The documentary The Brink begins with Steve Bannon telling a story, really apropos to nothing in real life, about his impressions of visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau. Bannon, a good story teller and well versed at retail politics, is sitting at a table looking into the camera and marveling at the inner workings of the Nazi machine.
“You think about these guys sitting in meetings, over cups of coffee arguing ‘if it should be like this or it should be like that,” says Bannon. “It was so planned down to every last detail. People were doing this, separating themselves from the moral horror of what they were doing.”
Alison Klayman, the film maker and director, who was in the room filming, responded with raised eyebrows. “When he said this, I was chilled inside as he was describing the banality of evil,” said Klayman in a noisy coffee shop where we met to discuss her movie. “It’s the glee in his interest, in how it all worked out, it’s something incredibly unsettling to watch and I knew it had to be the opening of the film.”
Nowhere in the scene does he say: “And it is a good thing that people were murdered,’ or ‘that the Holocaust never happened,’ statements that people might imagine him saying. But it’s a subtle distinction. He’s gleeful and describes Auschwitz as the beta-site test and Birkenau, a place where they built everything from scratch.
Getting Access to Steve Bannon
The Brink, was released earlier this year by Magnolia Pictures and is now available on Hulu. It prides itself as being created primarily by women: the film-maker, producer, distributor and lawyer are all women. Marie Therese Guirgis, the producer, had worked at Well Spring Media, Bannon’s art house distribution company. When Bannon joined the Trump campaign, Guirgis showered Bannon with rage texts re-igniting a line of communication. His rising media presence and portrayal as Trump’s mastermind stirred a need in her to understand the workings of Bannon’s political machine. Her goal was to create a film in the cinéma vérité style but Bannon refused. Eventually in July, 2017, after many requests, Bannon relented and signed a detailed legal release.
After watching the film, I asked Klayman how the opening scene came about and she described its organic occurrence one day while Bannon talked about Torchbearer, a movie he made.
“He was bragging about the movie and how he went to Auschwitz,” said Klayman. “I did not intervene to ask a guiding or follow-up question but he saw me with a startled look. Bannon knows I am Jewish and that my grandparents were holocaust survivors. I believe his calculation was ‘This would be interesting to her!’”
Klayman’s grandparents came from Szydlowiec, Poland, and the Holocaust was a defining moment in their lives and although they spoke little about it, their stories were passed on to her by her mother.
“We are here because they didn’t destroy us,” said Klayman wondering aloud about society’s ability to create people who can dehumanize and celebrate the destruction and misfortune of their neighbors.
To make the documentary, Klayman followed Bannon around for thirteen months up until the mid-term elections. He is shown helping and firing up house Republicans in swing districts but after losing the House of Representatives, the movie shows Bannon in Europe where his team tries to cover up the loss by saying it’s not a bad sign for the Trump agenda as the Republicans control the senate. But Bannon comes out forcefully to correct them by stating, ‘No excuses, no spin, no agenda, we lost.’
Dinner with the Alt-Right
For Klayman, the title Brink is reflective of where we currently are as a society and globally. “At this moment we are witnessing the growth of the alt-right where truth is slipping away. It’s a time of extreme polarization and we are at the brink of a new or a dark time.”
In one scene Bannon is seen at a dinner with high level European right-wing parties including representatives from Marine Le Pen’s party, Nigel Farage, former members of the Swedish democrats, congressman Paul Gosar from Arizona and others discussing ways they can work together to get enough seats in the EU parliament to become a blocking group – almost like the tea party – to achieve their goals.
“I spent thirteen months in rooms with these people and they don’t talk about how to increase people’s wages, how to get healthcare, how to increase safety in jobs,” said Klayman animatedly. “No, what they are talking about is birthrates, immigration, and Islam. They believe these are the problems in Europe and are good election issues and need to be talked about.”
Klayman believes it would have been more challenging as a filmmaker had they discussed solutions to these problems. “The vision that unites them is a vision of Europe and America being a white majority, Christian nation,” said Klayman emphatically.
The Brink Can Help Us Organize
As a counterpoint, Klayman weaves in excerpts of victory speeches from diverse women of all ages who helped regain the house of representatives earlier this year.
“You open a window of a stuffy room when you hear these women’s voices,” said Klayman, describing the scene. “You beat a guy like him by not chastising him to death but you organize and do better. Our team has more talent, substance, ideas and have women who can mobilize their communities.”
Klayman believes Bannon’s star is tied to the President’s and Trump’s ascendance bears well for him. In the film he is seen traveling on private planes, getting invited to speak for large fees, raising money from other billionaires and then being interviewed by Anderson Cooper and Fareed Zakaria. Speaking to the media, she says, provides a direct line to Trump who is a media junkie.
“Bannon does not care about what’s best for the country,” said Klayman. “He says he does, but I don’t think so. It’s about winning.”
Klayman believes The Brink presents an opportunity to witness the day-to-day operations of people on the other side who are focused on winning. So far, the response to the film from Democrats around the world has been positive as they are excited to organize and win, and change the ballot box in 2020.
“If we want the world to change, we have to figure out a better strategy that beats them and that is possible,” said Klayman. “This film is my gaze of what I observed and my point of view about Bannon and I hope people will watch it and change things in their country.”