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As Europe swings to the right and alt-right parties gain consensus and legitimacy in Italy as elsewhere, a number of new books are coming out about the anti-Jewish laws promoted by dictator Benito Mussolini during the Fascist period. Giorgio Treves’ timely, straight-talking documentary 1938 Different (1938 Diversi) may have nothing new to add to the historical record, but it portrays the mindless war-mongering and persecution of that period with clarity and conviction. Mixing newsreels with a touch of animation and the moving words of survivors, Treves dispels the notion that Fascism was somehow gentler or more human than Nazism in its treatment of the Jews — though some distinctions are made.
Italy’s unprovoked invasion of Ethiopia (which included the use of gas and chemical weapons) and the official hate propaganda aimed at depicting Africans as sub-human was a prelude to a similar campaign against the country’s Jewish population. On Sept. 18, 1938, Mussolini announced that racial laws would immediately take effect, barring non-Aryans (i.e., non-Catholics) from teaching, studying in public schools, holding public office and serving in the armed forces. It also banned their books and stripped them of civil rights, along with a host of other restrictions. With sad irony, the decree was signed into law (after barely more than an hour of parliamentary debate) by the king of Italy, Victor Emmanuel III, a descendant of King Carlo Alberto, who had struck down discriminatory anti-Jewish laws just 90 years earlier.
At the time, Italian Jews numbered just 48,000, or one-thousandth of the population. The shock effect of the laws, which took away livelihoods and threw wealthy and middle class families into poverty, was most devastating for those Jews who were part of the Fascist regime. In the climate of forced consensus of the time, many had joined the party to find work or out of conviction. Overnight they found themselves expelled from the party and the army, their children were thrown out of school by their teachers and public humiliation became ominously prevalent. One Venetian notes that the sign, “Dogs and Jews not allowed,” appeared on the door of Harry’s Bar in Venice.
Not long after the new laws went into effect, houses were raided, rabbis beaten and synagogues burned. Many of those who had the means expatriated. The exodus of illustrious scientists included Emilio Segre, Enrico Fermi (whose wife was Jewish), Bruno Pontecorvo and Rita Levi Montalcini. The director himself was born in the U.S. into a Jewish family that had fled persecution in Fascist Italy. In November 1943, the order came for all Jews in Italy to be arrested and deported, and writer Liliana Segre describes how she was among those loaded onto trains in an underground station.
Treves interviews some of the most recognizable survivors of that period, like actor Roberto Herlitzka, who somberly recites, “I had a world, a family and a companion and a city, that were taken away by the vile fascist and greedy German.”
Besides interviews, the film divulges a great deal of period background. An actor quotes Mussolini inspiring his people with the idea that Fascism must turn the Italian character from nice to hateful if they are to become masters of the Earth. The dictator’s plan to militarize the masses succeeded, to judge by the vast crowds cheering him in Rome while Italian soldiers marched in perfect unison. (It is explained that Mussolini had any footage with soldiers out of step removed from the newsreels.) Young children were taught to shoot guns and encouraged to dream of fighting and dying for the country, much like ISIS does today.
Commenting on the role of the Catholic Church, Treves mentions that although Pope Pius XI wrote that the racial laws were unacceptable to the Catholic faith because they distinguished between one man and another, he died before his encyclical could be published.
Production companies: Tanagram Film in association with Sky Arte
Director: Giorgio Treves
Screenwriters: Giorgio Treves, Luca Scivoletto
Producers: Roberto Levi, Carolina Levi
Director of photography: Sammy Paravan
Editor: Valeria Sapienza
Music: Lamberto Macchi
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of competition)
World sales: Upside Down Films
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Venice Film Festival