FOCUS Documentary Propaganda

Cinema itself began with the capturing of realty - i.e. the Lumières filming their own workers leaving the factory in 1895. Audiences were only too ready to be impressed by early shorts of real 'events', major or minor. After the rise of fiction features, the public continued to expect some form of news coverage in their cinema programmes. 'Documentary' as a term was coined by John Grierson in 1925. As a theorist, film-maker and (mainly) producer, Grierson presided over the growth of the 'documentary movement', which had at its heart a functional/educative momentum. Grierson's own manifestos were not unlike those of Vertov's group in the Soviet Union (see chapter 6), though rather more prosaic. He too believed that cinema should not be shackled to the studio and the telling of fictional stories. The real world had drama enough and lessons to be learnt: 'Cinema is neither an art form nor an entertainment. It is a form of publication. I look upon it as a pulpit.'

For the average film-goer the film-maker who most personified the (Griersonian) documentarist position in the West was Robert Flaherty. This Michigan-born adventurer chose the moving image as a method of capturing evidence of the peoples he encountered on his travels. Flaherty - as an explorer - aimed to bring pictures of parts of the 'real world' to audiences unable to visit the exotic locations themselves. There were a whole host of political subtexts to this activity - not least around the value judgements of what and who constitute the exotic. Nonetheless, Flaherty and others positioned themselves in a 'liberal-humanist' tradition that (ostensibly) offered up information for educational purposes not for 'propaganda'.

Leni Riefenstahl as a documentary director in Nazi Germany -like Vertov and Shub in the Soviet Union - was working in an overtly politically charged milieu. Thus it would be unreasonable to expect her to not make 'political' films. However, whereas Vertov was trying to confront his audience with a (politicised) reality, with Olympia Riefensthal bamboozles the viewer with soft-focus Fascist pornography.

Leni Riefenstahl - birth name Berta Helene Amalie Riefenstahl - was born in Berlin on 22 August 1902. A striking beauty, she began her entertainment career as a dancer and began film acting when she attracted the attention of film director Arnold Fanck. She subsequently starred in some of Fanck's 'mountaineering' pictures such as The White Hell ofPitz Palu (1929) and Storm over Mont Blanc (1930). With Fanck's backing, Riefenstahl began directing films. Her ability to produce epic visuals earned her acclaim, and awards for her films, across Europe.

Riefenstahl received the commission for Triumph of the Will (1935) because Hitler was impressed by her 1932 directorial effort, the suitably German-Romantic and melodramatic The Blue Light (1932). Triumph of the Will ostentatiously documented the Sixth Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg. Adolf Hitler was portrayed as the saviour of Germany. It was her work on Triumph of the Will that would come back to haunt her after the Second World War. After the war Riefenstahl declared that her work was mere documentary. Many colleagues testified to her naivety at the time, claiming she really did not know what kind of people she was dealing with. Nonetheless, Riefenstahl spent four years in a French detention camp after the war as punishment for her part in glamorising the Nazi regime.

After Triumph of the Will Riefenstahl went on to direct Olympia (1936). She was commissioned by the Olympic Committee to make a feature film about the 1936 Berlin Games. She saw the Olympic Games as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to glorify the beauty and grace of the human body. The Nazi Party saw the event as a giant parade to the glory of National Socialism. The disturbing subtext of the film is that Riefenstahl did not perceive a dichotomy between the two visions.

Joseph Goebbels - Nazi Minister for Propaganda - was acutely aware of the opportunity provided by the Olympics to publicise the regime on an international stage. No cost was too high to create an impression. Thus the budget for the film was left open and Riefenstahl was invited to give free rein to her taste for the epic. The director/producer employed 200 cameramen and several hundred technicians. Over 250 hours of film were shot. Riefenstahl took over 19 months to edit her film into a two-part, 200-minute documentary.

The opening of the film is a most impressive visual spectacle. In Part I Riefenstahl marries her ability to capture spectacle with a genuine sense of drama. She captures the theatrical power of highlevel competition, especially in the coverage of the Marathon. Ironically, the sequences that best capture the awesome power of the human body achieving exceptional physical performance feature Jesse Owens (a black athlete). The events in Part II (boating and so on) are not well suited to bravura film-making and rather too much time is spent in vacuous tableaux.

The games - and therefore the filmic record - were intended as a hymn of praise to the glories of Aryanness. Jesse Owens - a black American - rather spoiled things by winning the main event gold medals. To Riefenstahl's credit she did not edit out Owens's achievements. She did, however, choose not to show Owens receiving his gold medals.

Much like Esfir Shub and her work on historical documentary in the Soviet Union, Riefenstahl is a seminal influence on the structure and language of a particular form of 'documentary' visual presentation. The techniques she employed - e.g. rhythmic cutting between multi-camera set-ups and tracking the movement of athletes - turned into the grammar of television sports broadcasts.

In her life as in her films, Riefenstahl was always rather selective in her presentation of truth. Despite her protests to the contrary, Riefenstahl was considered an intricate part of the Third Reich's propaganda machine. Some critics have considered Tiefland (1954) to be Riefenstahl's cinematic statement on her rejection of Hitler and the Nazi regime. Unable to get financing for any features, she worked as an acclaimed still photographer in Africa during the 1960s. In 1992 she published her autobiography, Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir, and was the subject of a sceptical documentary, The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (Muller, 1993). She did not make a film for almost 50 years. In 2000 Riefenstahl completed a documentary film about an African tribe, thus, ironically, joining the anthropological tradition of documentary begun by Flaherty.

Some Things to Watch out for and Consider

• Should broadcasters or distributors make Riefenstahl's (possibly attractive) films available to the unprepared public?

• Much of Olympia is beautifully filmed and engaging to watch. Can we divorce the visual pleasures of the film from the horror of the regime that produced it?

• Can we make the same answer in respect of Triumph of the Will (or The Man with the Movie Camera)?

• Is watching Olympia a more or less historically and/or educationally useful activity than watching Night and Fog (Resnais, France, 1955) or Schindler's List (Spielberg, 1993)?

Further Viewing

Triumph of the Will (Riefenstahl, Germany, 1932)

Nanook of the North (Flaherty, USA, 1922)

Tabu (Flaherty and Murnau, USA, 1931)

Night Mail (Wright and Watt, UK, 1936)

The Cabinet ofDr Caligari (Wiene, Germany, 1919)

Metropolis (Lang, Germany, 1927)

The Great Way (Shub, Soviet Union, 1927)

The Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov, Soviet Union, 1929)

Today (Shub, Soviet Union, 1930)

Night and Fog (Resnais, France, 1955)

Further Reading

R. Taylor, Film Propaganda (1999)

D. Welch, Film Propaganda and Third Reich (1986)

B. Winston, Claiming the Real (1996)

B. Winston, Lies, Damn Lies and Documentary (2001)

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