Saturday, April 28, 2007

Triumph of the Kitsch

by Rolf-Peter Wille

Having seen "The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl" I thought I had seen "Triumph of the Will." Right at the beginning of Ray Müller’s documentary (1993) a shot of marching Nazis from "Triumph" is juxtaposed with a large school of little pink fish from the footage for Riefenstahl’s recent "Underwater Impressions" and the effect is rather funny. The marching monsters still look scary enough but the school of fish immediately puts this impression into a comical perspective.

Little did I know! The 1993 documentary contains many sections from "Triumph" but the effect of watching "Triumph of the Will" ("Triumph des Willens," 1935) in its entirety is very different indeed. Forget about comical perspectives. With the exception of a cat catching a glimpse at the Führer, Riefenstahl’s film of the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg, financed by the Nazi Government and commissioned by Hitler himself, is serious. Monumentally serious. Perspectives projected by the film, which "doesn't contain a single reconstructed scene" (Riefenstahl), are accumulated in the style and service of the militaristic ceremonies they document and surely with the intend to inspire awe. Quite organically in fact does Riefenstahl’s mis-en-scene grow out of the Nazi rhetoric itself, the goose-stepping shadows of marching SA men reinforcing her imagology in the same way as the flashy gestures of the orators reinforce the aggressive delivery of their screamed slogans. "Sieg - Heil; Sieg - Heil; Sieg - Heil!!!" "Argumentum ad nauseam" is indeed a technique of propaganda generation and if a self-proclaimed "artistic documentary" starts to mimic the cultivated stupidity of the documented it should not only be accused of collaboration with organized idiocy; it should be accused of the ultimate achievement: of having crystallized the images of banal militaristic rhetoric into something glorious and sumptuous, a colossal apotheosis of power and kitsch. Hitler Kitsch. It is the "divine" presence of the Führer which is towering above the elevated center of this carefully constructed montage. "The party is Hitler!" screams Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess. "But Hitler is Germany, as Germany is Hitler!" Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer — und ein Film.

Ironically though "Triumph of the Will" is a very interesting film if seen by a moderately educated viewer today. Our knowledge of WWII, the images of Nazi atrocities, holocaust, concentration camps, etc., which have become part of the collective memory, and last not least our over-saturation with modern propaganda and advertisement function quite effectively as the "de-kitsching" distance which the film itself fails to provide. While our senses will still be numbed our minds can no longer be seduced. Riefenstahl claims that she was not really interested in the political content of the speeches and presented the chosen sections entirely for the dramatic impact which she observed from the gestures as well as from the degree of audience enthusiasm. We can thus witness an impressive collection of rhetorical climaxes in very quick succession and this allows us to understand the essential Nazi gesture. "A people that does not protect its racial purity will perish!" screams Gauleiter Julius Streicher his massive bald head filling the entire screen. His hand stretches out imploringly on "people," clenches into a fist on "purity" and, in a powerful cadence, crushes down on us with "perish." He must have rehearsed this "pure" martial gesture a thousand times in front of a mirror. The Nazi rhetoric is basically a rhythmic tour de force. While completely ignoring strength of argument or logic, it concentrates entirely on accumulation of powerful slogans, sound bites, cadences and the complete elimination of "weak" gestures. It is a highly ritualized rhetoric of archaic, of brutal, of bombastic mantras—a militaristic rhetoric which is used as a weapon against the chaos of "decadent" democracy.

Kitsch, in the totalitarian realm of Nazi aesthetics, is the absolute denial of weakness. Interestingly an earlier Riefenstahl "propaganda documentary" of the 1933 Nazi Party Congress ("The Victory of Faith," "Der Sieg des Glaubens") shows many technical problems and frequently exposes Hitler in awkward moments. Interviewed by Guy Müller Riefenstahl appeared to be genuinely furious about this (60 years later!) and refused to even call it a film.

This special edition also features Riefenstahl’s short "Day of Freedom" ("Tag der Freiheit," 1935) about the Wehrmacht, very similar stylistically to "Triumph," as well as historian Dr. Anthony R. Santoro’s excellent commentary.