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When Nazis Took Over Madison Square Garden

An Oscar-nominated documentary short examines a strange piece of American history that is eerily relevant today

Supporters attend a Nazi rally hosted by the German-American Bund at Madison Square Garden on February 18, 1939.

A Night At The Garden

At 5:57 p.m. Monday night, roughly 20 people carrying cameras, projection equipment and stacks of informational flyers hustled through the bitter cold down Eighth Avenue from West 33rd Street in Manhattan. They stopped directly across the street from the west side of Madison Square Garden, and a few minutes later began projecting on the side of the self-described World’s Most Famous Arena scenes from an event that took place inside 80 years ago to the day.

Billed as a celebration of “Americanism” on George Washington’s birthday, the 1939 event drew over 20,000 people, all eager to hear a speech by Fritz Kuhn, the leader of a group called the German-American Bund. Onstage behind Kuhn hung a massive portrait of the nation’s first president, flanked by swastikas. “We, with American ideals, demand that our government shall be returned to the American people who founded it,” Kuhn said after joking about the negative light in which he had been portrayed by the “Jewish controlled press.” He went on to explain that those ideals include a “socially just, white, Gentile-ruled United States.” The audience applauded.

The team projecting images of Kuhn onto Madison Square Garden on Presidents Day 2019 was doing so on behalf of A Night at the Garden, an Oscar-nominated documentary short made up of footage of the Nazi rally, which took place just seven months before the outbreak of World War II. Director Marshall Curry wants as many people as possible to see the film. He doesn’t care how. “Frankly, we’ve encouraged the pirating and sharing of it,” he tells Rolling Stone. “We just want to get this chapter of history out into the public.”

Outside of quasi-legal guerrilla projection jobs, Curry is promoting the project through newspaper and cable news ad buys. An hour before the film was beamed onto the side of Madison Square Garden, a 30-second spot ran on CNN during The Situation Room With Wolf Blitzer. Later that night, one would air during The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC. The film’s producers tried to buy time on Hannity last week, but they were rejected by Fox News. The network’s national ad sales representative explained that the ad, titled “It Can Happen Here,” was “not appropriate for our air,” according to The Hollywood Reporter.

“We thought they would run it,” says Curry. “We were surprised for sure.”

Though A Night at the Garden makes no explicit reference to President Trump, it is very much a critique of the man Fox News has bent its coverage to support, which may explain the network’s hesitation to run the advertisement. “We feel like Hannity is one of the biggest enablers and supporters of the kind of demagoguery that the movie tries to warn people about,” says Curry. “We wanted to go straight to his viewers to say, ‘Look, here’s what happened in 1939 when a leader attacked the press and scapegoated minorities and encouraged beating up protesters.’ Hopefully we can be a little vigilant this time around when we see leaders using the same tactics.”

Like most Americans, including everyone I spoke to on Monday night outside of Madison Square Garden, Curry had no idea the arena hosted a Nazi rally just months before World War II. When a friend working on a screenplay set in 1939 New York told him about it over dinner, he didn’t believe it until he got home and looked it up himself. Intrigued, he enlisted an archivist friend to pull together scattered bits of footage of the event. Curry toyed with the idea of making a feature-length historical documentary, complete with expert interviews and a thorough excavation of the subject. He ultimately opted for a stark presentation of the raw material, devoid of narration.

“I found that that was actually pretty powerful, and maybe more powerful than just presenting people with a history lesson,” Curry says. “I also wanted to make something short enough so that people could share it on social media. I would love for this footage to become as common as footage of protesters being hosed during the civil rights movement — a cautionary tale of the possibility of us doing terrible things and what happens when leaders stir us up against each other.”

A scene from ‘A Night at the Garden’ is projected onto the exterior of Madison Square Garden on February 18, 2019.

Part of the reason A Night at the Garden is so effective is that it takes a fresh approach to warning people of the dangers of Trumpism. In offering nothing other than footage of the rally and Kuhn’s own words, it almost tricks the viewer into making a connection to modern-day America. In doing so, the argument being made is unassailable, as it isn’t coming from the a talking head yelling through the TV; it’s coming from the viewers themselves. As Curry puts it, he’s trying to “get around people’s filters” to show them that, as the ad that Fox News rejected says, it can happen again.

“Most people, liberal and conservative, are shocked and appalled when they see this,” Curry says. “I think that is the power of it. We don’t mention Trump. If you like Trump, the only way you could be upset about it is if you saw that this guy was like Trump. You have to acknowledge that there is a similarity between these people in order to be upset. If you see the similarity, then…”

Curry pauses for a few seconds, searching for how to phrase the obvious conclusion. “Then that’s a problem with our country.”

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