Thanks to politics of Germany in the 1930’s and 1940’s, and the Nazi dislike for independent thought, Germany lost a huge number of intellectuals, artists and scientists to other countries, specially the U.S.. In cinema, the list of directors, actors and workers that moved out is long and it includes Otto Preminger, Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder. Max Reinhardt – also a theatre director, Oskar Fischinger, Douglas Sirk and Peter Lorre.
Artists like film directors didn’t have much choice in that period. The Jewish had to move out when they could. The others had the option of staying and joining in the team of UFA, which had turned into a studio to produce Nazi propaganda films. In the tiny mind of the new producers of UFA, any attempt of avant garde and expressionist films were considered “degenerative art”. Happily, not everything produced at UFA after Alfred Hugenberg and his nazi fellows took control was anti-Semitic propaganda.
But it was not the case of Leni Riefenstahl. Already known as a great actress and film director, she stayed in Germany and worked for the Nazi party. Her 1930’s commissioned documentaries are sublime examples of how beautiful propaganda films can be. The first film of this series was the short Der Sieg des Glaubens. In 61 minutes the film shows that Leni had domain of the film techniques to manipulate the spectator: angles, perspective, use of music, lightning, frames and edition.
Her following work was Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens), a documentary of the 1934’s Reich Party Day. As a documentary and visual registry, the film is stunning. It’s definitely a landmark in the documentary history and the best example of the power of propaganda. Everything looks great in it. If you have knowledge of history or a critic point of view it is very disturbing. Imagine how perfectly its promise of grandeur should have fit the anxious minds of millions of battered and humiliated Germans.
I was perplexed after watching the film and comparing it with the words of Riefenstahl saying that she had no idea of what the Nazis were doing, and that she didn’t agree with their politics. I can’t conceive she is so naïve, working as she had been with cinema for so long. It’s a known principle that images are powerful enough to manipulate the perception of the viewer. So, even if she didn’t agree with their politics, she was responsible for the message on it. Guilty or not, get to your own conclusions. Triumph of the Will is available on-line at Google Video and at Internet Archive here or here.
Other remarkable film of Riefenstahl, during the Nazi period, is Olympia. This documentary of the 1936 Summer Olympics is visually even more extravagant than Triumph. However the political content follows the same line of her other films of that period. Many advanced motion picture techniques, which later became industry standard but were groundbreaking at the time, were employed, including unusual camera angles, smash-cut editing techniques, extreme close-ups, setting the railway tracks on the stadium to shoot the crowd and the like. A part of if is available on-line.
Scary and wonderful. With Leni Riefenstahl’s films we can learn about history, mass manipulation, propaganda and film language. Her visual contribution could have been given for a better purpose (or maybe not), but she used all to get the best. She left us a spectacular legacy, which has to be watched carefully.
Check also: Triumph des Willens (Triumph Of The Will) and Tag der Freiheit at Videos with Bibi.
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