This is an immersive biographic documentary about Otto Rahn – SS Obersturmführer, medievalist, Ariosophist, charged by Himmler to find the Holy Grail. Otto Rahn ended being discharged as homosexual and being asked to commit suicide as a honourable death in 1939. I never had the nerve to explore and sift trough the occult tentacles of the Nazi regime. One can always consult the usual genealogies tracing with great precisions the cobweb of viaducts uniting Thule Society, Polaires, Zootheology, Irminenshaft with National Socialist ideology and further to the Black Sun, Julius Evola and Landig Group and various other myriad modern-day esoteric völkisch -religious political incarnations. Secret Glory is also available on youtube.
Robert Stanley is known as a director with a cult following (none the least for some steady contributors to this blog). He is a South African director living near Montségur, France and who is duly famous for two movies: a cyberpunk post-apocalyptic classic (Hardware 1990) and a mystical spaghetti slasher Dust Devil (1993). I know of no other director (because he is anthropologist by training?) that has been able to conjure up the spirit world to such a degree and make it part of our times.
He has an incredible eye for upgraded initiatory quests and a deep feeling for the continuous relevance of witchcraft, voodoo, black magic and demonology in our tech- enhanced 21st century contemporary chaosmos. He also has a long-standing interest in the Quest of the Holy Grail, the associated folklore, legends and the sacred geography (psychogeography?) of Southern France (Occitania): the origin of both of Catharism and of Courtly Love (some say of the invention of our modern understanding of interpersonal Love full-stop). It is by no chance I think that Richard Stanley has tried his hand (co-written together with director Vincenzo Natali) at adapting J G Ballard’s Highrise for the big screen.
It would be unjust to pinpoint that Otto Rahn was the real model for Indiana Jones(as many have). As the documentary amply demonstrates, and as we hear from many of his friends, acquaintances and even his granddaughter, he was no muscular hero, not a physical person, swashbuckling character (as Harrison Ford portrayed Indy). He is being constantly accused (by the regime and his immediate superiors) of being unmanly, of being non-virile enough, of not complying at all to the propaganda SS ideal. First of all this is n0t a documentary that tries to romanticize Otto Rahn’s involvement with the Nazi regime or transform him into a saintly figure. Nevertheless Secret Glory recovers another kind of saintly Indiana Jones, more of a tragic pilgrim, not so much a grave robber or tomb raider, but a pious traveller of a mystical order.
What Secret Glory (the name is based on a Grail quest autobiography by author Arthur Machen published in 1922 and written in 1907) also records is the way most of the proto-fascist or proto-nazi sources or initial occult or neo-pagan inspiration was gobbled up, regurgitated and all kinship traces quickly rewritten or effaced during the rise fo the Third Reich. This is not so say that some prominent ideologues didn’t make it to the top. It is just that as the uniformity, design – and purification of the regime’s looks and symbols was well underway, most of the deviants (any kind of ideological extremes) had to be trimmed and shaped accordingly. Copyright embarrassment was complicated by legitimacy issues – regarding symbols, rituals and paraphernalia that was up for grabs. Most of the Nazi and Fascist imagery was actually derivative, inspired or shamelessly copied (without accord or reference) from various copycats precedents and garish precursors. National Socialist imagery was a cocktail of rip-offs from the late 19 c to early 20 c. An even bigger embarrassment was proto-Nazi Arianosophical pseudoscience – sometimes so mad, so delirious and embarrassing as to be virtually unassimilable into the new orthodoxy, at least in its unadulterated form. Suddenly all sorts of ‘secret’ and ‘hidden’ censored knowledge, prevented by persecution started being published by modern authors. Consider Zootheology – and the founding pamphlet Theozoology, or the Science of the Sodomite-Apelings and the Divine Electron published in 1904 by defrocked Cistercian monk and bible scholar Jörg Lanz-Liebenfels (aka Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels). This theoretician of occult racism involved reading both apocryphal and orthodox Biblical texts in the search of cryptozoological beings, sodomite apelings and misgenation and ‘true’ Aryans being derived from Interstellar deities called Theozoa having their own God: Elektron. In his eugenic biblical studies, von Liebenfels builds up a monstrous Anthropology just to prove that dwarfs, beast-men, scaled man, ape-man, fish-men, hirsute subhumans, women with fat buttocks are mentioned all over the ancient world. To top it all is Lanz’s reinterpretation of Crucifixion – an Aryan Christ is being gang-raped as revenge by the non-human apelings (non-human ‘dark’ races) for spreading his gospel of pure origins. How can you manage to adapt something like that?
In comparison Otto Rahn strikes me as a sort of soft and more adaptable link in the copy chain. His kitschy diary Luzifers Hofgesind (Lucifer’s Court) full of nationalist sugar coated mysticism attracts instant attention and he gets immediately summoned by Himmler. How did Otto Rahn appear on the Nazi radar and why? His quest for the Grail takes him in fact away from the immediate ‘roots’ and into some fluid mythical terrain – a sort of neo-gnostic anti-Europe, a Europe reshaping its own origins of heretic resistance. Secret Glory – introduces some otherwise forgotten authors and historians. In fact Southern France (as Richard Stanley points out), after the WWI seems to be a breeding ground for both secret occult societies and various foreign secret services and – (more interestingly to me) fringe historians and novelists forging new alternate myths for a new Europe. One of these is Maurice Magre (1877 – 1941) writing historical fiction and promoting Occitan revival. During the first part of his life he lives like a true decadent and opium eater being described by Le Figaro as “Magre is an anarchist, an individualist, a sadist, an opium eater, nevertheless whatever his fault, he is a great writer, one has to read his oeuvre“(my translation). Like many others, he was transfigurated by his contact with theosophy and other esoteric knowledge movements and established “Société des Amis de Montségur et du Saint-Graal” in 1937. He is basically reclaiming Occitania as a centre of sacred transfer, and his writings have been responsible in a great part for the recognition of Catharism and Cathar martyrdom in the XIII c. Rahn was apparently transfixed by the vision popularized by Maurice Magre and decided to dedicate his life to reclaiming this ‘lost’ or ‘submerged’ alternate history. Everything that is being ‘lost’ or ‘rediscovered’ codes for modern interests and new legends being forged/masked or inserted into the old established cultural circuits. Even anti-modern, so called ‘traditionalist’ appeals to initial or mythical times are active spots where new myths are being forged, where concurrent versions clash and demand attention from a new audience. Spiritualist mediums and various reincarnations are the (un)usual channels that in that period start to talk, show and allow this ‘lost’ histories to resurface. As Otto Rahn’s early career demonstrates, archeologists or speculative historians had these double lives, they depended on outside sponsors and interest groups. They where often double agents employed or undercover, sent on various missions so as not to elicit suspicion from enemy camps, be they British, German, Italian or Spanish.
Otto Rahn’s trajectory is significant because it shows how pop legends and modern myths managed to change and reinforce themselves by appeals to hidden, lost or condemned knowledge. That is why the Holy Grail is sometimes perceived as newly found ‘missing’ manuscripts or Cathar tablets (remember the Sinaia Lead Tablets ?!) to be found inside grottoes and secret caches. The Dead Sea Scrolls themselves were found by a Bedouin shepherd around the Qumran caverns near the Dead Sea in the West Bank btw 1946-1947 and this was no legend or elaborate hoax.
Inside this core there were some radical new reinterpretation of history – in fact the ideological loosers (the heretic Cathars Greek: καθαροί, katharoi, “the pure [ones]) are being resuscitated as the true symbolic victors of faith. Their revenge on history is being enacted trough unofficial histories, trough these amateur quests, secret services and the parallel routes of novels and speculative oral traditions. A new mythology comes alive via a forgotten one. Lucifer – associated with the heretics has his great comeback, shows that he is the chosen one, the true lover and chosen light of God – and that Inquisition and its brutal henchmen are the actual devils and materialist barbarians. All these reversals of orthodox historical accounts is being enacted by Otto Rahn in his quest for the Holy Grail. The revisionist character of this history must have struck a deep chord within any young ideologue from the period. This is the great mystery, or the great alchemical glory of the Grail – that it was able to reverse and reinvent the outcomes of historical events – and this speaks amply about the darker hopes and wishes projected onto it by the Nazi propaganda. A transhistorical reactionary identification seems to be at work. There is also a mention of one Konrad von Marburg (born 1180-died 30 July 1233). Konrad von Marburg came from the same Land/region as Otto v Rahn – namely Hesse – and he was by all accounts a vicious German priest and nobleman commissioned by the pope to combat the Albingensian heresy and uphold the Catholic faith. He died a bloody death, killed on his return to Marburg from Mainz by a number of unknown knights. He was associated with oppressive zeal and summary & unjust executions of people accused of consorting with the devil. Heretics where quickly sought after by Konrad’s mob and told to repent or be burned to the stake. This is the sort of history Maurice Magre (and by extension Otto Rahn) sought to avenge, reverse and reveal to a larger audience.
Another important character in this story is the schoolteacher, mystic and French historian Antonin Gadal (1877-1962). He dedicated himself to the same goals – of saving the spirituality, beliefs and ideology of Cathars/Albigensians of Southern France. Their last stand was at Montsegur (who is also Richard Stanley’s home) castle against the Crusaders. He argued that the whole Ariege basin, and in particular the Lombrives caves served as a sort of initiation route for the Cathari Perfecti (the spiritual elite of the movement). He also traced the Cathars and their Gnostic beliefs (Manicheanism, Christian Gnosticism) to the most ancient sources of Western Mystery Tradition: the Essenes, Hermeticism and Egyptian Mysteries. Again this was this regional schoolteacher Antonin Gadal who takes Otto Rahn in the late 20s on a trip trough the region showing him the caverns and speological wonders of the region. It is indeed wondrous how Richard Stanley manages to dig and follow all the encounters and their reverberations inside Otto Rahn biography. Antonin Gadal’s heterodox explanations and speological speculation and his belief that the Cathars where entrusted with the Holy Grail didn’t find many official supporters and most of his theories got rejected by academics. Caverns (of which Southern France abounds) have been since prehistory places of initiatic worship, so Gadal sees this continuity between Lascaux and the Catharism – for caves are “places where the spirit whispers”. There is a remarkable subplot involving Lucifer’s diadem – his fallen crown being the raw material for the Holy Grail Chalice, a meteorite fallen from the sky or moon (meteorite iron is some of the most ancient iron worked by man) and oxidation causing the haematite mineral ‘to cry blood tears'(Christ’s tears). Ariege seem to be also a place with lots of meteoric stones. In some way Gadal insisted that both the manuscript and the sky-fallen stone (Lapis Excoris) are one. This ‘other’ – Luciferian Quest seem to shadow the Holy Grail as its truer meaning, a search for regaining the lost place in heavens against the usurpers (the official church). What is extremely interesting is that Otto Rahn is attracted to Gadal’s interpretation because it is completely freestyle, a ‘heretic’ interpretation in itself – one that reinvents and reinvests the local space with new meanings and functions, one that is not concerned with proving the historical ‘truth’ as such. It is a history based on hunches, on secret revelations, on folklore and on personal discoveries, motivated by both practical groundwork and imaginative reconfigurations.
Secret Glory uses a lot of documentary materials and a good and wide selection of witnesses, building a kaleidoscopic narrative, like s feverish waking dream in a sense; local mayors, relatives, farmers, historians, ex- Caricaturists, publishers, Third Reich history specialists, investigative journalists etc. The whole tone, even the jokes or the demystifying quips (“I threw a stone in that lake many times and no storm started”) are almost prophetic, like enchantments or invocations of powerful guiding spirits. Even the husky burned voice of Paul A Ladame (to whom the docu is dedicated) is somehow adding to the shimmering archival patina.
There is an incredible picture with a white pullover worn by Otto Rahn and handmade by his mother. It’s a chilling image, both intimate and very scary at the same time. Why? Because you can see right on the chest embroidery the Sig ‘sun’ Rune – the future SS symbol before the SS was established. Again comes the granddaughter – Ingeborg Roehmer Rahn a practising psychiatrist, recalling that she used this same pullover as material recycled for the playground trouser of her own children. As part of his later SS endurance testing and training, Rahn is being ‘screened’ for his good Aryan origins. To his (and his superiors) dismay he finds out that his mother was Jewish. Rahn is being obliged to go to the camps and ‘steel’ himself (as any SS officer), these in fact producing the opposite effect in him. His horrific experiences brings him to the brink of insanity, he loathes Germany and tries to exit the SS (which of course was impossible). His quest for the Grail and his integration into the SS elite turns out very badly, as he’s being chastised and obliged to marry in order to prove his sexually ‘correct’ orientation with Himmler paying for his marriage costs. His whole existence seems to be a sham – he is being dressed and marshaled to his death literally. On the run from the SS he is being found frozen in the mountains after taking an overdose of sleeping pills.