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Fascist Fascination

Film by Leni Riefenstahl helped to construct the Nazi imagery with its images of happiness

“It is part of the mechanism of domination to prevent the knowledge of the sufferings that it brings about, and there is a straight line that leads from the gospel of the happiness of life to the construction of human slaughterhouses so far off in Poland that any Volksgenosse can persuade himself that he is not hearing the screams of pain of the victims”, wrote German philosopher Adorno in Mínima moralia. Nobody prayed better by this gospel that filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003), especially in Triumph of the Will (1935), a “documentary” about the 6th National Socialist Party Congress, of 1934. In it, Hitler is the great “actor”, the hero of a now disciplined and happy mass, reborn from the ashes, -16 years after the beginning of our suffering, 19 months after the start of the German renaissance (Hitler rose to power in 1933) -, as the filmmaker writes in the initial credits of the film, dedicated by Leni Riefenstahl “to my beloved Führer, with great admiration and devotion”.

“What called my attention in the images of Triumph of the Will was the intimate relationship that could be established between certain aspects of the modern world (the large scale production of images), between a conception of beauty (in which order, harmony and the lack of conflict are blended), between the desire to go back to the past (as a search for a certain sentiment of belonging to a whole) and, finally, between all this and barbarianism”, explains Mauro Rovai in Image, time and movement: the joyful affections in the film Triumph of the Will, a noteworthy analysis of the work by Riefensthal through the prism of the unceasing generation of clichés of happiness and joy, in which Hitler appears as the political leader transmuted, by the filmmaker’s lenses, into an actor in the role of a hero. “The cinema will be the strongest pioneer and the most modern spokesman of our era, capable of capturing the spirit of an epoch and leading Germany to acquire awareness of its identity”, said Goebbels, the Reich’s Propaganda Minister, in a speech in 1933.

A dancer, an actress with few talents (besides the physical ones, of course), the director of six films, and, at the end of her life, a photographer of African communities (which showed the same fascist esthetics as Olympia, her film about the 1936 Olympics (in Berlin), a diver, Riefensthal, as she herself proclaimed in her autobiography, was a woman of several lives. But, unfortunately, with a noteworthy coherence. “Reality does not interest me. I am spontaneously attracted by what is beautiful, harmonious, strong, healthy, alive. I always seek harmony, and when I find it, I am happy”, she would claim. It was not by chance the Hitler himself chose her to film the party’s 6th Congress in the medieval city, dear to the Nazis, of Nuremberg, the cradle of the “true Germanic culture”. And of its worst values. It was there that the infamous racial laws against the Jews were proclaimed. It is on a sunny day that the Führer’s plane arrives in the city, after piercing the clouds and descending like a deus ex machina. “Riefensthal presents the 6th Congress as a fable, in which the hero, after triumphing over his enemy, comes to recall and celebrate the victory in a sacred place where the traditions have been preserved”, says Rovai.

The film shows Hitler’s arrival in Nuremberg, hailed by smiling and grateful multitudes, the nighttime parades with torches of the SA troops, the daily life of the union of the multitudes that flocked to the meeting, the dictator’s speeches about “peace” and “order” to the workers, the soldiers and the Hitler Youth. Riefenstahl’s talent, intuitive (the opposite, for example, to the Eisenstein theoretical socialist counterpoint, Rovai reminds us), was precisely to transform a political encounter into a spectacle. “The film is a cinematographic landmark of another order. By means of Triumph of the Will it is possible to see the uncomfortable approximation between, on one side, the celebration of Hitler’s strength of leadership and the loyalty of his followers, elements that send us to the historical period that was marked by hatred of the different and by genocide, and, on the other, the happiness of a population that receives him festively”, the author notes.

“No scene has been rehearsed. It is all true. It is pure history”, Riefenstahl used to say of her “documentary”. “Triumph represents in itself a radical transformation of reality: history is transformed into theater. The 1934 Congress was organized in part by the decision for Triumph to be filmed, and thus the historical event came to serve as a film set for something that was to take on the character of an authentic documentary. The film does not document the real, but it is the reason for which reality was constructed and, occasionally, it surpasses it”, observed Susan Sontag in an article about the filmmaker. In this context, the city of Nuremberg can be seen as the ideal fairy tale city. “Riefenstahl’s film can be watched as the final part of a children’s story in which the prince comes to seal his alliance with tradition, in a city protected by clouds and full of towers”, agrees Rovai. “The way how the city is filmed would give Nuremberg, on the cinema screen, an atmosphere of celebration of harmony and of order, different from the frightening architecture suggested by some films of the past decades, such as the so-called ‘expressionist’ films. Instead of Caligari, Hitler.” The meetings with masses would cause a strong impression on people, since the vision of uniformed men marching in a disciplined manner could offer refuge in the group faced by the threats of social instability and insecurity. At that moment, what was of interest was to divulge the ‘message’ of a Germany that was pacific and pacified under Hitler”, the researcher explains. According to him, in this world created by Riefenstahl, much to the liking of Nazism, everything was innocence and there were no conflicts (after all, the hero had already triumphed), in a perfect combination with “the romantic vision of an anti-capitalist world, which clothed the national-socialist conceptions.” The character is always reactionary and regressive, like a fairy tale in which the wager was: with Hitler the problems and conflicts of the Weimar Republic would come to an end.

Triumph is an event staged as a spectacle and with a dramaturgy that promises a happy end. After all, it was the celebration of the negation of subjectivity itself, in exchange for the security offered by obedience”, the author notes. “Furthermore, the film also touches on the incapacity of people for dealing with their own anguish, in good measure related to the fact that society produces wealth, but, equally, inequality and exclusion. Not to talk about the simplified explanations that point to the other, to the difference, as the reason for the blemishes of the present, and of the bet on entertainment as a substitute of the dream of happiness, or of the commitment to the participation in mass events as a synonym of joy.” In this, by the way, one can see Riefenstahl’s talent, esthetic and not at all ethical. Her filming of the masses, uniforms, forming geometric figures of great precision and in profusion, never leave aside the anonymous face, framed in close-up. “In this way, the ‘anonymous’ in the cinema could observe themselves on the midst of the multitude”, Rovai analyzes. For him, it is impressive how the filmmaker managed, by contrasting the mass and Hitler’s face, to highlight the nation that is surrendering itself to him.

To do so, there were 30 cameras and 120 assistants, with 16 filmmakers amongst them, many dressed in uniforms of the SA to “disappear” in the midst of the multitude. Furthermore, Riefensthal could count on the help of Hitler’s favorite architecture, Albert Speer, who not only constructed scenarios and rigs for her to be able to film (like, for example, the enormous vertical building that allowed her to portray the parade of the troops before Hitler at the Luitpoldstadium), but also took part in the staging of several of the parade, including the famous “cathedral of light”, from which the Führer made his most important speech to the members of the party. “At this point one perceives how Hitler left in Riefenstahl’s hands the task of adapting his image to the apparatus and to the screen.  The takes in which he appears alone only come to gain a meaning at the moment of editing, a task exclusive to Riefenstahl. Hence, therefore, the omnipresence of the director.” Or, in the words of the filmmaker: “It fascinated me that I could do everything with editing. The editing room was transformed for me into a magical laboratory”, she wrote in her autobiography.

Sontag draws attention to the fact, terrible, of how Triumph still conserves its black magic in working order, however much the results of the work of those that are on stage in the screen are abominated. “It’s not just a question of brutality and terror, but of ideals that persist even today under other banners, such as life as art, the cult of beauty, the fetish of courage, the dissolution of alienation in ecstatic sentiments of community, the repudiation of the intellect, and love for the family of man.” Fascinating fascism. “These values are capable of moving many even today, since, as Sontag notes, there is in Riefenstahl’s works less genius and more the presence of these elements”, Rovai reckons. The other ingredient in this witch’s cauldron is the mixture of image, movement and time. “In one moment of the film, the camera strolls through the city, showing towers, old roofs, smoking chimneys, constructing an idea of immemorial calm and happiness”, the author recalls. In the final take, he goes on, two towers are little by little replaced by images of a camp of militants, which stirs up the idea of precariousness, of something still to be constructed and finished. “In the joining of these two takes, Riefensthal shows a conception of future in which the present time, marked by precariousness, but also by the triumph of the leader, is juxtaposed with the image of the immemorial past, a past without history that is located in Nuremberg.”

“By fusing the images of the immemorial past and the present in construction, the film appears to update an image in which the future, which is not known but is hoped for, is a product of a secure past juxtaposed with the present in which the people are inserted and of which they expect nothing, because it is frighteningly precarious and uncertain”, the researcher analyzes. If this is the image of the ideal future, Hitler is the guide to it. “In the cinema, this bond is constructed by image, time and movement”, Rovai says. As a personage from Parsifal, an opera by Wagner, so loved by the Führer, says “time is transformed into space”. A few years later, the space generated by this time was to have another name and objective: lebensraum, the “vital space” that, the dictator used to say, the Germanic Arians needed. Enough of the times of peace. The will that triumphed was another. Far more dire.

The project
Image, time and movement: joyful affections in the film Triumph of the Will (nº 03/04773-2); Modality Publication Grant; Researcher Mauro Rovai – USP; Investment R$ 5,000.00 (FAPESP)