With all the analytical insight of a two-minute news report, but with less artistic finesse, the new streaming series Romper Stomper hams up fascists and anarchists in contemporary Melbourne.
The series opens with its fundamental premise: both fascists and anti-fascists are violent thugs. The fascists of Patriot Blue are demonstrating outside a Muslim cultural event. Members of Antifasc, their faces covered, attack them. A young Muslim girl is injured during the punch up.
The brawl that opens the first episode provides the main protagonist Kane and his mate, both in their early twenties and just out of the army, with an opportunity to infiltrate and take over Patriot Blue, at the prompting of a veteran neo-Nazi.
Meanwhile, a restrictive immigration bill that the government is trying to push through parliament is an important element in the plot. Somehow, the activities of tiny numbers of fascists and anti-fascists are supposed to have an important influence on its passage. But the actual role of mainstream politicians and the respectable mass media in creating the climate of paranoia about Islam and terrorism that has benefitted the far right is invisible.
Permeated with a liberal approach to dealing with racism, the protests and counter-protests portrayed in the series don’t involve more than a few dozen people. This isn’t about the production costs of hiring extras; Romper Stomper offers no alternative to relying on the police to deal with right wing extremism. It does, however, portray ASIO as more concerned about keeping tabs on the far right than prosecuting its leaders for crimes, including murder.
The real world success of Reclaim Australia’s protests against Muslims in 2015 indicated the potential for hard core racist ideas and organisations to attract support. But the series suggests that public mobilisations are unimportant means for fascist organisation building. The only such effort it shows is the opening debacle. Patriot Blue wins support through an idealised version of the tactics employed by some Melbourne fascists, who supposedly protected the public by patrolling the streets and occasionally being nice to homeless white people.
Reclaim Australia’s bubble burst when its events were confronted by larger, publicly-promoted counter-protests – tactics entirely absent from the series. And counter-protests, organised in the same way, have continued to confront the smaller public stunts pulled by the little groups of hardened fascists that received a boost from participation in Reclaim.
Only a small minority of the anti-fascists at these mobilisations have been black-clad anarchists keen on biffo. Yet in Romper Stomper they are the only anti-fascist activists and they always initiate the physical violence. Their reckless behaviour is shaped by a ruthless academic, who doesn’t take any risks himself. For the creators of the series, willingness to confront fascists, always equated with the elitist activities of Antifasc, organised secretly, is a youthful disorder manipulated by a cynical grown-up.
Kane, we learn, is a tortured soul because he had a rough childhood. Eventually, he murders the middle-aged Führer of Patriot Blue, taking over both his leadership position and place in bed beside his much younger wife.
In an act of crude cross-promotion, the series pays masturbatory homage to and includes characters from the original Romper Stomper movie, which came out a quarter of a century ago but is available on the same streaming service. The plot is much clearer if the film is watched first. Even so, the story is so convoluted that episode summaries issued to reviewers get pivotal details wrong. The original movie was a tribute to a brutal warrior for the white race. But it was far better crafted and, by comparison, had vastly superior dialogue.
Unlike the portrayal of Vietnamese people, the objects of the fascists’ hatred and violence in original film, the series tries to depict Muslims sympathetically; there are sensible and sensitive Muslims. But economy of story-telling trumps avoidance of racist stereotypes with the only Black people who appear: they are members of a violent, criminal, gun-toting Sudanese gang.
The last episodes of the series gravitate toward a final explosion, detonated by a sad-sack old fascist in a suicide vest. He assassinates the politician who can determine the vote on the immigration bill and is also the uncle of two members of Antifasc.
The stunningly banal conclusions we are left with, after hours of viewing clunky plot lines, are that racism is bad and violence begets violence. But we’re encouraged to identify with the vicious racist Kane. Opposed to terrorism, he wanted to stop the bombing. And he loves Mrs Führer and his delinquent little sister, who was his double agent inside Antifasc.
In series two, if it happens, the politician’s death will promote a rightward shift in Australian politics and the growth of wicked extremist organisations on left and right. Kane will be on the run.
Romper Stomper is no reason to pay for a subscription to streaming service Stan or even to free-ride on a friend’s account.