The Stranger: Fascism and Post-War Complacency
In the face of major atrocities, the natural impulse is to question what separates an ostensibly 'evil' person from the normal population. While reporting on the aftermath of the Holocaust, political theorist Hannah Arendt came to the conclusion that, in short, there is no true difference. Those behind the worst atrocities aren’t functionally different from the rest of us. Arendt argues rather that those who are truly evil are simultaneously 'terribly and terrifyingly normal' (Arendt 1963: 55). Orson Welles illustrates this banality in his 1946 film The Stranger, portraying the horrors of fascism are hidden within prosaic normalcy. Indeed, there is no striking or unique feature to determine whether someone is capable of an atrocity.
The Stranger is often derided as Orson Welles’ most 'conventional '' film. Welles himself stated that he could not see any of himself in the final product (Palmer 1984: 5). However, much as the worst Shakespeare plays are still masterworks, The Stranger is still an exemplary film, embedded with a searing indictment of American post-war complacency (Conrad, 2007: 96). Welles’ political views were no secret, elucidated by his famous statement that 'the phoney fear of Communism is smoke-screening the real menace of renascent Fascism' (Palmer 1984: 4). These views are extended in The Stranger, a film which manipulates the typical noir trope of defamiliarisation to warn of the cloak of banality of this 'renascent Fascism.'
Welles himself plays the character of Franz Kindler, an erstwhile Nazi fugitive who is hiding from Mr. Wilson, a private eye for a War Crimes commission. Kindler clothes himself in the quotidian trappings of small town American life, and rechristens himself as 'Charles Rankin.' Rankin is a prep-school teacher residing in close-knit Harper, Connecticut. He is married to the all-American Mary Longstreet, daughter of a Supreme Court justice. By tracking a former associate of Kindler’s, Wilson is able to identify Rankin as Kindler. However, in order to prove Rankin’s guilt, Wilson must first convince Mary and the audience.
This private-eye plotline, combined with cinematographic chiaroscuro, contain trappings of the noir genre. Film noir is additionally typified by the 'defamiliarisation of life' which becomes 'the fabric of life itself' (Conrad 2007: 94). Defamiliarisation in this context frequently consists of the inversion of the normal structures of society. For example, the noir trope of the femme fatale is a direct inversion of the expected female gender roles of complacency and motherhood. Through this defamiliarisation, noir is able to deconstruct and examine various strictures of society.
In Welles’ film, this trope of defamiliarisation is best exemplified by the titular 'stranger' of the film. In fact, The Stranger is marked by not one, but three strangers. Kindler’s associate is the first to occupy this role when he flees to Harper, revealing Rankin’s true identity to the audience in the process. Wilson is the next to occupy the title of 'stranger,' as he navigates Harper’s social world in an effort to track down Kindler. The final stranger is Rankin himself. At first he is thought to be well known to the town, but is then revealed to be a war-criminal - not just any war-criminal - but one of the very architects of the Holocaust itself.
The Stranger thus initially seems to be the typical detective film noir, affirming traditional American values in comparison to the horrors of the German war effort. However, the contrast between Rankins’ idyllic life in Harper and Kindler’s atrocities draws attention to American complacency with elements of fascist ideology, so long as they are masked or dormant. In Welles’ day, this complacency took the form of the red scare. Americans’ preoccupation with halting Communism at all costs, opening the door for pernicious ideologies to take root. Today, this complacency takes the form of smokescreening neo-facist tendencies behind the vaguer notion of populism. This smokescreen exists out of an aversion to the critique of capitalism that would arise from 'any serious engagement with this political phenomenon' (Foster 2017: 2). Harper’s symbolic aversion to questioning the status quo allowed Rankin to exist in that space. This directly mirrors the liberal capitalist unease with true examination of neofascist tendencies and the increase in so-called 'far-right populist' candidates arise from a liberal capitalist discomfort
These very atrocities are brought to the forefront of The Stranger, with the film being the first to feature newsreal footage of the Holocaust. In an attempt to convince Mary of the depth of her husband’s atrocities, Wilson shows her these reels to her horror. This Wellesian film-within-a-film, while difficult to watch, is intended to force citizens in the audience as well as the citizens of Harper to understand what is at stake when fascist ideology is allowed to take root. Welles himself defended this decision stating that the deaths caused by fascist machinations are on another level. 'This is a putrefaction of the soul, a perfect spiritual garbage. For some years now we have been calling it fascism. The stench is unendurable' (Barker 2012: 122). At the time of the film’s release, the American interaction with fascism was largely with the carefully orchestrated propaganda pushed by the Nazi government. Welles’ decision to purposefully show the 'unendurable stench' of fascism serves to undermine the glossy and triumphant image that fascism itself purports, further completing his indictment of American complacency.
Welles’ defamiliarisation of sleepy Harper contrasted with this ‘spiritual garbage’ thus echoes Hannah Arendt’s own argument that 'this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.' Welles’ portrayal specifically paints Rankin as 'terrifyingly normal' – he is a part of the community, teacher to its youngest members, married to one of its most integral members. By accepting Rankin, Harper thus represents not only the ‘idealized image of traditionally American communal values,’ but also ‘the locus of dangerous ignorance’ (Palmer 1984: 8), Welles’ portrayal of Harper, itself, can be extended to symbolise both the banality of evil, but also the inability for traditional values to combat the pernicious impulses of fascism and other evils.
Arendt, H. 1963, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York: Viking Press.
Barker, J. 2012, The Aesthetics of Antifascist Film: Radical Projection. Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge.
Conrad, M. 2007, The Philosophy of Film Noir. Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press.
Foster, J. M. 2017, ‘This is Not Populism,’ Monthly Review, vol. 69 no. 2, p1-24.
Palmer, R. 1984, ‘The Politics of Genre in Orson Welles’ The Stranger’, Film Criticism, vol. 9, no. 2, pp 2-14.
The Stranger. 1946. [Online]. Directed by Orson Welles. Los Angeles: RKO Pictures. [Viewed 2 April 2020]. Available on the Wikipedia page.