Depression And The War Years

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Grierson understood the potential of documentary cinema to affect the political views of the nation and its people, a view shared by other film-producing nations such as Germany and post-Revolutionary Russia. During World War II many governments relied on the propaganda value of documentary film. Already by the late 1930s, filmmaking in both Japan and Germany had come under government control. In Great Britain, where Grierson's Film Unit had evolved into the Crown Film Unit, documentaries helped boost morale on the home front, particularly with the poetic approach of Humphrey Jennings (1907-1950) in such films as Fires Were Started (1943) and A Diary for Timothy (1945), which presented rich humanist tapestries of the British people during wartime.

In the Soviet Union, Communist Party leader Vladimir Lenin famously proclaimed that for the new Communist state cinema was the most important of the arts. Traveling trains that made and screened newsreels were a means of connecting the many republics of the

vast Soviet Union, and even feature films such as Sergei Eisenstein's Bronenosets Potyomkin (Battleship Potemkin, 1925), based on an actual historical event, incorporated elements of documentary. Dziga Vertov (1896-1954) brought a more formalist, experimental approach to the newsreel, and with the feature-length Chelovek s kino-apparatom (The Man with a Movie Camera, 1929), which presents a "day-in-the-life" of a modern Soviet city, created a reflexive documentary masterpiece that, along with Walter Ruttmann's Berlin: Die Sinfonie der GroƟstadt (Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, 1927), established the "city-symphony" form.

Later in Germany, after Hitler's rise to power, his National Socialist Party quickly nationalized the film industry under the leadership of Dr. Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda, which produced films promulgating Nazi ideology. The most prominent documentary filmmaker of the Nazi era was Leni Riefenstahl, a former star actress, who made Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will, 1935), about the 1934 Party rally in Nuremberg, and the two-part Olympia (1938), about the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Triumph of the Will is widely considered a powerful expression of fascist ideology and aesthetics. Although sources vary on the exact number, Riefenstahl clearly had many cameras at her disposal (on occasion in the film camera operators may be glimpsed on tall elevators constructed on site). Triumph of the Will celebrates the rally's mass spectacle of fascist unity, which was staged in part precisely to be filmed, successfully turning history into theater and overwhelming viewers just as party rallies were intended to do to participants.

In the United States in the 1930s, documentary emerged as a dominant form of cultural expression in America, informing the aesthetics of all the arts, including painting, theater, literature, and the popular media. The documentary impulse also animated many Works Progress Administration (WPA) arts projects and important books of the period, like Let Us Now Praise Famous


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