Political dimension of talent. Masters were forgiven for their involvement

“Triumph of the Will”, filmed during the 1934 NSDAP rally is still considered a classic of 20th century propaganda. First of all, it stimulates the emotions. Night visions, massive psychosis, the play of chiaroscuro, close-ups of meaningful objects and faces, magnified to fill the screen – all this captures the audience’s imagination. Add to this the figure of Hitler in glowing light and marching columns of the “faithful”…

The marriage of art and politics is a relationship known since the dawn of civilisation – provided we acknowledge that there have never been and there are no politicians who have not enhanced their authority with visual, musical and verbal (not always textual) settings. And it is the very first of the above abilities, i.e. to influence on consciousness through the sense of sight, that covers the widest range of possibilities.

And what a scale!

From monuments (to start with the pyramids), through rulers’ outfits (golden robes, cloaks with trains, crowns and other concepts designed to lend divinity to people who are, after all, mortal), to details such as seals, rings, letter paper and other forms of laying the signature reserved exclusively for a monarch or a big shot (lay or religious).

What occupies an important place in the propaganda arsenal is: painting, photography and that which has been balancing between theatre and traditional fields, for several decades now, i.e. performance.
Artists serving a particular ideology or paid by those who are interested in promoting it, often sacrifice their talent for propaganda, thus losing the chance for “immortality”.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE It’s a bit unfair – after all, the so-called “transfers” from one political party to another have recently become the norm.
But please do not believe that the moral attitude called “fickle as weathercock” was considered reprehensible in the past. It happened, albeit rarely, that particularly talented masters were forgiven for their flexible spines.

Im Westen nichts Neues

Another example is that of Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825). The official painter of the French Revolution, he began his career as a favourite of Louis XVI, whom he voted to behead in 1792, as a deputy to the National Convention. He himself was not far from having his days cut short prematurely. Imprisoned a little later and tried for his reprehensible friendship with Robespierre, he was released (or perhaps saved) thanks to an amnesty and another change at the helm of France. Lo and behold, Bonaparte, already crowned Emperor, who also appreciated David’s artistry, appointed him as his court painter. Once again, the painter showed no political instinct – or was haunted by the devil of history: after the fall of Napoleon, his favourite portraitist had to flee to Brussels, proclaimed a “regicide”. That’s where David ended his life, having never regained his former glory.
“The Coronation of Napoleon” (original name: “Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon I and Coronation of the Empress Josephine in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris on 2 December 1804”) – a painting by Jacques-Louis David from 1806. Photo France, Louvre, Public domain, Wikimedia
In order to complete the scope of Jacques-Louis David’s visual creations: he also dictated fashion, supported by the leaders of the Revolution – a hairstyle à la Titus, an outfit (for men, of course) reminiscent of a soldier’s uniform, but sexier: tight trousers and mid-thigh high boots, somewhat in the style of the legendary musketeers.

I shall add that this most ideologically flexible artist was born 275 years ago.

Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), who followed in the footsteps of his revolutionary predecessors, didn’t have as much luck.

Courbet was associated with political activists from his youth. Yes, he promoted realism (an innovative trend at that time), but its nonconformist nature forced him to go far beyond the boundaries of art. He took an active part in the Paris Commune (a three-month revolutionary uprising of the people of Paris in 1871, interpreted according to one’s beliefs: from chaotic anarchy or, in line with Marxist theory, as the beginnings of the dictatorship of the proletariat).

Courbet, placed in the position of “delegate for war”, was severely punished. Not only by being in prison – because he was accused of instigating the destruction of the Vendôme Column (a symbol of Bonapartism, according to the Communards). In addition to the prison sentence, he had to pay for the reconstruction of the monument. What did the painter do? As soon as he left prison in 1873, he emigrated to Switzerland, where he died four years later.


Now it will be the round anniversary style.

Twenty years ago – on September 8, 2003 – Berta Helene Amalie Riefenstahl, commonly known by her affectionate name Leni, died at the age of 101.

She started her career as a dancer, and when an injury forced her to leave the stage, she switched to another creative discipline. Cinema!
The medium considered by the main ideologist of our eastern neighbour to be the most important. Among our western neighbours, this new – at the beginning of the 20th century! - branch was also popular and flourishing. In any case, German cinematography brought the expressionism of silent films to a worldwide peak.

However, Riefenstahl belonged to a different era and style. After a brief flirtation with silent cinema, her star rose in the 1930s. She went down in history as... well, an innovator, a visual revolutionary, or rather an opportunist serving a criminal ideology? It is known who financed her. It is also known that she had talent – that of acting, art and... self-management.

How do we perceive her and her achievements today?

After WWII, she didn’t experience a blood feud. After a four-year stay in French custody she was found to have merely “sympathized” with the Nazis. There was a conspiracy of silence around her for quite a long time, but she didn’t deny her views. She didn’t apologize, she didn’t beat her breast, she even pretended to be unaware of the cruelties of her “comrades”. However, in the 1950s and 1960s, not receiving funding for films, she focused on photography.

Illuminated by ideology

Let’s start with genealogy. She was born in 1902, so she must have consciously experienced the Great War. A pretty, well-built girl, with a very Nordic type of beauty, she knew how to use her external advantages. Plus a go-getting energy, plus a strong character.

At the turn of the 1920s and 1930s, she managed to appear in several sports films. She lost to Marlene Dietrich in the race for the main role in “The Blue Angel” (1930), but she soon “paid her back”. Not only did she play the leading character, but she also directed the film “Blue Light” (1932). The story of Junta, who is as honest as the day is long, naive and isolated from the local community, seems somehow prophetic of Leni’s future fate.

Оппенгеймер не мав рацію

Теоретично Нолан не займається пропагандою.

see more
In the same year, another ideological radiation transfixed Miss Riefenstahl’s mind. She heard the Führer’s speech at a rally. And she immediately offered him her services as a director. How this promise was fulfilled – more on that in a moment.

What is striking to me are the similarities in the careers of artists in various fields who, by engaging in totalitarian ideology, bent their creative visions to it. Some people paid for concessions to the prevailing beliefs at a given time in later settlements, others (like David mentioned at the beginning) escaped unscathed.

Themis, the Greek goddess of justice, and the voice of society generally turned out to be kind to those who, through art, gave vent to their (often rightful) opposition to all injustices – even if it was a rebellion resulting from “noble stupidity”. There was no mercy, however, for those who were guided by profit, career or fear of environmental ostracism.

There is a problem with Leni and other outstanding artists who were seduced by the propaganda that is being denied today. In the artistic sense, they rose to the top C of their achievements. But this happened thanks to facilities, subsidies, the glamour and glitter of fashionable society, and, above all, thanks to the support of those whose votes counted. In fact, their opinion was like a verdict.

Fraulein Riefenstahl made a special contribution to the Reich by making a documentary about the National Socialist movement, considered a masterpiece of propaganda. “Triumph des Willens” (premiered in 1935, filmed during the 1934 NSDAP rally) lasts almost two hours.

Banned after World War II, t is still considered a classic of 20th century propaganda. First of all, it stimulates the emotions. To achieve this, it draws on the achievements of the silent expressionist cinema, in which the German creators were the masters. Night visions, massive psychosis, the brilliant play of chiaroscuro, close-ups of meaningful objects (e.g. cartridge belts) and faces, magnified to fill the screen – all this captures the audience’s imagination. Add to this the figure of Hitler in glowing light and the marching columns of the “faithful”, surrounded by halos – is it possible to resist the power of this image?

Berlin 1938

However, Leni’s position in the history of cinematography was not determined by “Triumph of the Will”.
Her classic work – the documentary about the Berlin Olympics AD 1938 – still retains its aesthetic quality.

It seems – here is a brilliant artist whose captivating theme overshadows the political perspective. She sees the sublimity, the ascent, the beauty. Leni, the embodiment of the then athlete (see: Młodziakówna in Gombrowicz’s “Ferdydurke”), still super-able (though no longer young, a 34-year-old), qualified for the German Olympic ski team for the Olympics in Berlin. She resigned. Instead, she chose a less obvious competition: filming. She shot a brilliant picture in a visually abbreviated and expressive way: “Olympia”.

These scenes, this montage were powerful.

Some said: Riefenstahl was not about Nazi propaganda, she was mainly about the art of cinematography, about revealing shots of athletes. But... she did not hesitate to record the parade of Olympic participants before Hitler: hands raised in a characteristic gesture of fascist greeting. And then a shiver runs down your spine.

It is worth remembering that 90 years ago no one dreamed of computer effects. Even cinematic editing techniques were not obvious to the general public. What was shown on the cinema screens seemed real.
But at the screenings of “Olympia” in the United States, Leni harmed herself by publicly denying the reports of “Kristallnacht” in Germany. Compensation for this failure was a plot of land granted to her by Hermann Göring to build her own film studio. In 1939, in September, she visited Poland with her film crew. She wore a Wehrmacht uniform at the time. Armed, as befits an elegant woman, mildly – with a small pistol and a bayonet on her belt, she documented the course of the military campaign in Poland.
She looked like the heroines of her own films.

And when the Reich occupied France, she sent a congratulatory dispatch to the Führer.

Years later, age helped her with the “statute of limitations”. After all, few people live to be 100 years old. In October 2002, the German authorities decided to close the case brought against Riefenstahl by Gypsy prisoners of concentration camps. The case went quiet due to the director’s advanced age.

Odessa steps scene

She wasn’t the only one to have believed in the Nazi idea. Other artists with creative genius also engaged in similarly intoxicating, criminal political liaisons. And even if they did not consciously serve the murderous system, they courted totalitarianism, seeing it as hope for a better world. And for their own well-being.

The beginning of the 20th century was marked by many revolutionary changes, especially after WWI. A lot was known about the upheavals in Western Europe, commented on and reacted negatively or enthusiastically. But there was little information about what was happening in the east, as they said – with the Soviets.

Meanwhile, there were also outstanding artists who were similar in personality to Ms Riefenstahl.
I will mention the most famous one.
Author of the 1925 masterpiece, considered the film of all time.

“Battleship Potemkin”, a silent film directed by Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948), glorified the rebellious uprising of sailors against the tsarist regime in 1905. The motion picture turned out to be a brilliant summary of timeless ideas: human dignity, the value of every life and freedom, equality and fraternity. All this in the spirit of selflessness. But beyond these ideas, borrowed from the French Revolution, audiences of different eras and aesthetic canons were delighted by the visual values of the scenes, which worked equally well in still photography.

Eisenstein ushered in the “golden age” of Soviet cinema. Not to mention the fact that this film was referenced in many later works, with sound, of course.

Photomontage scream

Now I am going to talk about the great career of one of the eulogists of the revolution, and then – of its victims. His fate coincides somewhat with Riefenstahl’s biography, but there are fundamental differences.

Alexander Rodchenko (1891-1956), several years older than Riefenstahl, son of a washerwoman and a landless peasant transformed into a theatre prop maker, had already experimented with abstract painting in the 1920s. He started collaborating with the magazine “LEF”, then “Novyi LEF”. He was looking for a form, a way to express his views and the spirit of the times.

This was also when he discovered photography, but without a small-image camera his visions and beliefs were translated into photomontages.

His first works were collages made from press photographs: covers for a collection of poems by Vladimir Mayakovsky (whom he adored and admired), for magazines devoted to cinema; posters advertising Dziga Vertov’s newsreels. An advertisement from the Leningrad branch of the Gosizdat publishing house went down in history: the head of a girl shouting the word “knigi”, written in the form of a tube. To make the message even louder, the screamer put her hand to her mouth. As tough she was shouting to the deaf. That’s how it was – she promoted education, which, thanks to the new Soviet government, was a good available to the entire nation. This woman’s face is almost a symbol of that era.
Who is she? That’s Lilya Brik, wife to the poet Osip, muse of the constructivists, Mayakovsky’s beloved.

Leica in the hands of a leftist

When Rodchenko buys his first Leica, he experiences illumination: after all, the world is built according to the assumptions of constructivists!
It is orderly.
Beautiful with a new technical aesthetic. Abstract. To see this, you just need to change your human habits – look from below, from above, forget about the horizon line. It was the change of perspective that made these photographs revolutionary.
For two decades, the artist had been inseparable from his camera. He worked for orders and for himself. He shot dozens, hundreds of photos a day; he selected good frames from them. He had his favorite motifs. Ladders, chimneys, cranes, gears, factories, modern architecture; sports parades, portraits of the artists’ companions (most of them were shaved down to zero, with fags in their mouths).

Masterpieces and iconic works were created then. Sublime ones.

Forms are complemented by shadows, human bodies are often transformed into abstractions, shots are dynamic, proportions are distorted. Here’s a guy climbing a ladder, view from below; big feet in the foreground. “Stairs”, another canonical work: the diagonal rhythm of the steps, the dark silhouette of a woman with a child in her arms crossing them, extended by a shadow. It is impossible not to associate this scene with the sequences (earlier by four years) on the giant stairway of Odessa from Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin”.

Sports topics are treated in an equally innovative way – here they are consistent with Riefenstahl’s vision. Pathos and faith in human possibilities. Admiration for physical beauty, fitness and strength. The most brilliant of them: “Jump from the board” (1933). A compact lump of human/non-human body flying into the sky, above the clouds. Unmatched perfection from both the photographer and the jumper.

In group scenes, Rodchenko seems to be visually “racing” with Leni R. She documents the Olympic Games in Berlin, he does the same with sports competitions in the USSR, with the same nationalist-totalitarian distortion. Which doesn’t stop you from admiring the beauty of the composition.

The end of his life brought disappointment to the revolutionary. His old friends moved away, he was removed from artistic associations, and he ran out of commissions.

We will promote a horse as well

A song of the recent past? By no means! Similar scenarios happen in every era and in every system. Just for fun, let’s recall ancient Rome.

The ruler of the empire Caligula bestowed the title of senator on a horse called Incitatus. The steed lived in a marble stable, ate from an ivory manger, and gold flakes were sprinkled into his feed. But the Caesar wasn’t satisfied with this expression of his appreciation for the quadruped. Incitatus was given a house with servants, decorated and equipped according to his status. However, the senatorial dignity given to the animal did not mean the emperor’s faith in the horse’s common sense, but rather showed a lack of confidence in the intelligence of the other members of the senate.

We are waiting for the horse’s successor.

– Monika Małkowska

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki
Main photo: Director Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003) during the making of “Triumph of the Will" in 1934 about the Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg, Franconia, Germany. To the left of the camera is her chief cameraman, Sepp Allgeier (1895-1968). The film crew also wore uniforms. Photo from the Allgeier family collection, Public domain, Wikimedia
See more
Culture wydanie 22.12.2023 – 29.12.2023
„I gave my most important recitals in insurgent Warsaw”
He sang to the accompaniment of bombs and said he wouldn’t change them for the world's most prestigious scenes.
Culture wydanie 15.12.2023 – 22.12.2023
Scandalising and delightful
Seductive women played the role of saints, and saints resembled ancient sages.
Culture wydanie 8.12.2023 – 15.12.2023
Infuriated by horizontal wall pattern
Had the walls of Zachęta been empty, it would have been much better for this project.
Culture wydanie 24.11.2023 – 1.12.2023
Big little man
He contributed to the spreading of nationalist ideas in Germany and Italy.
Culture wydanie 10.11.2023 – 17.11.2023
Watch on king’s hand or mistakes in films
In the film “Katyń” a fragment of a yellow “M” letter can be seen against the red background of McDonald’s.