Quotes from world leaders, businessmen, and influential writers occupy the screen at the start of many films, in particular for films inspired by actual events or films with underlying social themes the director is trying to convey. For Imperium, it is no different. “Words build bridges into unexplored regions” the text reads before quickly revealing that this quote is from Adolf Hitler. We agree with the quote undoubtedly- communication is, after all, how one broadens their horizons and often inspires change of thought- but when the words ‘Adolf Hitler’ appear on the screen a split second after the quote, we are briefly unsettled before the first scene plays out. We agreed with a madman, and one of the worst in human history at that.
Imperium is about an FBI agent, Nate Foster (Daniel Radcliffe), who goes undercover to investigate the disappearance of illegally imported caesium-137, a radioactive chemical used to create explosions. At the briefing, the leaders suspect that the chemical was stolen by Islamic radicals within the US who would use it for a terrorist attack. However, Nate’s supervisor Angela (Toni Collette) voices the idea that the chemical might have been acquired by domestic terrorists, neo-Nazis in particular. Sooner than perhaps imagined, Nate shaves his head, is introduced to the white-supremacists undercover, and involuntarily receives a neo-Nazi tattoo. He quickly rises in influence and importance amongst the aspiring terrorists.
Prior to his undercover work, Nate is depicted as having an out-of-date hairstyle, big glasses- which I suspect (ooh, conspiracy) is supposed to vaguely remind of Harry Potter and his youthful innocence and morality at the start of the series- and is frequently with his headphones in at the office, listening to the works of classical composers. When he asks Angela why she chose him to go undercover, she mentions his unconventionality as an FBI agent. He isn’t stacked with muscle or brimming with confidence as a typical FBI agent in thriller films. Rather, he is introverted and experienced an unhappy childhood, his single mother struggling to raise him. Nate admits his motivation for joining the FBI was to “change things so no one suffers like he did”. Nate is thus established as an unlikely hero- Imperium is a little heavy on archetypes and character symbolism.
Angela knows- and Nate later realizes- that his background is similar to that of those susceptible to becoming neo-Nazis (a revelation that comes off as sort of embellished- flashbacks of a hard past would likely have been beneficial). The difference is that Nate refused to succumb to a victim complex and understood that we aren’t always dealt a fair hand in life. Radcliffe remarked in an interview that “the idea that you can say to somebody, ‘Your wife didn’t leave you because she’s not in love with you, you didn’t lose your job because you’re crap at it, it’s a global conspiracy against you and none of this is your fault’… [is] very empowering to people who don’t feel like they have any power”. This is the mindset that his film conveys is the motivation for many to become neo-Nazis.
In its people, Imperium depicts many stereotypical neo-Nazi character types. The film attempts to humanize the white-supremacists by depicting many of their character traits. There are angry supremacists who are vulgar alcoholics. There are confused teenagers that want to be respected and feel valued. There is an influential white-supremacist talk show host. There are survivalists who are preparing for a race war. And there is even a suburban family man who deeply supports the idea of white supremacy and who we would never suspect subscribes to this way of thought. This intellectual is Gerry (Sam Trammell), a father of two who tells Nate that love is spelled T-I-M-E when Nate is impressed at the tree house Gerry constructed with his children for them to play in. It is in meeting Gerry that Nate is struck by disbelief that some can believe ideas that are so wrong. To Nate’s horror, he comes to recognize that it would be essentially impossible to convince white supremacists of their fault in thought.
An aspect of Imperium that struck me as worthy of mention is that Nate is depicted as mostly ignorant of domestic terrorism. I would say that we often, regretfully, forget of terrorist attacks such as that that occurred at the Wiscosin Sikh Temple in 2012, but that we are unlikely to forget the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995- the textbook example of domestic terrorism. Does Imperium wish to emphasize that Americans are generally unaware of domestic terrorism or dismissive of its influence? Does it want to emphasize that home-grown Americans (for lack of a better phrase) can be driven to commit terroristic acts? Or is Nate’s research justification for including a montage of charged imagery to induce further tension? Likely, I believe, all three of the above.
Daniel Ragussis‘s Imperium seeks to convey that words, but most notably their interpretation, are key to the establishment of dangerous groups. As in the quote by Hitler, “Words build bridges into unexplored regions”, we instinctively interpret the quote to mean that communication is essential in order for one to become open-minded and better understand others. But when the speaker of the quote is revealed to be Hitler, we understand that he intended to convey that communication was vital to the proliferation of the concept of a master race- something quite different than what we had in mind.