When the Cultural Pages of Dagens Nyheter Took Sides with a Dictatorship: Diary from a Strange Debate in 2003

More than a decade has passed. Why publish this diary, then? Finding the diary, which was originally published in Swedish at the web site of Film International, filmint.nu, and rereading it in 2014 I was struck by how well it shows the decline of the intellectual debate. The use of master suppression techniques, demonstrated in the arrangement of the rigged debate below, has replaced education and critical reflection. Banning replies, mystifying movies, using Newspeak and a generally derogatory tone, Dagens Nyheter’s cultural pages demonstrates how to win a case with muddled thoughts as ammunition.

28 March. The Swedish premiere of Zhang Yimou’s big-budget epic Hero. The film gets an enthusiastic critical reception. None of the critics in the big papers show any concern about – or take notice of, or care about – the ideological underpinnings in this propaganda piece, financed and marketed by the Chinese regime like no other film before. To me, the film reveals something essential about Zhang Yimou’s artistry, his adaptation to the censorship and the political regime.

10 May. In the light of the critical reception I wrote my review essay FASCINATING FASCISM, publishing it in Film International, no. 3, 2003 (#3), pp. 48–51, and in the web edition of the journal: filmint.nu. In the essay I not only discuss Zhang Yimou and Chinese film, but also the implications of social prestige and good taste when regarding a film categorized as art cinema – a term that stands in the way for critical analysis. At the same time, critic Andreas Hoffsten published an article in journal Zoom (#2) about the Chinese Communist Party’s official support of the film.

6 June. One of the enthusiastic critics, film professor Maaret Koskinen at Stockholm University, publishes a column in Dagens Nyheter in which she acknowledges Hoffsten’s and my criticism of the critical response.

23 June. In a column in Dagens Nyheter, film critic Eva af Geijerstam attacks my essay, ignoring Hoffsten. It gets the best place possible at the top half on a right-hand page in the cultural pages and with a colour still. The headline: “Western Criticism of Chinese Film Has to Be Balanced”, implying that my essay lacks just that, and in the text she considers my criticism of Zhang Yimou “presumptuous”.

25 June. My reply is published with a small black and white still at the bottom of a left-hand page. It is easy to miss, but judging by the response in my mail box and e-mail box, at least some readers have read and appreciated it. None of them expressed any anti-communist sentiments of the rabid variety. Here is my reply:

 No Credible Criticism without Self-Criticism

The judgement of me in Dagens Nyheter’s cultural pages 23 June is clear: I criticise the unreserved appraisal in the Western press of a film from a totalitarian government. US President G.W. Bush calls some totalitarian countries – though not China – “the axis of evil”. Therefore my view is the same as Bush’s! In her in the fire-and-brimstone-sermon, Eva af Geijerstam does not shy away from the cheapest trick in the book: guilt by association. Suitable for a handbook in Newspeak.

Her attack is directed against Andreas Hoffsten’s and my criticism of the cringing critical reception of Zhang Yimou’s Hero published in Zoom and Film International respectively. Well, it’s all about my essay, since she never even mentions Hoffsten. In a column by Maaret Koskinen, published 6 June, the author who was one of the enthusiastic reviewers of the film graciously acknowledges our arguments.

Eva af Geijerstam, on the other hand, claims that my criticism make “presumptuous demands on an either-or, unclear of what” now that the Chinese film, according to the author, is both in a state of economic crisis and more liberal conditions. Then she argues that I “without any hesitation reject everything that does not criticise the government in structural terms”.

What I did in my essay “Fascinating Fascism” was to put the official media image of Zhang Yimou to the test, looking at his background, his films and his working conditions under the Chinese regime. I see a filmmaker, who in his work has adapted to an opportunistic position that by now has made him into a propaganda tool of the regime.

In concrete terms, the Chinese regime applies – as do many other totalitarian states – a Fascist ideology of rule, from constructing a corporative elitist state to diminishing its citizens into expendable instruments for the nation. It does not matter what the official ideological label is. This is the ideology celebrated in Hero, noticeable both in the structure of the narrative and in the visual aesthetic.

Eva af Geijerstam calls my analytical essay “my interpretation”. Well, it would be interesting to see a corresponding analysis of Zhang Yimou’s career and his film Hero from Geijerstam herself – a rather reasonable demand considering her criticism of my analysis. Instead she passes on this subject with simple claims of the film title and the hero as “morally problematic” and “by no means unambiguous”. Unsurprisingly, arguments and analyses are nowhere in sight.

She also claim that I demand realism “in a story that is anything but”. No, I have not, but stylization and mythology are not sanctuaries for Fascist ideology. On the contrary, considering the film production of UFA during the Nazi years in Germany. Another stylized film but with features problematic for the regime is Zhang Yimou’s colleague Chen Kaige’s The Emperor and the Assassin, which I also discuss in my essay.

At the end of my essay in Film International, I call for self-criticism among film critics modelled on the soul-searching debate about cinema studies that has been going on in the academia during the last decade. It is all too easy to fall back on established values, cultural hierarchies, canonized “master directors” and lazy claims. Unfortunately, Eva af Geijerstam slips away from these subjects to present a vague apology for both a Fascist film and her own unambitious film criticism.

© Michael Tapper, 2003. Dagens Nyheter 2003-06-25.

P.S. Regarding some facts: About Iranians in exile who have criticised Abbas Kiarostami as a cultural export from their former home country, see The New Iranian Cinema, edited by the British anthropology professor Richard Tapper (no relation). See also Charlotte Sjöholm’s review of the book in Film International 2003, no. 2. Tony Leung’s support for the massacre in Tiananmen Square was reported in Dagens Nyheter, 5 April this year and was confirmed by people referring to Chinese press on the chat pages of the official web site of Hero. The chat pages are now closed: ”under maintenance”.

28 June. Again published in the best place possible in the cultural pages section, Eva af Geijerstam attacks me with much of the same arguments she presented in the previous column. She is surprised by my “outrage”, which is rather curious considering the tone in her own attack. Now, she claims that I equal Zhang Yimou with Leni Riefenstahl, which I did not as you can see above, but the parallel between the filmmakers is rather accurate in the sense that all artists who comply with the demands of totalitarian regimes tend to look alike in their celebration of a Great Leader of a Great Nation.

A few sentences on To Live and Not One Less is supposed to show that the director has been critical of the system. Sure, as the Swedish saying goes: “A blind chicken can also find a grain”. However, my essay was about the big picture: the privileged position of Zhang Yimou and his films when compared to other directors of his generation, like Chen Kaige and Tian Zhuangzhuang. But Geijerstam does not want to talk about that.

Instead, she tries to make a case for Hero as a companion piece to Chen Kaige’s The Emperor and the Assassin – the very opposite of my argument in “Fascinating Fascism”. But she never support the argument. A simple claim is enough for her, and that is probably the only thing she can muster since it is hard to find two films on the same subject that is as apart from one another as those two titles – ideologically and artistically.

Finally, she claims that there is a growing liberal tendency in China, a rather ridiculous idea considering the headlines all through the summer, also in Dagens Nyheter, about new repressive measures in China. There is, for example, report on a new law that will restrict free speech, targeting the media and the Internet. I therefore write a new reply and send it by e-mail to Dagens Nyheter. I call to make sure they got it. They have, but they hesitate to publish it, and it will never be printed. Here it is:

The Simplification Is Eva af Geijestam’s

The Newspeak continues in Geijerstam’s rebuttal in Dagens Nyheter 28 June. First she justifies her vulgar comparison between me and President G.W. Bush by claiming that I am also guilty of guilt by association. Then she regurgitates the same whopping claim about me as a “purification mullah or purification Bush of film criticism”. Here, the rhetoric obviously short-circuits.

My guilt by association argument consists, according to Geijerstam, of me discussing the production of stylized fairy-tale films made at the German film company UFA during the Nazi years. Contrary to her claims, I do not connect them with Zhang Yimou’s latest film, but I could do it since it by no means is far-fetched.

As in the case of Hero, UFA’s most prestigious films from 1933 to 1945 were set in a historic time ideologically controlled by a doctored fairy-tale filter. The heroes of the films were the ones who sacrificed themselves for the nation. First and foremost in their ranks was the Leader. With religious admiration he is looked upon as the architect and the soul of the nation, the prime interpreter of its will and its soul.

In the homes, the working places and in the battlefield the subordinate heroes are the ones that understand that the Leader’s heavy burden is one of having to send soldiers to die in war, execute traitors (read: opponents) and keep control of the nation – with an iron fist, if necessary. The pattern is clear already in the revanchist Fridericus-films about Friederich the Great in the 1920s and continued in pompous celebrations to the Prussian spirit of war after the Machtübernahme in 1933 with titles such as Hans Steinhoff’s Der Alte und the Junge König – Friederich des Grossen Jugend (1935) and Veit Harlan’s Der Grosse König (1942), ending in the perverse collective-suicide-epic Kolberg (1945).

The pattern is the same in Hero, no matter how Geijerstam tries to justify the film by claiming it is ambiguous. Cultivating the same idea of presumed ambiguity some critics referred to Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) in their reviews. This film and Hero are, however, ideological opposites.

In Rashomon a dogmatic truth is smashed by conflicting stories. In Hero the story is a long and winding road of conflicting stories that are resolved in the Emperor’s narrative of “One Kingdom”. His privileged story is presented by the film not as a necessity in order to construct a totalitarian mythology but as The Truth. Full stop. This is achieved by making the Emperor into a Sherlock Holmesian detective, who by supreme intuition sees through the bundle of lies that makes up all the conflicting stories.

When he finally deconstruct the narratives, only to reconstruct them into his supreme Truth, Jet Li’s Nameless affirms that he is correct. He also reveals that this is the Truth that all his co-assassins has recognized the Truth and acted upon it by sacrificing their lives. Now, Nameless’ final mission is also one of self-sacrifice, letting himself be slain by the Emperor’s troops. All in the interest of the Great Nation under the Great Leader. The “hero” of the title is the one who sacrifices himself for the sake of the Great Nation; the Leader by dedicating his life to preserve it, the soldier by giving his life for it. In essence: the core of Fascist ideology.

We cannot look into the minds and hearts of Leni Riefenstahl or Zhang Yimou. They can be anything, from opportunists to naïve idealists, fantasizing about making “pure art” beyond ideology. Or they can be hard-core Fascists. We do not know. What we do know is that their films are Fascist. In the case of Zhang Yimou, he has got an official backing for his film like no other of his colleagues. That ought to tell us something.

You can always find a grain of criticism in To Live and other films, as you probably can in the films of the Nazi-collaborating German directors as well, but it will never be about a structural flaw in the politics or in the society – only about individual cases. Compare with the rightful criticism of Hollywood mainstream movies when it comes to the lack of structural criticism. In both instances it’s all about tragic mistakes or singular rotten apples in otherwise healthy and morally just foundations of the society.

Furthermore, Geijerstam claims that my view on China is “monolithic” since I do not appreciate the small signs of democracy in the country. Oh well, have we not seen those before? One day repressive tolerance, the next brutal repression. Last time I looked, mass executions were still going on, political prisoners were still in jail. Now, the regime has also attached filters and a surveillance apparatus to the Internet. In Bejing, poor people are thrown out of the inner city so all the arenas can be built on their former homes to accommodate the Olympic Games in 2008.

Eva af Geijerstam’s apologetic rhetoric for the Chinese regime and its foremost cultural export in film, Zhang Yimou, should make us film critics concerned. She demonstrates the difficulties of reflection and critical analysis, two essential ingredients in the foundation of democratic journalism. For her, it is more important to follow the matrix of canonized “master directors” and established patterns of “good taste” than to actually take a close look at a film. Thereby, her claims of my “puritanical” stance is actually the very definition of her own position.

© Michael Tapper, 2003-06-28.

1 July. On my way to the College University of Gotland to teach a summer course on Ingmar Bergman, I finally get hold of the cultural pages editor Stefan Jonsson. After some cynical generalizations about how “these kind of debates goes running on empty, get stuck in a repetition of arguments” he refuses to publish my second reply. What was ok for Eva af Geijerstam is apparently not ok for me. Instead, he wants to “broaden the debate” and adds in an arrogant tone: “You wouldn’t mind that, would you?” Refusing to be treated like an idiot, I insist on my right to a reply. He then tells me to shut up and not reveal that my second reply was refused, since that “would kill the debate”. I call my own paper, but they are not interested in challenging Big Daily.

I therefore decide to publish my own views on the “debate” on the web site of Film International, filmint.nu, when I get home. It will not get as many readers as Dagens Nyheter, but plenty enough for spreading the word.

3 July. Reading a new article in the “debate” I now see what Stefan Jonsson meant by his intentions. Author Bo Madestrand is Geijestam’s colleague and largely repeats her arguments, adding a few slippery ones himself, in layout generously displayed over four columns with a colour still on a right-hand page. At first, Madestrand says that my criticism is “reasonable”, then he loses himself when trying to make sense of what Geijerstam meant by calling the film “ambiguous”. Whereas “ambiguity” used to mean that an art work had many layers, it has become a cliché, meaning that it looks muddy and vague but is really great because some critic says so. It has become a nonsense term used to appraise what in Sweden is called “quality film”, another nonsense term, since every other movie has several layers of meaning.

To Madestrand the “ambiguity” in Hero is to be found in the flashbacks later revealed to be false, a narrative cliché since the heydays of Agatha Christie and a device Alfred Hitchcock discarded after using it in Stage Fright (1950). Ambiguity? No. Gimmick? Yes.

He then proceeds by telling the readers that my point of view got no successful response. What he really want to say is that I am wrong since I am in a minority, which is the classical populist stance of defining what is right and wrong. But there is another fault here: I wrote my essay after the critical reception, not before. No critic had the opportunity to consider my arguments. The rest of his text follows Geijerstam: I lack subtlety.

His (and her) answer is mystifying the movie in the same way the academics that David Bordwell criticised in Mystifying Movies did. Madestrand does it by namedropping. Jackson Pollock, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Peter Greenaway, Derek Jarman and others are supposed to be the inspiration for Zhang Yimou’s Hero. How exactly, he never tells, but since they are great artists, the film is a great work of art. Then he, like Geijerstam, insists that Hero is really an oppositional film in clever disguise.

This is supposedly demonstrated by the scene in which the emperor’s troops slaughters everybody at a school of calligraphy. How this show that the pen is mightier than the sword is baffling, especially since the master acts like the noble Indians of the western movies who knew that their destiny was to be exterminated. He simply tells everybody to do nothing and submit to their inevitable death. If anything, the scene show that the sword triumphs no matter if the opponent holds a pen or not.

10 July. As the Great Finale, Dagens Nyheter has called on an authority to mystify the movie once and for all. His name is Zhang Xudong, Professor of Chinese Literature at New York University and the author on a book on Chinese film, and he gets prime display: a full page with a big colour still.

Zhang Xudong begins the article by discussing Zhang Yimou’s martyred position between the evil totalitarian Chinese state and the evil totalitarian Market, by which he means American capitalism. Zhang Yimou is shot by both sides; by nationalist Communists for propagating capitalist-liberal views, by capitalist-liberals for propagating nationalist Communism. Hmm, that makes me – an independent socialist – into a capitalist liberal. No other positions are possible according to Professor Xudong’s article.

He then launches the strange idea that the Emperor’s effort to build a Chinese empire, using the words “all under heaven”, is really a code for Pax Americana. Mildly speaking, this is far-fetched in an epic propagating for a unified China under totalitarian rule. In contrast to Chen Kaige’s The Emperor and the Assassin, Hero is to him morally and politically connected with “the collective”. What does that mean? That Hero’s Fascist ethos is the true expression of the soul of the people in China? Well, there’s a Fascist thought for you!

Zhang Xudong concludes by claiming that Hero is ironic. Disguised as a popular martial arts film it is designed for the American market and its consumerist fantasy world. There the Hegelian Geist resides and fantasises “about an alternative name of his world order: tianxia – all under heaven”. Now, what does this mean? That Hero in some strange way reflects US world domination? At the same time as it is an expression of the collective Chinese soul?

Final Words

A master director is a master director is a master director, no matter what kind of film he makes. That is the lesson from the 2003 “debate” about Hero in Dagens Nyheter. In one of Bo Madestrands curious line of arguments, he talks about how effective the film is in twisting the minds of the audience with its visual splendour, adding: “And what could be wrong about that?” Well, I could not think of a better example of how Fascist aesthetics works. One could also consider the promise made by Eva af Geijerstam of a more liberal climate in the Chinese film industry and in Chinese society in general. Any sign of this today?

Rewarded for his loyalty to the government, Zhang Yimou directed another propaganda piece for a world audience five years later: the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games in Beijing. I therefore recommend some literature:

On Fascism:
Robert Paxton (2005) The Anatomy of Fascism, Penguin.
Roger Griffin (1996) Fascism, Oxford Paperbacks.
Roger Griffin (1993) The Nature of Fascism, Routledge.
Roger Eatwell (2003), Fascism: A History, Pimlico.
Henrik Arnstad (2013) Älskade Fascism, Norstedts (in Swedish).

On Fascism in film and art:
David Hull Stewart (1973) Film in the Third Reich: A Study of the German Cinema 1933–1945, Simon & Schuster.
Brandon Taylor & Wilfried van der Will (eds.) (1990) The Nazification of Art: Art, Design, Music, Architecture and Film in the Third Reich, Winchester School of Art Press.
David Welch (2001) Propaganda and the German Cinema, I.B. Tauris.
Alan E. Steinweis (1996) Art, Ideology, and Economics in Nazi Germany: The Reich Chambers of Music, Theater, and the Visual Arts, University of North Carolina Press.
Jonathan Huener and Francis R. Nicosia (2007) The Arts in Nazi Germany: Continuity, Conformity, Change, Berghahn Books.

© Michael Tapper 2003/2014.