December 14, 2010  |  An Auteurist History of Film
Fascism on the March

Triumph of the Will. 1935. Germany. Produced, directed, and edited by Leni Riefenstahl

Triumph of the Will. 1935. Germany. Produced, directed, and edited by Leni Riefenstahl

These notes accompany the Fascism on the March program on December 15, 16, and 17 in Theater 3.

It was inevitable that the movies, as the most popular and influential medium of propaganda in history, would respond on many levels as the relative calm produced by the 1919 Treaty of Versailles gave way to the madness that arose out of the worldwide Depression. The Hollywood studios, which were somewhat dependent on the European market, approached the political and economic issues very gingerly. Even Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), released only four months before the invasion of Poland, tiptoed around anti-Semitism. By then the handwriting on the wall should have been evident to everyone, but 18 months later, Charles Chaplin was under pressure not to release The Great Dictator.

Europe did not have the luxury of such timidity. The Nazis immediately took over the German film industry in 1933, and Joseph Goebbels established that it was now at the service of the Reich, by which he clearly meant the Party. Although he probably fancied himself the creative force behind all German films made over the next 12 years—a kind of über-auteur—he was still dependent on “artists” and technicians who could do the nuts-and-bolts work of fashioning an alternative reality to be projected on theater screens. None of these people was more successful, at least in the eyes of der Führer himself, than Leni Riefenstahl (1902–2003), a reasonably attractive dancer turned actress turned director. Her film performances, beginning in 1926, were mostly in “Mountain films” directed by ex-geologist Dr. Arnold Fanck, although the last of these was S.O.S. Eisberg, co-directed by the American Tay Garnett. In 1932, Riefenstahl directed and starred in one herself, Das blaue Licht (The Blue Light), a film of striking imagery. The following year Hitler appointed her “film expert to the National Socialist Party.”

Riefenstahl was assigned to make Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will), ostensibly a documentary on the 1934 Nazi Party Congress at Nuremberg. Despite her protestations that she was a naïve and apolitical documentarian, it must have been obvious to her that the entire event was staged for the benefit of herself and her immense crew. This has most recently been pointed out by Morris Dickstein in his excellent survey of Depression-era culture, Dancing in the Dark. All of the resources of the Reich and vast sums of money were put at her disposal, and unprecedented masses of people were summoned to perform the rituals she and her collaborators devised. Nothing like it had ever been seen before, and we are fortunate that it did not create a lasting genre, although choreographers of annual military parades in Beijing and Pyongyang probably owe Riefenstahl something. (While I was sojourning in Curaçao, I glimpsed on Venezuelan TV a failed attempt by Hugo Chavez to evoke a similar ethos.) There is an undeniable brilliance to Riefenstahl’s imagery, even as it builds on what the German Expressionist directors had accomplished in the preceding 15 years (see our current exhibition Weimar Cinema, 1919–1933: Daydreams and Nightmares). Still, for any thoughtful person, the spectacle of Hitler and his henchmen being glorified can evoke nothing but deeply felt repulsion and horror. Although she managed to avoid the amorous attention of Goebbels and probably remained on platonic terms with Hitler, Riefenstahl’s soul was in bed with the Nazis. When Paris fell, Leni telegraphed Hitler: “You exceed anything human imagination has the power to conceive, achieving deeds without parallel in the history of mankind.” Innocent, neutral observer, indeed. My space is limited, but I recommend Leni, by my late friend Steven Bach for a balanced and authoritative study of Ms. Riefenstahl.

We previously showed the early poetic documentaries of Joris Ivens (1898–1989). Ivens became politicized by his 1930 visit to Moscow and began a worldwide odyssey like that of no other filmmaker. This would even include a period in Hollywood and work for the U.S. government, making Power and the Land in 1940. (Wait ’til Sarah Palin hears about this!) As a committed leftist, much of his late career was devoted to documentaries extolling the Cuban, Vietnamese, and Chinese revolutions, somewhat sacrificing his personal artistry for the causes to which he devoted his life.

The Spanish Earth (1937) was made at a time when issues were more clearly drawn than today. Although it took President Franklin Roosevelt several years to drag America kicking and screaming into the war against fascism, there is an unavoidable sense of nostalgic comfort in knowing that the filmmaker was on the side of the good guys. The film shares with the then vastly popular March of Time series (the seventy-fifth anniversary of which the Department of Film recently commemorated) the use of both actualities and staged or reconstructed scenes. When criticized for not being objective, Ivens replied, “A documentary filmmaker has to have an opinion on such vital issues as fascism…if his work is to have any dramatic, emotional, or art value.” Riefenstahl might have taken some lessons on candor from this, but then her cause was a bit less noble, and she was not called upon for explanation until after it had been defeated. The directness of Ernest Hemingway’s script, and his delivery of it, is utilitarian and non-dogmatic, which allows the viewer to make up his own mind as to which side he is on. Although Ivens’s quiet craftsmanship pales beside Hitler’s regimented multitudes, it is worth thinking about which film is genuine art and which is, to use a popular Nazi term, degenerate.