By Kahini Iyer Nov. 16, 2018
Gellert Grindelwald’s tactics of demonising muggles, as a convenient “other”, can be seen in the divisive politics of the US, much of Europe, Brazil, and even in our India. Like a steadily growing number of our world leaders, Grindelwald understands the politics of fear, fake news, and populism.
et’s face it: Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, the second installment of five in the Harry Potter spin-off series, doesn’t quite recapture the magic of the first — except, perhaps, in its thoughtful, utterly absorbing visuals. Rather than being a standalone film, it leaves most of its own questions unanswered, presumably for the upcoming three films, and continues the thread of Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them. It’s 1927 and the awkward magizoologist, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), is still more interested in tending to his magical creatures than in the ever-growing turmoil in the wizarding world.
The first film revolves around a relatively simple New York City tale, where Scamander’s pursuit of his escaped creatures lands him in the middle of plot by archvillain Grindelwald, who is disguised as an Auror to capture an Obscurial (a child who represses his magical abilities, creating a dark, parasitic power) called Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller). Adopted by an abusive, anti-magic muggle family, Credence’s tragic journey sets the stage for the coming conflict between magical and non-magical people.
Scamander’s motley crew of charming misfits, including the illicit couple, muggle Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogel) and witch Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol), and Queenie’s Auror sister, Tina (Katherine Waterston), return in The Crimes of Grindelwald. Then there are a host of fresh characters: most notably, Jude Law in a delightful turn as a young Albus Dumbledore, who, true to canon, is endearing and manipulative in equal measure. Still, it’s an awful lot to pack into one film, especially when the established characters are split up, each roaming Paris on their own side quest.
The Crimes of Grindelwald fails to live up to its title, as the greatest of Grindelwald’s crimes are, according to the Potterverse, yet to occur. Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) is a historical figure in the books, a kind of wizard version of Hitler. He believes that purebloods (witches and wizards who descend from other witches and wizards and not non-magic folks) shouldn’t live in the fear of muggles, but should instead rise up and take their rightful place as the ruling class. He goes on to cause a legendary war that tears apart wizarding Europe, and inspires Voldemort’s relentless thirst for power.
And yet, barring his dazzling aerial prison break, we mostly see Grindelwald not as an evil overlord like Voldemort, but as a politician in the early stages of his ascent.
The key characters of The Crimes of Grindelwald – including Scamander, who has earlier claimed that he, a pacifist and non-conformist, is not one to ever pick sides – come together at a rally in Paris, where Grindelwald’s supporters have gathered to hear their silver-tongued leader talk about muggles and the future supremacy of wizards.
In addition to Grindelwald’s portrait of a dictator rising, The Crimes of Grindelwald gives us a glimpse into the atmosphere that has allowed him to flourish.
Surprisingly, Depp’s performance, however callous and cruel, stays mostly clear of caricature. Instead, his seductive, sociopathic Grindelwald is almost too reasonable. He insists that he has no hatred for muggles or violence in his heart; that they are not worthless but merely the “other”. He paints a lurid vision of fear, in which muggles use their weapons of war against the wizarding community. He accuses the Aurors, who have come to break up the rally, of aggression, even as they refuse to use excessive force, conscious that their actions will push more followers into his arms.
If Grindelwald feels terrifyingly familiar to us 21st-century muggles, it’s because he is an embodiment of the same radical movements that are sweeping the globe, adapted from the same set of fascist ideologies. His tactics of demonising a convenient “other” can be seen in the divisive politics of the US, much of Europe, Brazil, and even in our India. Like a steadily growing number of our world leaders, Grindelwald understands the politics of fear, fake news, and populism, and, paradoxically, cloaks his despotism beneath the language of democracy. He invokes freedom of speech and “majority rules” to take the moral high ground.
In addition to Grindelwald’s portrait of a dictator rising, The Crimes of Grindelwald gives us a glimpse into the atmosphere that has allowed him to flourish. His relationship with Dumbledore, which is further detailed in the books, began when they were teenagers, drawn together by their brilliance and their mutual attraction. It was Dumbledore who was first enamoured by what would later become Grindelwald’s chilling motto of destruction: “for the greater good”.
Then there is Scamander, the perennial bystander who realises by the film’s conclusion that there is no such thing as not taking sides. Despite the film’s cacophonous sub-plots – which besides being needlessly complicated, also reflect the fractured chaos and identity crises of a pre-war climate – Scamander firmly represents the heart of The Crimes of Grindelwald. He, like any of us might, only emerges as a reluctant hero when the issue he has been assiduously avoiding ends up on his doorstep. While it may not be suitable for anyone but the most devoted Potterhead, The Crimes of Grindelwald’s overstuffed plot couches a cautionary tale — and a foreboding promise that we will see more of Grindelwald, the dictator, in 2020.