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How Doug Mastriano ended up in a Holocaust film that troubles scholars

The Pennsylvania GOP gubernatorial nominee acted in a drama that some critics say inappropriately uses the Holocaust to advance a conservative agenda

Republican Doug Mastriano is running for governor in Pennsylvania. He appeared in the 2019 film “Operation Resist” and promoted it on Facebook at the time, saying that “this exciting movie grapples with sacrifice and heroism during the horrors of the holocaust.” (Mark Makela/Getty Images)
11 min

Before he became one of the country’s most prominent 2020 election deniers and the Republican nominee for Pennsylvania governor, Doug Mastriano starred as an American spy in a little-noticed movie about the Holocaust that some scholars now say distorts history to promote a conservative agenda.

The 2019 movie, “Operation Resist,” which shows Mastriano fighting several Nazis — including one played by his son, Josiah — urges viewers to “never forget” the horrors of the Third Reich.

But four experts who had seen the movie or reviewed it at the request of The Washington Post were troubled by the low-budget production’s historical inaccuracies and use of a Holocaust story to drive contemporary right-wing messaging. In the film’s ending, for instance, a Holocaust survivor urges a modern-day school board to include the Jewish genocide in textbooks — while decrying government overreach, gun control and abortion. “It’s time to say never again!” he says after inveighing against abortion.

“It is offensive to weaponize the Holocaust for political ends, yet that is what this film does and quite proudly,” said Neil Leifert, director of the Center for Holocaust and Jewish Studies at Penn State.

The film’s lead actress, who is Jewish, said in retrospect that she is disturbed by how the film promotes Christianity at the expense of Jewish characters. These newly aired critiques of the movie come at a time when Jewish leaders have raised alarm about Mastriano’s expressions of Christian nationalism and ties to the far right.

As a gubernatorial candidate, he’s faced criticism for paying $5,000 for campaign consulting to the far-right social media website Gab, where the man charged with killing 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue four years ago posted antisemitic screeds, and for accepting a $500 donation from Gab chief executive Andrew Torba. Mastriano has also been accused of promoting antisemitic tropes in attacking his opponent, Josh Shapiro, who is Jewish.

“I reject antisemitism in any form,” Mastriano said in a July statement distancing himself from Torba, who has said he won’t talk to non-Christian reporters. When an Israeli reporter recently asked Mastriano about his ties to Gab and his comments about his opponent, the candidate’s wife interceded. “I’m going to say we probably love Israel more than a lot of Jews do,” said Rebbie Mastriano, who also appears in “Operation Resist.”

The 58-year-old former Army colonel was cast in part because of his military experience, one year before he was elected to the state Senate. It’s not clear why, amid trying to launch his political career, he took time to dabble in acting in the unpaid role.

The untold story of Mastriano’s strange foray into acting in a Holocaust drama illustrates how right-wing Christian politicians use the Jewish genocide to advance their own causes, experts said. Some far-right lawmakers, for example, have linked pandemic restrictions or vaccine requirements to the Nazi regime.

Mastriano’s campaign, his wife and his 25-year-old son did not respond to requests for comment about their participation in the film. In 2018, Mastriano posted a fundraising appeal for the film on Facebook and promoted it several times, saying that “this exciting movie grapples with sacrifice and heroism during the horrors of the holocaust,” and later adding that his family was “blessed” to be involved. He also helped arrange a screening of the film at the Dutch Embassy in 2019, according to the filmmaker, James F. Moran.

Moran, who wrote, directed and funded “Operation Resist,” which is streaming on Amazon, said he had not followed Mastriano’s political campaign and did not endorse extremist views. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Post.)

“All I saw from him during the movie was positivity toward the Jewish people,” Moran said of Mastriano. He accused critics of the movie of using it to attack the Republican candidate. “If people are going to tear apart my movie to get at Doug, then they have no credibility,” he said.

Daniel R. Berger, a New York pastor and counselor who played a Dutch resistance leader in the movie, said Mastriano’s involvement shows his lack of prejudice. “He did a movie that is against antisemitism and racism and for equality,” he said.

Oren Segal, vice president of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, a nonpartisan institution, has criticized Mastriano in the past for his ties to Gab, which is popular among white supremacists, but said it is difficult to assess his motives for appearing in the film. Segal said he wasn’t aware of the far right promoting the movie, but he said the film seems to “exploit the Holocaust for political purposes.”

Mastriano holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in history and military operations and strategy. His master’s thesis warns that the United States is vulnerable to a left-wing “Hitlerian Putsch,” and his 2013 doctoral thesis about a World War I hero includes 22 corrections that Mastriano added last year, the Associated Press reported. As a state senator, Mastriano spread false claims about the 2020 election and led efforts to try to overturn President Biden’s victory in Pennsylvania. He has said he attended Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, but did not enter the U.S. Capitol.

Moran said he did not know Mastriano before casting him in 2018 as an operative with the Office of Strategic Services, the U.S. intelligence agency during World War II. Moran said he was looking for people on Facebook with military experience and reached out to Mastriano, who at the time was competing in a Republican primary for Congress in which he ultimately placed fourth.

Mastriano submitted a video audition for the role, Moran said. “I am the kind of person who can cast extremely well,” Moran said. “He had a commanding voice and kind of a presence to him and could pull off the role.”

Moran said he was inspired to write the movie after a South Carolina newspaper reported in 2017 that a proposed revision to the state’s social studies standards did not include the word “Holocaust.” In the same article, the state schools chief vowed that the Holocaust would still be explicitly included.

The filmmaker received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Bob Jones University, an evangelical Christian institution in South Carolina. Moran said that he has distanced himself from the university and that his affiliation was not relevant to his films.

“You might want to know that I celebrate Passover and Hanukkah,” he said. “I have Jewish ancestry.”

“Operation Resist” begins with a modern-day school board meeting, where a proposal to remove the Holocaust from the curriculum is under discussion. A man tells the story of a Jewish teenager, Miriam, via flashback. Miriam’s home is raided by Nazis, and she is separated from her family. She is later spirited to safety by Dutch resistance leaders and a group of American spies that includes Mastriano.

“Looks like we’re going to have to kill some Nazis,” Mastriano’s character declares during the rescue, before fatally shooting several soldiers. Mastriano later puts a chokehold on the Nazi played by his son, wearing a swastika armband, and lowers him to the ground. “When you wake up Fritz, tell Hitler he’s next,” he says.

At the end of the movie, the man who told Miriam’s story at the school board meeting reveals that she is his sister. He then delivers an impassioned speech about resisting the evils of big government, gun control and abortion.

“How about the millions of babies today whose lives are snuffed out before they’re even born because they are inconvenient,” he tells the crowd, warning that the elderly and disabled will be the next targets.

He also rails against officials removing the Holocaust from textbooks and taking away civil rights. “When the fascists come to strip away your liberties, resist them!” he cries. “Refuse to be disarmed.”

Anne Berg, an assistant history professor at the University of Pennsylvania who teaches about Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, called the film an “outrage” because, she said, it manipulates the Holocaust to advance a right-wing agenda. In one scene, the Nazis who invade Miriam’s home confiscate a gun that her father had been hiding. “Only predators want our guns,” her father says before he is fatally shot in the head.

“To use the history of Nazi occupation and the Nazi genocide of the Jews as a foil to project their own political agenda, to me, is just quite disturbing,” Berg said.

Berg also said the movie is rife with historical inaccuracies. For example, she said, Jews in the Netherlands were generally murdered after deportation to Nazi death camps and not through mass shootings, as depicted in the movie. And she said the movie, set on quiet streets and in the woods, seems to erase the backdrop of World War II.

An opening scene features an encounter between Miriam, Anne Frank and a young Audrey Hepburn. The actress did live in occupied Holland as a child, but there is no evidence that the two famous figures ever met. By 1943, when the scene is set, Frank had gone into hiding with her family.

Moran said he did the best he could with a limited budget, shooting in his home state of South Carolina. The movie’s references to guns and abortion were appropriate, he said, because the confiscation of weapons and disregard for human life were “two of the key drivers for the Nazi environment.”

“My main point in the movie was that the Holocaust has lessons for us regarding today’s environment politically,” Moran said. “Once you start down the trail of whose life matters, you have entered the mind-set of Nazism … and it’s what I saw happening today as people are seen as inconvenient lives and as the government seeks to remove the guns of innocent civilians.”

Miriam was played by Ashleigh Burnette, who was 17 when the movie was filmed. She was raised Jewish in an overwhelmingly Christian town in north Georgia and said she was excited to participate in a movie about the Holocaust. But she said that she was surprised most people involved in the movie were Christian and that she felt uncomfortable when Christian prayers were said before meals on set.

Burnette is now 21 years old. “It’s never been something that I’m extremely proud of,” she said, noting one scene in which a Christian woman discusses her faith while saving her character. “Maybe the movie was really about shedding light on Christianity? That a great Christian lady was helping me, so bless the Christians?”

Burnette’s mother, Lana Burnette, said she was bothered by the movie’s inaccurate depiction of certain Jewish practices. “It was a very Christian conservative environment on set,” she said, adding that she feared her daughter would be punished in the film industry if she pulled her off the set.

Moran said he was counting on Ashleigh and Lana Burnette to offer guidance on Jewish traditions. “If there was an authenticity problem, I would look at them,” he said, adding that he was consumed with the logistical challenges of moviemaking. “I had a lot of other stuff going on.”

Screens of text at the end of the film reveal that several of the non-Jewish characters in the movie represented real historical figures. Mastriano plays Peter Ortiz, a U.S. Marine Corps colonel decorated for heroism in World War II.

“I wanted the movie to be about the lives of all of those who helped save Jewish lives,” Moran said. “There were righteous Gentiles.”

The movie ends with a montage of extremely graphic photos of piles of dead Jewish bodies and title cards urging “Never Forget” and “Always Resist.” Ashleigh Burnette said she thought the photos seemed gratuitous. Some Holocaust experts said such images are shocking but remove the humanity of both the victims and the perpetrators.

Moran said his intent was to confront Holocaust deniers with the truth. “I wanted to make sure people know what actually happened,” he said.

Alice Crites contributed to this report.