Term Paper: Propaganda vs. Art

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[. . .] It is possible that her work was included without assessment in the general condemnation of the Nazi regime. Firstly, Leni Riefenstahl was never a member of the Nazi party and she is acknowledged by her biographers as having been apolitical. "Nor did she ever make any of the films that Hitler's propagandists used to spew hatred at Jews, Gypsies, and others viewed as "undesirable" by the regime. Indeed, although some evidence suggests that she was (for a time) one of Hitler's lovers, she worked very little with the German government after World War II started. Nor was she ever arrested or tried for (or even accused of) war crimes after the end of the war."

Despite evidence that suggests that she was primarily an artist and was not intentionally involved in the Nazi propaganda machine, she was not able to work in film for many years after the war and had to survive working as a photographer for which she won international acclaim for her work for the National Geographic. It is also significant that in many of the interviews that were done with her the focus is usually on the Nazi period rather than her achievement subsequent to the Second World War.

However, there are some disturbing elements that have entered into the general picture about her work during the Nazi era. She was guilty of some rather questionable practices, one being the use of Gypsy extras from concentration camps in her films. Could she have been ignorant of the moral implications of these actions? There are further aspersions cast on her relationship with the figure of Hitler. "Riefenstahl, admittedly, was fascinated by Hitler's charisma, but later would claim that she didn't realize at the time what a monster Hitler would become."

However, this still begs the question - can the art be separated from the artist or the way in which the art was made? A further part of these complex issues is the question of morality and to what extent we can allow art an amoral status. This also relates to the intentionality of the artist.

What is truly frightening about Triumph of the Will, and to a lesser extent, Olympia, is that it proves that art is amoral. Its morality depends purely on its context, In a moral context, it is moral. In an immoral context, it is immoral. As Gitta Sereny says in The German Trauma, her profound book about Nazi guilt, for Riefenstahl beauty was an aesthetic inspiration -- for the Nazis, it was a moral imperative. In Triumph of the Will, her aesthetic inspiration and Hitler's moral imperative collided, to cataclysmic effect.

The complexity of Riefenstahl's work is depended by the fact that while she achieved artistic distinction she also succeeded in placing the role of the artist in society in doubt and under suspicion.

The German resistance and anger toward Riefenstahl are explicable, perhaps, in that she discovered and conquered a new and popular art form, perfecting and perverting it at the same time.... Through Riefenstahl we have seen how a monument can be made from a body...how from a madman with a moustache you can make a charismatic hero.... Thanks to her [work] we mistrust ourselves.

In interviews Riefenstahl claimed that she was an artist and not a propagandist, yet many question these claims. Riefenstahl vehemently maintains that Triumph of the Will and Olympia are not propaganda, as any good propagandist would. She assiduously cultivates her image as an artist on the high road to beauty, and she fields even hostile questions with ease; her manner ranging from faux-naive to diva-imperious.

The questions relating to art and ethics cannot easily be simplified. Questions like the following still haunt this talented artist, even after her death.

How far did Riefenstahl choose this film? How far could she have refused it? How much had she seen of what the Nazis had already done? How much could she have foreseen of what they would do in the future? None of us, least of all Riefenstahl, can know the whole truth.

The problematic of her artistic intentionality is also put into doubt, not by her two well-known documentaries but rather by the content of her feature films:

her two feature films, Das blaue Licht (The Blue Light, 1932) and Tiefland (1954), are works that occupy the grey zone between films whose content, production, and distribution history render them clear examples of "Nazi propaganda" and films clearly dissociated from National Socialism or its anti-modern precursors. The two films challenge rigid criteria of taxonomy since neither can be branded a "Nazi" film in a specific chronological sense, nor can they be absolved from such a labeling since they feature Riefenstahl as director, producer, and acting "star" and since they belong to the suspicious mountain film genre Susan Sontag labels "an anthology of proto-Nazi sentiments."

There are numerous questions that continue to plaque any clear assessment of the artist's work.

Why did she work as a war correspondent, personally commissioned by Hitler, after the invasion of Poland? Why did she send Hitler a long, rapturous telegram with her best wishes after the occupation of France in June 1940? Why didn't she leave Nazi Germany even later, when she had the chance - for instance, during her filming in Spain in 1943?

The final word on the Issue of propaganda and art and the intentionality of the artist lies in the ambivalence of the following assessment of the work of Riefenstahl.

Public response to the two films has ranged from an adulation of Riefenstahl's genius for "sheer pictorial beauty" to a condemnation of the films as transparent expressions of Nazi ideology. This disparity is consistent with the general assessment of Riefenstahl as either a genius victimized by her times or as a diabolical manipulator. Perhaps because of this ambivalence she has been the object of a singular fascination

Bibliography

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Schulte-sasse, Linda. "5 Leni Riefenstahl's Feature Films and the Question of a Fascist Aesthetic," In Framing the Past: The Historiography of German Cinema and Television. Edited by Murray, Bruce A. And Christopher J. Wickham, 140-162. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992.

Spotts, Frederic. "And the Band Played On: Musicians in the Third Reich." Opera News, July 1995, 22+. Database online. Available from Questia, http://www.questia.com/.Internet. Accessed 4 April 2004.

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Deans' World. Separating the Art from the Artist [online] Available at http://www.deanesmay.com/archives/005158.html. Accessed 3 March, 2004

Schulte-sasse, Linda. "Leni Riefenstahl's Feature Films and the Question of a Fascist Aesthetic," In Framing the Past: The Historiography of German Cinema and Television. Edited by Murray, Bruce A. And Christopher J. Wickham, 140-162. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992. p. 140

Bach, Steven. "The… [END OF PREVIEW]

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