As Halloween approaches, Hollywood is set to release a spate of movies designed to frighten moviegoers with the usual seasonal fare of vampires, werewolves, and zombies. But critical accolades are also being paid to another type of horror film, one that shows the allure of destructive economic and political ideologies championed by charismatic personalities. These new films look at a Nazism and Communism that, under the guise of bringing economic salvation, unleashed some of the greatest horrors in human history. Pope John Paul II rightly described these systems as “ideologies of evil.”
A German movie, Der Untergang (The Downfall) depicts Adolf Hitler as a fully realized man rather than the simplistic monster more commonly given us by filmmakers. This is important in that it is crucial to see how one man was able to manipulate the economic depression and rampant inflation of Weimar Germany, as well as longstanding group prejudices. The film shows how Hitler was able to exact his will and hold his countrymen in thrall while nearly succeeding in exterminating Europe's Jewish population and slaughtering millions of European and American soldiers and civilians.
If The Downfall goes to great lengths to humanize Hitler in order to make more realistic his rise to power and ability to shape world events by sponsoring horrific acts, The Motorcycle Diaries is even more frightening in its attempts to humanize the South American ideologue and revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara. The film is an attempt to validate the Communist ideology as a cure for the diseases of poverty and illness and as a substitute for the religion that is, in the film's depiction, petty and ineffective.
The Motorcycle Diaries chronicles the South American trek of a young Guevara and his friend, Alberto Granado, in 1952. Both men are portrayed as handsome and idealistic. That the trip awakened the son of an Argentine aristocrat to the realities of poverty, despair, and illness is evident in the title of one of the film's two sources: Traveling with Che Guevara: the Making of a Revolutionary. The poverty and disease witnessed by Guevara were real. However, the political solutions he eventually devised for these problems were as ill advised as his rejection of religion.
Detroit Free Press critic Terry Lawson concedes that “the perfume of Marxist idealism has long been overwhelmed by the rot of Castro's Cuba, even for those who still believe Guevara was martyred in the cause of freedom and justice.” But Lawson and a critical cadre in the mainstream press ignore the fact that Guevara used the injustices and inequities he witnessed as excuses for fomenting Communist revolution throughout Central and South America, and for serving as a liaison between Soviet Russia and Cuba.
In one of the film's key scenes, Guevara flouts the rules of the nuns who run a leper colony in Peru. The nuns have imposed a rule that requires the lepers to attend Mass before receiving food. Guevara, a physician, endears himself to the lepers by examining them without surgical gloves and smuggling food to those who refuse to attend Mass. As New Criterion writer Anthony Daniels noted, the film is rife with ironies, including the fact that “denying food or goods to those who don't conform ideologically has long been a practice of Communist regimes, including Cuba's.” Another irony noted by Daniels and not addressed in the film is the fact that trips such as those made by Guevara and Granado are impossible today, largely due to the oppressive governments that rose to power through the efforts of Guevara and his ilk.
The plight of the poor has long been exploited by tyrants seeking unchecked power. The sacrifice of economic and personal freedoms under the false pretense of eliminating poverty is one of the most seductive – and hence frightening – ideologies confronting humanity, regardless of the charismatic, physically attractive, and humanistic faces filmmakers might attach to them. With the Hitler and Guevara films, Hollywood has given us two of the very scariest movies of the Halloween season.