You know the moment: You’re on the group chat (mine is called Coven of Jewesses) when someone sends you the latest in anti-Semitic fuckery. Depending on the details, you may spend the next 10 minutes frantically googling, or calling your family, or hyperventilating in the work bathroom (I always choose the nice single stall on the second floor).
But eventually, you need to respond. Because another Jewish person has taken the time to send this horrible news to you. Because they’re your friend. Because they, too, are terrified.
That’s where my favorite gif comes in. It’s easy to find. I don’t like typing “Nazi” or “swastika” into my browser, but “captain von trapp + flag” will suffice. And there he is: Christopher Plummer at peak hotness, as Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music, tearing a massive red, white, and black swastika flag in half.
It’s mesmerizing. Aristocratic in his mid-century suit, his face twists into a taut grimace from the effort; it takes two extensions of his wingspan to finish the job, and in a moment he‘ll glance, haughty, to his left; after that, he’ll ball up the flag and throw it to the ground. Most of the countless gifs, though, don’t record this whole process (nor the moments before, in which he finds the swastika hanging outside his house). Instead, mouth frozen in an eternal rictus, Captain von Trapp will simply tear the flag in two over and over again, only to have it re-form.
How much do I love this gif? Let me count the ways. First, there’s the visceral satisfaction. Watching the repetitive tearing, you can almost hear the sound of ripping fabric. Plummer does a fine, clean job, his impassive acting as von Trapp at odds with the clear effort it takes to rend the flag. Only a momentary contortion around his mouth illustrates the effort, however; in this moment, von Trapp is committed to treating the flag like the trash that it is. In internet parlance: You love to see it.
Then there’s the personal context. When my mom showed me The Sound of Music in the late ‘90s, she used to turn it off before the Nazis (led by traitorous cutie Rolf — I have another essay in me about Rolf…) searched for the von Trapps in the crypts under the convent (remember when that heartwarming classic gets terrifying?). In the movie’s cosmology — and in my own, at the time — Nazis functioned as a kind of historical Big Bad. Their unambiguous evil made them narratively satisfying, and as a young person, I viewed them in an almost teleological light: terrible things happened so that they might never happen again.
However misguided that view was, it’s one I miss… and one that comes flooding back when I contemplate my favorite gif.
Perhaps most powerful and perverse of all in the gif’s appeal is the fact that Captain von Trapp is resolutely not Jewish. An aristocratic Austrian, all von Trapp wants is to serve his country, raise his children, and romance a certain musical governess. Faced with the anschluss, however, in which Austria willingly “reunified” itself with Nazi Germany, von Trapp feels he has no choice.
For an honorable man like him, a patriot, only one course of action remains: to oppose the rise of fascism in his homeland no matter the cost (the cost is fleeing across some bucolic Alps with a wide-eyed Julie Andrews at his side. They seem fine). It is precisely the un-Jewishness of von Trapp that keeps me coming back to this gif. He has no vested interest in opposing the Nazis… and yet he considers it a moral imperative to do so.
When I receive news of cemeteries defiled, synagogues invaded, and families destroyed, words fail me. Captain von Trapp, however, never does. And much as I never want a reason to search for “captain von trapp + flag” again, the horrors of the past few years don’t leave me with much hope for that future.
So tear that swastika, my mid-century goysiche daddy. Tear it hard.