Phil Kaveny

The Works of Philip Kaveny

An Aesthetic to Die For by Phil Kaveny

An Aesthetic to Die For by Phil Kaveny

     Copyright 2015

The question I pose in this paper is this:  In achieving his Cathedral of Light special effect at the 1934 Nuremberg Nazi party rally, which was then filmed by internationally recognized documentary film maker Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003), did Albert Speer, according to Walter Benjamin’s formulations on fascism, politics, and art, artistically ground Nazism in such a way that it led to a self-fulfilling prophecy leading to a celebration of alienation? This is just what Walter Benjamin suggests in his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Though there seems to be no personal connection between Albert Speer and Walter Benjamin, they were historical contemporaries and Speer exemplified the fascism which Benjamin critiqued.[1]

But most important, we can apply Benjamin’s critique of politics and art under fascism by looking at two films which seem to embody the following statement from Benjamin:

All efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war. War and war only can set a goal for mass movements on the largest scale while respecting the traditional property system.[2]

These two films I am using draw heavily on content provided by Speer. Triumph of the Will (1934) and Day of Freedom (1935) reflect Speer/s content simply through his role as a party organizer and major party official. However that by itself would not make the films of interest to us from an aesthetic standpoint.  We need something else for that.

Leni Riefenstahl’s role as a documentary film maker and producer of the two films we will be examining adds an overwhelming amount of aesthetic value to the events she has recorded and which we may now watch. This reduces Albert Speer (1905-81), Hitler’s visionary, chief architect, (1933-1942), and armament minister (1942-1945), to a mere content provider for the 1934 Nazi party rally which took place in Nuremberg, Germany during the week of September 5th through September 12th [3]  and the 1935 film we will be examining. What I mean by this is that a number of techniques for staging demonstrations which Speer had implemented at an earlier party rally were implemented with an astonishing degree of success.  However both rallies are historical events which took place eighty-one years ago and are well past the event horizon of modern memory, making them inaccessible to the contemporary public and most scholars. However, the September 1934 Nazi party rally was made into full-length film and extensively distributed (in Germany) as the documentary film Triumph of the Will by award-winning and internationally acclaimed German actress and documentary film make Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003). And she also made a much more militarized and shorter film, seventeen minutes, of 1935 Nazi Party rally, “Day of Freedom”.[4] This film was only made a year later and seems to represent a totally reformatted world from that of the September 1934 version. Leni Riefenstahl is really essential to this study because it is her skill as a filmmaker which then gives these political events in these two films aesthetic value and really brings her representation of these events into the modern world.[5] Thus these films, in a terrifying and beautiful way, allow us to see the Nazis as they wanted to be seen and remembered.[6]

I have narrowed my focus in this paper to events taking place in Germany and to 1934 and 1935 in order that I may employ more of Walter Benjamin’s formulations from the electronic full text version of The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction which first appeared in German in the late 1930’s, after Italian fascist dictator Mussolini’s of conquest of Ethiopia, and while Benjamin was in exile from the Nazis in Paris. At this time two films were made by German Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003). So there is a strong possibility that Walter Benjamin could have seen both Triumph of the Will and Day of Freedom when they were released.  So in a sense this paper deals with the confluence of these three individuals, Albert Speer, Leni Riefenstahl and Walter Benjamin. I will first discuss scenes 1-4, which run approximately fourteen minutes, from Triumph of the Will.

But first we turn to my analysis of Benjamin once more to note the following observation. Though sound film was only around for a handful of years at that time, it is very clear that Benjamin had a deep understanding of the potential of the medium of sound documentary film.

“A film operator shooting a scene in the studio captures the images at the speed of an actor’s speech. Just as lithography virtually implied the illustrated newspaper, so did photography foreshadows the sound film”

It is clear to me from the following quotation that Benjamin, for better or worse, was keenly aware of social and political transformative power of the (documentary with music and sound) film.

Their most powerful agent is the film. Its social significance, particularly in its most positive form, is inconceivable w1thout its destructive, cathartic aspect, that is, the liquidation of the traditional value of the cultural heritage. II

I am now convinced that the first four scenes of Triumph of the Will can be taken to stand for the whole film. And I further argue that the film itself is really a kind of very cleverly directed multi-media production that functions like a Mobius strip (that is, a continuous loop) as we see in the paintings by Dutch artist M.C. Escher (1898-1972) to give the following message. These four scenes say “Hitler is Germany and Germany is Hitler.” They do this by taking traditional aspects of German life and values, the medieval city of Nuremberg, the pre-World War I Iron Cross, and patriotic German people, and continue to add and blend in the Swastika, images of Hitler, Nazi party leaders like Rudolf Hess, Hermann Göring, and Dr. Paul Joseph Goebbels with scenes of the German people and the ever present German Military. Because of this it a says right before the overture and opening scene that the documentary was commissioned by the Führer (Adolph Hitler, 1889-1945, then Chancellor of Nazi Germany).  Leni Riefenstahl has almost the full resources of the Nazi government to send her message that Hitler is Germany and  Germany is Hitler . But it is her artistry that does this, as she first presents the view of beautiful clouds, and shots of Hitler’s airplane, but no Hitler. It is also in the details of a shot repeated at least seven times of crowds appearing as almost ant-like, filling the streets of the medieval city of Nuremberg to greet his flight.  Turning back to Benjamin, I think it is fair to say that this film, through its artistry, depicts and contributes the:

“Liquidation of the traditional value of the cultural heritage”

Yet the film, by its own logic sensed by Benjamin, goes past liquidation to a terrifying image.  This is in the titles where Hitler is a kind of (godless) messiah who will deliver  Germany from its troubles which go back exactly twenty years to the outbreak of WWI. But what is the purpose of this spectacle in which all Germans (perhaps with the exception of those in concentration camps) seem to so willing participate. To rephrase this, if Hitler is Germany and Germany is Hitler already then what do they need this lavish and beautiful film for, which on some levels might be though of as a very elaborate and kind of quaint birthday party?  Perhaps if we reduced Triumph of the Will to absurdity we might look at it as   a kind of 1930’s German parody of a Busby Berkeley Musical with singing Germans marching with shovels rather than dancing chorus girls. This is where Leni Riefenstahl’s role as a documentary film maker and her aesthetic judgment are critical. And here we again turn to Benjamin and we can see how Leni Riefenstahl’s role is to carry the role of film to its logical conclusions which are consistent and fully realized.

“In Western Europe the capitalistic exploitation of the film denies consideration to modern man’s legitimate claim to being reproduced. Under these circumstances the film industry is trying hard to spur the interest of the masses through illusion-promoting spectacles and dubious speculations.”

Therefore Leni Riefenstahl’s aesthetic contribution to “An Aesthetic to Die For”  is merely to repackage Albert Speer’s content in order to create cinematic..“Illusion-promoting spectacles and dubious speculations.”   I wish that were true, as I believe would a whole generation of Europeans. But what I have done to this point is reach stage one of “An Aesthetic to Die For.”

An Aesthetic to Die For: Stage Two”

I am now convinced that Day of Freedom ( from Nazi 1935 Nuremberg party rally) can be also be  taken to stand for to a kind of very cleverly directed multi-media production that functions like a Mobius Strip. Riefenstahl’s message now is war is freedom and the reciprocal freedom is war. This becomes apparent in the ways in which images penetrate and interpenetrate in the same way Riefenstahl uses them in Triumph of the Will.  However now the stakes have become deadly.  First it is necessary prosaically describe the contents of this film.  It is a seventeen-minute black-and-white sound film, produced by the government of Nazi Germany (backed with the full co-operation of the German armed forces) about a revitalized German army engaging in progressively more complicated maneuvers with state of the art weapons of the day.  The weapons include light and heavy tanks, light and heavy artillery, bombers, followed by an anti-aircraft drill all played before a reviewing stand of Hitler and number of top Nazi officials. All of this makes the film of local historical but not of artistic or aesthetic value to us.

But more important it is an artistic celebration of Germany’s rearmament and flaunting of the terms of she was placed under at the 1919 Treaty of Versailles where she assumed full war guilt and accepted disbarment.  Her work obviously draws on the Italian futurists who relentlessly and fearlessly accepted and were intoxicated by modernity and technology.  And they in turn supported Mussolini from his rise to power until his execution by partisan in 1945. As Benjamin suggests, it draws from one of their pro-war narratives to show how art and war become interlocked under fascism.

First we have Benjamin commenting the Italian futurist Marinetti (1878-1944) leader of an Italian and international artistic movement, and also author of the futurist manifesto in1909, and Mussolini’s confidant, and lifetime supporter.

The technological formula may be stated as follows: Only war makes it possible to mobilize all of today’s technical resources while maintaining the property system. It goes without saying that the Fascist apotheosis of war does not employ such arguments.

Still, Marinetti says in his manifesto on the Ethiopian colonial war:

Quoting Marinetti directly:

‘For twenty- seven years we Futurists have rebelled against the branding of war as anti-aesthetic…. Accordingly we state: … War is beautiful because it establishes man’s dominion over the subjugated machinery by means of gas masks, terrifying megaphones, flame throwers, and small tanks. War is beautiful because it initiates the dreamt-of metallization of the human body.’

I would add that it is of course the War that everybody wanted in 1914 but instead got four years of hell in the trenches on the Western Front, the same hell that Hitler lived through and survived.

(Now continuing with Marinetti) my Italics

War is beautiful because it enriches a flowering meadow with the fiery orchids of machine guns. War is beautiful because it combines the gunfire, the cannonades, the cease-fire, the scents, and the stench of putrefaction into a symphony. War is beautiful because it creates new architecture, like that of the big tanks, the geometrical formation flights, the smoke spirals from burning villages, and many others…. Poets and artists of Futurism! … remember these principles of an aesthetics of war so that your struggle for a new literature and a new graphic art . . . may be illumined by them!”

Therefore Marinetti was able to find beauty in the stink of corruption. However Riefenstahl did something even more frightening and even more problematic.  She presented this loop between war and freedom, and freedom and war as a German fairytale.  The seventeen-minute film she made was a fairytale beautiful without the stink of corruption. Because within her Day of Freedom there is a 7-minute mini-war which is choreographed with guns and tanks and planes like a ballet dance. It also contains added footage of hundreds of aircraft flying in formation, and a successful anti-aircraft defense. Yet strangely in the middle of the Mock Battle is the staged 1935 Nuremberg party rally.  It appears to my eyes that at least one Nazi trooper is shot dead by accident at around the ten-minute point in the film. So for him at least her film was an aesthetic to die for, the first of many millions of casualties in the celebration of annihilation that was to follow. How many might be attributed to these films is a question for further study. Yet an even bigger question for me is did these films help the Nazi Leadership, and most particularly the people, forget the foo- slogging hell of the WWI trenches which so many  including Hitler would remember.

Epilogue

It is paradoxical to me that throughout this course we were particularly concerned with art aesthetics and truth on the deepest level, even as post-structuralism denied the possibility of a deepest truth. Perhaps most we spoke most eloquently when we spoke of Martin Hedgier and, I must agree, spontaneously added Norman Rockwell with his 1943 painting “Freedom from Want” which was part of the Saturday Evening Post’s War-Time-cover “Four Freedoms” series commission by FDR.

Still I don’t think that we can excuse art by saying it is not art when it seems too emphatically to make beautiful the old lie  British War Poet Wilfred Captain Wilfred Owen spoke of in his 1917 poem “Dulce et Decorum Est”. Wilfred 1893-1918   served four years on the Western Front and was killed in combat on Armistice Day November 11, 1918  and these lines concluded  his poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” which graphical and artistically tells another truth about death in a  cloud of poison gas and mud in the trenches.

“My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.[7]

[1] In the first fifty pages In His Autobiography inside the Third Reich Speer goes in to great detail to stage himself as an artist and intellectual and to explain how he won Hitler’s attention as a fellow artist by presenting him with his own theory of “ruin value”. In this Speer demonstrates to Hitler a series of drawings and suggestions of types   building materials which even after a thousand years will look magnificent in there desolation. It is a cruel was one of the ironies of history that these theories only had to wait a dozen years to be tested with Germany’s desolation and defeat in the Second Word War. Speer, Albert.  Inside The Third Reich 1970 Avon  New York pp 29 -50

[2] Unless otherwise noted all blocks of quotations will come from the electronic full texts including notes version The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Though which  includes  entire   notes and epilogue and footnotes  as Wartenberg does not  it can be found at http://bid.berkeley.edu/bidclass/readings/benjamin.html

[3] On page 58 of The Third Reich Speer outlines how he solved what seemed be a small technical problem, even an embarrassment for the spring 1934 Nazi party rally. The spring rally was is to take place Nuremberg Zeppelin field. Speer’s problem was that the thousands of minor and mid-level party   functionaries were an embarrassment to the party. They were out of shape, they had lost their ability to March, and I suppose look a lot like a bunch of attendees at a VFW or American legion convention. Speer simply had them march at night, gave them flaming torches and encircled them with 130 anti-aircraft searchlights which he borrowed from a grudging Herman Goering (Which were then used so effectively in the Major September Nazi party rally six months later.   According to Speer the British Ambassador Sir Neville Henderson wrote in his  1940  book The Failure of a Mission, that he found “The effect of  The  Cathedral  of Ice both “Solemn and beautiful”. Yet what it concealed was both ridiculous and human, and I would and soon to become horrific with the Nuremberg Laws in 1935.Speer, Albert.  Inside The Third Reich 1970 Avon  New York

[4] For purposes of this paper I will  refer to these two films as documentary rather propaganda  and take Leni Riefenstahl at her word that she made documentaries

[5] For purposes of this paper I will  refer to these two films as documentary rather propaganda  and take Leni Riefenstahl at her word that she made documentaries

[6] My original intent for this paper was far to broad I will now limit my focus to events which took place, and two films  made at the 1934 and 1935 Nazi party rally  which took  in Nuremberg  Germany . Award winning an internationally acclaimed, actress  and  documentary film make Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003)

[7] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dulce_et_Decorum_Est

[1] In the first fifty pages In His Autobiography inside the Third Reich Speer goes in to great detail to stage himself as an artist and intellectual and to explain how he won Hitler’s attention as a fellow artist by presenting him with his own theory of “ruin value”. In this Speer demonstrates to Hitler a series of drawings and suggestions of types   building materials which even after a thousand years will look magnificent in there desolation. It is a cruel was one of the ironies of history that these theories only had to wait a dozen years to be tested with Germany’s desolation and defeat in the Second Word War. Speer, Albert.  Inside The Third Reich 1970 Avon  New York pp 29 -50

[1] Unless otherwise noted all blocks of quotations will come from the electronic full texts including notes version The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Though which  includes  entire   notes and epilogue and footnotes  as Wartenberg does not  it can be found at http://bid.berkeley.edu/bidclass/readings/benjamin.html

[1] On page 58 of The Third Reich Speer outlines how he solved what seemed be a small technical problem, even an embarrassment for the spring 1934 Nazi party rally. The spring rally was is to take place Nuremberg Zeppelin field. Speer’s problem was that the thousands of minor and mid-level party   functionaries were an embarrassment to the party. They were out of shape, they had lost their ability to March, and I suppose look a lot like a bunch of attendees at a VFW or American legion convention. Speer simply had them march at night, gave them flaming torches and encircled them with 130 anti-aircraft searchlights which he borrowed from a grudging Herman Goering (Which were then used so effectively in the Major September Nazi party rally six months later.   According to Speer the British Ambassador Sir Neville Henderson wrote in his  1940  book The Failure of a Mission, that he found “The effect of  The  Cathedral  of Ice both “Solemn and beautiful”. Yet what it concealed was both ridiculous and human, and I would and soon to become horrific with the Nuremberg Laws in 1935.Speer, Albert.  Inside The Third Reich 1970 Avon  New York

[1] For purposes of this paper I will  refer to these two films as documentary rather propaganda  and take Leni Riefenstahl at her word that she made documentaries

[1] For purposes of this paper I will  refer to these two films as documentary rather propaganda  and take Leni Riefenstahl at her word that she made documentaries

[1] My original intent for this paper was far to broad I will now limit my focus to events which took place, and two films  made at the 1934 and 1935 Nazi party rally  which took  in Nuremberg  Germany . Award winning an internationally acclaimed, actress  and  documentary film make Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003)

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dulce_et_Decorum_Est

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2 comments on “An Aesthetic to Die For by Phil Kaveny

  1. Matt Philleo
    May 20, 2015

    Phil, well written paper. Your use of language to create an engaging word-picture is well done.

    It’s amazing what a little propaganda can do. It seems Hitler never ceased to be an artist. He was rejected as a traditional media artist and instead utilized the emerging medium of cinematography. Unfortunately, he used it for his own selfish devices of marketing a new world order, a utopia for his people, but because of his own corruption as a sinful human being he could never bring it to pass, and it paradoxically brought about death and destruction, especially to God’s beloved people, the Jews.

    Like

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This entry was posted on February 24, 2015 by in Aesthetics, Kaveny and tagged , , .
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