the government (here run by a political party called the New Founding Fathers) to continue ignoring their desperation. The film depicts a test run of the Purge, confined to Staten Island, where residents are being paid thousands of dollars to stay on the island for the night and even more to “participate.” The people who live there are largely poor and non-white, and most of them accept simply because they need the money. It’s the only real government assistance they have, and it comes at the price of their lives.
Later in the film, when it seems that only non-violent crime is being committed and people aren’t engaging, the government sends in private militia groups and armed KKK members to murder residents. Their hope is that this will provoke more people to violence, thus providing statistical proof of engagement with the Purge. It’s a really interesting spin on a premise which was originally used as nothing more than an excuse to depict widespread violence and terror. The scientist who conceived of the Purge says in one scene, “This socioeconomic group is not reacting the way I predicted.” That is to say, they aren’t instantly devolving into violence and mayhem. The filmmakers make it very clear that the Purge as a concept is infected at the root with racism.
It’s obvious that they here seriously reckoned with the implications of the concept, and that they came to the right conclusions. The psychological excuse for the Purge was always nonsense. Here, that fact is made part of the fabric of the story. The Purge is depicted as nothing more than a government tool to annihilate poor people and people of color. It’s a genuinely provocative idea. At one point, the man in charge of observing the Purge insists that this is the best option to combat America’s overpopulation and increasing national debt. “We exhausted every possibility,” he says. No one asks if he considered stretching out his hand to help, rather than hurt. But no one needs to.
The problem is that The First Purge is beholden to the structure of its predecessors. It has to be a bad Blumhouse horror movie. The protagonists have to be chased around by people wearing masks and wielding knives. There’s a crazy scary guy named (no joke) Skeletor who stalks one of the main characters for a while. It’s not just that it denigrates the sincere social commentary to include such absurd, idiotic, lame horror movie tropes. It’s that the horror elements are so halfheartedly included as to feel obligatory. And this should be a horror movie! It’s a horrifying premise! Horror is capable of telling this story the way it needs to be told. But rather than enriching the film’s text, those elements repeatedly make it a drag to sit through. The First Purge is such a disappointing film. It comes so close to realizing a truly compelling vision. But it doesn’t come close enough.
In The New Colossus, Nazism is as American as apple pie.
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus and the Amazon Prime TV show The Man in the High Castle operate from a similar premise. Both take place in an alternate America where the Nazis won World War II and took control of the country. I haven’t seen The Man in the High Castle, but it’s hard to avoid its marketing. It all plays on American iconography being tainted by Nazi iconography. A popular poster shows the Statue of Liberty draped in a swastika sash and doing a sieg heil salute, with another swastika looming over the New York City skyline. The message here is that America has been painted over in bright red Nazi colors. These classic American images have been poisoned by Nazism, but the poison can be removed and the old country restored.
You don’t see much American iconography in Wolfenstein II. There are no shots which ominously dwell on a swastika-covered White House, no Mount Rushmore with Hitler’s face. The Statue of Liberty is briefly seen in the underwater ruins of Manhattan, but it’s not even the focus of the single shot it’s seen in. In a key scene, a massive Nazi rally takes place at the National Mall. The game’s main antagonist, the despicable General Engel, speaks on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. You can just barely make out the statue of Lincoln in the background. Decades after the Nazis took over, it’s still there. Wolfenstein II refuses to acknowledge the America of old as a thing that could be soiled by Nazis. Instead, it loudly declares that America was always a violent, oppressive, white supremacist nation. All the Nazis did when they moved in was change the color of the drapes.
In one level, we walk through Roswell, New Mexico. The KKK has been given some measure of control over the American south, and robed-and-hooded members patrol the streets alongside Nazi soldiers. The two groups chat about the KKK’s German lessons. Nearby, a woman pops out of a storefront to let her aunt know that she’s getting married. Her aunt gleefully congratulates her on the engagement, and asks her to let her dad know that she’s auctioning some “hard-working slaves” in a couple days. In line for a movie theater box office, two men rave about the latest Leni Riefenstahl movie. They praise its moral purity compared to the degenerate filth that used to be made.
It’s a stereotypical all-American downtown. The Nazis haven’t changed it so much that it’s unrecognizable. They didn’t need to. Wolfenstein II shows us how cleanly Nazism integrates with white American society. For the straight, white, Christian Americans of the game’s world, the laws imposed by the Nazis weren’t too different from the laws already in place, and certainly not objectionable. America so often depicts itself as the crusading hero of anti-Nazi narratives. In Wolfenstein II, America was already complicit in many of the same crimes.
This, more than anything, is what makes Wolfenstein II stand out among a deluge of Nazi-fighting simulators. Not a single revolutionary in this game is interested in taking America back to how it was before the Nazis invaded. For protagonist B.J. Blazkowicz, that America is represented by his father, a virulent racist and anti-semite who berates and abuses his Jewish wife and son. For the black freedom fighter Grace Walker, it’s a land of oppression and segregation. For her lover Super Spesh, it’s a fascist police state that silences dissidents. For the former concentration camp prisoner Set Roth, it’s the country that failed to save him (and in real life would have denied him entry). For the communist labor organizer Horton Boone, it’s an exploitative capitalist hellscape. For all of them, it’s a place run by those who would happily sell them out to ensure their own survival. None of these people want to take America back. They want to make America better. When they triumph, they don’t raise the star-spangled banner. They raise their fists.
This is the game’s answer to what would otherwise be a troubling question. If they win freedom for their country, what will they do with it? Will they re-instate the presidency and Congress? Rebuild the old intelligence agencies? Will they pick up where they left off? Wolfenstein II gives all these questions an emphatic no. In one scene, Super Spesh passionately rants about the government “pigs” who persecuted activists like Grace before surrendering to the Nazis. In any other game, he’d be treated like a well-meaning crank, by the filmmaking if not the characters. Wolfenstein II takes him at face value. Yes, it says, the FBI is full of pigs. The White House is too. Fuck ’em.
But this game isn’t just about the why of revolution, it’s about the how. Only a few short years ago, it was the received wisdom that Nazis were played out. To make them the villains of your movie, your TV show, your video game, was to take the easy way out. They were like storytelling shorthand, something for the heroes to fight that didn’t require explanation or characterization beyond their aesthetic. We all know Nazis are evil, after all. Right?
This has been the necessary assumption of the Wolfenstein games since their inception. When Wolfenstein 3D pioneered the first-person shooter genre in 1992, Nazis were the recipients of the shooting. It was a sensible choice. The game put you behind the eyes of someone pulling a trigger on hundreds of people. Making those people Nazis made it easier to pull that trigger again and again and again. There was an unspoken agreement between the game’s creators and its players: Nazis deserve to die.
Wolfenstein II comes to us in a much different time. In 2017, even non-lethal violence against Nazis is the subject of finger-wagging discouragement. The media at large has welcomed their re-entrance to the public sphere, and insisted that their beliefs must be respected even if one disagrees. Committing violence against a Nazi makes you just as bad as a Nazi, we’re told. Better to take the high ground and meet them on the battlefield of ideas. When they go low, we go high. This bromide for the sensible center has become a liberal rallying cry. But it’s useless in application.
The problem is that when you invite the Nazis onto that battlefield of ideas, you’ve already lost, because you’ve granted them legitimacy. You’ve raised them to the moral high ground with you, rather than stomping them into the ground where they belong. Wolfenstein II takes on this center-left perspective just as strongly as it takes on the alt-right. In one section, I snuck a pair of Nazis chatting about the “terrorists” (that’s me) who had been attacking them. “How can they promote violence towards us, just because we hold a different point of view?” asked one. The other agreed, “We are humans too, aren’t we? Violence just begets more violence.” “You’re right,” replied the first. “Acts of violence are never okay. Never.” I threw a hatchet into the head of one of them, and swung it deep into the other’s chest.
Besides the irony of Nazi soldiers condemning violence, what struck me was how these two were using liberal talking points to argue for their worth. In the name of fairness and free speech, self-labeled progressives are handing Nazis the rhetorical tools to justify their propagation.
Wolfenstein II isn’t having any of that. Its message is the same as the series has always had: Nazis still deserve to die. And oh, how they die. Early in the game, B.J. picks up his first hatchet and thinks, “Lotta things you can do with a hatchet and a Nazi.” The game follows through on that promise with aplomb. There are dozens of unique animations for carving up Nazis, and that’s just for melee attacks. You can shoot them with pistols, rifles, and shotguns. You can blow them up with grenades and sticky bombs. You can melt them with lasers and set them on fire. Just like with Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, there’s no wrong way to kill a Nazi.
The context of the killing is significant as well. B.J. enters each level in secret, unbeknownst to the Nazis within. You can kill them all stealthily, without them ever knowing you were there. B.J. never enters a level and is immediately fired upon. The Nazis only attack once they realize you’re attacking them. You are the aggressor, the invader, the instigator. Except that you’re really none of those things. This is how the game manages to make Nazi enemies interesting. B.J. is a Jewish man. The Nazis want him dead on that basis alone. To wear a swastika armband is to tell B.J. that you want to exterminate him. Wolfenstein II contextualizes the killing of Nazis not just as a moral imperative, but as an act of self-defense.
B.J.’s Jewishness has never been explicit in the series until now. He’s never been a practicing Jew; it’s hard to find time to go to services when you’re on the front lines of a revolution. But the reveal that his mother is Jewish is confirmation. Judaism is a matrilineal culture, meaning that Jewish identity is passed down through one’s mother. B.J.’s mother is Jewish, so he’s Jewish. As a Jewish person, I was thrilled at the (surprisingly rare) chance to play as one in the fight against Nazis.
For me, killing Nazis just means something more when it’s a Jew doing the killing. Even more so in a world where the Final Solution was carried out and the Jews were all but obliterated. Of course, B.J. is still a cishet white man. His “Aryan features” are remarked upon more than once. But his Jewishness is what truly defines him. B.J. is possessed by the spirit of his people. He is their instrument of righteous vengeance, pulled back from death’s door time and time again to channel their rage. He wreaks havoc through Nazi facilities like a furious poltergeist, an intangible specter of bloody comeuppance.
The creators of Wolfenstein II couldn’t have predicted that their game would speak so powerfully to its cultural moment. It was in development years before Nazis like Donald Trump and his cronies seized power, before Nazis marched openly in the streets and murdered their protesters, before the media rushed to give Nazis a seat at the table. It would have been a smartly written game regardless of who was elected president in 2016. Nevertheless, it comes to us now, when we need its voice most. It rejoices in the act of snuffing out Nazism. It proudly champions leftist perspectives and celebrates leftist activism and social justice. Most of all, it honors the marginalized and oppressed and exiled as the true representatives of America, the ones who put in the work to usher in a brighter future. They aim to build a country that lives up to the poem from which the game takes its name:
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
That poem never truly described America, even long before the Nazis took it over. The hope at the heart of Wolfenstein II is that maybe someday it can.