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by Serena Hashimoto, College of Communication


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
· submissive behavior
· extravagant effort
· 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 Will.
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 Moon.
· 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 arts sequences.

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.

 

 

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