May 24, 2019

Nazis in Madison Square Garden

“Clocking in at a concise 7 minutes and 6 seconds, including credits, A Night at the Garden is a compilation of pristine newsreel footage documenting a not-quite-forgotten moment in American history: the night of Feb. 20, 1939, which Americans at the time would have recognized as two days before George Washington’s birthday, when the German American Bund filled Madison Square Garden for a Nazi-themed party. Recently nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary short subject, the film is a minimalist exercise in archival retrieval: no voice-over narration, no talking heads, no digital eye candy, just the discreetly edited newsreel footage. Producer-director-editor Marshall Curry adopts a spare, bare-bones approach that permits what unspools on screen to speak, more or less, for itself.

Establishing shots on the streets outside the garden and close-ups of the period marquee advertise the evening’s entertainment, which is billed under an unassailable come-on, “Pro American rally,” below which are notices of upcoming hockey and basketball games. Police on horseback move among an unruly crowd of anti-Nazi activists, a glimpse into an age when even angry men at a street protest came dressed in suit, tie, and hat. The night-for-night exterior shots are gorgeous, a kind of flash forward to postwar urban film noir.

Inside, the show is just getting underway. The ritual and pageantry that the Nazis are justly famous for has crossed the Atlantic intact. Fetching mädchen in uniform parade down the aisles of the floor seats. An honor guard of homegrown storm troopers marches in lockstep up onto the stage, hitting their marks with martial precision. Dominating the set design, positioned dead center back of the stage, is a huge banner with a 30-foot-tall, head-to-toe portrait of George Washington, flanked by U.S. flags and Nazi swastikas.”

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