Art and Propaganda – Rehabilitating Leni Riefenstahl

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Nowadays, the term “fascist” has become an ordinary insult, often misused, being adopted as synonymous to evilness. This phenomenon is attributed to American writer Susan Sontag and her essay ‘Fascinating Fascism’ (1975), an inquisitor comment on Leni Riefenstahl’s photographic reportage about an African tribe, The Last of the Nuba (1973).

Art could be regarded as the most precious and essential element, as it is the only thing that permeates through time; from the primordial rock-paintings of the first primitive men to the sculptures of the Renaissance, from Shakespeare’s theatre plays to Mozart’s requiems: art is really the only artificial thing preserved by history, unchanged in its creative value. Thus, the film industry, producing works that are appreciated for their beauty as well as their emotional power, is classified as the Seventh Art.

For this reason, “artist” is how Leni Riefenstahl proudly defined herself. Being one of the most successful female filmmakers of all time, Riefenstahl started her career as an actress and became herself a director – an auteur – producing cinematic milestones such as Triumph of the Will (1935) and Olympia (1938). However, while her films earn her a place in history, her artistic genius is destined to be forever overshadowed by moral consideration, since her career is inevitably linked to National Socialism and the Third Reich. Once World War II was over, she could not manage to regain her lost prestige, because several international critics and political activists incremented Riefenstahl’s seclusion from the Arts, preventing her return.

They harshly condemned the publishing of any of her post-war artistic productions, by accusing the German artist to continue pursuing a “fascist aestheticism”. Can artists exist in a vacuum, or do they always have to be aware of the social implications of their work? Was she an artist in search of beauty, or a propagandist at the service of the Nazi Party? Triumph of the Will was conceived to be a two-hours long absolute spectacle, a creative piece of art with the distinct purpose of instilling the national socialist propagandistic message. The führer was enthusiast and committed in realizing a motion picture about the 1934 party rally in Nuremberg, and the film managed to achieve astonishing artistic results, turning life into a work of art.

It is recognized by many critics and experts as a superb example of documentary cinema art: the overenthusiasm was truly there, and the film just recorded reality. Still, the moral controversy surrounding the motion picture is still debated nowadays, almost 15 years after her passing. It would be impossible to deny the huge support of the Nazi Party, that heavily contributed to her success, but what has been called fascist aesthetics is simply Riefenstahl’s style, her search for visual harmony, not linked to an ideology but rather to the classic canons of beauty. She deserves to be remembered as an artist, who worked for an infamous institution, but that managed to create art even from propaganda.

Propaganda can be art, too, and Riefenstahl’s filmic accomplishment lies in the fact that Triumph of The Will allows the past to come to life again. As time goes by, and the scars of National Socialism are getting less painful, Riefenstahl is righteously being recognised as an artist, and not a criminal.

– Jack Salvadori

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