This article contains Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them spoilers.
When watching Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, one of the most curious threads looped throughout the picture’s sprawling yarn was… what is the point to Colin Farrell’s Percival Graves, again? Indeed, while played with the impeccable grace that Colin Farrell has come to exhibit in all of his character actor work, the corrupt inspector for the Magical Congress clearly had an agenda at odds with his superiors—as demonstrated when he ordered the executions of Tina Goldstein and Newt Scamander. He also had nefarious machinations at play for Credence and the troubled boy’s younger sister, convinced one of them held the kind of dark malevolence he sought to unleash.
However, none of it made a whole lot of sense until the moment that Graves dropped his guard, quite literally, and his face revealed the visage of Johnny Depp—a Johnny Depp whom fans might not have expected either. Instead of embracing the Jack Sparrow star’s typical preference for pale makeup or excessive costuming, his Fantastic Beasts character was marked entirely by restraint, foreboding quiet, and a defiant sense of superiority that he implicitly lorded over President Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo) and Eddie Redmayne’s Newt Scamander without even saying a word. For he is Gellert Grindelwald, and if there were any doubts about his intentions, look no further than his blonde, Aryan features, and his very, very short mustache.
Despite its title being about magical creatures and the locations in which they hide, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is much more fascinated by the frenzied horrors of mankind that are within us all… and our history.
Hence why rather than dwelling on the intoxicating fizziness of the 1920s Jazz Age that gave us F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, the film zeroes in on segregationist policies in the United States, and how even the wizarding world is forbidden by law to marry or intermingle with No-Maj in the U.S. Despite the heady frivolities of the pre-Depression years, the film is most intrigued by eugenics societies, like the one that brainwashed and abused Credence. Ezra Miller said as much when we talked about his research into such cults in preparation for the role, noting how their mindset helped pave the way for fascism.
Which brings us back to Depp and his colorfully yellow mustache. By the end of the film, the beasts have been found and Newt is off to write his book, yet there are four more adventures to go after this movie. Some speculated J.K. Rowling, who wrote the screenplay for Fantastic Beasts and is currently penning its sequel, is stretching out her material for financial reasons. However, if the franchise goes as how I suspect, it makes complete sense for the series to take its time from 1926 to its inevitable endpoint—the final days of World War II where Dumbeldore will face off against Depp’s Grindelwald in the Wizarding equivalent of the Führerbunker. After all, the timing of Rowling’s anxieties and rightward leaning lurches could not be more prescient in our modern age.
But how this is all laid out requires taking a step back and studying the roots firmly planted in this weekend’s box office juggernaut.
Before the story even gets truly started, we meet Newt and Jacob Kowalski, played with general good nature and affable cheer by Dan Fogler. One is an introverted wizard who has been disgraced and rejected by his peers at Hogwarts, generally preferring the company of animals over man; the other is a gregarious and mostly optimistic No-Maj who possesses the small dream of owning a bakery. In theory, they have nothing in common, yet beyond an accidental exchange of briefcases, they bond almost instantly when they realize they both fought in the war. We don’t know the extent of either’s exact combat history, and Newt clearly does not imagine himself to be a hero, but he still battled with dragons, Ukrainian Ironbellies at that, in the Wizarding World’s own Great War’s eastern front. Newt also suggests his brother is the war hero, providing a thread for a future sequel to pull on with a new character.
Nonetheless, they have common cause as men from different countries and walks of life since they fought in the war to end all wars. They bitterly don’t want to talk about it, and the assumption is that they’ll never have to fight again, just as many who were at least on the winning side reluctantly accepted in the 1920s.
But, tellingly, Grindelwald is also from their walk of life, sporting the same undercut buzz that was so popular among both American G.I.s and German soldiers during the First World War (the Hitler Youth would also sport it by the 1930s). While technically Eastern European, Grindelwald too has clearly been affected by the scars of the Great War, and as we look at the vague hints of his destiny teased in the original Harry Potter novels, it becomes clear that he is the once and future Führer for the world of magic, and his rosy talk about wizards and witches like Credence coming out of hiding has nothing to do with acceptance; his is a story of domination.
Ms. Rowling kept the details of Grindelwald’s ascent intentionally vague in her Potter novels (perhaps always with the intention of revisiting them at a later date), but we yet know a fair bit about the man himself from those stories. Grindelwald appears as an old man in her final novel, as well as in the seventh film. It seems that, ever since 1945, he has been imprisoned in his impregnable prison-fortress, Nurmengard (which sound an awful lot like Nuremberg, the German city where Hitler first stripped “non-Aryans” of citizenship and made marriage between Jews and non-Jews illegal). According to Deathly Hallows, Grindelwald’s prison is on the German-Bulgarian border where Grindelwald had sent undesirables during his shrouded reign.
In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Voldemort breaks into Grindelwald’s cell to learn the location of the Elder Wand. And the reason Grindelwald is aware of its location is due to his friendship… with Albus Dumbledore.
In case you don’t remember, Dumbledore and Grindelwald had actually grown up as adolescent friends during the late 19th century. Grindelwald had even convinced the man who became Harry Potter’s favorite teacher that they should do away with the Statute of Secrecy that separated Muggles from wizard folk; Dumbledore, at the time, agreed that wizards should rule over Muggles benevolently and kindly, since their magic made them categorically superior. However, Dumbledore came from a place of wishing to end xenophobia and bigotry through centralized power. This was a result of Muggle boys who bullied his magic-prone sister, Ariana, into having a breakdown, which in turn led to Dumbledore’s father being arrested after killing the said muggles in an act of vengeance.
Together, Dumbledore and Grindelwald formed the political slogan that went hand in hand with the latter’s rise to power: “For the Greater Good.” Eventually, Dumbledore came to see the error of his ways, but not until his younger brother, Aberforth, commenced a duel with Grindelwald, which led to Albus coming to his brother’s aide and siding against his longtime friend. In the ensuing chaos, Ariana was killed, and no one knew whose stray spell had slain the beloved sister (even Grindelwald apparently had affection for Ariana). As a result, his and Albus’ friendship was irrevocably shattered, and Albus always suspected that Grindelwald knew Albus was the one who accidentally killed Ariana, but did not tell his friend this horrific truth.
This is why Grindelwald is living in the U.S. under an assumed name (and face) at the beginning of Fantastic Beasts. It also explains why Graves was so intrigued by Newt upon their first meeting, hungry to know why Dumbledore held him in such high esteem. Of course, Graves/Grindelwald discovered the answer when Newt sabotaged Graves’ failed attempt at assassinating President Picquery on the subway platform beneath City Hall.
Grindelwald offers a seductive promise to Credence once he realizes the boy is magically dangerous, and gives it again when lecturing Picquery. Whereas Voldemort demanded subjugation, Grindelwald wishes to liberate the special people in hiding. He is outraged that Picquery’s men seem to kill Credence and wish to hide from the No-Maj/Muggles above ground. However, that promise of “going public” is not a message of unity, but rather a different kind of segregation: he wishes for the wizards to rule over Muggles and to expel those who are naturally inferior, as Graves assumed Credence was until he exhibited dangerous levels of magical ability.
In many ways, his rhetoric mirrors Adolf Hitler’s earliest political inclinations. Hitler, who was also displaced by the Great War (albeit largely because he was on the losing side), infamously wrote in his manifesto Mein Kampf that true Germans descended from a supposedly mythical race of “Aryans,” who were vastly superior to all other races. Additionally, Jewish people and “Bolsheviks” (communists) were not only ideologically inferior to Aryans, but they were a threat. In this context, Hitler promised to a mass expulsion of Jews from Germany and to restore his homeland to greatness. He’d make Germany great again after the multiple depressions and national despair that followed losing the Great War.
It should also be noted that Hitler began writing the first volume of Mein Kampf while imprisoned for political crimes following his and the Nazi Party’s failed coup in 1923 whereupon they attempted to seize control of Munich.
So it is in Fantastic Beasts that Grindelwald is arrested for political crimes after his attempts to overthrow the leadership of the Magical Congress at the end of the film. He sneers at Picquery thinking that she can hold him in prison for long. Just like Hitler, he will be set free again one day soon, and his political climb will resume.
David Yates confirmed as much to me when he revealed that Grindelwald will be a major antagonistic force in the Fantastic Beasts sequel, as well as talking about how dangerous his rise will become as he recruits more wizards to his flock.
“Yes, Grindelwald comes back in the second movie and is quite compelling,” Yates said. “He’s a really seductive, beguiling chap who seems to have a very reasonable—so he’s quite scary. He’s making a case for wizard kind. Wizard kind in these stories, they’re a minority of the population. They’re a tiny minority, and in America in particular, they stay hidden, because of the special powers and because they’ve been persecuted in the past… but ironically, they have these extraordinary powers that Grindelwald would argue would allow them to sort of take a rightful place on the world stage.”
Taking up as much of the film as the enchanted critters, Credence’s brainwashing by the New Salem Society represents the thinking of eugenics enthusiasts from that era. In that same vein, Grindelwald is the future of the franchise as it builds to the Second World War, which could be just as mysteriously waged among wizards as apparently the First was when Newt cryptically battled alongside dragons.
This is perhaps why Yates told me that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them comes out of an anxiety that he and J.K. Rowling share about the “rise of the right,” and about making parallels between the popularity of fascist voices in the 1920s (which paved the way for wars and genocides in the ‘30s and ‘40s), and the sudden mainstreaming growth of extreme “alt-right” voices in our own contemporary times.
“I think there are, again, frightening parallels, ultimately, and the notion that how you identify a community and in some way label it is a really interesting idea in the movie, and something Jo [Rowling] was very keen to explore,” Yates said. “The eugenics movement was really frightening, and so I think inevitably Jo reflects what’s happening around her in the real world, and that sort of somewhat imbues itself on the script. And she’s quite intrigued by the rise of the right, or the rise of extreme voices in a world where I’ve grown up, and she has, in a fairly liberal—there’s been a liberal consensus about how the world sort of works.
“And now that’s being challenged, and establishment should always be challenged, it’s important and healthy to do so. It just seems to me, there’s these extremes popping up everywhere, and it’s a little scary in a way.”
Likewise, it seems the groundwork of exploring this greater is already in place. I imagine the first few sequels will focus on the adventurous side of Newt and company’s life. It will be several films before Grindelwald is fully in control of what Rowling described in Deathly Hallows as “an army.” Still, one wonders if potentially Hebrew sounding names like “Jacob Kowalski” and especially the “Goldstein” sisters is going to allow Rowling to explore these darker themes of labels and scapegoating in the early 20th century in contexts that need no fantasy or enchantments at all. After all, Jacob and Queenie look prepared at the ending to begin a relationship, which is already illegal in the U.S. given Jacob’s No-Maj status, and that is without Grindelwald rising to power.
Thus as the 21st century also puts into power men who gleefully describe their economic policy as “nationalist,” and compare their vision for the future to the 1930s, we imagine that these underlying themes will only become more urgent and pronounced for Ms. Rowling going forward into the next four movies.