A director and a screenwriter discuss their new movie about white supremacists and what they hoped to accomplish.
It may have shocked some fans of the “Harry Potter” children’s films to see their star, Daniel Radcliffe, shaving his head and donning neo-Nazi tattoos in his latest movie, “Imperium,” an independent film released late last summer. But then again, the film’s message was not altogether different from the anti-bigotry themes woven into the Potter films, too. The film follows the story of Radcliffe’s character, Nate Foster, an FBI agent frustrated with his work in the agency’s counterterrorism division who is recruited by a senior agent in charge of its domestic terrorism unit, played by Toni Collette. Foster goes undercover with a neo-Nazi gang and works his way through the world of white supremacism to eventually uncover a potentially lethal terrorist plot. “Imperium” has a depth and realism unusual for a mainstream American film, in part because its script was co-written by longtime FBI agent Michael German, now a senior fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice. German, a one-time undercover agent himself whose bust of a Washington state militia group helped inspire the film’s climactic ending, is a domestic terrorism expert whose experiences helped inform “Imperium’s” detailed explanation of how ordinary people become radicalized by far-right movements. The Intelligence Report recently caught up with German and the film’s first-time director, Daniel Ragussis, for a discussion of the film and what its makers hoped to achieve.
One of the interesting things about the Harry Potter books and films is that J.K. Rowling really wove in a deeper anti-fascist message – the villain, Voldemort, was clearly a fascist prototype, and the whole cultural conflict was over “blood purity” and dehumanization.
Ragussis: Yes, and it’s interesting, because I made the point — not only about Harry Potter, but “Star Wars” and other things that are full of this sort of modern popular culture conception of evil, which has been incredibly shaped by the Nazis and by fascism — that you see this in a lot of these major franchises. That’s an interesting way in which our culture is picking up on these historical tropes and then turning them into movie bad guys, but there’s a real, historical precedent for it and a real rooting in what actually happened.
Were you around, or were you like the Radcliffe character, who was only 5 years old when the Oklahoma City bombing happened?
Ragussis: No, I was older than that, so I remember it. What I will say is, I didn’t realize there was a connection between that and the white supremacist movement until I started working on this movie. I probably discovered that through Mike German, when he wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post in 2005.
I had become interested in this world, the white supremacist community, and I was looking for a way into that world when I came across Mike’s story. He was drawing connections between Oklahoma City and all the rest of the far-right movement, and that was something that was new to me. Not only new, but something where I was feeling, “How did I not know this? How do people not know this? How is this something that we don’t talk about?”
Ragussis: Yeah, and it’s an interesting question. It has a lot of layers to it. I think one of the things Mike talks about is that there is, for whatever reason, a reticence or a blind spot where we as a culture are not making those connections and are not seeing those things. Even our law enforcement community is not necessarily making those connections in a way so that people realize that this is a real threat.
In fact, when I was passing the script around in the early days, trying to get financing, I can’t tell you how constantly the comment I was getting was, “This isn’t really a thing, is it? Does this really happen? When were these cases? In the 1950s?” And I was like, “No, this is a thing that’s happening, and you need to be aware of it. This is not from the 1950s. It happened then, but it’s happening now too.”
One of my favorite Mike German stories was his arrest of members of the Washington State Militia in 1996, when he was still at the FBI. Mike posed as this skinhead arms dealer who was capable of bringing these eager militiamen arms and weapons, and he set them up with a warehouse meeting space where they recorded all the meetings where bombs were made and revolutionary talk flowed. On the final day, Mike told them they were going to learn how to get out of handcuffs without a key, so they all slipped into cuffs and were sitting there waiting when Mike pulled his badge and announced their arrest.
Ragussis: That was actually the spiritual inspiration for how the film climaxes. The scenario where the agent outthinks the people.
Mike, I wonder when you sat down to write the script, to what extent did you intend the character to be sort of a facsimile of yourself?
German: Not at all. In fact, probably if there was any intention it was in the opposite direction, to make it clear that it wasn’t me. Also, to be clear, I think Dan was really more responsible for developing the character.
The way we worked was that we talked through a lot of the issues and what we thought were important things to highlight about what it’s like to be undercover and what it’s like to have to wrestle with the bureaucratic structure of the FBI, the attitudes within the FBI about white supremacist violence versus terrorism from other groups. Also, how to capture the complexity of the white supremacist movement and the fractures within that movement.
As far as the character, it’s funny, because when I look at it I don’t see anything. Dan and I have joked about it that I don’t really like classical music [which the Radcliffe character does]. That’s Dan’s influence.
You’re taller than Daniel Radcliffe, I’ll say that!
German: That part of it we actually talked about. Once it was written, and we first started talking about who would play these roles, I sort of suggested that we find somebody that’s of smaller stature to give the audience a feeling of that person’s vulnerability. That we’re not looking at this person as Jason Bourne.
The chances of him fighting his way out of this situation are really slim. That’s what it really is. Even though I have boxed and wrestled and played rugby, was a pretty athletic guy, I wasn’t going to fight my way out of any of those rooms. They always had you outnumbered and outgunned and so the idea was how to capture that vulnerability. We wanted to have somebody who the audience would immediately see was at risk with this kind of work.
One of the impressive things about the film, I thought, was even though it’s all fictionalized, there were some events in the film that were clearly drawn from real life and the context was astonishingly accurate, especially for a contemporary film. You obviously worked pretty hard at that.
Ragussis: Yes, I did. What I would say is, it’s not necessarily a character thing, like, “Oh, I’m going to make this guy into a version of Mike,” so much as what Mike did educate me about and what his experiences were. This kind of work does not involve someone going around and beating the hell out of people and getting in shootouts and all the rest of it.
In reality, this kind of work is about social dominance and having people like you and having people trust you and want to talk to you. It’s all about social manipulation. It’s not about pulling a gun. That became one of the primary missions of the film, to show undercover work in that way, and to have a main character who is bound by those constraints.
Of course, I conducted extensive research, including sociologists’ work in this area. I read propaganda pieces like The Turner Diaries, and then of course, there’s the online community, which in this day and age is enormous, and that’s where you could really get a lot of the social side of things. If you go on these sites, yes, there’s political discussions, of course, and everything is always infused with that. But then there are long threads where people are talking about, “Who’s your favorite classical composer and what’s your favorite painting,” recipe exchanges, “I’m looking for love in another race-conscious individual.”
It painted a picture to me that was very important to try and record, that these people have lives and interests. They can’t be reduced to a simple character, and that was important for me because I am of the mind that it is important to understand these people, these human beings, and even potentially engage with them as such. That’s really the way that this is ultimately going to be overcome.
Although obviously a lot of these folks are lost souls.
Ragussis: No, exactly, and that came through very clearly in the research that I was doing. Even someone like Jerry [an older white supremacist character in the film], who has developed a successful middle-class, well-educated lifestyle, still is imprisoned by those beliefs and I can’t imagine would ever be shifted from them. Who is going to reason Jerry out of those beliefs? It would be incredibly difficult, if not impossible. That’s the really challenging part for anyone that wants us to make progress and move beyond these belief systems.
I’m curious about the extent of which the project was a learning experience for the cast and the crew.
Ragussis: I think it certainly was, and again, in the beginning, even when I was hiring crew, I was getting the same comments and questions that I was mentioning before. People were saying, “Is this really a thing? Didn’t this happen in the ‘50s and ‘60s? Is this really a thing today?”
Then, of course, with every one of them, as I pointed them in the right direction to do the research and start exploring, they realized what I had realized, that, yes, this is actually an enormous thing. It was both educating them to understand the reality of this community in all the ways that we’ve been talking about, but also trying to also take the further step of really getting into the mindset of these people, because for an actor, you have to be able to understand your character’s point of view. You have to be able to see the world through their eyes.
Mike, what do you think our prospects are going forward, especially regarding that cultural blind spot, where we only see terrorists as Muslims and we ignore other threats? What do you see for us going forward, as far as domestic terrorism from the radical right?
German: I think it will be a persistent threat. It’s been with us for a long time. It will be with us for a long time. But I think it’s a manageable threat, and I think actually the law enforcement does a pretty good job of managing that threat. Their commentary isn’t hyperbolic, they don’t spread unnecessary fear, they tend to solve these crimes fairly quickly and take them seriously.
I actually wrote a piece not long ago that argued that our counter-terrorism apparatus could really learn a lot by how law enforcement addresses this crime. It isn’t that we’re not giving enough attention to this, it’s that we’re giving too much attention to the other. The goal of our counter-terrorism response should be to stop unnecessary and irrational fear and look at these issues objectively, resolving the issues rather than hyperventilating about how a threat can materialize.
Part of what we tried to do in the film was show that this is a very layered issue. There’s skinhead violence, and that’s the kind of thing that local law enforcement is responsible for. There’s terrorism, which is different and less prevalent, but potentially more damaging.
But there’s also the influence on our policy that this kind of discourse has, and that’s a different kind of problem, but one that we should be talking about and focused on. I think that’s what’s come up through the end of the presidential campaign and now, where people are just starting to recognize that there is a lot of divisive discourse that is really harming us as a society.
Andrew Anglin, the editor of the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, has excoriated the film, denouncing Radcliffe as a Jew and claiming that the movie wound up making the Nazis look good. How do you respond to that?
Ragussis: Well, look, he’s obviously like anyone else, he’s promoting a certain agenda or ideology and is going to try to turn the thing so that it’s going in the direction that he wants.
Our objective was to show these people as human beings, which they are. You could do the same thing with the tens of millions of people who were actively supporting the Nazi movement in Germany. That’s what Nazi Germany proves to you — these movements are propped up by millions of people that have in some ways somewhat normal and mainstream views. So to the degree that the movie humanized the people in the movement, I think that’s the necessary complication of the subject matter.
We’d all maybe love to believe that these people are demons and monsters. Their views and their politics and sometimes behavior are monstrous, but they themselves are human beings, and so I think, as complicated and dirty a truth as it may be, it’s not one that we can shy away from if we want to deal with this issue pragmatically and try to make progress on it.
German: It’s easy to demonize people you disagree with and make them into monsters, but in the end everybody I met when I was undercover in the neo-Nazi and antigovernment movements were real people and had full lives. I think it’s important that we look at these issues treating them as real people.
Part of the problem with our society now is that it’s very easy to just go among people who share your beliefs and not have to be in a place where your beliefs are challenged. The vast majority of neo-Nazis strongly believe what they believe and don’t want to share that side of themselves with the rest of society. They’re completely peaceful and have their website, where they can go invent their ethnostate and [organize their] conference once a year. I’m completely fine with that and more power to them; I will defend their right to do that.
This idea that we have now of twitter-takedowns and social media-takedowns I think is very dangerous. From my experience within the violent fringe of this movement, that’s exactly what they want. As soon as people feel like they can’t express themselves and can’t engage with others about their ideas, that’s when the person on the fringe who says, “No, you have to use violence to change things,” becomes more convincing. As much as it’s painful to hear them sometimes, we need to engage with them and confront them, and then I think those ideas will fall on the lack of merit.