Marissa Alexa McCool
HIST230 - Final
Dr. Kant and Dr. Steinberg
Essay 1: The Power of the Medium
The rise of Nazi power in the 1930s saw the use and application of the recent technological innovation of film among its many tactics in assuming control over the country. It is without a doubt that the most infamous example of the cinematic advocation of this very process was captured by Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1933), a documentary displaying Adolf Hitler’s speeches in Nuremberg. While Riefenstahl herself later claimed that she was filming a documentary and not conveying any political message with them, if we are to assume a McLuhan perspective on the film, then it is without a doubt that Riefenstahl’s inventive and specific techniques set a political narrative that contributed to the rise of Nazi power through the regime leader Adolf Hitler.
Any film theorist, as well as any expert on communication or language, will emphasize the importance of non-verbal communication, or in layman’s terms, what’s not being said says an awful lot. Riefenstahl’s films are no exception. It’s not enough to have captured Adolf Hitler’s speeches to Nuremberg, something that alone probably could not be misconstrued as objective in and of itself, but it’s the methods and techniques that were used in the process that definitively communicate otherwise.
Susan Sontag describes Triumph of the Will as “the most successfully, most purely propagandistic film ever made, whose very conception negates the possibility of the film maker’s having an aesthetic or visual conception independent of propaganda. (Sontag, 1975)” While her (refuted) resistance to Goebbels trying to dictate the visual representation of the film may show that she wasn’t a drone completely following orders, it would be irresponsible to suggest that her visuals aren’t aware of these techniques that made propaganda films so successful. Nazi Germany’s use of propaganda shows heavy influence from the era of Soviet Montage, despite Goebbels’ best effort to distance themselves from the Bolsheviks.
Riefenstahl was given resources directly from the German government, and allowed the budget that enabled the creation of dozens of cinematic inventions that are still used today. To see them objectively and deny their influence is irresponsible, as difficult as it is to associate with someone capturing the image of Adolf Hitler in such a light. “She [Riefenstahl] had an unlimited budget, a crew of 120, and a huge number of cameras. (Sontag 1975)” The entire Nuremberg rally was created with the idea of making it a film in mind. Otherwise, the low angle shots from the front of Hitler’s podiums would’ve been impossible. A rut had to be dug in front of the stage to provide the space for the camera and its movements from such angles, and without the cooperation of the Nazi government in planning and aiding Riefenstahl’s efforts, they likely would’ve been for naught. Sometimes the lack of interference is as powerful as visible influence. “She was able to set up special camera positions, which included a camera lift on an iron flag mast in the stadium,” Alan Sennett details. “There was also to be an opportunity to restage shots at a later date. (Sennett, 2014)”
As with the influence of an unlimited budget and a lack of interference, not everything in regard to the visual medium is direct and blatant. The Soviets throughout the 1920s made use of the “Cinema Eye” and advocated for the training of direct responses to the human body. Or, put another way, certain imagery and information could draw programmed behavior and thought patterns that were instinctive as opposed to learned. Riefenstahl’s films uses several of these as well, especially in the form of generating the unspoken comparative and contrasting natures of the figures in the film. “Many devices are employed for the sole purpose of eliciting from audience certain specific responses,” explains Siegfried Kracauer in From Caligari to Hitler. “In this film, marching infantry columns betoken an advance; in it, the ideal type of German soldier emerges time and again in close-up, a soft face that involuntarily betrays the close relationship of soul and blood, sentimentality, and sadism. (Kracauer, 2004)”
Perhaps another, more notorious example, sees Hitler flying into Nuremberg itself. To the modern eyes of a viewer, this would not strike the mind as unusual, but both cinema and flight were new innovations in the early 1930s. The very idea of filming a landing plane was unheard of, and the image of Hitler descending from the clouds allowed him to assume a godlike status over the rest of his citizens. “National Socialism would, of course, have been unthinkable without all the genres, movements, and images from which it borrowed,” explains Linda Shulte-Sasse. “It builds on a foundation of modernism and uses nostalgia to ‘colonize the fantasy life’ (Rentschler) of its constituency. (Schulte-Sasse, 1991)” The blend of new technology and nostalgic appeal for the homeland come together in these brilliantly-captured visual technological feats, and thus were so effective for, among other reasons, Riefenstahl’s application and comprehension of the power of framing. To show Hitler is one thing; but to frame him as a god on Earth could not have been conveyed by accident.
This power, and the visibility reinforcing such, did not only involve the placement of Adolf Hitler. Kracauer’s central point in From Caligari to Hitler argues for the idea of the “mass ornament,” in which a group of people move as one, like a machine. The military demonstrations taking place before Hitler show not only complete and unquestioned solidarity, but from the high-perched perspective of Hitler, he looks down upon them from great height, as he would have when descending from the clouds into Nuremberg earlier in the film. “There is a constant panning, traveling, tilting up and down - so that the spectators not only see passing a feverish world, but feel themselves uprooted in it,” Kracauer elaborates. “Mass ornaments appeared to Hitler and his staff, who must have appreciated them as configurations and symbolizing the readiness of the masses to be shaped and used at will by their leaders. (Kracauer, 2004)”
Loyalty can be shown in the movement of a group of people unified as one, like the machine-like qualities theorized by Soviet Montage filmmakers a decade earlier. The mass ornament takes this idea one step further. Not only are the natural and subconscious reactions captured and co-opted with a specific purpose in mind, the idea of unity with the Führer for home and country is transposed with emotional appeal and manipulation. This could not be anything but intentional on the part of Leni Riefenstahl.
Consider also the power of the symbol: Not only is the swastika unmistakably tied to Nazi power, but Hitler himself as well. In Triumph of the Will, the swastikas and the huge flags displaying them prominently were featured in nearly every shot. In the same way that symbolism can be used to convey a message, the symbol itself being so prominent associates itself with the person being featured. In this case, Adolf Hitler and the swastika become bound with Germany, victory, success, and the cause. To elaborate further, the actions that transpire around the Führer, in addition to the mass ornament sequences and placement of the gaze of Hitler, other space in the film is filled with traditional German values meant to restore a feeling of calmness, nostalgia, and aspiration. Women are shown as homemakers and mothers of the children. Little boys play at war, for they one day too will lead Germany to great success and carry on its power for generations. While this reinforcement can be jarring to modern eyes in some capacity, at the time it showed a unified, traditional German population in complete collusion with its leader, the symbol of its leader, and the army that served under them.
Taking into account the previous decade of uncertainty and economic strife in Germany, the transformative nature of seeing someone appearing to have Germany’s best interests at heart was even more powerful, considering the circumstances. This created a reality in Germany that had been long suffering in depression and uncertainty from the crushing loss of the first World War. A rise to power again for Germany not only meant the change in guard would bring about the end of the suffering, but the rise of those who cooperated with the one taking place with Adolf Hitler himself: One country, one people, one leader. The individual no longer mattered. “In such scenes, the Nazi rulers’ contempt for the individual becomes apparent. (Kracauer, 2004)” An individual can think independently, perhaps against the will of the improvement and success of the Fatherland, and is therefore abhorred against the image of the mass ornament showing the unity of Germany under Adolf Hitler. The Führer is the only individual, a father and a god to all of his citizens, rescuing them from the depths of despair and making Germany great again (comparison intentional) can only function with the questioning and criticism of its leader rendered equivalent with treason and an anti-German sentiment.
To control the media is to control reality itself. “This film represents an inextricable mixture of a show simulating German reality and of German reality maneuvered into a show. (Kracauer, 2004)” When reality becomes a show, there’s a disconnect between that reality and the negative effects, such as suffering, depression, violence, and death. A god cannot die; therefore, Germany will not die under the rule of Adolf Hitler. Creating that cognitive dissonance within its citizens eliminates the fear of death in multiple ways. First, under the protection of a god, many religions teach that one will live forever. The savior of Germany being Adolf Hitler, he has pulled Germany from the depths from which they escaped, never to return. Second, an economic depression the likes of which Germany suffered was inescapably stricken and connected with death, so to rise like the phoenix from the ashes, Germany does not die again with Hitler, but continues to rise and live on, as the suffering has ended and now, the true potential and greatness of Germany can be unlocked under the guidance and love of its father, its god, its Führer.
To blend what is a show with reality does not create the ability of a citizenry to discern the difference. When the entire media is controlled and specifically designed against individualism and questioning of the government, and the government controls the media, what the government says is reality. Riefenstahl visually connects these ideas with the thread of presentation and visual establishment throughout. Germany becomes the blend of the modern power and nostalgic morality to create its own contemporary reality. “...All construct aestheticized images of Germany’s cultural to create a sense of collective identity in the present, to inspire the spectator to celebrate the consciousness of being ‘German’ - a consciousness that can be carried beyond the theater. (Schulte-Sasse, 1991)” Controlling history through the present and consolidating the two creates a uniform reality specifically dictated and presented by the government for its citizens, in which all the information is communicated with the intention of subjugating its citizens under the guise of a united Germany.
These are the very foundations of propaganda. Riefenstahl’s denied connections to abetting the communication of such propaganda seems foolish when contrasted with the product that exists. “Arguments that appeal to something an audience perceives to be true or real may permit the propagandist to gain its trust,” describes Alan Sennett. “Yet the appeal to ‘truth’ in propaganda is not an end in itself but rather a means to an end. It appears to validate the claim of the propagandist to be revealing of life as it actually is. (Sennett, 2014)” What is real does not matter as much as what is believed to be real. Connecting the two allows a dictation of reality to become reality, and appealing to the audience’s emotions and need for comfort, salvation, and solidarity becomes an effective medium through which to unify a previously-shattered nation. After all, if the only alternative is to return to the days of a broken country with no identity, how could a single collective identity with a prominently-displayed symbol and a voice of this identity not be persuasive?
Editing is also a choice that inescapably creates subjectivity, and Triumph is no exception. To show one thing and not another is a subjective choice made by the creator of the film, and the two hours of film for Triumph were cut down from a great deal more than that, which demonstrates the fact that specific choices were made to communicate a narrative. To take hours upon hours of film and condense it into a consumable package with a driving story and intent prominently featured, it need not be truly objective, but only have the appearance of being so. Or, as Alan Sennett further explains, “Documentaries cannot be deemed to portray ‘reality’ simply because the camera becomes the spectator. The viewer’s gaze is directed at whatever the filmmaker desires him or her to see. While the subject matter is real enough, the image is a construction and perhaps a distortion of reality. (Sennett, 2014)” It doesn’t have to be real; it only has to feel real to the viewer. Nothing else matters at that point.
To summarize, Leni Riefenstahl claimed objectivity in the name of only filming a documentary as a reason that she did not have any political message behind her film Triumph of the Will. However, the evidence in the film suggests selective editing, carefully planned camera shots, the implementation of the mass ornament, and the specific positioning of Hitler in relation to the masses and soldiers. Therefore, it can be reasonably concluded that Riefenstahl’s film had a deliberate, intentional message to go along with the illusion of reality it created of Hitler’s Germany. Any other claims to objectivity become extremely difficult to measure when weighted against the overwhelming evidence, film theory, history, and sequence of events that transpired over those days in Nuremberg, and the effect the film had on its citizens is equally undeniable.
Kracauer, Siegfried, and Leonardo Quaresima. From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film. , 2004.
Schulte-Sasse, Linda. “Leni Riefenstahl's Feature Films and the Question of a Fascist Aesthetic.” Cultural Critique, no. 18, 1991, pp. 123–148.
Sennett, Alan. "Film Propaganda: Triumph of the Will as a Case Study." Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media 55.1 (2014): 45-65.
Sontag, Susan. “Fascinating Fascism.” Under the Sign of Saturn. New York, N.Y.: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1980. 73-105. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism, Ed. Tom Burns and Jeffrey W. Hunter. Vol. 190. Detroit: Gale, 2004. Literature Resource Center.