Wolfenstein II: Sigrun

Sigrun is one of those interesting little characters who probably plays a much bigger part in Wolfenstein II than you might think. She’s also, for my money, the strongest character following the style of New Order. One of the big things about New Order was that all the characters had their own little quirks and personalities and they did odd little things. Actually – no let’s make a new paragraph, I want to talk more about that first.

So in New Order everybody had their own baggage. Regardless of whether you picked Wyatt or Fergus to survive, they both experience survivor’s guilt and blame you for not saving the other person. Fergus tells you that he feels like a fucking ancient mummy – he shouldn’t have lived because he’s too old and Wyatt would have been better to go into the future. Wyatt tells you that he was 18 years old and the responsibility was too much for him to deal with – BJ should’ve saved the experienced Fergus. Both characters end up throwing BJ out of their room after shouting at him for a while. That’s just some great storytelling. It shows the trauma of the war. In New Colossus, we don’t often get the same thing. There’s a couple little moments – Bombate is always telling Max to smile during combat, and in one late scene it turns out Bombate uses laughter pathologically to deal with his trauma. When Max is sad, it essentially triggers Bombate’s trauma, and so he shouts at Max. That’s a really subtle thoughtful little moment. It’s showing the trauma of some of the crew. On the whole, though, I don’t think New Colossus has as many of those moments as New Order. In particular, Wyatt and Fergus are both much more comic characters, with pretty rudimentary story arcs. Like I say – for my money, the most convincing arcs for minor characters belong to Bombate and Sigrun.

I’ll give you Sigrun’s arc briefly, and then we’ll talk about some of the deeper narrative things about her character. She’s General Engel’s daughter, but she’s overweight and generally gets bullied for being a bad Nazi. Early in the game she defects to the rebels, saving Wyatt/Fergus (and you) in the process. Because she was raised as a Nazi, she finds a few things kinda weird about the rebellion, particularly Bombate’s presence on the Eva’s Hammer. In the cutscene leading up to Manhattan, Sigrun says to Anya “Do you allow blacks on board?” Anya looks at her and replies “Everyone is allowed on this boat. Except Nazis.” She’s generally tolerated, although some people are a little suspicious of her – especially Grace, who continues to refer to her as a Nazi. After the Venus mission, Grace escalates her bullying, calling Sigrun a Nazi again and then actively mocking her when she asks Grace to stop.

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I’m actually really conflicted here about Grace’s characterisation. On the one hand, Grace has a series of legitimate grievances against Sigrun, both as a Nazi in general and as the daughter of General Engels. Sigrun has absolutely lived in a position of privilege her whole life – privilege that has specifically come at the cost of the oppression and probable ongoing genocide of all black people. It’s understandable that Grace might find it difficult to have Sigrun running around. On the other hand, Grace kinda comes across as an asshole. Now I know the arguments here, right – some people might accuse me of tone policing, of dictating that Grace, as a black woman, must act in a socially acceptable and polite way or be branded an asshole and have her feelings invalidated. That’s a valid suspicion to have, and it’s something that I’m not totally certain about myself. My tentative distinction is that the game itself ultimately condemns Grace’s behaviour as unnecessary bullying. None of the Jewish characters treat Sigrun badly. BJ is nice to her, even though he’s a Jew. He sticks up for Sigrun right before Roswell, criticising Grace’s bullying: “Grace, why? She’s good people.” Set Roth is nice to Sigrun, and he was incarcerated in her mother’s fucking work camp. It’s very possible that I’m tone policing, but it’s also interesting to me that the only person in the game portrayed as unnecessarily mean to Sigrun is the black woman (oh and Bombate).

The game’s attitude to Grace’s behaviour is most clear in the cutscene before the second Ausmerzer level. Sigrun has done a bunch of work, decrypted a bunch of Nazi codes, and Grace listens to it all, and then tells Sigrun “Now fuck off, Nazi.” Sigrun starts to leave, but stops, interrupts Grace, and hits her. She starts choking Grace, saying “Don’t ever call me a Nazi again.” And nobody does anything – they’re all quite happy to stand and watch Grace get attacked by the ex-Nazi. When Grace eventually stands up, she offers something that’s more or less an apology: “No, wait. Don’t be silly. You’re coming with us.” Grace accepts that she was being shitty, implicitly apologises, and invites Sigrun on the mission, accepting her as a valuable part of the team. She brings Sigrun in, where just previously she was telling Sigrun to fuck off. It’s in instead of out, accepted instead of rejected. Grace was in the wrong, and she can accept that fact now that Sigrun has assaulted her. So it’s not that I’m looking at Grace and going ‘what a fucking asshole’. It’s that the game positions Grace as the bad guy specifically because of how she treats Sigrun. In that exchange, Grace is behaving badly, and Sigrun’s assault and monologue are treated as morally justified. Sigrun is in the right, and Grace is an asshole. That’s how the game positions that exchange.

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So okay, Sigrun’s arc is kind of a combination of Klaus from New Order and BJ in New Colossus. She’s in a really difficult space. On the one hand, you don’t want to be too hard on her, given that she was raised in a Nazi environment with no significant opportunities to learn about any other way of thinking. On the other hand, she is a Nazi. When I was trying to find the clip of Sigrun choking Grace, I stumbled across a few other scenes that I’d actually not seen myself in the game. It’s a little concerning, because I don’t want to be going off half-cocked and interpreting the game without actually seeing all the relevant content. But I found this one, uh, so bullet dodged there, I guess. It’s a scene where Sigrun is talking to Anya in the cafeteria. Anya starts listing off all the atrocities that Sigrun has been a part of: “The Yosemite massacre. Burning of the Baltimore ghetto. Nashville.” Sigrun rather pathetically explains that she was just following her mother, and didn’t actually commit any atrocities herself. Anya replies “You stood by and watched it all happen,” which – I mean, it’s complicated, right, she was probably a fucking child. I don’t know. The game gives her a really complicated past, a really awful history, and just kinda leaves that with the player. Similar to Klaus. Nazi in the past, trying to do good today. Not pure, not perfect – complicated, but trying to do good. In the scene with Grace, the suggestion is therefore that Grace is overreaching. The game accepts that there are valid criticisms to be made about Sigrun and her past and general behaviour, but in that scene, the game suggests that Grace is going too far. She’s criticising the ex-Nazi too much. I mean, if you want to talk about tone policing, there’s your target.

And – okay, actually, let’s follow that a bit further. I haven’t really talked much about what Sigrun says to Grace, beyond the ‘don’t call me a Nazi’ thing. The speech as a whole is probably the greatest moment of – what do you call it when it’s mansplaining but it’s an ex-Nazi explaining the nature of inclusiveness to the leader of a global anti-Nazi resistance? Anyway it’s that:

“Don’t ever call me a Nazi again. I am not a Nazi. You do not have the right to label me as something I am not. As someone less than yourself. As someone less than human. Say it! Say I’m not a Nazi!” 

The basic message here is that sometime the good guys can be a little bit evil too. Grace is the leader of the resistance, but she’s got this prejudice against Sigrun, and that prejudice makes Grace act in a way that’s a little bit Nazi-ish. Grace treats Sigrun “as someone less than human,” which is what the Nazis do. Sigrun, the ex-Nazi, therefore stands up by herself by telling the anti-Nazi that she’s acting like a Nazi by calling the ex-Nazi a Nazi. The white girl, who’s lived in the lap of Nazi luxury her entire fucking life, is throttling the leader of the Black Revolutionary Front while explaining the importance of being inclusive and not calling people Nazis. You go, white girl. Teach that black woman why calling people Nazis is a totally Nazi thing to do. Anti-fascism is fascism now and – fuck’s sake.

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Anyway, uh, the other interesting thing about Sigrun is that her arc really closely models BJ’s. BJ has a shitty father, Sigrun has a shitty mother. Sigrun was a Nazi, and BJ – well, I mean, he shot the dog, didn’t he. I’m not saying he’s a Nazi, but he was inducted into his father’s ideals of violence, in the same way that General Engel drags Sigrun through a bunch of different war crimes. You might remember my criticism of how the player is able to avoid shooting the dog: I said it undermines the psychological premise of BJ’s character. It also kinda ruins the synergy with Sigrun. Arguably Sigrun isn’t all that guilty, because she was just a kid being dragged around by her Nazi mum. Arguably BJ isn’t all that guilty for shooting the dog. His hands were literally tied – except they’re not because he’s also able to not shoot the dog and so players who do choose to do it are opting in and the whole metaphor comes crumbling down and aaarrgh fuck’s sake New Colossus.

So Sigrun has her own patterns and reactions to violence. She refuses to kill Caroline, whereas BJ kills the dog (or doesn’t fuck you). She stays with General Engel, whereas BJ runs away from home and joins the army. In her talk with Anya, Sigrun says that she was just trying to make her mother happy. Anya goes “You did nothing to stop your mother,” and Sigrun replies “She would have thought me weak. An embarrassment. I just… wanted her to be pleased with me.” BJ actually says almost the same thing when he confronts his father: “I wanted you to treat me like I mattered. Like I wasn’t some piece of dog shit got stuck on your shoe.” There’s a real longing, a sense of emptiness and loss. On an emotional level, the two responses are very similar: neither child pleases their parent. BJ copes by running away, getting distance from his father, and Sigrun copes by digging in, trying to earn her mother’s approval. Sigrun’s acts of resistance are therefore of a different caliber to BJ’s. BJ has already rejected his father as a coping mechanism – but Sigrun has gone in the opposite direction. She’s clinging to her mother, almost as a sort of Stockholm syndrome. When she resists, then, she’s also having to overcome that coping mechanism and the fear that it’s shielding her from. When she saves Wyatt/Fergus, she’s resisting her mother, but also implicitly confronting her trauma. It’s totally different to BJ, who’s almost continuing his basic coping mechanism, aggressively distancing himself from his father by killing Nazis.

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Ultimately, then, the big difference is that while BJ gets his emotional closure by killing Rip, Sigrun doesn’t get to kill General Engel. Her act of violence, her act of resistance, is instead targeted at Grace. This is where it gets a bit weird, right: when Grace degrades and mocks Sigrun, she is repeating the patterns of abuse perpetrated by General Engel. She’s almost functioning as a substitute mother – just another female authority figure mocking her for what she’s not. When Sigrun stands up to Grace, then, she’s equally standing up to her Nazi mother, her Nazi heritage, and her learned Nazi behaviours. As a character arc, that’s fine – it’s a great moment. Clearly defined development, great writing. But on a political level it’s a little weird, because it collapses Grace and General Engel into each other. Sigrun lashes out at Grace as a way of lashing out at her mother – and as a way of lashing out at the Nazis. That’s probably why Grace is, by and large, really kinda okay with Sigrun’s actions. She doesn’t hold a grudge. She sees the violence as hostility to Nazism, and accepts Sigrun more fully into the fold on that basis. But again, implicitly, we’ve kinda got Grace acknowledging this little bit of Nazi inside herself. I kinda like it as a plot point – the idea that everyone’s got a little bit of evil inside – but within the wider political context, it’s suspicious. If nothing else, we might even just note that Sigrun is given the space to have this emotional character arc, while Grace isn’t. Grace stays a pretty static character throughout, even including the death of Spesh, which only seems to affect her for about five minutes. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the writers gave Grace no airtime to challenge the white privilege in the other characters. Instead, Sigrun gets to beat her up and shout about inclusiveness. That’s what the developers thought was important to include.

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