This is an archive of the ArtCat Zine, 2007-2009. Please visit our new project, IDIOM.
Somewhere towards the beginning of Leni Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will, in the middle of a long and tedious sequence of military men addressing the party congress on matters of public policy, Goebbels, in a suit, rises to the microphone to speak about propaganda. “May the bright flame of our enthusiasm never be extinguished,” he says, looking somewhat more comfortable in front of the crowd then you might imagine. “It alone gives the creative art of modern political propaganda its light and warmth. From the depths of the people it rose aloft. And into the depths of the people in must descend… It may be good to have power based on arms, but it is better and more joyful to win and to keep the hearts of the people.” It’s a telling moment, especially in light of Riefensthal’s insistence, for the remainder of her life, that Triumph was not and is not a propaganda film, but instead a work of ‘total art’ or of ‘cinema verite.’ Technically speaking, she is correct, insofar as Hitler had chosen her precisely for her pedigree as an artist, and she only agreed to make the film when he promised to keep Goebbels and his minions at the ministry entirely out of its production.
And yet, watching the film today, it is clearly not only a piece of propaganda, but the apogee of the genre. By turns horrifying and deadly dull, it is wholly without irony or self-reflection of any sort. Quite literally a masterpiece, it is responsible for creating an entire arsenal of cinematic techniques later employed by everybody from Josef Stalin to Barack Obama. In effect then, the distinction, between art and propaganda, which mattered so much to Reifenstahl in the films production, has in some sense vanished. Art not only became propaganda but perfected it, the distance she fought to maintain damning her all the more for preserving the unique power of her vision. Triumph plays at Anthology this Saturday at 6 and 8:30, its worth seeing, if you haven’t before; even if the technical achievements no longer impress, the relentlessness of thing remains striking and, god willing, singular.