The Socialist Subtext of ‘Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory’
Is Gene Wilder's Wonka a socialist leader in purple, velvet disguise?
"He's a Nazi, him."
I'm home for Easter during my final year of university, and my Mother has just peered up from a pile of sixth form marking to comment on the film we're watching.
We're watching Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, the blissful Gene Wilder version, not the bastard shit-show rather-be-garrotted-in-a-park Tim Burton version. She's not got her glasses on, I think.
"That's Grandpa Joe, Mum, just because he's a scrounger doesn't necessarily me–"
"No, not him, him." Mum gesticulates towards the photograph of the fraud who forged the 5th Golden Ticket, gazing eerily out from the newspaper Charlie Bucket has just bought. I had always found this bit quite strange when I watched it as a kid – why would an old bloke want to win a tour of Wonka's chocolate factory? Wouldn't he feel strange touring it with four children?
Willy Wonka was one of those films I grew up with, the kind that I'd stick on during summer holidays or when it was too rainy to go and play football. We had a double-VHS – Wonka & The Witches – and an old video player that you had to fast forward manually, meaning, if you wanted to watch The Witches, you had to hold down the button all the way through Wonka, or just watch Wonka. Some of my earliest film memories were of being spellbound by those opening titles; the candy bars coming out of gleaming contraptions and the falling ribbons of chocolate.
And yet there I was, having lost count of the amount of times I'd watched the film, seeing something totally new. The good thing about living in an information age is that if you want to find out whether a faded black and white photograph of someone in a 1970s musical is in fact a by-all-accounts fairly horrendous member of Hitler's Third Reich, you can. And sure enough, after a fairly cursory Google, it was confirmed – the picture of bad guy is in fact Martin Bormann: one time personal secretary to Adolf Hitler, recipient of the Nazi Party Long Service Award, who fled after the war purportedly to South America.
Wonka and the Nazis. What's the link? You can't stick a Nazi in a film, particularly a film not overtly about Nazis, and have it mean nothing. This is a film shot in Munich, a city that had to be almost entirely rebuilt after being subjected to heavy allied bombing. The war had been over for more than 20 years by the time of the film's release, but there was still a worldwide hunt for the war criminals that hadn't been tried at Nuremberg – that ended in 1971, the same year of the film's release.
And y'know, once those cogs start turning you do naturally go looking for other bits of evidence to grease the wheels a bit and keep them moving.
Though Charlie is the heart of the film, Wonka undeniably leads the story. The book was called Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but the film shifts focus onto the mystery surrounding Wonka's factory, the hunt for the tickets, the reason he's opening up to the public for the first time.
At the centre of all of this, tiny and almost insignificant on first watch, is the everlasting gobstopper. Wonka's new invention, the one the kids have been told to steal. "Candy for poor people". This is the biggest chocolate magnate in the world launching a product that is vehemently anti-capitalist, something you only ever have to buy one of, and essentially looking for an heir to keep it that way, to prevent it from getting into the wrong hands.
Wonka's a massive socialist, with a work force of dwarfs saved from a brutal homeland – the chilling subtext to the Oompa Loompa's role in the film is that the producers had real trouble finding enough dwarf actors to fill the parts, given so many had been killed in the Holocaust. Wonka is the Oskar Schindler to Martin Bormann's fraudulent ticket holder. Spooky music comes on whenever Bormann appears trying to kowtow kids into doing his bidding.
Wonka's great mantra comes in the movie's iconic scene. "If you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it, anything you want to, do it, want to change the world, there's nothing to it." It's a command. This isn't a lofty idea of changing the world – this is a real, radical maxim for a world that needs changing – both our world, that the film directly references, and the imagined world of the film, stricken with poverty, obsessed with consumerism and greed, plunged into mass hysteria and panic over five golden tickets. The other winning kids are all distilled versions of these ailments – greed, gluttony, vanity.
No wonder Wonka doesn't care when they fall into chocolate rivers or get turned into blueberries, the problems are of their own making, he's got no time for them. That final scene, when Charlie has proved himself and they burst through the glass ceiling together, it's not only a moment of rebirth, but it's one of change. There's something very Flannery O'Connor about the whole thing, that idea of the rottenness of the world and it needing to be purged. In a piece of literature, or an art house film, that's an interesting idea. In a movie aimed at kids, it's bordering on revolutionary.
Director Mark Cousins recently noted in A Story of Children and Film, his cross-cultural treatise on the cinematic representation of kids, that, "Art shows us again and again that if we look closely, openly at a small thing, we can see lots in it" – film, through its immediacy and universality and its ease of consumption, lends itself to this idea more than most. Truthfully, films are most kids' first introductions to storytelling, to narratives that could shape their whole lives, and kids are naturally curious – they will watch again and again, they will spot more things.
Kids films need this depth, these narrative challenges, because if they don't, they will just switch off. Whether it's The Brothers Grimm leading children to witches' coven, to Studio Ghibli dealing with attempts to survive World War Two in Grave Of The Fireflies, to Pixar's Toy Story trilogy focusing on a child growing up without a father, looking for role models in two strong male archetypes.
More recently, ParaNorman – for my money the best animated movie of recent memory – dealt with legitimately one of the ugliest events in American history, the Salem Witch Trials, as a real, brutal thing that involved the murder of small children. It was perhaps the only piece of storytelling since Arthur Miller's The Crucible to do that, and Arthur Miller's The Crucible didn't have Primary school kids in the audience. And then there's Wonka, which exists with this huge contextual shadow looming large over it, and shadow that reflects on a world trying to come to terms with one of the most horrific events of the 20th century, and a nation trying to re-establish some semblance of national identity.
More from this series: