Saturday, February 23, 2013

What’s the Matter with “Triumph of the Will”?

By your esteemed film critics,

Now that the Third Reich’s annual film awards are almost upon us, we are hearing voices that object to some of the entrants, especially Leni Riefenstahl’s stirring “Triumph of the Will”.  We have heard the objection, for instance, that Riefenstahl selectively showed smiling and enthusiastic faces, ignoring the many in the crowd who were bored, hostile or simply tired.  They say this is rewriting history.

Actually, this kind of nitpicking is little more than a pretext for debate over the politics of the movie itself.  These critics don’t like Hitler, and they are using “Triumph of the Will” as an opportunity to make themselves heard.  But this shows only that they don’t understand Art.

Films are about entertainment and beauty, not truth.  If they are true it is by accident.  And this applies to all literature and art: was Shakespeare “true”?  Karl May?

“Triumph of the Will” captured the imagination of the public because of its beautifully composed imagery and cinematic rhythm.  However accurate it might be about what actually transpired at that rally in Nürnberg, which is something we may never know, it did exactly what great movies are supposed to do.  The critics, on the other hand, express their contempt for the movie-going public.  They think that viewers are simply passive objects of government propaganda, unable to think for themselves.  Maybe they have more in common with Herr Goebbels than they know.
Invention remains one of the prerogatives of art and it is, after all, the job of writers, directors and actors to invent counterfeit realities. It is unfair to blame filmmakers if we sometimes confuse the real world with its representations. The truth is that we love movies partly because of their lies, beautiful and not. It’s journalists and politicians who owe us the truth.


highlowbrow said...

"Films are about entertainment and beauty, not truth."

Oh is that it, is it?

As I have gotten older I have come increasingly to believe that Tolstoy was right. Art is not about beauty. It is also not about literal truth. It is the transmission of emotional content. Good art needs to say something worthwhile.

Tolstoy also contended that established art was often bad because the successful artists of his day had lost their moral compass. They were corrupt and their art was bad.

Triumph of the Will may contain many pretty pictures, without doubt. But it's a poster child of Tolstoy's idea of bad art.

Shag from Brookline said...

Is the block portion in blue a quote from Herr Goebbels? Or someone else? A cite would be appreciated to determine context better.

Peter Dorman said...

Shag, click on the blockquote -- it's a link.

Shag from Brookline said...

Thanks. The article linked to and the quote remind me of the use of "history" by Supreme Court Justices that many times can best be described as "law office history." Lawyers' briefs filed with the Court are often loaded with "law office history" in contrast to historians' and linguists' briefs. Alas, the Court's 5-4 decisions (e.g., Bush v. Gore, Heller and McDonald on the Second Amendment) become the law of the land aided by the Constitution's supremacy clause. The "truth," however, cannot be provided well by journalists and politicians. Sometimes "We, the People" come through with elections that possibly might result in the appointment of a Justice to shift the tide.

As to the quote and movies, unfortunately may moviegoers end up believing what is depicted despite the historical corrections of journalists.

kevin quinn said...

Peter: I like this, but I hear someone getting ready to invoke Godwin's Law. (-;

Peter Dorman said...

Godwin's Law doesn't apply if you start with a reference to Nazis. ;)