Propaganda: “The systemic propagation of a doctrine or cause or of information reflecting the views and interests of those advocating such a doctrine or cause; materials disseminated by the advocates or opponents of a doctrine or cause. ” American Heritage Dictionary| The 1930s and 1940s, which saw the rise of totalitarian states and the Second World War, are arguably the “Golden Age of Propaganda”. Nazi control of the German film industry, operated by the Reich Ministry for People’s Enlightenment and Propaganda headed by Joseph Goebbels is the most extreme example of the use of film in the service of a dictatorship.
In this context the figure of Leni Riefenstahl, who was considered to be Adolf Hitler’s favorite film director, was one of the most discussed, criticized and celebrated, protagonist of a controversy that still today remains unsolved. This essay wants to be an analysis of her best-known propaganda movie, ”? Triumph of the Will? ”, commissioned by Hitler to chronicle the 1934 Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg , and of the intentions behind its production.
Bertha Helene Amelie (Leni) Riefenstahl was born on August 22, 1902, in Berlin.
From her earliest years she studied painting, but her first passion was the ballet. When, after a promising career as dancer, giving solo dance concerts in many European cities, at the age of 24 a knee injury forced her to bow out, Riefenstahl had the chances to start her career in the cinema industry debuting as actress in a series of mountain films directed by Arnold Franck. During this period she learned the filmmaking techniques that influenced her career as director, acquiring the ability to build the cinematic tension characteristic of ”Triumph of the Will”.
In 1932 she made her first effort as independent filmmaker with ”The Blue Light”, a mountain film that showed her masterful sense of camera positioning and photography. During the production of the film Leni Riefenstahl read the Main Kampf, giving an immediate positive response. Hitler himself, on the other hand, was fascinated by her talent, and saw in her the director who could realize the wagnerian atmosphere he wanted to obtain for his propaganda films. They had already met few times when in 1933 she accepted to direct the film of the 1933 party rally at Nuremberg.
Yet, this first attempt to work for the Nazi party resulted in a complete failure for her: without the support of the Minister of Propaganda Goebbels who boycotted her work from the beginning, and with many strict compromises imposed by the party, her name did not even appear in the credits. Determined never to be put in such a situation again, when she was ordered in 1934 to realize a second film for the party rally in Nuremberg by Hitler, now ruling as Fuhrer of the Third Reich, , she tried to refuse asserting that she had no experience on filming parades and speeches and moreover she didn’t know who or what was politically important.
The answer was simply:”Is not important who is in the film. It is important that the film has the atmosphere. ” Seeing that Hitler would not change his mind, she imposed the condition on which she would make the film, including the freedom from Nazi party, complete power over the editing and the promise that it would be her last service to the governament. Being financed by the Nazi Governament, Leni Riefenstahl had at her disposal huge resources, with an almost unlimited budget and a staff of 172 people that included even 9 aerial photographers.
Every cameramen was, except for some guidelines, almost independent in the creative choice of the subjects and, in order to don’t stand out in the crowd, they were dressed as SA men. Albert Speer, as Hitler personal architect, was responsible to design the set and do most of the coordination for the event. Riefenstahl claimed that she had just two weeks to organize the production and, literally: “I just observed and tried to film it well. The idea that I helped to plan it is downright absurd”.
A different opinion about this point comes from Susan Sontag, who, in her article ”Fascinating Fascism”, asserted that ”In Triumph of the Will, the document (the image) not only is the record of reality but is one reason for which the reality has been constructed, and must eventually supersede it. ” and indeed ”when some of the footage of Party leaders at the speakers’ rostrum was spoiled, Hitler gave orders for the shots to be refilmed”. Is probably fair though to say that the rally was staged for the cameras only as much (or less than) every modern political convention.
Structured in a strict chronological order, the film starts with Hitler’s arrival in Nuremberg by plane, reminiscent the descent of a God coming through the skies to meet his people. A well-chosen, vast number of elements contribute to depict the great atmosphere of the rally: admiring crowds with the arms outstretched to greet the Fuhrer; marches of endless number of soldier, reduced to mere geometrical design ; huge masses; swastikas; fire; ancient statues and building of Nuremberg; the sky; clouds; Hitler.
The camera angles are studied to represent him from below, from people perspective, to enhance the feeling of his superiority. The disorientation of the spectator is achieved by leaving out of the frame some aspects of reality, showing only the upper parts of things and people, and filming the building always standing out from the sky, never from earth. As a rule, to solve the problem of providing kinetic (and cinematic) energy to static events, the film is composed only by ” moving images”, so when the subject is not in motion, the camera moves.
Riefenstahl edited the film herself, in five month. Sudden shifts of angle, or from close-up to wide shot, also disorient the viewer, and so from a crowd cheering in a stadium, in a cut, is the stadium itself emitting the ”spirited cry”. The fade is continuously used, through the all length of the film, to relate the masses to specific symbols, such as the swastika and the eagle, by dissolving slowly enough to superpose for few seconds the symbol to the following subject. With this expedient she achieved the aim to represent the unity and the solidity of the party.
Except the speeches, all the sound was synchronized in the studio, in three days. Not much direct sound recording was done, due to the physical difficulties of the production. Most the aural power of the film lies in music, composed by Herbert Windt who worked actively with Riefenstahl to reach the perfect juxtaposition of sight and sound. The variety of tracks is surprising, it ranges over Wagnerian and neo-Wagnerian heroic themes German folk melodies, martial muss and party anthems, creating a score of continual variety and interest.
Since the moment it was released, the 28 march 1935, Triumph of the will has been the subject of various different responses, celebrated as the most powerful documentary in the history, but also heavily criticized as the use of spectacular filmmaking to promote a profoundly unethical system. Under post-war denazification laws, it was classified as propaganda, and thus is vision was restricted, but Riefenstahl always defended herself from this accuse. “If you see this film again today you ascertain that it doesn’t contain a single reconstructed scene.
Everything in it is true. And it contains no tendentious commentary at all. It is history. A pure historical film… it is film-verite. It reflects the truth that was then in 1934, history. It is therefore a documentary. Not a propaganda film. Oh! I know very well what propaganda is. That consists of recreating events in order to illustrate a thesis , or, in the face of certain events, to let one thing go in order to accentuate another. I found myself, me, at the heart of an event which was the reality of a certain time and a certain place.
My film is composed of what stemmed from that. ” But although Triumph of the Will has no narrative voice, it does start with a written text presenting the rally as the culmination of German history, showing from the beginning how tendentious it is. As Sontag wrote “It has no commentary because it doesn’t need one, for Triumph of the Will represents an already achieved and radical transformation of reality: history become theater. ”. Hitler himself described it as “a totally unique and incomparable glorification of the power and beauty of our Movement. “.
Should we then classify Triumph of the Will as a mere propaganda film and Riefenstahl as a propagandist, only because they made Hitler look good? Maybe it is more prudent to put the making of the film in the right context first. In 1934, nothing of what made Hitler the evil icon that we know today had happened yet. It was clearly a demagogue, a figure of some controversy, but at the time was generally perceived throughout Europe as a promising statesman. There were no invasions, no concentration camps, and she claimed to have no knowledge of his genocidal policies.
Making this film Riefenstahl had the chance to apply her criteria of aesthetic perfectionism. Sontag herself, referring to her first productions wrote: “No doubt thought of as apolitical when they were made, these films now seem in retrospect to be an anthology of proto-Nazi sentiments. Mountain climbing in Fanck’s films was a visually irresistible metaphor for unlimited aspiration toward the high mystic goal, both beautiful and terrifying, which was later to become concrete in Fuhrer-worship. . Riefenstahl was then a director whose preoccupations were primarily artistic and technical, but she decided to work for a determinate political party, because she didn’t find anything wrong with it. Her film was then used as a powerful tool of propaganda in a wider political context. Bibliography: -Filmguide to Triumph of the Will, Richard Meran Barsam, 1975, Indiana University press filmguide series. (book) -Fascinating Fascism, Susan Sontag, New York Review of Books?
February 6, 1975 (article/ book review) -The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, Ray Muller, 1993 (documentary) -Propaganda As Vision: Triumph of The Will, Ken Kelman, Logos 2. 4 – Fall 2003 (article) -Leni riefenstahl, filmmaker or propagandist? Ellen Cheshire, 2000. (essay) -Fhttp://mason. gmu. edu/~amcdonal/index. html 03-01-13 (website) -http://www. websteruniv. edu/ ~barrettb/riefenstahl. htm 03-01-13(website)
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