"A Night at the Garden” is a seven-minute documentary film composed entirely of archival footage that is, in its way, as chilling and disorienting to watch as the most inventive full-length horror movie. The film, which is nominated for an Oscar in the Documentary Short category, chronicles the night in February, 1939, when twenty thousand American men, women, and children gathered at Madison Square Garden for an event billed as a “Pro-American Rally.” In the opening minutes, the signifiers seem scrambled, as though in a nightmare. A banner of George Washington hangs at the back of the stage; there are American flags everywhere and excited kids dressed in what might be scouting uniforms. But people in the audience are giving the stiff-armed Hitler salute, and the speaker is Fritz Kuhn, the head of the German-American Bund, a national organization that supported the Nazi Party.
But even more unnerving than the strangeness of the spectacle is the creeping sense of familiarity it evokes. Kuhn’s snarky excoriation of the “Jewish-controlled” press, his demand “that our government shall be returned to the American people who founded it,” and even the idolatry of the Founding Fathers all have their echoes in far-right politics today. No moment in the film seems more redolent of our current demagogue’s maga rallies than the one in which a protester scrambles onto the stage—he was Isadore Greenbaum, a twenty-six-year-old plumber’s helper from Brooklyn—and is promptly tackled and pummelled by Kuhn supporters, amid appreciative laughter and hooting from the crowd.