In other countries, especially the Soviet Union, leaders began to recognize the power of film to influence social and political attitudes. Film production was nationalized in Russia in 1917, after the Bolshevik Revolution. "Of all the arts," Vladimir Lenin said, " for us , the cinema is the most important." Documentary and fictional silent films were therefore produced to abet the Leninist cause. Notable examples include Sergei Eisenstein's (1898–1948) Stachka ( Strike , 1925), Bronenosets Potemkin ( Battleship Potemkin , 1925), and Oktyabr ( Ten Days that Shook the World and October , 1927); V. I. Pudovkin's (1893–1953) Mat ( Mother , 1926) and Konets Sankt-Peterburga ( The End of St. Petersburg , 1927); and Dziga Vertov's (1896–1954) Kino-pravda ( CinemaTruth , 1925) and Chelovek s kino-apparatom ( Man with a Movie Camera , 1929).
Because of the inherent domination of visual images and the illiteracy of a good deal of the Russian peasantry, the silent cinema was an ideal tool for presenting ideas and information about the fall of the czar and the rise of the industrial and agricultural proletariat. The fact that film was a mass medium, reproducible and widely distributable, added to its propagandistic appeal. As in Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin , the hero of these films was often not a lone individual but a social class.
Based on an actual event during the unsuccessful revolution of 1905, Potemkin uses the historical circumstances of a mutiny aboard a ship to make a larger statement about Leninist insurrection. The most famous montage in cinema history—the Odessa Steps sequence—punctuates the film with hundreds of quickly edited shots that plunge the viewer into the midst of a czarist massacre. Although the actual massacre in 1905 occurred on level ground, Eisenstein saw the dramatic (and propagandistic) value of taking artistic liberties. By using the steep steps, Eisenstein was able to sensationalize the helpless entrapment of the fleeing masses as they rushed from the faceless minions of the czar and their rifles. In addition, an establishing shot from above the steps suggests that the fleeing people are visually trapped between the militiamen and the cathedral at the bottom of the steps, making the Marxist point that the Church and State are the enemies of the proletariat. The culmination of the sequence—the "rising" of a statue of a lion (accomplished by editing together images of three separate statues)—was likewise the product of creative license; the three statues were located near Yalta, far from Odessa. Nonetheless, those three quick shots, followed by a cannonade by the Potemkin against the Odessa Opera House, headquarters of the generals, metaphorically mark the masses' outrage at the czar's cruelty.
Later in his career, under the thumb of Josef Stalin and Commissar Boris V. Shumiatski's Socialist Realist policy, Eisenstein was not allowed to make films from 1929 to 1938. Eventually, though, he made three films that used czars as the heroes: Aleksandr Nevskiy ( Alexander Nevsky , 1938) and Ivan Groznyy ( Ivan the Terrible , parts I (1945) and II (1946, not released until 1958). Whereas Lenin had said that cinema was the most important art, Stalin wrote that "the cinema is the greatest medium of mass agitation. The task is to take it into our hands." Encouraged to produce epics that extolled the "leader of the Russian people," Eisenstein went back in history to glorify the czars, obvious avatars of Stalin himself.
While Eisenstein was barred from filmmaking, Leni Riefenstahl (1902–2003) was coming into prominence in Germany. Her landmark propaganda film, Triumph des Willens ( Triumph of the Will , 1935), still provokes controversy. Commissioned by Chancellor Adolf Hitler (1889–1945), Triumph of the Will was meant to be the official documentation of the Nazi Party Congress of 1934. Yet the film also promulgated fascism and the National Socialist Party (NSDAP) as the bases for renewed German nationalism and patriotism. Swastikas, eagles, statuary, Sieg Heil gestures, and children predominate as national metonymies.
Although Triumph of the Will was made about the party congress, it does not articulate any specific political policy or ideology. Hitler repeatedly stressed that one could not sway the masses with arguments, logic, or knowledge, only with feelings and beliefs. True to form, the film's "star" has a "cult of personality"—a mystical aura associated with nature, religion, and a "folkish" family-based patriotism. Its heroic leader is connected with the sky, earth, and animals; pagan and Christian religious connotations abound (i.e., cathedrals draped with swastika banners); and flags, parades, torchlight rituals, and military-national symbols dominate the mise-en-scène . Indeed, all the signifying mechanisms of the cinema—camera angles, lighting, editing, set design, and music—were marshaled to appeal to a malleable mass audience.
Triumph of the Will emphasizes optimistic, upbeat, and patriotic themes that reinforce the need for a renewed sense of unity and national identity after a period of economic and political instability. Hitler saw the film as an effective glorification of Nazism, a view reiterated years later by critic Susan Sontag, who wrote that it achieved nothing less than transforming history into theater. Propaganda such as Triumph of the Will mingles historical realities and cultural expression so as to have a tangible material and historical effect on society and social consciousness.
Of course, propaganda has been used in films to promote not only right-wing but left-wing causes. The Spanish Civil War, for example, became the battleground not only of loyalist and fascist ground troops but also of cinematic forces. Joris Ivens's (1898–1989) The Spanish Earth (1937) and Leo Hurwitz's (1909–1991) Heart of Spain (1937) are two notable examples that center on the conflict. In 1935 the Communist International had decreed that no longer was socialism versus capitalism to be the dialectic, but rather, democracy versus fascism. So in an attempt to lead the struggle against the fascist dictator of Spain, Francisco Franco (1892–1975), and to combat his propaganda, Ivens and Hurwitz made impassioned documentary films for the Popular Front cause of the loyalists. Ivens made no secret that his goal was not to portray unvarnished truth, but rather to enhance reality through the techniques of cinema in order to sway people into action.
In fascist Italy, Benito Mussolini (1883–1945) authorized the building of Cinecittà—a major film production studio—in 1936. The sign above the gate read, "Cinema Is the Strongest Weapon." LUCE (1926–1943) was a state-owned agency, founded by the fascists to produce "educational" and propaganda material for the Italian populace. LUCE made 2,972 weekly newsreels during its existence, most of which focused on Il Duce, military successes, and social progress in Italy under the fascist regime. In addition, the fictional films produced under fascism were highly successful adaptations of Italian novels and "white telephone" films about the bourgeoisie. Protected through strict import quotas, this cultura popolare reflected the cultural mythology of the fascist regime.
To counter Nazi and fascist propaganda and to inspire reluctant, isolationist American troops to fight the Axis powers, the US War Department commissioned the Hollywood director Frank Capra to produce a series of seven films called Why We Fight (1942–1945). One of the cinematic strategies of the series was that the enemies' own words and footage would be used against them; hence, much of the Why We Fight films are compilations of news footage. The themes (Good vs. Evil, Democracy vs. Totalitarianism) and characters (the Leader, Children, the People) were presented, through effective cinematic techniques, to elicit audience identification and involvement as in fiction movies.
The Nazis Strike (1943), for instance, utilized cross-cutting and "creative geography" to create propagandistic meaning. In one scene, dive-bombing German planes are intercut with fleeing civilians and cowering children to suggest that the bombers are menacing the victims
Leni Riefenstahl gained international fame in the 1930s as the official filmmaker of the Third Reich. She studied dance in her youth and appeared as an actress in German "mountain films" under the tutelage of Arnold Fanck. While performing in these movies, she learned the art of filmmaking and soon became the director of her own mountain film, Das blaue Licht ( The Blue Light , 1932), in which she also starred.
Adolf Hitler admired The Blue Light and commissioned Riefenstahl to film the congress of the Nazi Party at Nuremberg in 1934. The result would be her masterpiece and triumph, Triumph des Willens ( Triumph of the Will , 1935). Multiple cameras were used to powerful effect to lend full cinematic expressivity to the event, sweeping up the viewer in the spectacle. Riefenstahl insisted that Triumph of the Will was not propaganda, claiming "it is history—pure history ." Yet the film relies on a nearly constant display of national symbols and mythic iconography to instill a sense of Teutonic grandeur, and her cinematic techniques convey a propagandist message beneficial to the Nazi cause. Indeed, its monumental style seems to convey the essential appeal of the fascist mentality. From its opening, Triumph creates identification with its "hero" by presenting the visual perspective of Hitler from inside his airplane. This "God's-eye" viewpoint is used as the plane parts the clouds (of postwar confusion? of the Weimar Republic?) over Nuremberg and thereby presents Der Führer as a mythic Messiah.
Olympische Spiele 1936 ( Olympia , 1936), an ostensibly objective account of athletic competition at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, utilized cinematic techniques to emphasize the German-Axis contestants. The famous diving sequence—with low-angle, slow-motion shots of gravity-defying divers leaping gracefully into the sky—depicts German, Italian, and Japanese competitors from slightly more imposing angles and with more grandiose music. (Riefenstahl's style could not disguise, however, African American Jesse Owens's four gold medal victories in track events.) Through Riefenstahl's camerawork and editing, the divers at times appear to defy gravity and tumble through the air, their athletic bodies—in seeming freefall—serving as a summary image of Riefenstahl's ideal of physical beauty.
Riefenstahl's last feature was Tiefland ( Lowland ). The filmmaker was accused of using gypsy concentration camp inmates as extras. Filmed during World War II, Tiefland was not released until 1954. By then, Riefenstahl had spent four years in Allied prison camps, undergone denazification, and been acquitted by a German court. In her later years, Riefenstahl became a still photographer, most notably of the African Nuba tribe. In her nineties, she shot stunning underwater scenes of deep-sea flora and even sharks. Despite these apolitical artistic projects, Riefenstahl is best remembered as a political pariah for her propaganda efforts on behalf of the Third Reich.
Das blaue Licht ( The Blue Light , 1932), Triumph des Willens ( Triumph of the Will , 1935), Olympische Spiele 1936 , ( Olympia , 1936), Tiefland ( Lowland , 1954)
Hinton, David B. The Films of Leni Riefenstahl . 2nd ed. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1991.
Riefenstahl, Leni. The Last of the Nuba . New York: Harper & Row, 1974.
——. A Memoir . New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993.
Sontag, Susan. "Fascinating Fascism." In Under the Sign of Saturn , 73–105. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1980.
Tomasulo, Frank P. "The Mass Psychology of Fascist Cinema: Triumph of the Will ." In Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video , edited by Barry Keith Grant and Jeannette Sloniowski, 99–118. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1998.
Frank P. Tomasulo
shown. In fact, these events did not occur simultaneously, but footage was cut together in the editing room. Later, we see Nazi soldiers loading howitzers and then the result of their handiwork: civilian areas exploding, a church steeple falling, children fleeing, and dead horses. Such associative editing enhances the portrayal of Germans as evil. Music is also used to accentuate the pro-Allies message; in particular, Chopin's Polonaise accompanies a voice-over narration that states, "Warsaw still resisted [the Nazis]." Later, a funereal passage from Beethoven's Seventh Symphony is heard over images of the bodies of dead Poles and their weeping widows. A heroic passage from the same symphony is used over images of Winston Churchill, and an uplifting rendition of "Onward Christian Soldiers" is played as the film ends—thereby equating the Allied effort with a religious crusade.