I can't discuss American History X - which, just to give you an impression, should land somewhere up in my Top 10 films of all time - without discussing my initial expectations for it. Along with Once Upon a Time in the West, this was the movie from blind spot list that I expected least from, mainly because I knew the least about it. The title had always made me think of some slightly preachy yet solid, typical 'universally good movie' about Malcolm X and black oppression. At least I was slightly right about that last one, but surprisingly there is no trace of Malcolm X in this movie at all. Lincoln may have been mentioned, which brings me to my first point: Movie buffs have been talking a lot about racism in the last two years with Lincoln and 12 Years a Slave being released and overall cherished. These were two movies that left me very cold and didn't trigger much of the aspired emotional reaction in me, which has convinced quite a few people I talk to about movies that I am a racist (jokingly... I hope). For example, one of these people was very surprised when I told him that I had actually fairly enjoyed this year's Fruitvale Station, me being a racist and all. I can't wait to tell him what I think of American History X (hint: it begins with M and ends with ASTERPIECE)*.
American History X made me cry, something that few movies have managed to do recently. It made me cringe too, taking turns with Edward Norton abso-damn-lutely stunning me with his performance (I'm in lack of more impressive words). Every single actor in this movie does a fantastic job - it went so far that I almost felt annoyed by the quality of the cast, waiting for someone to deliver a slightly wooden line or blink too often. From angel-faced Edward Furlong as the supporting lead (I guess that's the right thing to call him) to every other member of the Vinyard family - the naive mother, the doubting sister, the stupid father - to the secret leader to the teacher-I've-always-dreamed-of, every single actor is nothing less than great in this movie. And I didn't really know any of them before except for Edward Norton! Speaking of which, Mr. Norton has confuzzled** me thoroughly with his layered, heart-felt, flawless performance of the most well-developed character I have ever seen in a movie. Going from a curious, brilliant student to an absolutely dedicated, ruthless Neo-Nazi to a caring, warm young man, Derek Vinyard in himself is one of the best-written fictional characters I have encountered in my short life. I will say the same for the script in general; I am awe-struck, blown-away, flabbergasted (YES, finally a chance to use this adjective) and in loss of better words to describe my feelings about this movie. As you may remember, my February blind spot was rather known for its anti-linear narrative, and I thought that I would not see something similar anywhere in the near future. But the non-linear structure of American History X reaches the high score of genius story-telling that Memento set up only a mere month ago! It leaves you on the edge of your seat, simultaneously engaged in what's going on at the moment yet wondering about unsolved questions - each of which are answered later in the movie. I think I have finally understood the actual meaning of elegant.
It may contradict my goal of eliminating the joint-and-inherited-guilt that most nations (and this nation itself) often connects with Germans, but as a German, I think I felt more personally engaged with this movie. After all, it has been a long road through thousands of texts, lessons and even novels on anti-semitism and the inherited guilt in middle and high school that has led me to my current opinion of It's not my fault. But I have been sensitized about this topic to a degree so high that Neo-Naziism is about the most horrible thing in our current society that I can think of. It just doesn't fit in my head how people can project the ideas of Hitler onto our own time, how they can believe in them after all that has happened in history. When a movie like American History X comes along and sincerely tries to explain how a movement like that can arise - both in a single person and on a larger scale - I have to admire it. Surely, this is no completely unbiased film, but it doesn't condemn its characters either, doesn't write off Nazis as utterly evil beings. It's sick to see these people use Hitler's arguments and methods on American society, still their anger or discontentedness is understandable. I wish more people would look at a conflict like that, especially foreign (and some German) history teachers. Yes, what the Nazis did and what Neo-Nazis do is wrong - but there is a reason, a motif for their actions.
American History X is everything I wanted Lincoln and especially 12 Years a Slave to be, exploring and rather unbiasedly explaining racism and showing it in all its facets. So I guess while truth may be stranger than fiction, it's not very often the best material for a movie. A closing thought:
I wonder how exactly the actual HELL did this movie not win ANY Oscars, was only nominated for ONE and is not included on the 1001+ movies list? This is why I kinda love the IMDB 250. For those still wondering what I thought of this movie, historical ramblings aside: American History X is my favorite new-to-me movie of 2014 so far and I absolutely freaking phantasmagasming love it.
** This is still my favorite word of all time, I should use it more often.
AMERICAN HISTORY X
1998 • USA • English
director Tony Kaye
author David McKenna
★ Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Beverly D'Angelo
final frame Strawberry Explosion
PREVIOUS: MEMENTO (2000)
NEXT: LÉON (1994)
NEXT: LÉON (1994)