One of them was Leni Riefenstahl's notorious 1935 Triumph of the Will, probably the most famous, castigated, and cautiously celebrated propaganda film of all time. Documenting the National Socialist Party rally of '34, when Hitler had just ascended to power but had already taken complete control of the country, the film has been imitated even as it's been held at arms' length. Today, Hitler and the Nazis tend to be viewed primarily in conjunction with the Holocaust but to watch Triumph of the Will in 2010 is to be reminded not just how the Nazis saw themselves but how the world first came to see them. Before his name became synonymous with pure evil, the German dictator and his bizarre, unexpected, and wildly popular movement were regarded with a mixture of awe, dread, and comic incredulity - sometimes all three at once. Triumph of the Will was widely screened and, while scorning the political content, many filmmakers admired the craft and later imitated it for their own propaganda films (once Hitler's Germany had unqualifiably become the enemy). Indeed, seeing this film after the films which followed it, one can see all the sources of the Hitlerite myth, both the one he fostered and the one that sprung up when his toxic brand of fanatical monumentalism encountered foreign sensibilities.
Riefenstahl is an artist, and if the sentiments and sensibilities her film celebrates (her later arguments about political neutrality notwithstanding) are rather naive, her articulation of them is exceptionally subtle and disturbingly effective. Note the way she humanizes (and homoeroticizes) the Nazi youth as they horse around early in the day or the meticulousness with which she follows the program of events for the celebration - every roll call, every tribute to every sub-group, snippets of every speech from every sector of the party, as if this was merely a larger-than-life, particularly malevolent Shriner's convention. In keeping to the human and mundane dimensions at first, Riefenstahl allows the film to build slowly until we are suddenly shocked to find ourselves dwarfed by an immense crowd - those playful youth suddenly standing in columns by the thousands, rigid and at attention; those laughably numerous sub-committees unveiled in precise units marching down the street to cheering throngs, goose-stepping in chilling unison like clockwork; speech after speech merely appetizers for the bloody entree - a screeching, hysterical oration by the Fuhrer himself in which previously subdued subtexts (only one prior speaker mentions racial purity, in passing) come galloping to the forefront. The film - along with the event it captures - is brilliantly structured, so that we can see the development of every thread yet still be surprised when it's unveiled in all its pomp and circumstance.
Watching the conclusion, I found myself in several different frames of mind: both disturbed and impressed by the charismatic appeal Hitler still holds, and prone to shivers of recognition when the curtain was lifted a bit and (with 20/20 hindsight) the parade of corpses trudged before my eyes - the direct result of all this ferocious rhetoric and blind devotion. Yet I was also aware of another sensibility in play. I already mentioned that the film exposes us not just to what Germans thought of Hitler, but what others thought of him at the time. What I mean is that Triumph of the Will, although intended as a orgasmic celebration of the Party, is also how many around the world were first exposed to the dictator (either through the film itself or through the footage of Hitler's other rallies and public appearances, which were in the same spirit). This triggers an appreciation of reactions which with time were eclipsed by sheer horror, hatred, and even numbness. What I was reminded of was the stereotypical American reaction of the time: as Hitler ranted and raved on and on about his glorious Fatherland, I pictured a wisecracking Yankee newsman chewing loudly as he rolls his eyes and jots down every crazed word of the Teutonic loon. This dismissive response, perhaps a form of self-protection as much as anything else (those nutty Germans, they aren't like us commonsensical, democratic folks) has been obscured by the very real damage Hitler unleashed, but watching the film as an American, and one well-acquainted with films like The Great Dictator, To Be or Not to Be, and numerous anti-Hitler Bugs Bunny cartoons, this attitude was reawakened in my mind. Just as Hitler "others" his perceived enemies, so it seemed for a time that he could be partially defused by being "othered" himself.
Another American reaction came to mind: one captured in the Peter Jennings turn-of-the-milennium TV miniseries "The Century." An octogenarian WWII veteran recalls being spooked by newsreel footage of the Germans marching (and God could they march, as Triumph never fails to remind us: it's a shame they didn't stick to their real - and far more harmless - talents). He remembers shuddering at their precision - the fact that they seemed like an undefeatable war machine while Americans were still practicing with wooden weapons and "grenades" filled with baking soda. The b-roll footage played over his reminiscence, in conjunction with the eerie music, bears out this trepidation. The incredulity and the fear: both responses keep us from falling entirely under the aesthetic spell of Riefenstahl's extremely effective propaganda. The very nationalism which enabled Hitler's rise, and was widely condemned in the wake of war, is in this case actually a rescue valve (at least for those of us who aren't German): allowing us to dismiss, fear, or loathe Hitler as something outside of ourselves and our culture. Safely ensconced in our Americanness or Britishness or whatever, we can sneer at him as the evil enemy and not a potential threat lurking within.
Yet, of course, there are universal aspects to Hitler's rise and adulation, and universal aspects to the appeal of Triumph of the Will. The film is aesthetically attractive, but more disturbing is its attractiveness as, well, is ideology the right word? The politics of National Socialism were more an aesthetic than a coherent political ethos. I recently saw a fascinating film about the artistic roots and products of Nazi Germany, called The Architecture of Doom. Its closing lines are worth quoting in full:
"Defining Nazism in traditional political terms is difficult, mainly because its dynamic was fueled by something quite different from what we usually call politics. This driving force was, to a great degree, esthetic; its ambition was to beautify the world through violence. From the first murders of mental patients to the mass-murders of Jews, there is no real political motive. It was not enemies who were liquidated, nor opponents of the regime, but innocent people whose very existence was in conflict with the Nazi dream.In her famous essay "Fascinating Fascism", Susan Sontag further muses on the latent and residual appeal of the Fascist sensibility Riefenstahl taps into:
The civilian character of the mass-killing makes it unlike war-crimes. These were civilian murders under a military guise. The obscure mental baggage, the bizarre political notions, which constitute a kind of under-vegetation in European culture, suddenly saw the light of day with Hitler. Hitler went from words to deeds. Without restraint, he transformed an abstract ideology into a hellish reality.
"National Socialism - or, more broadly, fascism - also stands for an ideal, and one that is also persistent today, under other banners: the ideal of life as art, the cult of beauty, the fetishism of courage, the dissolution of alienation in ecstatic feelings of community; the repudiation of the intellect; the family of man (under the parenthood of leaders).Ironically, Sontag earlier notes that Riefenstahl's aesthetic has not been very influential on documentaries. What she doesn't note is how influential it has been on fiction films, particularly the blockbusters (which developed mostly after she wrote her essay) - many of which are either explicitly (Raiders of the Lost Ark) or implicitly (Star Wars) anti-Nazi in content. Yet when I saw that massive, undeniably impressive shot of Hitler, Himmler, and the leader of the S.A. (whose name escapes me) approaching a giant altar surrounded by an immense mass of regimented men, I thought of George Lucas - and not the various shots of Darth Vader in such formations, but rather the celebration of the Rebel Alliance at the end of A New Hope.
These ideals are vivid and moving to many people, and it is dishonest - and tautological - to say that one is affected by Triumph of the Will and Olympiad because they were made by a film maker of genius. Riefenstahl's films are still effective because, among other reasons, their longings are still felt, because their content is a romantic idea to which many continue to be attached, and which is expressed in such diverse modes of cultural dissidence and propaganda for new forms of community as youth/rock culture, primal therapy, Laing's anti-psychiatry, Third World camp-following, and belief in gurus and the occult.
Riefenstahl's current de-Nazification and vindication as indomitable priestess of the beautiful - as a film maker and now, as a photographer - do not augur well for the keenness of current abilities to detect the fascist longings in our midst. The force of her work is precisely in the continuity of its political and aesthetic ideas.
Indeed, one could contend that Triumph and other politically reactionary classics like Birth of a Nation are more honest than many latter-day movies - they tie their aesthetically exploitative and domineering styles to unapologetically fascistic content. Don't get me wrong; I love many of these films that seek to weave a spell over us, to manipulate our emotions, to stir us. But this is precisely why I think value judgements of art and value judgements of politics should exist in different realms. This may seem contradictory, given my previous statements, yet what I'm getting at is this: every sin ranging from totalitarianism to day-to-day egoism can be made attractive onscreen. Indeed, it doesn't even have to be "made" attractive - its attraction exists already inside of us, else these phenomena would never have arisen in the first place.
Aesthetics is all about what's attractive, not necessarily what is good: and recognizing the power of a work is not to say it is morally right. Ultimately, the irony is that a Triumph of the Will may be less ethically dubious than a Star Wars (which is, by the way, one of my favorite films and, I'd contend, a great one). It does not reaffirm questionable values under cover of a recognizable righteousness but rather (unintentionally) exposes them by tying them to a repudiated ideology - it drops the mask, so to speak. This is in some regards a hypothetical argument because I'm not sure all the values Sontag reproaches are entirely flawed - yes, they can lead to fascism, but some of them can also lead to anti-fascism; and to be fair, there's enough ambivalence in her litany of similar movements to suggest she reads them the same. Furthermore, even if the values are reproachable, we still need an outlet for them - and better that outlet be on the screen than on the street. The pity, of course, is that the world Triumph of the Will evokes was manifestly not just on the screen.
Which brings me back to the start of my ruminations: in order to watch this film during my busy schedule and concluding Netflix line-up, I searched online for a streaming copy. There were several on You Tube, but ultimately I chose one on Google Video. Why? Because watching the You Tube clips made me uneasy - many were posted, and all were frequented, by neo-Nazis. The calm with which they discussed their views, eschewing rather than celebrating the Holocaust, scolding rather than excoriating critics of their ideology, only made it all the more disturbing, a reminder that Hitler and his appeal do not belong entirely to the past. Among the residual messages Triumph unveils to us today: the appeal of fascism, if we're honest, has deep roots, and the topsoil which obscures them is perhaps thinner than we'd like to believe. Aside from its aesthetic appeal, its historical impact, its fascinating "inside look," Triumph of the Will is essential viewing for this very reason.
This turned out to be a much longer piece than expected. Perhaps it'd be a better fit on The Dancing Image, as I try to keep things brief here, and maybe in the future another essay of this length will go up there instead. However, it was written very impromptu (unlike the majority of pieces I hope to put up at my old, and hopefully soon re-active, blog), and besides, I'd rather leave the space clear for that upcoming round-up right now. Let this particular dark cloud linger here for the time being...