Triumph of the Will, a pretty good meal.
Leni Riefenstahl created a masterpiece with Triumph of the Will. The camera work and staging are simply fantastic. In viewing parts of this film, I for sure saw some of the greatest shots I’ve ever seen. The way the editing and pace matched the music made the lack of narration seem normal. A narrator would have ruined the tone set by Riefenstahl. I am sure that if I saw Triumph of the Will when it was released, I would be as encouraged as anyone else.
Riefenstahl does almost too good a job of encouraging someone. One that makes me whole heartedly uncomfortable. With this in mind, it is pretty evident that one would wonder if she has any responsibility for what happened during the Holocaust. I think to answer this question, we have to look at whether or not what she made was propaganda. She believes that it isn’t propaganda, citing that it doesn’t have a narrator telling you what to think. Rather that you have to think about it yourself, and draw your own conclusions. She makes a strange case, but not necessarily a weak one. She says that the film is about work and peace, and that’s true. The film is about people working, and it is about finding peace. Without the backdrop of Nazi Germany, this would be a fine, yet simplistic, message of a story. However, you cannot separate a film from the time it was made, or any piece of artwork for that matter. Nor can you separate authorial intent, even though her authorial intent seemed to be a creative film. For clarification, I don’t believe what I just said. I think that this whole post brings a lot of messages up about authorial intent, and media criticism in general.
I do not believe that Riefenstahl is responsible for really anything specific that happened in Nazi era Germany. While she encouraged people, Hitler was already in power, so people clearly were already pretty encouraged to follow him. Not only that, but she was an artist making a work in which she was told to. She did the best she could, which was really good. But, again, if she played any role in the Holocaust, she does have some responsibility. At least, I would think she should claim some responsibility. But, she doesn’t do that, so it makes this question harder to answer. I don’t really think that she was responsible for anything specific. But, she, along with thousands of others, are at least somewhat responsible for what happened in the Holocaust. Anybody during that time who did not speak out or try to help is at least somewhat responsible. This does not mean that they are evil, or bad people, or should be necessarily punished. But, they are responsible for something. They may not be responsible for a certain life lost, but they are in part responsible for everything life lost.
I kind of flip flop on the “I like what she has to say” and the “literally this makes no sense” mentalities. She says that her intention was to film this thing for Hitler, make it good, and then finally be rid of working for them. But, she worked for them a few more times, even though I do believe that she originally planned not to. In her story about how angry people were getting at her from inside the Nazi party, I understand why she continued making films even if she previously didn’t want to. I don’t like how dismissive she is about the film’s impact. She actively avoids taking any responsibility for anything. I totally understand why she does this. Having to admit to yourself that you were part of something so horrible would be excruciatingly difficult. But, I think that it’s unfair not to. She talks about having no interest in politics, which is fine. But, that does not excuse continuing to play dumb years and years after the war ended, and everything was made public. There’s no excuse in that department.
Again, I think sort of. An artist should be responsible for their work. However, I’m not sure if they should be responsible for how people receive that work. They are responsible for creating it, but does that mean that they are responsible for how others interpret it? Does it even matter how an artist wants people to interpret their art? I think, somewhat in vein with this question, that it is really sad how Riefenstahl says he hates her work. She acknowledges that it was part of something horrible, and it’s led to many hard times for her, but it’s still a really well made movie. The way she thought about the camera, the editing, the sound, it was all pretty revolutionary. I am sad that she isn’t able to be proud of this. But, how could she be proud, knowing everything that she knows now. I think that she’s sort of an enabler, but not a willing one. The film did encourage people to sympathize with the Nazis, so she enabled the Nazis. But, I don’t think she purposefully did that. I mean she made a film that shows Hitler in an amazing light, but that’s how she, and most of the country felt. So is that really wrong? I don’t think so. The one part where I think she messed up was when she used the Roma and the Sinti during the filming of one of her movies. They were from a concentration camp, and it is really hard for me to believe that she didn’t know something fishy was going on. She had to have known something, but she did nothing. That is for sure being a bystander. That was wrong of her.
I don’t think that Leni should have been punished any more than she already was. Her movie career was basically over by the time the war ended, and that’s a shame. She was a great filmmaker. But, that’s what you get for making a “pact with the devil” (her words). So, I think what happened to her was what happened to her, and that’s the punishment she recieved. I don’t wish any more on her, and I don’t really wish any less. I think it is sad how her life turned out, but stuff happens. People wanted to blame her for things, and it’s not like she wasn’t at all to blame. I don’t believe that she deserved any extra punishment. She made her film, and that’s about it. She lost that career, and I think that that is as close to fair as one could hope for in this situation.
Here’s where things get really interesting for me, because I think about artistic intent and responsibility all the time. Honestly, I’m not sure why I love thinking about it, but I do.
I believe that there is a point to every piece of media ever created. Even if that point is “there is no point”, that’s still a reason. There has to be a reason for something to be made. Whether it to be capture a certain thought process, a certain idea, thought, to fight against something, or just to do it. There’s always a point to it. There’s always some reason for it to exist. That’s why I find it hard when Leni says how she did it because it was her job. She took such great care shooting it and editing it. If she just did it because she had to, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be that well made. I think when she says that the point was work and peace, that’s what the point of it was. She wanted to show work and peace, and what that would mean for Germany, how they would get that. The way she did this was mainly displaying the dichotomy between Hitler, and the common person. She does a phenomenal job in doing so. Like I said earlier, without the backdrop of Nazi Germany, this actually seems to send a good message, and it makes Hitler look absolutely amazing. However, is it possible to separate art from the time period in which it was created? Can art be interpreted as a sole piece, disregarding everything that led to its creation? I really don’t know. All I know is that Leni did a great job in making a compelling movie.
As for the consequences, things stay pretty tricky. What does a consequence mean exactly? If I make a song that says something very explicit about robbing a store, and somebody robs a store in the exact same way, am I at fault? This is sort of like when people blamed Marilyn Manson for Columbine. He never told the shooters to shoot up a school, but people still thought his dark, gory aesthetic was to blame for the what had happened. I will say, this is sort of a weird parallel to draw, but I’m trying here. Is Riefenstahl responsible for how people interpreted her film? How did people interpret her film? Looking at the definition of propaganda, and seeing how she talks about her film, she kind of makes a decent point about why it isn’t. Is it especially biased and misleading? Yes. But, say Riefenstahl had no idea of what were to come, would it still be propaganda? I mean, kind of. But would she not then have been manipulated just like the people who watched her film?
Donald Glover touches upon authorial and artistic intent in one of his interviews for the Han Solo movie. They ask him what This is America “means”. And he responds sort of like, “ I don’t know. It’s not my place to tell you. Figure it out for yourself.” You know. Like there is no right or wrong answer. People interpret it whatever way they want to interpret it. The consumption of media becomes self serving, and it is the artist's job to feed us. I have no concrete answers for whether an artist is responsible. But I don’t really think they are. A true artist’s job is to give us something to consume, and it’s up to us to interpret us. They feed us, and we use what we eat as energy to help us think and act. Artist’s are like chefs, and we are the obnoxious tourists banging on the table asking for more.