It’s possible that there are not a huge number of people amongst the general public who will immediately recognise the name of film director Philippe Mora. And those who do recognise the name might be inclined to associate it with his stint making satirical genre films like The Beast Within (1982), Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf (1985) or The Marsupials: Howling III (1987). What they are less likely to know is that Mora’s filmmaking oeuvre is predominantly made up of movies dedicated to deconstructing traditional ideas about history. And it is here that Mora’s interests intersect with my own.
I’ve always been fascinated by the manner in which cultures represent their history and myths through the medium of film. Generally speaking, the majority of a nation’s cinematic output can be expected to reinforce popular conceptions about that nation’s identity. If we take America as an example, we can see a long history of biopics that align with certain principles and ideas about ambition and individualism which reinforce the American belief that hard-work and determination are all that is required to achieve the “American Dream”. In most American films about WWII, we see a deeply felt and single-minded righteousness that distils history down to a pure binary of good versus evil. And up until recent decades, most American Westerns would champion the bravery and audacity of the simple American pilgrim, civilising the frontier despite the difficulties presented by nature, bandits, and Native Americans (usually referred to as “Indians” in these films). Of course, this is not always the case. Every once in a while a filmmaker will come along and disrupt or complicate these historical ideals with a Django Unchained (2012), a Flags of Our Fathers (2006) or an American Splendor (2003). It is in this space of irreverent and disruptive filmmaking that Philippe Mora operates.
Mora’s parents were French Jews involved in the resistance during World War II before moving to Australia in the early 1950s, where they became prominent figures in the Melbourne art scene. Growing up, Mora inherited their passion for the arts, becoming a painter before ultimately beginning a career in film. It was a fascination with his parent’s story that led him to direct a work of cinema that would cause an outrage at Cannes and be banned in Germany for several decades… Swastika.
It all began in the early 1970s when Philippe Mora and historian Lutz Becker noticed a picture of Hitler’s partner, Eva Braun, holding a 16mm camera. Their research soon revealed that a collection of Braun’s home movies had been discovered in her bedroom by the American military at the end of WWII. This collection of over eight hours of film had not been viewed since the end of the war, and the two men soon discovered a significant amount of it depicted Adolf Hitler in a far more relaxed state than had previously been observed. Wading through footage of Hitler joking, socialising, and playing with his dog, they were confronted with what Hannah Arendt once termed the ‘banality of evil’.
Mora set about cutting this footage together with available propaganda newsreels and overlaying the soundless imagery with naturalistic sound and dialogue. The result was a narration-free film that immersed the viewer into the world of Nazi Germany, juxtaposing the plight of its people with the messiah-like propaganda imagery of the Führer on stage, only to undercut this image with the reality… that Hitler was merely a man.
When Swastika was screened at Cannes, it was met with outrage at the idea that the Führer could be presented as human, rather than as something closer to an anti-Christ. As Mora has said on countless occasions, he had assumed his audience were aware enough of Hitler’s evil that they would be able to accept the film’s message – that real evil is committed by people, not monsters.
For those who might like to go a step further, check out Mora’s Brother Can You Spare A Dime (1975), a fascinating work that depicts the great depression through newsreel footage and clips from an array of James Cagney films.
Mad Dog Morgan (1976)
Dennis Hopper stars in this account of the life and times of deeply disturbed Australian bushranger, Daniel Morgan. Filmed during Hopper’s most chemically enhanced period, Mora creates parallels between Hopper’s image as an anarchic counter-cultural figure and Morgan’s insatiable and unstable nature, presenting the viewer with a strangely sympathetic figure, driven towards criminality by cultural inequity. You can find a more extensive account of this fascinating film here.
Mora didn’t direct this one, but he was responsible for its initial conception and his thumbprint is quite apparent. The film is a relatively straightforward account of the men and women who literally made history in the first half of the 20th century, creating the newsreel footage that kept Australia informed.
Several years prior to the release of this film, author Whitley Streiber, a friend of Philippe Mora, confessed to him that he believed he may have been abducted by aliens. Fast-forward several years and Streiber’s account of these alleged abductions was an international best-seller and Mora had made the film adaptation starring Christopher Walken.
So why is this film here when Mora has made so many other worthy history-centric films? Because I admire the way in which Mora takes this rather eccentric subject matter, and creates an ambiguous text that can easily be interpreted either at face value, or as an account of a man in the midst of a major psychological breakdown. While I’m inclined to discount Streiber’s claims, I admire the sentiment: where the truth is unclear, ambiguity is sometimes the next best thing.
If you enjoy Communion, I’d recommend going one step further and checking out The Return of Captain Invincible (1983), Mora’s musical comedy about a superhero driven to alcoholism by accusations of communism during the McCarthy trials.
For me, this is the masterpiece. When Mora found it difficult to raise the funds for an epic account of the life and times of Adolf Hitler, he had a moment of ingenious clarity. He instead chose to direct a film about a mental patient (Angus Macfadyen) who believes that he is the Führer. His therapist (Rene Auberjonois) embarks on a radical form of treatment, bringing in countless extras and constructing elaborate sets to help re-enact the life and times of Hitler. The anarchic structure of the film highlights the madness of the Nazi regime, whilst also allowing Mora to overtly interrogate our historical understanding to a degree that would have been impossible in a traditional biopic.
For those who enjoyed Snide and Prejudice, I’d recommend seeing Three Days in Auschwitz when it is given a general release later in the year. This is a simple and very personal documentary about Mora’s third visit to the Auschwitz camp – a very different but interesting companion piece.
Stay tuned. We’ll soon be publishing an extensive interview with Philippe Mora on the challenges of historical representation in cinema.