Fascism and the Politics of Nudity: Thomas Mann

(Last Updated On: December 13, 2015)

This post is the result of two seemingly unrelated leads that suddenly came together. A very well-read friend of mine told me of an account by Thomas Mann (1875–1955): in the 1920s while visiting a beach in his native Germany with his granddaughter, she got sand in her bathing suit. Mann quite sensibly suggested that she wash it out in the ocean. The outraged response of the other beachgoers shocked him and became fodder for his story, Mario und der Zauberer (Mario and the Magician,1929). Unbeknownst to me, a film by that name was made in 1994 and one of our readers suggested I track it down and watch it. I decided to watch the film and read the story translated into English. Unfortunately, the flow of Mann’s melodic prose is lost in translation, but being his most political piece, we can still get a lot out of it.

The main story is of a German-speaking family (probably Austrian) who go on vacation in the town of Torre di Venere in Italy. In the film, the family is named Fuhrmann: a father (a professor), his wife and their children Stephan and Sophie.

Klaus Maria Brandauer, Burt Weinshanker and Thomas Mann - Mario und der Zauberer (1994) (1)

Klaus Maria Brandauer, Burt Weinshanker and Thomas Mann – Mario und der Zauberer (1994) (1)

In Mann’s story, Mario is just a waiter who serves them and the children are friendly with, but in Burt Weinshanker’s screenplay, the family greet him as though they were old friends.

Klaus Maria Brandauer, Burt Weinshanker and Thomas Mann - Mario und der Zauberer (1994) (2)

Klaus Maria Brandauer, Burt Weinshanker and Thomas Mann – Mario und der Zauberer (1994) (2)

An itinerant and popular magician, Cipolla—played by the film’s director, Klaus Maria Brandauer—comes on the scene and performs with his troupe a somewhat impromptu performance in the street. He is not a magician in the traditional sense; he performs number tricks and card tricks, but his most compelling skill is hypnotizing people and getting them to do all sorts of strange things. This symbolizes the power of rhetoric and propaganda that cause people to act against their own interests. The thing that adds tension to this character is that he is not gracious about his talent, but openly ridicules his subjects. Even when he makes a mistake, he can still get people to believe in him.

Klaus Maria Brandauer, Burt Weinshanker and Thomas Mann - Mario und der Zauberer (1994) (3)

Klaus Maria Brandauer, Burt Weinshanker and Thomas Mann – Mario und der Zauberer (1994) (3)

Italy seems pleasant enough at first but the entangled power structure and unwritten rules of conduct made a series of errors by the family inevitable. To start with, even though they were paying guests, they did not get the kind of deluxe treatment they expected. They had to move to another hotel which was much more hospitable and right on the beach. While Stephan (Jan Wachtel) and Sophie (Nina Schweser) are building a sand castle, Fuggiero (Anthony Pfriem), the 12-year-old son of a local aristocrat stomps on it making some implausible excuse. Of course this was intended as a deliberate insult and warning to the two unsuspecting siblings. It is also meant to represent the tendency of fascist systems to ridicule foreigners in order to build up their own people. The climax of this drama happens a little later when Sophie is sitting quietly in the same place on the beach and Fuggiero and two other boys start cursing at her and throwing sand. Somewhat playfully, she tries to fight back but is overpowered and knocked down.

Klaus Maria Brandauer, Burt Weinshanker and Thomas Mann - Mario und der Zauberer (1994) (4)

Klaus Maria Brandauer, Burt Weinshanker and Thomas Mann – Mario und der Zauberer (1994) (4)

Sophie is supposed to be 8 in the story but Mann says her body is more like that of 7. The screenwriter added more drama by including the sand fight instead of the girl just wishing to get sand out of her suit. Thus she removes her suit, wades into the ocean and rinses herself off before emerging.

Klaus Maria Brandauer, Burt Weinshanker and Thomas Mann - Mario und der Zauberer (1994) (5)

Klaus Maria Brandauer, Burt Weinshanker and Thomas Mann – Mario und der Zauberer (1994) (5)

Klaus Maria Brandauer, Burt Weinshanker and Thomas Mann - Mario und der Zauberer (1994) (6)

Klaus Maria Brandauer, Burt Weinshanker and Thomas Mann – Mario und der Zauberer (1994) (6)

Klaus Maria Brandauer, Burt Weinshanker and Thomas Mann - Mario und der Zauberer (1994) (7)

Klaus Maria Brandauer, Burt Weinshanker and Thomas Mann – Mario und der Zauberer (1994) (7)

The native beachgoers observe this phenomenon and stand up in shock, moving slowly toward her. I feel quite sure the director intended a Fellini-like moment here, expressing the Italian sensibility. They begin to protest and ridicule this innocent foreigner for her faux pas.

Klaus Maria Brandauer, Burt Weinshanker and Thomas Mann - Mario und der Zauberer (1994) (8)

Klaus Maria Brandauer, Burt Weinshanker and Thomas Mann – Mario und der Zauberer (1994) (8)

Another addition to the film is a bath scene afterward when Stephan enters and Sophie asks him to leave. Given that Stephan gave no thought to just entering unannounced shows that Sophie has become self-conscious by this event and is perhaps somewhat ashamed of her body.

Klaus Maria Brandauer, Burt Weinshanker and Thomas Mann - Mario und der Zauberer (1994) (9)

Klaus Maria Brandauer, Burt Weinshanker and Thomas Mann – Mario und der Zauberer (1994) (9)

Professor Fuhrmann is summoned by the mayor and made to pay 50 lire for his daughter’s disgrace. On the other hand, we soon get to see what the local people consider a wholesome display of youthful innocence: an event that includes these girls in uniform singing a patriotic song.

Klaus Maria Brandauer, Burt Weinshanker and Thomas Mann - Mario und der Zauberer (1994) (10)

Klaus Maria Brandauer, Burt Weinshanker and Thomas Mann – Mario und der Zauberer (1994) (10)

The professor attempts to defend himself in a public meeting—this is not in Mann’s story. At first, he seems to be doing well, but the more conservative members won’t have it and it stirs the attendees almost into a mob and the professor must make a hasty exit. Realizing the family is not accepted in this town, he calls the children in for a family meeting and explains that they must return home that afternoon. The children plead for him to allow them to stay until at least the next morning. You see, Cipolla is scheduled to make his big performance that night and they don’t want to miss it.

Klaus Maria Brandauer, Burt Weinshanker and Thomas Mann - Mario und der Zauberer (1994) (11)

Klaus Maria Brandauer, Burt Weinshanker and Thomas Mann – Mario und der Zauberer (1994) (11)

In Mann’s story, the children keep falling asleep and while the parents try to carry them out, they wake up and insist on seeing the rest of the performance. Cipolla shows off his devilish talents, even seducing women from their protesting husbands right in the audience, but the magician makes a fatal mistake that night. One of his subjects this time is Mario and he humiliates him by playing with his secret affections for a girl named Silvestra. In the original story, Mario becomes outraged and kills Cipolla. Since the magician in the film is played by the director, he turns the plot around and has Silvestra, shocked by the revelation, kill Mario instead. In one final expression of control, the audience applauds despite the grisly scene that just took place on the stage. Another addition in the film is one final expression of innocence and perhaps the insidious nature of fascism. On the train home, Sophie comes by the cabin wearing a hat and begins to perform a magic trick she learned in town.

Klaus Maria Brandauer, Burt Weinshanker and Thomas Mann - Mario und der Zauberer (1994) (12)

Klaus Maria Brandauer, Burt Weinshanker and Thomas Mann – Mario und der Zauberer (1994) (12)

It was interesting that Mann did not recognize the early rumblings of fascism in his own country. His masterpiece of Perennial Philosophy, Joseph und seine Brüder (Joseph and His Brothers) in four volumes, was interrupted by the turmoil of Nazism and the latter volumes have a distinctly different tone.

14 thoughts on “Fascism and the Politics of Nudity: Thomas Mann

  1. Yes, it is a great book, and also a great movie. I think that the scene on the beach is more important in the movie than in the book.
    In the comment, you said that the screenwriter added more drama in including the sand fight.
    I’m ok with that, but I think that he also added a few years to Sophie.
    Nina seems to be rather 10 or 11 years old than 8 seeming 7 like in the book.
    He also thought of having more drama by adding another thing: his idea was that after the sand fight, the fight continued with the three boys taking the swimsuit off Sophie, but he gave up on this idea.
    (there was a video online which showed some tries from this scene)

    • Thank you for this. Also, I think I speak for the readers if I ask you to provide a link to those other online versions you refer to. -Ron

      • Unfortunately, the video has been deleted and another was reloaded a few month ago, but there is only one shoot from the scenes I was talking about–and it was not completed.
        I have some pics from the first video but i don’t know how shared them here.
        To find the new version, you have to search with the term “Mario e il mago dietro le quinte” on YouTube or Google.
        I hope read some comments about it…

        • Here is the YouTube video the commenter referred to. To transfer files (up to 2GB), one need only contact me directly and I will give you instructions. I can also download entire videos from YouTube, so if something new comes up and you notify me quickly (before it is deleted), I can get it. -Ron
          ron_at_pigtails@yahoo.com

    • THAT idea would have changed everything.
      Forcible undressing of anybody is a kind of sexual abuse (or at least sexual bullying). The scene as acted was a matter of innocent nudity.

      • I agree. But it is interesting that the screenwriter/director was considering alternatives. His point was to make us feel how barbaric and ridiculous the natives could be. The choice he made was more subtle: that they could react this way under such innocent circumstances. The alternative would also have created story problems as the people would have trouble defending the boy while condemning the foreigners if their “boy” was the obvious aggressor.

        • I agree that it is best as is as a matter of innocent nudity, but I suggest it would not change everything. Nobody paid attention to what the children were doing and it is far from certain that the boys would be accused of what they did.

    • There are signs that the film will be available on DVD with English subtitles. Mario und der Zauberer is just a short story and would not take much time. I found a PDF in English online.

  2. Another observation that should be made here is about how people tend to perceive the behavior of children.
    When those boys are throwing sand all over her, the adults are not the least bit concerned. So in other words, BULLYING is no big deal, but NUDITY is very bad behavior.

    • The adults’ reaction has really more to do with Sophie being a foreigner. Fuggiero could probably have gotten away with any infraction so long as he was attacking her. And any ignorance (like this one about nudity) on the part of an outsider would be harshly ridiculed. It was just us vs. them cronyism.

    • Jerrold, it is always the case with the current “culture”. Machismo is okay, therefore some forms of bullying, derision and mocking are also okay. Boys should rather be dorks than sensitive towards girls. Contempt to the weak is also inherent to this so called culture. This behavior is strongly backed up by the crowd. They are showy, prudish and concerned with their honor. Everyone must express their indignation with nudity lest the other might think they’re fine with that, and that is not acceptable.

      Ron, it’s more about prudishness than “us versus them” thing. If a local girl did the same, the reactions wouldn’t be much different. I believe there could be even more outrage because “their” girl dared to be any different.

      • Yes, in this case, the locals would give one of their own some grief because nudity is a touchy subject generally. Because my Thomas Mann post focused on the nudity issue, readers may not have gotten the idea that this was only one of an arsenal of excuses the locals used to make the Fuhrmann family feel unwelcome. In a more tolerant (less fascist) community, an incident like this would have resulted in a gentle reprimand and not turned into an opportunity for political grandstanding. Instead, it was just another excuse to show disdain for foreigners. This little girl was expected to know better instead of more reasonably being told, “Sweetie, we don’t do that here; now go get dressed.”

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