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                             Beauty and evil


 Beauty and Evil


The Case of Leni Riefenstahl

Mary Devereaux

Excerpted from Aesthetics and Ethics: Essays at the Intersection, Jerrold Levinson, ed., Cambridge University Press (1998). Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary of the 1934 Nuremberg rally of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, Triumph of the Will, is perhaps the most controversial film ever made. At once masterful and morally repugnant, this deeply troubling film epitomizes a general problem that arises with art. It is both beautiful and evil. I shall argue that it is this conjunction of beauty and evil that explains why the film is so disturbing. ...

Much has been written on the formal features of Riefenstahl’s art. What has not been generally appreciated is that the film’s artistic achievement is not merely structural or formal. Equally important is Riefenstahl’s masterful command of traditional narrative means: theme and characterization, the use of symbolism, and the handling of point of view. It is the use of these devices to tell a story—the story of the New Germany—that, combined with the structural techniques already surveyed, creates the vision of Hitler and National Socialism that makes Triumph of the Will so powerful.

That vision is one in which the military values of loyalty and courage, unity, discipline, and obedience are wedded to a heroic conception of life and elements of German völkisch mythology. In Riefenstahl’s hands, an annual political rally is transformed into a larger historical and symbolic event. Triumph of the Will presents the Nazi world as a kind of Valhalla, “a place apart, surrounded by clouds and mist, peopled by heroes and ruled from above by the gods.” Seen from the perspective of the film, Hitler is the hero of a grand narrative. He is both leader and savior, a new Siegfried come to restore a defeated Germany to its ancient splendor. ...

Riefenstahl weaves the narrative and thematic elements of her film around the central National Socialist slogan Ein Führer. Ein Volk. Ein Reich as tightly as she weaves the visual elements of eagle and swastika. As she tells it, the tale of Hitler—stalwart and alone, heroic—is the tale of the German people. His will is their will. His power their future. It is all this and more that makes Triumph of the Will the powerful film it is.

Clearly, Triumph of the Will is a troubling film. My claim is that it is so because of its conjunction of beauty and evil, because it presents as beautiful a vision of Hitler and the New Germany that is morally repugnant. But might not there be a simpler, more straightforward explanation of the film’s disturbing nature? Can’t it be wholly explained by the fact that the film is a documentary?

As a documentary film, Triumph of the Will is disquieting because the events it portrays are themselves disquieting. As a documentary film, Triumph of the Will conveys the sheer


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immediacy of these events. We view Hitler’s speeches, the flag ceremonies, the spotlighted evening assemblies as if they were happening now. And our knowledge that what we are seeing stands in a causal chain of events that led to the Second World War and the Holocaust makes this immediacy chilling. It is as if we were watching the buds of these horrors unfold before our eyes.

But Riefenstahl’s film does more than document historical events. And it is more than an ordinary documentary. Triumph of the Will is also troubling because it is a work of Nazi propaganda. The word “propaganda” originated in the celebrated papal society for “propagating the faith” established in 1622. In modern contexts, the term has taken on more specifically political connotations. In claiming that Triumph of the Will is a work of propaganda, I mean that it is designed to propagate the Nazi faith—and mobilize the German people. Triumph of the Will thus unites the older religious connotations of “propaganda” with the modern political connotations, presenting National Socialism as a political religion. Its images, ideas, and narrative all aim at establishing the tenets of that religion: Hitler is a messianic leader, Germany is one Volk, and the Third Reich will endure for a thousand years.

It may come as some surprise, then, to learn that the film’s status as propaganda is controversial. Amazingly, Riefenstahl and her supporters deny that Triumph of the Will is a work of propaganda. And because there is a controversy—in fact, a rather heated one— we need to pause briefly to take up this issue. Riefenstahl and her supporters contend that her concerns in Triumph of the Will—as in all her films—were aesthetic, not political: that it was the cult of beauty, not the cult of the Führer, that Riefenstahl worshiped. The claim is that stylistic devices like the cloud motif in the film’s opening sequence, the rhythmic montage of faces in the Labor Services sequence, and so on were just that: stylistic devices meant to avoid newsreel reportage, enrich the film artistically, and nothing more.

Certainly Riefenstahl was preoccupied with beauty in Triumph of the Will. Her films of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, her photographs of the Nuba, indeed the whole of her artistic corpus, make clear that visual beauty was one of her central artistic preoccupations. But the claim that a concern for beauty and stylistic innovation is the only thing going on in Triumph of the Will is undermined by the film itself. As we have seen, the film is aimed not simply at stylistic innovation and formally beautiful images, but at using these means to create a particular vision of Hitler and National Socialism.

The pure-aestheticism defense is also belied by the historical record. Riefenstahl was, as she willingly admits, a great admirer of Hitler. Attending a political rally for the first time in her life in February 1932, she was “paralyzed,” “fascinated,” “deeply affected” by the appearance of Hitler and the crowd’s “bondage to this man.” Even at the end of the war, by which point she, like many Nazi sympathizers, claims to have harbored doubts about Hitler’s plans for Germany, Riefenstahl, by her own admission, “wept all night” at the news of his suicide. To this day, Riefenstahl has never distanced herself from the political content of Triumph of the Will or any of the other films she made for Hitler. Nor, despite years of ostracism and public controversy, has she shown—or even feigned—remorse for her artistic and personal association with many members of the Nazi Party.

It might be added that Riefenstahl agreed to film the 1934 Nuremberg rally only on condition that she be given complete artistic control over the project, a condition to which Hitler apparently agreed. She demanded, and got, final cut. Thus, we can assume that the film Riefenstahl made—the film organized around the ideas of Ein Führer. Ein Volk. Ein Reich that presents Hitler as savior to the German people, and that describes the Nazi future as full of promise—is the film she chose to make. ...

In any case, the debate about Leni Riefenstahl’s intentions (what was going on “in her head”) is largely beside the point. For the question whether Triumph of the Will is a work


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of propaganda is a question about the film, not a question about (the historical person) Leni Riefenstahl. And as we have seen, the answer to this question is plainly yes.

So Triumph of the Will is a work of Nazi propaganda. And that is clearly part of what makes the film so troubling. But Riefenstahl is not the first or last artist to make fascist art. Hundreds of propaganda films were made in German between 1933 and 1945. Many, like the feature film Jud Süss, had much wider popular success. And some, like the virulently anti-Semitic “documentary” Der ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew, 1940), had arguably as harmful an effect on German thought and behavior.

Triumph of the Will is distinguished from these and other Nazi propaganda films in two ways. First, it is extremely well made. (And the fact that it is an excellent work of propaganda is part of what makes it so disturbing.) But the film is more than first-class propaganda. It is also a work of art. A work of creative imagination, stylistically and formally innovative, its every detail contributes to its central vision and overall effect. The film is also very, very beautiful. Triumph of the Will can be properly called a work of art because it offers a beautiful, sensuous presentation—a vision—of the German people, leader, and empire in a recognized artistic genre (documentary) of a recognized artistic medium (film). It is the fact that Triumph of the Will is an excellent work of propaganda and a work of art that explains why Riefenstahl’s film has more than historical interest and why it has a place in film and not just history classes. ...

If this is right, it raises a question about how we are to respond to this film. Its every detail is designed to advance a morally repugnant vision of Hitler, a vision that, as history was to prove, falsified the true character of Hitler and National Socialism. Enjoying this film—recognizing that we may be caught up, if only slightly, in its pomp and pageantry or be stirred by its beauty—is likely to make us ask, “What kind of person am I to enjoy or be moved by this film?” Isn’t there something wrong with responding in this way to a Nazi film? ...

The concern is not only that if I enjoy such a film, I may be led to act badly (e.g., to support neo-Nazi movements), but also that certain kinds of enjoyment, regardless of their effects, may themselves be problematic. Pleasure in this work of art (like pleasure in a work of art that celebrates sadism or pedophilia) might lead one to ask not just about what one may become, but about who one is now. The point is an Aristotelian one. If virtue consists (in part) in taking pleasure in the right things and not in the wrong things, then what is my character now such that I can take pleasure in these things? ...

These questions merely highlight the long-standing general problem of beauty and evil: that aesthetic and moral considerations may pull in different directions. The problem emerges not only with Triumph of the Will and the other cases mentioned earlier but with, for example, the literary works of the Marquis de Sade and T. S. Eliot. The problem posed by the conflict between the demands of art and the demands of morality is familiar. What are we to make of it?

For much of the twentieth century, the standard solution to this conflict has been to recommend that we look at art from an “aesthetic distance.” As originally described by Edward Bullough in 1912, an attitude of aesthetic distance allows us to set aside the practical concerns of everyday life, including questions of a work’s origins, its moral effects, and so on, and concentrate exclusively on the work of art itself. By “the work itself” Bullough means, of course, the work’s “formal” (i.e., its structural and stylistic) features. Bracketing all non-formal features frees us, at least temporarily, “to elaborate experience on a new basis,” much as we do in appreciating the beauty of a fog at sea despite its danger.

The basic strategy here is simple: When approaching a work of art that raises moral issues, sever aesthetic evaluation from moral evaluation and evaluate the work in aesthetic



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(i.e., formal) terms alone. This is the formalist response to the problem of beauty and evil. Formalism treats the aesthetic and the moral as wholly independent domains. It allows us to say that, evaluated morally, Triumph of the Will is bad but, evaluated aesthetically, it is good. ...

But in the case of Triumph of the Will, the formalist strategy fails. It won’t work here, not because we’re too obsessed by the moral issues to assume a properly distanced standpoint, or because when we assume a posture of aesthetic distance we forget about the historical realities associated with the film, or because adopting an attitude of aesthetic distance toward a film like Triumph of the Will is itself an immoral position (though some may wish to argue that it is). Nor does adopting an attitude of aesthetic distance require that we literally forget about the historical realities. Aesthetic distance is, after all, only a shift in perspective, and a temporary one at that.

The reason the formalist strategy fails in the case of Triumph of the Will is that distancing ourselves from the morally objectionable elements of the film—its deification of Hitler, the story it tells about him, the party, and the German people, and so on—means distancing ourselves from the features that make it the work of art it is. If we distance ourselves from these features of the film, we will not be in a position to understand its artistic value—that is, why this lengthy film of political speeches and endless marching is correctly regarded as a cinematic masterpiece. We will also miss the beauty (horrifying though it is) of its vision of Hitler. ...

Now, defenders of formalism can opt for a more complex understanding of aesthetic distance, one that does not require us to bracket an artwork’s content. According to this view (call it “sophisticated formalism”), understanding a work of art consists in grasping and appreciating the relationship between its form and content, that is, the connection between the message and the means used to convey it. Artistic success consists in expressing a particular message in an effective way. Sophisticated formalism thus allows—indeed requires—us to pay attention to the particular content of the work. On this subtler view, we can’t just ignore the content of art or its message. We must attend to the relation between a work’s form and content, if we are to appreciate the work itself. ...

Note that sophisticated formalism doesn’t require abandoning the distinction between aesthetic and moral evaluation. As with the simpler version, with sophisticated formalism, aesthetic evaluation belongs to one domain, moral evaluation to another. Sophisticated formalism tells us to judge not the message but its expression. In this respect, the approach we are meant to take toward the National Socialist elements of Riefenstahl’s documentary is no different from the approach we are meant to take toward the Christianity of The Divine Comedy or Paradise Lost. Our finding the message conveyed by Triumph of the Will repulsive (or attractive) should not therefore affect our aesthetic judgment. Nor should it affect our aesthetic response to the film.

Indeed, according to sophisticated formalism, Triumph of the Will and works of art like it shouldn’t (from an aesthetic point of view) cause any problem at all. We can distance ourselves from—that is, set aside—the moral dimension of the work’s content while still paying attention to that content—that is, the way in which the film’s content figures in its expressive task.

Is this broader, more inclusive understanding of aesthetic distance satisfactory? The answer, I think, is no. Even sophisticated formalism, with its richer concept of the aesthetic, makes it impossible to talk about the political meaning of Triumph of the Will, the truth or falsity of its picture of Hitler, whether it is good or evil, right or wrong—while doing aesthetics. These cognitive and moral matters are ones we are meant to distance ourselves from when engaged in the business of aesthetic evaluation. Sophisticated formalism doesn’t ignore content, but it does aestheticize it. When we follow its recommendations, we adopt



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an aesthetic attitude toward the Christianity of The Divine Comedy and an aesthetic attitude toward the National Socialism of Triumph of the Will. ...

At this point there are two ways to go. We can say that there is more to art than aesthetics or that there is more to aesthetics than beauty and form. The first option allows us to keep the historically important, eighteenth-century conception of the aesthetic intact. (It is in effect the conception of the aesthetic introduced by sophisticated formalism.) This conception has the advantage of keeping the boundaries of the aesthetic relatively narrow and clearly defined. And it keeps aesthetic evaluation relatively simple. Questions of political meaning, of truth and falsity, good and evil, right and wrong fall outside the category of the aesthetic. One implication of adopting this option is that, since there are works of art that raise these issues, the category of the artistic outstrips the category of the aesthetic.

The second option broadens the concept of the aesthetic beyond its traditional boundaries. It says that we are responding to a work of art “aesthetically” not only when we respond to its formal elements or to the relationship between its formal elements and its content, but also whenever we respond to a feature that makes a work the work of art it is. (These features may include substantive as well as formal features.) On this second option, the aesthetic is understood in such a way as to track the artistic, however broadly or narrowly that is to be understood.

It is this second route that I recommend. Let me at least briefly say why. The first option remains wedded to a conception of the aesthetic that preserves the eighteenth-century preoccupation with beauty. This is a rich and important tradition, but it focuses—and keeps us focused—on a feature of art that is no longer so important to us. Indeed, one of the significant and widely noted facts about the development of modern art is that beauty is no longer central to art. The price of regarding this conception of the aesthetic as the only legitimate one is to marginalize aesthetics—isolating it from much of the philosophy of art—and, indeed, from much of our experience of art.

Opting for this broader conception of the aesthetic gives us a more inclusive category, one more adequate to what art is in all of its historical and cultural manifestations and to the full range of its values. It sets much of what we humanly care about back into the aesthetic arena and offers a much more complete view of the value of art.

My claim, which employs this richer conception of the aesthetic, is, then, that in order to get things aesthetically right about Triumph of the Will, we have to engage with its vision. And this means that we have to engage with the moral issues it raises. This nonformalist notion of the aesthetic rides piggyback on a nonformalist conception of art. It doesn’t require wholesale abandonment of the distinction between aesthetic and moral value. We can, for example, still distinguish between the formal beauty of Triumph of the Will’s stylistic devices and its moral status as a work of National Socialist propaganda. Nor does it require denying that art and morality belong to different domains. But it does require recognizing that there are areas where these domains overlap and that certain works of art, especially works of religious and political art, fall within this overlapping area.