Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Beauty and Human Evil

This morning in the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani reviews two books about Leni Riefenstahl, the controversial filmmaker whose work helped to bring the Third Reich and Hitler into power in Germany. The review starts with the following two sentences.

Leni Riefenstahl liked to say that her art and life were devoted to the pursuit of Beauty. But her career, as Hitler's favorite and highly gifted filmmaker, stands as an enduring rebuke to Keats's assertion that "Beauty is truth, truth beauty," and that is "all ye need to know."

For a powerful exercise in how beauty has been used to bring fascism to power, every student should at some point try and put themselves into the mindset of a German citizen suffering the economic deprivations of the 30's and then watch Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, her 1934 film about the formation of the Nazi party and its rise to power.

It is frightening how compelling the images are. Boys play leapfrog in the morning, freshly washed and laughing. Men march together with shared purpose. Women cheerfully work alongside. Everyone is the picture of health and beauty. The gatherings, the speeches, the flags, the music. All permeated with a majestic sense of unity and a shared destiny to restore a lost dream of nationalist pride and moral and cultural purity.

And unaddressed and behind it all operates the Wotan archetype, with the Germanic myth of glory in battle and an everlasting paradise of food and drink in the mead halls of the afterlife.

From the contents of the film, taken at face value, the Nazi party is clearly the place to be in a Germany that had been badly defeated both militarily and economically in World War I. Ten short years later, six million Jews will have been murdered and millions will have died in combat on the battlefields and of starvation and deprivation as a result of this rise of fascism.

It is a great reminder that beauty serves evil just as well as good, and we should be very careful in how we apply it. The art world has devoted a great deal of attention to this problem. Unfortunately popular culture has not.

Also: Michael Burleigh's excellent book, The Third Reich: A New History, explores how World War II and the holocaust could happen in such a short period of time. Read this after screening the Triumph of the Will for an analysis of how the holocaust could take place among the German populace.

Addendum: it is important also to note that this exercise should be handled with caution and under supervision. The point of this is to first evoke a powerful inner experience and then to establish a reasoned position on or against it. Riefenstahl's film does not achieve this on it's own, and it easy to simply get caught up in the aesthetic vision that she evokes. Her film is so powerful that it is still banned in Germany for fear that showing it will achieve a popular drive back to fascism. This quote from Jeffrey Raff should help clarify some of the dangers and potential rewards of this process. 

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