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Leni Riefenstahl denied that her film Triumph of the Will was propaganda. She claimed “It is history – pure history”. Susan Sontag’s response is that the film is propaganda that is not about fascism but is itself a fascist film. Explain her argument and what she means by that. You are of course also free to disagree with her position but you must provide argument to support your disagreement. Include in your answer contrasts with the documentary Night and Fog and why it can be categorized as a documentary as opposed to the propaganda of Triumph of the Will?”
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Having directed and acted in many films, Leni Riefenstahl has become the only major artist identified completely with the Nazi era. Her most well known film Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens, 1935) is still considered the greatest propaganda film of all time. Riefenstahl however, has always maintained that the film was a documentary and based “pure history”, Susan Sontag’s response is that the film is nothing more than ‘pure propaganda and fascist’. While the excellent use of film techniques may lead one to believe otherwise, Susan Sontag argues that Leni Riefenstahl’s relations with Nazi leadership and consistent illustration of fascist themes establishes that Triumph of the Will is fascist and intended to promote and perpetuate Nazi ideology.
It had been during Adolf Hitler and Nazi Party’s rise to power in the 1930’s, when Leni Riefenstahl began to enjoy international fame as a film director. The goal of Hitler and the Nazi Party was the complete annihilation of the Jewish peoples, in addition to convincing the German people to create a new empire that would span all of Europe. In order to achieve this goal, he needed the support of all German citizens. With this in mind, Leni Riefenstahl was commissioned by Hitler to direct a film that would later be dubbed the greatest propaganda film of all time.
The film, Triumph of the Will, chronicles the Nazi Party’s 1934 congress in Nuremberg, Germany. It promoted the cause of German nationalism, by attempting to unite all citizens under the Nazi Party. Riefenstahl’s claim that the film is a documentary is adamantly rejected by Sontag, who asserts that Triumph of the Will is the most successful, most purely propagandistic film ever made. Sontag’s argument commences with Leni Riefenstahl’s relationship with Nazi leadership. According to Riefenstahl, her relationship with Adolf Hitler and Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels was strictly business in nature. Goebbels and Hitler approached Riefenstahl in 1933 asking her to direct a movie on the events of the upcoming Nazi Party congress in Nuremberg. Riefenstahl states that she had been reluctant at first, but later agreed pending with certain conditions. One of the conditions included absolute discretion on editing (so that her ‘individualistic and unbiased artistry’ would not be compromised), and second, it was to be her only film that she would make for the Nazi party.
Sontag argues that the “mere idea of resisting Nazi attempts to subject her visualisation to a strictly propagandistic requirement should seem like nonsense to anyone”. Aside from the evidence of the movie itself, there was never any struggle between Riefenstahl and Goebbels. Triumph of the Will had actually been Riefenstahl’s third film for the Nazis, and was made with full cooperation of the government. She had an unlimited budget, crew and cameras. The camera crew was even given government uniforms so that during the filming, nobody would question their actions. Further, in Riefenstahl’s book published in 1935 about the making of the film, she claimed to have helped plan the rallies herself, which were conceived as the set of a film spectacle. With this statement, it would be illogical for one to assume that the film was not propagandas or fascist to begin with.
The second condition imposed by Riefenstahl had also been baseless. In the documentary which interviewed Riefenstahl, she maintains that Triumph of the Will would be the only movie she would create for the Nazis. However, Riefenstahl would go on to produce and direct several more films. One named Olympiad, which is comprised of two films: Festival of the People, and the Festival of Beauty. Riefenstahl claims to have produced the films, but also stated that the films were commissioned by the International Olympic Committee, and protested by Joseph Goebbels. Sontag argues that this is inaccurate. The truth says Sontag, is that the films were commissioned and entirely financed by the Nazi Government and facilitated by Goebbels himself.
The above examples illustrate a pattern that validates Sontag’s argument: Riefenstahl’s close relationship with high Nazi leadership means that all films produced and directed by Riefenstahl had been heavily influenced by the Nazi Party. Of course, Riefenstahl claims to have never been connected whatsoever with the Nazis prior to the making of Triumph of the Will. This according to Sontag is also incorrect. In fact, Hitler, Riefenstahl and Goebbels had been close friends long before 1932, and there exists no evidence to suggest the Goebbels had any animosity towards Riefenstahl (a claim she had maintained since the 1950s).
Sontag argument of the fascism then focuses on the film itself. Although Triumph of the Will has no narrative voice (another of Riefenstahl’s claim that the film is a documentary), it does commence with a written text, claiming to document the rebirth of the German nation 16 years after the end of World War I. This says Sontag, the least amount of merit for claiming that film is unbiased or not propagandist. Rather, the film represents an already well established social transformation of Nazism in Germany. The planned ceremonies, parades, marches, procession and architecture of the halls and stadium had been designed for the convenience of the cameras. Sontag is therefore correct to argue that “the document is no longer simply the record of reality; ‘reality’ has been constructed to serve the image”.
Accordingly, many themes in the movie help illustrate Sontag’s argument of the films fascist and propagandist nature. For example, the film develops Hitler into a divine figure head sent from above (beginning of the film) to renew ancient Nuremburg and liberate the German people using a movement of racial awareness. Riefenstahl would use this motif continuously throughout the film. For instance, when Hitler would give a speech, the camera angle would be from below to give him a certain aura of godliness. The structures built to accommodate the rally are also reminiscent of a unique reality to creating a new worldly order of the German nation. What at first glance appear to be “images that are merely picturesque scenery, buildings seen through mist, silhouettes against the clouds – on closer examination turn out to be a truly fantastic ‘point of view’ most subtly imposed upon the viewer”.
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Through the above arguments one can see what Sontag means when she says that the film itself is fascist. Fascism is a governmental system led by a dictator having complete power, forcibly suppressing opposition and criticism, regimenting all industry, commerce etc., and emphasizing an aggressive nationalism and often racism. By using this definition and applying it to the above facts provided by Sontag, it is easily determinable that the film was meant to exhibit Germany as a fascist state and Hitler as its divine leader. Hitler wanted to maintain control over all of Germany, and did so by forcing the closure of the government (after the Reichstag had been set on fire in 1933), and openly promoting issues of race. Hitler had also convinced then President von Hindenburg to sign the Reichstag Fire Decree Law, essentially nullifying any civil liberties and basic human rights within Germany. His accession to power inherently went unchallenged, paving the way for the holocaust that ensued.
By comparing the visual style of two important films, Triumph of the Will and Alain Resnais’ documentary Night and Fog, helps brings additional definitiveness to the claim of the films propaganda and fascism. Night and Fog is a French documentary produced in 1955. It was made 10 years after the allied liberation of Nazi concentration camps and features the Auschwitz and Majdanek camps. Riefenstahl’s film celebrates the Nazi Party congress in Nuremburg in 1934. While Resnais’ film documents the atrocities of the Nazi concentration camps. Resnais’ contrasts the past with the present by borrowing images from Triumph of the Will to display the transition from Riefenstahl’s world to post-war Europe. The two films were made for vastly different reasons and in different historical contexts, but upon comparison, reveal how films can be used to convey ideas and feelings.
The opening of Resnais’ film is similar to Riefenstahl’s. A view from up above the clouds moving downward in a slow tilt that brings into frame rusted barbed wire. “Riefenstahl simulates Hitler’s ‘god’s eye’ point of view, whereas Resnais recreates the point of view of Hitler’s victims”. This shot makes a direct reference to Riefenstahl’s film, and display one of the central themes: the simultaneous importance and impossibility of representing victims of the holocaust.
In the other images borrowed from Triumph of the Will, the camera does not move, filming from a low angle as if to appear that it had been crushed or subdued. In his book The Holocaust in French Film, author Andre Colombat, states that the same angles are used constantly to show the horror and the extent of the Holocaust. In Riefenstahl’s film, the opposite effect is intended. The low angle shots, says Colombat, are intended to indicate the strength of the army and the power of the Nazi leaders. By comparison, it would appear that both Resnais and Riefenstahl are guilty of biasness one way or another. However, Resnais’ artistry is one of genuine subtle transitions that bring traces of the past to the present reality, and showcase the social transformation that occurred during the 1930s. Riefenstahl’s reality was constructed to serve the image and therefore not as genuine as the film portrays. Riefenstahl had essentially helped the Nazis achieve their goal of creating a fascist state, while Resnais showed the dreadful results of what fascism had led to.
Leni Riefenstahl had always neglected criticism of her film Triumph of the Will and died reluctant in admitting her guilt for the creation of the ultimate propaganda film and more importantly the killing of millions of Jews, Gypsies, Homosexuals and others deemed socially unacceptable to the Nazis. This film is considered propaganda through the eyes of those who condemn genocide or stood idly by as the Holocaust occurred, right in the midst of what appeared to be a normal world. Alain Resnais film Night and Fog, is considered a documentary since the truth behind the Holocaust is uncovered without censorship.
Leni Riefenstahl’s admiration for the Nazi ideology and its leader Adolf Hitler paved the way for a film unlike any other. Susan Sontag’s analysis of Triumph of the Will film, argues that the use of subtle techniques and staged events presented a fallacious reality that had become the fabrication of a fascist state. Proving that no matter what Riefenstahl claims, she clearly had intended it to be propagandist and of a fascist nature – and while she may have denied her involvement with the Holocaust itself, it is clear that she also played a pivotal role in its creation.
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