|Leni Riefenstahl made a film of the 1934 Nazi
rally entitled Triumph of the Will. Her later work included a
film of the 1936 Olympics and photography of the African Nuba
tribe. She always maintained that she had no interest in politics
and that, furthermore, art and politics were two completely different
things. In a widely read 1975 article entitled “Fascinating
Fascism,” Susan Sontag argued that Riefenstahl’s
work contains what sontag describes as a “fascist aesthetic.” Sontag’s
point is that, regardless of whether or not Riefenstahl was consciously
aware of the political implications of supporting Hitler, the
aesthetic she employed in her film worked to achieve his ends.
Sontag writes, “Fascist art glorifies surrender, it exalts
mindlessness, it glamorizes death.” The visual components
that she identifies as achieving this are:
· preoccupation with situations of control
the endurance of pain
egomania and servitude
domination and enslavement take forms of pageantry
the massing of people
turning people into things
the multiplication of things
ceaseless motion; a congealed, static, virile posing
Sontag argued that the fascist aesthetic can be found in all
of Riefenstahl’s work, not just Triumph of the Will.
It is true that upon watching Olympia, her film on the 1936
Olympics, one can easily recognize these same visual elements.
The effect is to subordinate the individualism of the athletes
in favor of a composite, generic human form. Fascism relies
on the subordination of individualism in favor of Nationalism
in order to flourish. It is this tendency in Riefenstahl’s
work that Sontag is critical of.
Does Hero employ certain visual components to supports its’ own
fascist ideology? Or is it just a remarkably beautiful film?
These are the same questions that still circle Triumph of the
It is not too difficult to locate the narrative elements of Hero that indicate
a fascist belief system: the hero remaining nameless, the primary goal of the
story being the justification of the violent unification of the country, and
narrative statements such as, “what is the suffering of one individual
compared to the suffering of all?” However, do the visual elements correspond
to the fascist aesthetic as outlined by Sontag?
In several instances there does seem to be a least a possible correlation:
· Submissive behavior: Demonstrated in the character
Extravagant effort, the endurance of pain: The calligraphy
students under siege.
Egomania and servitude: The emperor and the hero.
Domination and enslavement take the forms of pageantry, the
massing of people: The sequences of the court and military.
Turning people into things: The form of Flying Snow becomes
object like at the end of her fight sequence with Moon.
Ceaseless motion and a congealed, static, virile posing: The
freeze frame, slow motion sequences in the midst of martial
To what degree do these visual elements assist in supporting
the film’s ideology? It is impossible to tell. However,
hopefully this exercise serves as a reminder that the sentiment
expressed by Reifenstahl, that art and politics are two totally
different things, should always be deeply questioned.