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Leni Riefenstahl: Documentary Film-Maker Or Propagandist?

by Ellen Cheshire

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Leni Riefenstahl was considered to be Adolf Hitler's favourite film director. Her directorial début, Blue Light (1932), caught Hitler's attention and he requested that she make a short film of the Nazi party's 1933 Nuremberg rally, Victory Of Faith (1934). A year later, he commissioned her to make a feature-length film of the 1934 rally - this film became Triumph Of The Will (1935). It has been described as 'an impressive spectacle of Germany's adherence to Hitler', a 'Nazi masterpiece' and 'a masterpiece of romanticised propaganda', but nevertheless has been hailed as a great work despite its glorification of the 1934 Nuremberg Party Rally and the political message of the Nazis. Equally famous, and considered far less political, was her coverage of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin - the four-hour epic Olympia (1938) offered a 'glorious view of Olympic athletes that remains powerful and popular.'

The issue of whether Triumph Of The Will and Olympia should be classified as 'documentaries' or as 'propaganda films' has been in constant dispute since they were made. They are very different films concerned with completely different subject matters, so I have approached the two films separately.

In an interview in 1964, reprinted in A Biographical Dictionary Of The Cinema by David Thomson, Riefenstahl makes clear that she felt Triumph Of The Will was a recording of an event, not a propaganda film:

"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-vérité. 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."

However, propaganda can take various forms, ranging from overt attempts to influence the public to covert means of persuasion linked with brainwashing - the subjecting of individuals to intensive political indoctrination and the breaking down of a subject's resistance. It is frequently thought of negatively and has become associated with ideas, facts, or allegations deliberately spread to further a cause or to damage an opposing cause. Joseph Goebbels, Minister for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda in Hitler's cabinet, and his work within the Nazi regime is especially infamous. He felt that entertainment was the best propaganda and, as a consequence, 90% of the films produced by Germany had no overt propaganda messages - his aim was to entertain and get people off the streets and away from their homes. He wanted films not to focus on information and facts but on emotion and entertainment. Therefore he was at odds with Hitler's aim regarding Triumph Of The Will.

It cannot be denied that Triumph Of The Will is a record of an event. It is a film of an actuality and happened where and when and in the order that the film says it did. In an account of the making of the film, Riefenstahl writes that she was involved in the Rally's planning - and conceived the event with filming in mind. As Susan Sontag reiterates in her article entitled 'Fascinating Fascism': 'The Rally was planned not only as a spectacular mass meeting, but as a spectacular propaganda film.' However, by 1993 in The Wonderful, Horrible Life Of Leni Riefenstahl, Riefenstahl claimed that she was not involved in the design of the Rally - "I just observed and tried to film it well. The idea that I helped to plan it is downright absurd."

It has generally been accepted that the Nuremberg Rally was staged for the cameras, rather than the cameras having to accommodate the action. The film was cut to rhythm in time to anthems and Wagnerian music creating choreographed images of endless numbers of men in uniform, marching in to and out of abstract shapes and patterns filmed from a variety of angles, reducing the men to geometrical designs. The passionate music, feeling and emotion builds up to a climatic frenzied finale when Hitler takes the stand. The dramatic intensity of the event was accentuated by the composition and editing. It is this deliberate manipulation of emotion that makes this 'documentary' cross the boundary into 'propaganda film.' This links directly with the perceived notion of propaganda as the systematic attempt to manipulate the attitudes, beliefs and actions of people through the use of symbols such as words, gestures, slogans, flags and uniforms.

The film was financed by the Nazi Government, commissioned by Hitler himself, completed with the full co-operation of all involved, with huge resources at her disposal - an unlimited budget, crew of 120 and between 30 and 40 cameras. It stands as a powerful artistic representation of the ideas in Hitler's book Mein Kampf - work, extreme nationalism, belief in corporative state socialism, a private army, a youth cult, the use of propaganda and the submission of all decisions to the supreme leader, i.e. himself. The film, however, reached and influenced far more people than the book ever could. Riefenstahl claimed in The Wonderful, Horrible Life Of Leni Riefenstahl that it was "Not a documentary but a work of art, [there was] no commentary in the normal sense of the word. There's no commentator to explain everything. That's the way it differs from a documentary or a propaganda film. If it were propaganda, as many say, they'd be a commentator to explain the significance and value of the occasion. This wasn't the case."

In contrast, Susan Sontag in her essay entitled 'Fascinating Fascism' re-printed in Movies And Methods Vol 1, claims that it is the 'most successful, most purely propagandistic film ever made, whose very conception negates the possibility of the film-makers having an aesthetic or visual concept independent of propaganda.'

It is not only the messages in the film that were slanted towards Nazi beliefs and ideals, but the mise-en-scene, editing and music all combine to create a hypnotic and visually rich emotional experience, which would have undoubtedly influenced more people than, say, the crude propaganda films of Dr Fritz Hippler (Jud Suss and Der Ewige Jude).

The film commences with Hitler's arrival in Nuremberg by plane. Parallels can be made between Hitler's arrival through the skies, and the descent of a God, coming to meet his people - this is heightened by the endless views of clouds, the plane's shadow moving relentlessly over the sunlit streets of Nuremberg. Shots of the town's people in the streets staring up with a look of awed expectation on their faces. Our sense of perspective and reality is lost in the views, the music and the steady regal pace of the moving plane - one is not looking at a man but a mythical God descending to Earth. The Wagnerian music played as Hitler's plane lands, the bands and singing, the beauty of Nuremberg, the hysteria of the crowds with their arms outstretched to greet him, combine to make up a display of Nazi passion and obsession. It is this emotional response of the people in the film and the emotional response the audience gains from these majestic shots that are at once inspirational, seductive and horrifying.

Throughout the remainder of the film one is stirred by the film's mix of power and certainty. The endless swastikas marching towards you, rows upon rows of Nazis in half profile staring mesmerically towards the 'great' leader, close-ups of Hitler, the constant movement of the camera, views from many angles, the resonance of banners, trumpets and torchlight processions seen through the waves of the giant flags, and the inter-cutting of shots of the isolated heroic father figure of Hitler, watching over his men, create the perfect 'propaganda film.'

At the time Triumph Of The Will was considered a good documentary, and received many international awards including the Gold Medal in Paris and at the Biennale, and the National Film Prize of Germany. Since the end of the war, it has been slated as propaganda, causing Riefenstahl to be blacklisted and ending her career as a film-maker. However, even documentary films cannot document reality, or depict a true account of events - a better term would be a non-fiction film. The majority of fact-related films are not unbiased recordings, and Triumph Of The Will and Olympia are no exceptions. The mere fact that a certain subject has been chosen involves an interpretation of what should be shot and the manipulation of time and space in the interest of tension and story-telling. In addition, they are usually carefully scripted, structured, cast and located to express a distinct message and point of view.

Olympia, considered to be one of the best documentaries ever made, is a record of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. There are conflicting stories on how the commission for filming was given. Riefenstahl claimed that she was approached by an International Committee co-ordinating the Games. However, Taylor Downing in his BFI Film Classic book on Olympia has apparently unearthed material leading to his discovery that it was Hitler, yet again, who made the suggestion for her to film the games and provided the funding.

Her coverage of the Games was extensive and editing took over a year. In A Biographical Dictionary Of The Cinema, David Thomson says that, 'the emphasis on shape at the expense of competition, the slightly prurient relish of glistening muscle, and editing of delirium over high diving' - it is this criticism, that the film focuses more on the glorification of the human form rather that the sporting events, that has been levelled at the film over the years by various film theorists and historians. The athletes are kept at a distance, with the focus kept on their physiques and rippling glistening muscles rather than their athletic achievements - for example, you see in great detail, an athlete preparing to put the shot, but not the shot in action. Although, the film documents an event, as Triumph Of The Will does, the messages in Olympia are not political, consequently the label 'propaganda' cannot be so easily attached to it. However, in Hitler's book Mein Kampf he lists seven main elements of Nazi Ideology, two of which are exemplified in Olympia. 1) His belief in the perfect Aryan-German race of athletic beautiful people, which are epitomised by top athletes competing with each other for ultimate supremacy. 2) Hitler's ideology of a Youth Cult which emphasises sports and paramilitary outdoor activities - again this film aimed at the young, with the ethos of 'this is what you could be with hard work and exercise.' These, linked with shots of Nazi insignia on flags, bells, and the athletes' shirts, the emphasis on the German activities and victories, the lingering shots of the triumphs of German sportsmen/women (lasting longer than those of other countries) combine to create an emotional patriotic film which tips Olympia into the category of 'propaganda' rather than a straight 'documentary.'

Riefenstahl's conception when filming these films could well have been to create an artistic emotional view of two events in German history through the genre of 'documentary.' However, given the political views at that time and throughout the following years, Triumph Of The Will and Olympia can be seen to symbolise the Nazi ethos of the time, which reflects Susan Sontag's view that Riefenstahl was an artist whose personal preoccupations were primarily artistic and technical, not political, but that her films were used by Hitler and the Nazi party for their own political games.

Further Reading

Lutz Becker, 'Celluloid Lies' in Art And Power: Europe Under The Dictators 1930 - 1945, Hayward Gallery, 1995
Taylor Downing, Olympia, BFI Film Classics, 1992
Susan Sontag, 'Fascinating Fascism' in Movies And Methods Vol 1, edited Bill Nichols, University of California Press, 1976

We Have Ways of Making You Think: Goebbels - Master of Propaganda, BBC TV, 1992, written and produced by Laurence Rees
The Wonderful, Horrible Life Of Leni Riefenstahl, Channel 4 Without Walls, 1993
Out Of The Shadows, BBC Radio 3, 1993, presented by Ian Christie, produced by Simon Elmes

© 2000 Ellen Cheshire


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