Wednesday, August 22, 2012

IRON SKY--A Review

I neglected to mention one pet peeve I have--not with Iron Sky, but with the way some of my friends described the movie.

Goddamn it, Iron Sky is NOT steampunk.

Retrofuturistic? Maybe, from the point of view that the Nazis focused on helium-3 fusion, antigravity craft, and nuclear howitzers, but stuck with vacuum tubes for their computing needs.

But, really, for all my troubles with accepting steampunk in terms of how it approaches retrofuturism, I have equal problem with those who dub any retrofuturismn "steampunk."

Steampunk is Victorian retrofuturism, got it? Dieselpunk would be more apt for Iron Sky, if only because both Dieselpunk and Naziism arise in the dawn of the Modern Era. But really, Iron Sky doesn't propose going back in time and giving Nazis advanced science--it just presumes the Nazis developed scientifically in far different ways than the rest of the world. So I have problems accepting Iron Sky as retrofuturism in the first place.

But. It. Is. NOT. Steampunk.

GRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR.

IRON SKY--A Review

Note: I try to avoid any major spoilers throughout, but if you would rather not encounter any spoilers, just go see the movie. It's well worth it, and not just for the laughs.

Helium-3 is an isotope of helium that lacks a neutron. It can be used in the presence of high temperatures to fuse with itself to produce ordinary helium plus two free protons per reaction. Those protons, carrying a positive charge, can be contained electromagnetically, and through interactions with the electromagnetic field, be used to directly produce enough electricity to sustain the field with ample left over for consumption. In short, helium-3 is a clean, non-radioactive fuel source, and if we can find it in abundance, our energy needs could be met for centuries. And it so happens that the Moon probably has helium-3 in greater abundance than can be found on the Earth, thanks to the Lunar surface's direct exposure to the solar wind. This much is absolutely real and quite serious--and it's a large part of why both NASA and the Chinese wish to return to the Moon, this time to stay.

And that's where Iron Sky starts.

I know, I know, this movie is billed as a comedy--and a black comedy at that. After all, what could be more far-fetched than the idea that the Nazis established a hidden colony on the Moon at the end of World War II, mining and utilizing helium-3, developing their industry and super-science, and biding their time for revenge and the establishment of a Fourth Reich? This is the stuff of conspiracy theories--it's no surprise that believers in Nazi UFOs happen to be Holocaust deniers as well. Nor is it a surprise that Nazi UFOs--in the form of the "Advanced Supersonic Aluminum Nazi Hell-Creatures from Beneath the Hollow Earth"--appear in the dogma of the Church of the SubGenius, which has mocked conspiracy theories of all sorts from its inception. But, while moon Nazis are the stuff of raving madmen on street corners as illustrated in the movie itself, there remains a very serious, and tragic, subtext--one that drives the black humor more so than the Nazis themselves.

Because, really, Iron Sky isn't about moon Nazis. It's about US--specifically, the US.

It's easy to laugh at the idea of Sarah Palin--or at least someone looking remarkably like her--becoming President. But this wouldn't have been funny except that, having been selected as John McCain's running mate, if the electoral college vote went only a little differently, she would have in fact been a coronary shy of the Presidency. But the President in Iron Sky--played with appropriate campiness by Stephanie Paul--is not just someone to mock. Her candor reveals much--a desire to maintain power, for herself first and for her country second, and a willingness to use any means, including propaganda and war, to hold onto that power. Between her and James Washington--the first African American on the Moon, a former model rather than an astronaut who admits to being a publicity stunt for the President--much can be said about the shallowness of American pretensions of diversity. We may now have minorities in greater roles in our evolving history, but the overall power structure hasn't changed, and those without power are still manipulated for the benefit of those with power. The President's throwaway laugh line about the Nazis being the last enemy "we beat in a fair fight" is a frank and bleak reflection on how America has used military power since WWII, and if you think about it, it is tantamount to an admission that we replaced the Nazis.

Incidentally, Laibach fans will no doubt have noticed that the President's symbol is in fact the symbol Laibach has used for their projects ever since the release of Volk, an album of songs based on national anthems. The presence of that symbol is more than a nod to the soundtrack composers, for Laibach are "no humble pop musicians," to quote one of their songs, but consummate multimedia performance artists. Since 1980, Laibach's stock and trade have been in bending totalitarianism to the purposes of art--a historic reversal of the use of art to promote totalitarianism. Laibach has long been accused of being fascists, although their ideology has been kept shrouded, with only the externalities of totalitarianism on display. Ultimately, Laibach deconstructs--and, as a side-effect, dismantles--totalitarian impulses, as is evident in their influence in politics in their region, where they were seen originally as a threat to Yugoslavia's Communist government, then heralds of the dissolution of the Yugoslav union, and finally prophets of the Balkan War that followed. Since Laibach's Opus Dei album, they have kept an eye on the relationship between the United States and Germany. For the first single off Opus Dei, Laibach underscored America's unspoken tendencies to totalitarianism by taking "One Vision," a song from the Iron Eagle soundtrack, translating it to German, replacing Queen's rock rhythms with the esthetics of the military march, and renaming it "Geburt Einar Nation"--"The Birth of a Nation," borrowing from the title of yet another film that portrays American nationalism through the eyes of a Ku Klux Klan sympathizer. Thus, with only a little effort on their part, they turned a bit of Hollywood jingoism into a full-blown accusation. They have revisited this "German-American Friendship" (a Laibachian reference to their industrial brethren DAF) on WAT, and again on Volk, repeatedly pointing out that while Germany had fallen and was struggling to learn from its tragic history, America was oblivious to its own descent and seemed unwilling to learn, either from Germany's example or its own.

I posit that the President's use of Laibach's real-world symbol as her own in the movie is a warning: Things are not as they appear. While the members of Laibach dress in strict uniforms, perform with discipline, and raises the specter of a lack of freedom--all in the name of challenging those who would usurp freedom --the President is surrounded by American flags, dresses and speaks like the common American, and seems to glorify freedom--all in the name of usurping that freedom for her own gain. And the President has no qualms about using Nazi propaganda (handily supplied by Renate Richter, the scholarly, virtuous, but naive Nazi played by Julia Dietze) and war (provided by Klaus Adler, the presumptive future Mondführer who unwittingly takes Renate to Earth to meet the President in their preparations for invasion) to brighten her election prospects. In a way, she--not Mondführer Wolfgang Kortzfleisch, portrayed by Udo Kier as the over-the-top Nazi evil one might expect--is the "bad guy" of the movie, as she ultimately accomplishes what the Nazis could not.

But, ah, Renate. Sweet, kind-hearted, idealistic Renate. She is presented as the Nazi's expert on Earth culture, but all she knows are Nazi distortions. Her first encounter with James Washington is actually touching--as she was born on the Moon she had never seen a black man before, but her curiosity overwhelmed any racial prejudice she might have been taught. Indeed, having grown up on the Moon, she seems to be blissfully unaware of racial prejudice at all. And it is through her connection to James Washington that she begins to discover the truth about the belief system she had always known. Meeting Nazi skinheads on Earth completes her disenchantment with National Socialism, and she urges John to help her stop the Nazis before their superweapon--the appropriately named Gotterdamarung--destroys the Earth. My only disappointment with her character is in how she is so preoccupied with stopping Gotterdamarung that she never realizes the damage she had done on Earth by enabling the President. It would have been nice if, in all her remorse for being a Nazi, she also demonstrated remorse for helping make America more Nazi-like. But, I guess it could be argued, that would have got in the way of the dark humor of the movie.

In stark contrast, there is the President's campaign manager, Vivian Wagner, played by Peta Sergeant. Where Renate wants the best for everyone, Vivian is cynical and calculating and willing to do whatever it takes to help the President--and by extension, further her own ambitions. This is underscored in one of the early scenes in the movie, a parody of the famous upbraiding cum temper tantrum scene in Der Untergang, with Vivian taking Hitler's place, and also by the eagerness in which she seduces Klaus Adler. By the end of the movie she looks and acts as if she came out of an old SF serial--just as campy in her evil as Mondführer Kortzfleisch, but with lots more black leather. It's easy to get excited about her fighting Nazis until you realize she's no better than the Nazis she fights.

I haven't talked much about James Washington, except in reference to his being used for PR purposes and his relationship with Renate. Let's just say that the Nazi scientists try to make him into a Nazi--in more ways than one. I really would rather not give much away beyond saying that it both lampoons Nazi racial theories and ruins Washington's life--and does much more to advance the plot, and the relationship with Renate.

In all my seriousness I neglected to point out that the dark humor isn't all obvious. The movie is full of Nazi in-jokes, from references to Richard Wagner's operas and names selected from Nazi history to pop culture references--alongside Der Untergang, references to Dr. Strangelove and especially The Great Dictator can be found throughout. And of course, Volkswagens prove to be as ubiquitous on the Moon as they are on Earth. If you are a WWII buff or know your war movies, there's a lot of material to keep you on your toes. And don't be surprised to find Pink Floyd references in the score--"Dark Side of the Moon," get it? Hell, there's even jokes about pubic hair trends and their resemblance to a certain leader's facial hair. The movie is dense with jokes both obvious and subtle, and this movie promises to be one of those where each new viewing will reveal details missed the last time around.

Is it worth seeing the first time, though? Yes, if you enjoy campiness, you can enjoy it strictly on that level. It's not terrible science fiction either, although it intentionally goes for the absurd. But my suspicion is that, after you've seen the movie, if you think about everything that happened, you won't be laughing quite so hard.