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Fascinating Fascism

April 20, 2009



The reputation of Nazi über-babe and camera-fondler Leni Riefenstahl is one of those ineffable mysteries, like the careers of Steven Seagal or Jean-Claude Van Damme. The last two, while baffling, are not particularly disturbing. They didn’t, after all, suck up to and glorify mass murderers.

Leni Riefenstahl is another matter. For decades, the orthodox view of Riefenstahl and her two alleged meisterwerkes, The Triumph of the Will and Olympiad, has been that she was a film-maker of genius whose work was tainted by her unfortunate association with an unsavoury political movement.

That Riefenstahl was no Nazi but an ambitious and brilliant woman whose romantic naiveté led her into the arms of more sophisticated and cynical people who manipulated her and her talent for their own ends.

That Riefenstahl had no idea what Hitler and the Nazis were really about. She was just an arty young woman taken in by plausible scoundrels.

This is a view much promoted by Riefenstahl herself. Sadly for her and her enthusiasts, the most cursory examination of the facts quickly explodes this nonsense.

Let’s dispense with the ‘Riefenstahl the Political Innocent’ trope first. Here’s Riefenstahl describing her first experience of hearing Hitler, then a Presidential candidate, speaking in 1932:

“I had an almost apocalyptic vision that I was never able to forget. It seemed as if the earth’s surface were spreading out in front of me, like a hemisphere that suddenly splits apart in the middle, spewing out an enormous jet of water, so powerful that it touched the sky and shook the earth.”

Here’s what Riefenstahl told the London’s Daily Express in 1934:

“The book (Mein Kampf) made a tremendous impression on me. I became a confirmed National Socialist after reading the first page. I felt a man who could write such a book would undoubtedly lead Germany. I felt very happy that such a man had come.”

In 1937, Riefenstahl told a reporter for the Detroit News:

“To me, Hitler is the greatest man who ever lived. He truly is without fault, so simple and at the same time possessed of masculine strength.”

Keep in mind that by 1937, nobody but an imbecile could have been in any doubt about what the Nazi’s policies were and whatever else Riefenstahl was, she was not an imbecile.

On June 14, 1940, the day Paris was declared an open city by the French and occupied by German troops, Riefenstahl wrote to Hitler in a telegram:

“With indescribable joy, deeply moved and filled with burning gratitude, we share with you, my Führer, your and Germany’s greatest victory, the entry of German troops into Paris. You exceed anything human imagination has the power to conceive, achieving deeds without parallel in the history of mankind. How can we ever thank you?”

So much for Riefenstahl the apolitical naif.

And what of The Triumph of the Will, so often hailed as the greatest work of film propaganda ever made that even people who’ve never seen it lazily accept that it must be true?

I attended a screening of the film recently. It was an eye-opener. We are asked to believe that it’s a great film despite its subject matter. In fact, I quickly realized, it’s a very bad film that’s of enduring interest precisely because of its subject matter. Riefenstahl is a beneficiary of what Susan Sontag called Fascinating Fascism. That compelling, evil gloss that coats everything associated with the Nazis.

The film that unfolded was, by any standard of cinematic rigour, as torpid and absurd as the Nuremberg rallies themselves must have been to anyone but the most fanatical and bone-headed Nazi. It was Wagner as envisioned by a dim adolescent bully: a puppet-show for pinheads.

It’s not just the endless parade of Nazi grotesques–Streicher, Goebbels, Hess, Himmler, etc., that sends ones heart into ones boots; it’s not just the tedious drooling speeches of spectacular banality, enlivened by paroxysms of mechanical applause; it’s not just the never-ending robotic marching, the mindless torchlit uniformity, the risible Nazi regalia of eagles and swastikas that appear to have been torn wholesale from some corny MGM Roman sword-and-sandals flick; nor is it the ear-grinding tedium of oom-pah marching bands making the air hideous with their cacophony.

No, what really grate are Riefenstahl’s attempts at pregnant, metaphorical High Style. The opening scenes of Hitler’s plane flying above a sunlit cloudscape before descending to earth and his awaiting acolytes would have made D.W Griffith, no mean hand with a ham-fisted visual metaphor, cringe with shame. It is the worst kind of kitsch–obvious, leaden and utterly laughable. That such guff had a powerful effect on German audiences of the period is of some interest to historians and psychologists. That it’s cited as evidence of Riefenstahl’s filmic ‘genius’ is beyond belief.

The most straight-forward newsreel footage of the period is more powerful, more disturbing, more unsettling than anything Riefenstahl or Goebbels’ stable of tame film-makers ever produced. If Riefenstahl had not been “tainted” by the dark glamour of the Nazis, she would be utterly forgotten.

In interviews for the 1993 film The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, Riefenstahl adamantly denied any deliberate attempt to create pro-Nazi propaganda and said she was disgusted that Triumph of the Will was used in such a way.

Dishonest to the last, Riefenstahl either refused to accept or failed to grasp that her association with Fascinating Fascism was the only interesting thing about her.

  1. April 20, 2009 10:46 PM

    Superb invective Misha, which almost makes me want to see the film. Personally I’m not sure we can judge Hitler’s contemporaries fairly with the hindsight as to what a successful nutter he was to become. Plus you’ve got to wonder what you’d do if caught up in such turbulent times. People fall for what makes sense to them and a good dictator is very apt at saying and promising things which make sense.

  2. mishari permalink*
    April 20, 2009 11:12 PM

    Polly, the complete film, with English subs, can be watched here.
    It’s a truly repellent piece of work.

  3. April 20, 2009 11:22 PM

    A big word, “almost”…

  4. April 20, 2009 11:29 PM

    I watched 3 and a half minutes then fell asleep with all the cloud gazing – if the whole film is like that then it has some use if there are no sheep to count… I’m off to watch Mastermind instead…

  5. MeltonMowbray permalink
    April 20, 2009 11:33 PM

    What a coincidence. I just had a quick scoot through the youtube TOTW. The camera work is shakier than I remember-surely they used static cameras then?

    The young chaps lathering each other with soap is a highlight- just good clean fun of course. You’re right- compared to other European films of the time, let alone Hollywood, it’s horribly amateurish.

    • mishari permalink*
      April 20, 2009 11:37 PM

      I have a feeling you might have been watching The Triumph of Will Young by…erm..(cough)..mistake…

  6. MeltonMowbray permalink
    April 20, 2009 11:46 PM

    No, I’m saving that for later. Will wouldn’t have been seen dead in one of those uniforms.

  7. Captain Ned permalink
    April 20, 2009 11:49 PM

    One of the most important facts about German cinema under the Nazis is that most of the films produced were not, like Riefenstahl’s, overt propaganda, but frothy comedies and musicals, prestigious adaptations of literary classics or weepy melodramas (whose plots may have subtly propounded fascist values, but not necessarily as a result of the conscious decisions of the makers). Film was largely seen by Goebbels as offering both soothing escape for the masses from everyday reality, and a normalization of life under Hitler. Thus, depictions of swastikas, Hitler salutes etc. were very often discouraged, especially in comedies. The most direct expressions of fascist ideology were apparently more likely to be included in historical pageants of the glorious Germanic past rather than in depictions of modern life. I’ve read that, to this day, many of the big hits of the Hitler years are still enormously popular with German audiences, whether on DVD or video, or on TV showings. But when people outside Germany think of Nazi cinema, they think of Riefenstahl.

    I wonder what you think of Eisenstein, Mishari. He’s identified with the Soviet regime in much the same way as is Riefenstahl with the Nazis, though he fell out of favour (as most people did). I’ve only seen two of his works: October and Battleship Potemkin. The circumstances of my viewing of the former are so out of the ordinary that I feel unable to offer an opinion of its merits (I’ll tell the story another time). Potemkin struck me as being a vaguely impressive technical achievement, but nothing more. I didn’t find it remotely rousing or even engaging – it was actually quite dull, and for such a short, fast-paced piece of work, that’s really something.

  8. mishari permalink*
    April 21, 2009 12:05 AM

    Cap’n, you’re absolutely right about Nazi-era film–it was, as you say, almost exclusively froth, with a peppering of Mythical Sagas playing up the inherent nobility of the Germanic race. There were exceptions, Jud Süß (Jew Suss), for example, but for the rest, Goebbels and his gang went the Busby Berkley route.

    I think Eisenstein was an incomparably greater film-maker than Riefenstahl and as propaganda, October was a far more impressive work. Mind you, I’ve not seen it in over twenty years…ditto Potemkin.

  9. April 21, 2009 8:26 AM

    Eisenstein is surely more allied to the Russian Revolution than the following Soviet regime. All the artists who experimented with form, composition and narrative were “shown the door” by Stalin who, like the Nazi’s wanted a more soothing approach to art to sum up their outlook. Hence the years of grisly Soviet realism. World’s apart from Tatlin, Dziga Vertov or, indeed Eisenstein who fled to Mexico where Trotsky hung out pre- his ice-pick episode.

  10. April 21, 2009 8:30 AM

    I saw Battleship Potemkin again a few weeks ago; absolutely stunning film.

  11. mishari permalink*
    April 21, 2009 8:53 AM

    You’re absolutely right, Al…I imagine that totalitarians and fascists aren’t very keen on experimentation or innovation in the arts. Too much independent thinking for comfort. It’s the old standby of bread and circuses for them.

    Poor old Trotsky…what a fate. To be played by Richard Burton (in the finest false beard money could buy) and murdered by a sweaty, neurotic Alain Delon. He deserved more…

    I remember both October and Potemkin impressing me hugely in my youth, Bill. I’m going to watch them both again.

  12. April 21, 2009 11:22 AM


    Nazi ho takedown devastating. Can we extend it to include some of Leni’s hideous children (eg, the latest Batman/ Ironman)?

    PS: ISA has executed a very interesting demolition of JG Ballard on the poor man’s, erm, eulogy thread (larf) at the GuBlog; worth a look-in (second page of comments). Makes a nice companion piece to M’s elegant rogering of Leni.

  13. April 21, 2009 11:36 AM

    Yes, Steve, funny how all subsequent posters ignored it. I also see that JG is running a PR campaign on the same thread.

    I’ve never read any Ballard; picked them up, put them down again. They didn’t grab me. Am I wrong? Is he worth sticking with?

  14. mishari permalink*
    April 21, 2009 11:57 AM

    Lovely bone-dry line from Bill on the POTW thread:

    “I could go on, but won’t, life being a non-renewable resource.”

  15. April 21, 2009 11:58 AM


    I’m no Ballard expert (the last time I read him I was a virgin; as we know, that was a year or two ago, before I needed to shave every week). I remember liking what I’d read (the short stories) back then… but I recognize the secret justice in ISA’s comment. The short stories are probably still a safe bet… and someone in the thread reminded me of JGB’s “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan”, which I’d like to look at again, now that I no longer snigger at seeing the word “fuck” in print.

  16. mishari permalink*
    April 21, 2009 12:06 PM

    Like Steven, I read Ballard in my early teens. I was impressed, probably because I found his work unsettling. It had this strange ominous quality–nature evolving into the enemy; science opening doors into undramatic horrors; baffled, resigned humanity–that was very effective. I’m not sure how I’d react to it now.

  17. April 21, 2009 12:09 PM

    Mish, there are those who feel I’ve gone on too long as it is!

  18. April 21, 2009 12:11 PM

    Exactly, M… JGB’s atmospheric effects were quite haunting. I really do need to find out if it was all just down to the tragic romanticism of hormone poisoning…

  19. April 21, 2009 12:13 PM

    I’ll give him a whirl, so. Must check out the local libraries.

  20. mishari permalink*
    April 21, 2009 12:20 PM

    I must say that I thought it refreshingly ‘pure’, for want of a better word, that Ballard lived in an anonymous semi-detached house in an outer London suburb directly under the Heathrow flightpath. No villa in Capri or Rive Gauche atelier. A bit like Beckett, really. I made the pilgrimage and Beckett, that fastidious old raptor, lived in a dull, blank modern block in a dull, bland outer Paris suburb.

    If Ballard or Beckett were posing (and I don’t think they were), the pose was circumscribed by their fleshly envelope…no props required.

  21. MeltonMowbray permalink
    April 21, 2009 2:05 PM

    I can’t get used to the idea of him being a Thatch lover. I suppose anything’s possible in the wonderful world of words.

    The eulogy thread is a bit like the death of Princess Diana.

  22. April 21, 2009 2:47 PM

    Back to ISA’s comment there:

    “If you took Thatchers trinkets and put them on a shelf. That is

    what would have remained, semiologically, of Britain in the end. Girlish

    trinkets on a dusty shop shelf.”


  23. April 21, 2009 3:49 PM

    Enjoyed this by MM on the latest Ballard lovefest:

    Ah, the good old University of Life! A course there would have added some substance to a lightweight like John Updike!

  24. Captain Ned permalink
    April 21, 2009 5:20 PM

    Eisenstein wasn’t simply shown the door, though. He was in and out of favour with the authorities, being awarded the Order of Lenin in 1939, and the Stalin Prize in 1945. On the one hand, he was lionised in Russia as the foremost representative of the national film culture, but also regarded with suspicion for the very international acclaim that solidified that stature. You’re right, of course, alarming: to identify him with the Soviet regime as one would identify Riefenstahl with the Nazis is too simplistic, but one shouldn’t treat him as some sort of noble dissident (not that means we should get on our moralistic high horses and denounce him, either). Like most artists in Russia living under Stalin, he never knew quite where he stood; in the leader’s good books one moment, out of them the next, with no sure way of knowing how to stay in them, even if that had been his main consideration (which it obviously wasn’t).

    I’m a confirmed admirer of Ballard; ‘The Kindness of Women’ is my favourite. It’s the sequel to ‘Empire of the Sun’, which is a fine book in itself, but the later work has a reach and a richness that’s quite remarkable.

  25. April 21, 2009 5:49 PM

    Ballard always struggled to finish his books in a satisfying way – brilliant beginnings, fantastic reptile-eyed observations but they usually fizzled out towards the end.

    But many of his images are still potent – the empty sliproad leading onto a choked motorway, the A-Bomb explosion at Hiroshima looking like the soul of someone ascending to heaven, the logical conclusions of using sex to sell cars, the micro-society in a high-rise, someone trapped on a concrete island, a flooded city-scape come easily to mind when I look around me in a city.

    In terms of empathy which seems important to some I don’t find much to empathise with but I think he had something else. Given the potency of some of his ideas I’m not even bothered if I “agree” with his politics.

  26. mishari permalink*
    April 21, 2009 6:35 PM

    I think you’re right, Al. I suspect, pace Steven, that Ballard’s short stories have probably held up well. The novels (the earlier ones that I read in my teens) always seemed to fizzle out, though they invariably contained some wonderfully gimlet-eyed, laconically disturbing observations…Like you, I don’t give a toss about his political tastes anymore than I do about Celine’s or Hamsun’s…

  27. April 21, 2009 7:45 PM

    Celine is interesting as regards Riefensthal I think. In many ways no better but his artistry created work that rises above his repugnant attitudes.

    A friend of mine was brought up in Sigmaringen where Celine fled to at the end of the war. When I visited en route to an event in Austria he took me to the “Collaborator’s Cafe” where Celine hung out awaiting his fate with others of the Vichy persuasion and we sat at his favourite table.

    The owner was keen to point all this out – the cocktail of fame, infamy, celebrity and history in his attitude was truly bizarre. Celine was the only famous name who had visited the cafe so why not exploit the fact regardless of the complexity of the situation.

  28. mishari permalink*
    April 21, 2009 8:05 PM

    That’s the thing, though. Riefenstahl was a hack and a dishonest one at that. Celine was anything but a hack and he was probably too honest for his own good. If he’d been better at dissimulation, he’d never have found himself in the hot water he did.

    I found Riefenstahl contemptible both as a person and an artist (so-called). I find some of Celine’s views repugnant, but I’ve never thought the man or his work contemptible.

  29. April 21, 2009 10:05 PM

    Louis-Ferdinand Celine:
    Gifted but mean.

    Bordering on obscene,
    Morally unclean.

    He removed life’s sheen,
    He vented his spleen.

    Woe betide those
    Who were caught in between.

  30. mishari permalink*
    April 21, 2009 10:32 PM

    Louis-Ferdinand Céline né Destouches
    Was seedy, amoral and slightly louche;
    Wrote Voyage au bout de la nuit
    And followed with Mort à crédit,
    With ellipses he made very free…
    Hugely gifted but a bit of a shit.

  31. MeltonMowbray permalink
    April 22, 2009 11:39 AM

    I did my best on the rational level to explain my response to Ballard’s testimonial for Thatcher on the G blog, but it wasn’t till I was visiting the bog at 3am that the deeper truth suddenly dawned on me. His comments are just so… banal. It’s not that I have a problem with the political angle – I mean, I love Kingsley Amis, and you can’t get more right-wing than that – but there is a kind of HM Bateman reaction which is more-or-less instinctive. You’re talking about, say, the state of the economy, to someone who seems fairly normal and the conversation proceeds along normal lines until this person out of the blue says ‘Well, I blame all these immigrants, to be honest’, and you find yourself looking at your watch and edging away. You know the script off by heart… workshy…. scroungers…. need a kick up the arse… It’s surprising, and quite depressing, to find Ballard mouthing the same commonplace phrases.

  32. April 22, 2009 12:35 PM

    Interesting how Toby Litt simply glosses over that in the interview. I mean, you’d at least expect him to ask if Ballard had a change of heart or something, but no, the star-struck interview just rolled straight on.

  33. obooki permalink
    April 22, 2009 1:40 PM

    I don’t know why Ballard being a conversative reactionary would surprise anyone. All his novels are about how society is progressively getting worse, falling apart. (I say all, I’ve read precisely 3 halves of his novels).

    I find it difficult to comment on these guardian RIP threads. I always want to say, well, now actually I’m not sure this writer was so very good – but it seems somehow churlish, not the right moment to bring it up.

  34. April 22, 2009 1:58 PM

    Yes, they are tricky. As I say, I’ve never read any Ballard beyond a few first paragraphs, so I’m in no position to judge (other than to say I’ve always put his books down after a paragraph or two), but a number of recently dead writers have been of the type that leave me cold, so I generally take the say nothing line.

    Interesting to see that you don’t rate him, obooki. I really will have to try to read at least a full short story or two one of these days. Meanwhile, I’ve just finished The Ballad and the Source by Rosamond Lehmann; bloody good novel. Have you read it?

  35. parallax permalink
    April 22, 2009 2:16 PM

    who let the dogs out on POTW? What a golden shower…

  36. mishari permalink*
    April 22, 2009 2:27 PM

    It beats me why anyone expects an artist to be as insightful and copacetic in all things as he or she is in their art (or not, as the case may be). They’re human, subject to all the frailties and fatuities that the flesh is heir to. I’m never much surprised when an artist whose work I admire turns out to hold antediluvian political views or to be a spectacularly nasty piece of work. Disappointed–yes. Shocked? Nah…

  37. MeltonMowbray permalink
    April 22, 2009 3:16 PM

    Well, I was surprised at my surprise. I was reading the interview with about quarter of my attention when that bit leapt out at me. As BM says, it’s odd that Litt doesn’t make more of it. Too embarrassed, probably.

    I’m not even a huge fan, really. As remarked above there are lots of crap sections in the novels. The one I liked best was Concrete Island, which is probably the straightest narrative. Some of the others are a bit disappointing if you like a good yarn. Which I do.

  38. April 22, 2009 3:32 PM

    parallax: not sure if I’m one of the dogs, but I don’t like the poem and tried to explain why, which is one of the reasons for having PotW, another being saying why when you do like the poem. Why do you find this PotW exceptionally canine?

  39. parallax permalink
    April 22, 2009 3:44 PM

    ah, this is a different discussion to previous ones we’ve had – the one’s where we say ‘never mind the politics of the tailor just feel the cloth’ – least I think it is.

    MM do you mean that Ballard’s politics/way of interpreting the world manifests itself in the thread of his work?

  40. parallax permalink
    April 22, 2009 4:07 PM

    Billy – no, I’m not hounding individuals on the PoTW thread, just surprised by the general arse-sniffing, leg-cocking, crap producing comments that this poem has generated – but then POTW has been way off my radar for a while.

    Since the demise of Poster Poems I decided to re-visited PoTW and – yes, ok, take a poem apart as a mechanic if you want to – but fucking “what does this tell us about the judicial system, and let me tell you how it’s fucked me over, and have I told you about my poetry writing experiences, and can we talk about the homo-erotic erection I’m getting from reading this” – well, is not about the poem and ALL about the reader – hello I’m bored.

    Anyway I thought I’d join in and indulge in footwear fetish.

    WTF’s with the drone-mobiles over there?

  41. MeltonMowbray permalink
    April 22, 2009 4:26 PM

    I’m not sure, para. It’s been a long time since I read a Ballard, but it seems to me that it’s quite possible that someone whose outlook was informed by the crude social Darwinism of Thatcher might show some traces of it in their work, as obooki suggests. I wasn’t conscious of it when I read his stuff in the past, though I suppose The Drowned World or High-Rise might have led in that direction. I never had the feeling that Ballard approved of the process of selection-the reverse, in fact. I should read some of it again, but I’m working against the clock now.

    On that POTW, I thought freep might have some insights, crime and justice being one of his fields of expertise, though I know he won’t comment if he doesn’t think he has anything useful to add. Pity that doesn’t apply to some of the others on there.

  42. freep permalink
    April 22, 2009 5:02 PM

    MM. The conversation on POTW is dominated by freaks, so I don’t bother. Even though civilised persons like dickensdesk and alarming look in, there doesn’t seem too much scope for useful or enlightening give and take. How long can Carol keep it up?

    I do have some views about poems and prison, having done a lot of that stuff, seen many poets and artists in residence and the rest. But the poem in question didn’t move me; in fact if it results from or is ‘inspired’ by contact with people inside, but is inaccessible to most of them by reason of its obscurity, then it patronises them. Writing over-articulate poems about the inarticulate troubles me.

    Then again, there are some very troubling aspects to writing poems about crime and criminals. I came across quite a good published poem by Peter Reading in his ‘Ukulele Music’, which happened to name a man who murdered an elderly lady doctor (from memory). The vituperation was powerful. Then, twenty-eight years after the crime, I found myself ‘teaching’ this very perpetrator of the crime, a sick and bitter man confined to a wheelchair, a man almost impossible to like, who spent all his time cursing. My job was to stimulate him to be creative in some way. He will certainly die in prison, and may have died already.

    Now this man could not and would not write a poem. I tried every way I know to get him to write something, anything, but he just swore at me and would hit the keyboard of his PC violently and shout. I got him to copy out other people’s limericks, which he would do, then jeer at them.
    He smelt bad, he was ugly and incontinent, and had nothing positive to say about anybody or anything. He had been locked up for 28 years, so why should he. But he turned out to be quite good at embroidery, done somewhat mechanically.

    Something inside me is repelled by the idea of using experience like that to turn into poetry, even though there was a strong set of emotions – pity, fear, hatred, confusion – which you would think might stand conversion or compression into something like verbal art. I think it’s OK and useful for prisoners to play around with words and find vehicles for structuring their thoughts about being inside; and I’ve seen many moving examples. But it comes from them better than the occasionally-resident professional bard.

  43. freep permalink
    April 22, 2009 7:22 PM

    …and like Billy ( not like poem) and para (bored with all about the reader) I didn’t think much of the poem, and so no point in commenting

  44. MeltonMowbray permalink
    April 22, 2009 7:57 PM

    Rather you than me, freep. Teaching in prison sounds horrific. Several of my wife’s colleagues have taken teaching jobs in the Island’s several gaols over the years, reasoning no doubt that it couldn’t be worse than the school (13-18 comp). They never seem to last long, so I’m sure it is.

    There have often been prisoners on the ward when I’ve been in hospital, shackled to the bed and accompanied day and night by two or three prison officers (the prisoners that is, not me). Last time I was in there was a young chap in the bed next to me. Doing a bit of earwigging I gathered that he – I’m crossing my legs here – had pushed a piece of metal down his urethra and into his bladder. While I was still taking this grisly scenario in, one of the POs said to him, ‘Don’t you ever learn? Last time you did this….’ The mind boggles.

    Yes, the poem is pretty awful. I try to avoid commenting if I don’t like it, though CR is remarkably long-suffering.

  45. mishari permalink*
    April 22, 2009 8:02 PM

    Still, if nothing else, POTW does give Des an endless (and I do mean endless) opportunity to re-tell his poetic Odyssey and describe his great flowering as a poet and human being…

  46. April 22, 2009 8:45 PM

    I rather enjoyed atf’s comment “The platypus is a very loaded image”. If there was a daft sentence of the week competition it would be in the running.

    A friend of mine worked in a jail where she ran ceramics classes. She said the young offenders on remand were the worst. They knew they’d be out fairly quickly so couldn’t be arsed to do anything. Depressing negativity which inevitably saw them back in again a few months later.

  47. freep permalink
    April 22, 2009 10:11 PM

    … I packed in at the prison a few months ago anyway. Some of the inmates can drive you barmy, like the young ‘uns you mention, al; but it’s the ridiculous mismanagement, manic bureaucracy and idiotic obsession with security that finally drove me out. British gaols are despicable. The Spanish prisons I’ve been in were far more humane.

    But, mishari, thanks for the chance to look again at Triumph of the Will. I agree it’s bad, but it’s why it’s bad that makes it so interesting. How the young Aryans bounce in jollity under the benign eye of the Fuhrer, how they relish the stew and wurst served up in communal glee, how even a cat on a windowsill gazes admiringly at Hitler in his motorcade … partly it’s about how she recorded the Nuremberg rally, with long shots to show the vistas of banners and eagles, and the vastness of the human regiments, and then frequent shots from below to show the cheekbones of beautiful young men…. which culminates in the summary of the rally’s chair, when he says something like ‘Hitler is the Party; Hitler is Germany; Germany is Hitler’.
    It is banal in its extremity … but I have a Viennese mother in law who was among the people welcoming the great man into Austria, and I can just imagine her face among the crowds. It is a film of record as well as of puff, and there is a risk if you deny that it has power that you ignore how the imagination works, however diseased it may be.
    The fundamental crime it commits is mindless hero-worship.

  48. mishari permalink*
    April 22, 2009 10:21 PM

    Oh, I agree, freep…as I said, the fact that so many Germans were swayed and more by this banal nonsense is an interesting psychological phenomenon.

    The film is an interesting artefact but the absurd rubbish hailing it as a masterpiece of film and of propaganda doesn’t bear examination. It was effective as propaganda only insofar as the audience were already primed and ready to wallow in it. Surely, really effective propaganda is that which persuades the unconverted?

    I can’t conceive of anyone watching TOTW and thinking, “Wow, this being a Nazi lark looks like just the ticket and that nice Mr. Hitler is clearly a demi-God…”

  49. MeltonMowbray permalink
    April 22, 2009 11:52 PM

    Well, maybe not persuades the unconverted, but makes them feel a little uneasy. That ‘Baa baa green sheep’ thing caused me no end of trouble when I used to canvass for the (old) LP. Of course I said that it was some bollocks got up by the Sun, but after a while it became so all-pervasive I really began to wonder if was actually true. It was clear that quite rational people believed it, including some of my fellow LP members. Anyway, a while ago I saw an investigation of it (Guardian? NS?) which demonstrated that there was no verifiable source for the story. Thank God.

    Must go and put out my white bin bags.

  50. April 23, 2009 8:07 AM

    Writing over-articulate poems about the inarticulate troubles me.

    Just what I was trying to say, but put much better than I managed.

    Some of the recent choices on PotW have been hard to fathom (e.g. Hunt), and the range of living poets is especially narrow, but it has been an incredible performance by Carol, fair play to her. I do find myself being less and less patient with the commenting, though. Mind you, does anybody want to discuss the reason for Ms. Kennedy and her sinus blogs?

  51. April 23, 2009 8:27 AM

    Her first blog was very entertaining but the others just seem like variations on a theme. Nothing especially bad about that but the returns are diminishing I feel.

    She has a parallel career a a stand-up comedian at the Edinburgh Fringe ( and probably a few sympathetic lit-fests too ) . I saw her efforts on TV one night and didn’t laugh once but she’s determined to stick it out so what can you say. I suspect these blogs are residue from that activity.

  52. freep permalink
    April 23, 2009 10:06 AM

    Agreed, al. I rather like accounts of the minutiae of a writer’s daily life, including cold sores, bad knees, hoover defects, the price of eggs, the dog’s injections, nuisance phone calls, shopping catastrophes and the rest – IF THEY ARE WELL WRITTEN. AL Kennedy sometimes comes near it, but there’s a rambling, a lack of a central compelling personality, and not much evidence of a relish for language. The pieces seem to show a sit-down comedian casting about for a good joke, so we get work in progress rather than anything finished.

    Mishari: ‘Surely, really effective propaganda is that which persuades the unconverted?’
    I don’t think I agree. It’s the drip feed that works. Ask any Catholic. You could probably come up with some alternative examples, but in the case of Nazi propaganda, it depended on German people developing a sense of their own unjust mistreatment over a couple of generations (in fact, since the unification of the nation), falling on hard times, and then being told again and again in all sorts of ways (including Riefensthal’s) that they were better than XYZ. I think it was Raymond Williams who defined ideology as ‘making the cultural seem natural’, and given a certain set of circumstances, really effective propaganda is what persuades the half-inclined to become fervent. So, at any historical point, a religious, ethnic, political group might be harnessed into taking their cultural ‘reality’ to be part of the natural order. And if there’s a handy new technology, it helps: Riefensthal had the advantage of music and talkies which were less than a decade old. The mystery remains why and how the Nazis were able to be so much more murderous towards their scapegoats than other unpleasant regimes.

  53. April 23, 2009 10:22 AM

    I’ve always felt that propaganda is not so much about converting anyone as setting the parameters of what can or cannot be discussed, so that, for example, Nazi propaganda isn’t about whether the Aryan race was superior so much as the degree to which they were. Propaganda sets out to exclude certain questions by seeming to make them irrelevant.

    At the moment, we’re being told that there’s no point looking back at the causes of the resession, we have to look ahead at solutions, as if the latter could happen without the former. Now, that’s effective propaganda.

  54. mishari permalink*
    April 23, 2009 10:41 AM

    On reflection, I think you’re right, freep, as is Bill. Persuading the already inclined and setting the agenda is effective propaganda. I think what I find so offensive about TOTW is the (to me) clumsy attempt to make the ugly appear beautiful and the unnatural apear natural. But I suppose that’s the job of propaganda as well. I just don’t find such sledgehammer obviousness effective. Of course, it’s not aimed at me or anyone in the 21st century but at Germans of the 30s.

    At the risk of making a sweeping generalization, I believe that there is a streak of hysterical sentimentality in the Germans that made them especially succeptible to such stuff. The torchlit parades, the heavy-handed symbolism, the nursed sense of grievance. These are all appeals to sentiment and Joyce called sentiment ‘unearned emotion’.

    A sentimental man can sit in his office at Belsen weeping over Schubert lieder while women and children are herded into gas chambers. Sentiment is dangerous stuff.

  55. April 23, 2009 10:59 AM

    Sentiment is dangerous stuff.

    It is indeed, and a thought that brings me, at least, back to PotW. An artist may hold repugnant views and still be a fine artist (Pound, say); another may hold the most laudable opinions (let’s say on the treatment of suspects by the court system) and be a poor one. The problem is that many people confuse the opinion with the art.

  56. mishari permalink*
    April 23, 2009 11:04 AM

    Something I’ve been wearily compelled to repeat many, many times over the years, Bill…

  57. mishari permalink*
    April 23, 2009 11:14 AM

    Re: A.L. Kennedy, the only one of her books that I’ve read was non-fiction–On Bullfighting. I wasn’t expecting much–the usual wails of disgust and horror at the cruelty of Spaniards, etc. etc. In fact, it was very good. She came to the subject with an open mind and genuinely tried to understand the subject–context, history, art, culture. I was quite impressed.

  58. April 23, 2009 11:17 AM

    M, I know we are of one mind on the question of art v. the artist’s life. It’s certainly not a view that has much credence on the PotW threads.

    The Bullfighting book sounds interesting; as a vegetarian I must say I feel that the Spanish get a raw deal on this particular tradition.

  59. freep permalink
    April 23, 2009 11:33 AM

    Right you are, Bill. I guess much of the hysterical sentimentality has been sluiced out of the German psyche. But Schubert and Wagner remain and it’s still good music. If you can keep your focus on how things are good, in the making, rather than obsessing about what they say, you might stay safe.

    It’s not easy stuff. Take crucifixes. There could be a really excellent painting or sculpture of Christ on the cross, executed with brilliance (sorry!). And you might say, that’s the best crucifixion Mr van der Weyden ever did, with sheep, sponsors and mourners and symbols of a high order, with clever technique and deep allusions …
    But you can’t ignore the fact that Christian Europe – Catholic Europe – has been awash with crucifixes, in the streets, in churches, in cemeteries since the Middle Ages – the agenda was set long before, and it still consumes many. The agenda being that we are all born wicked and that God’s son died to redeem us and the Pope’s lads can help you get to Heaven if you follow the rules. Just don’t forget that fellow in agony on the Cross. Don’t forget, don’t forget. Sentiment plus memory. Persuasive propaganda invents memory for us. Remember how great Britain was? Remember how heroic Mandela was in his suffering? Remember the noble highlander in his kilt and how he defended the valiant and legitimate House of Stuart?

    Let not virtue seek
    Remuneration for the thing it was;
    For beauty, wit,
    High birth, vigour of bone, desert in service,
    Love, friendship, charity, are subjects all
    To envious and calumniating Time.
    One touch of nature makes the whole world kin,
    That all with one consent praise new-born gawds,
    Though they are made and moulded of things past,
    And give to dust that is a little gilt
    More laud than gilt o’er-dusted …

  60. mishari permalink*
    April 23, 2009 11:39 AM

    Although I’m not an afficianado of bullring I do see the Spanish viewpoint. What appears cruel is, to my mind, actually less cruel than the treatment of animals bred for meat.

    A fighting bull is treated with respect, is allowed some dignity and often gores or even kills its opponent. I’m not a vegetarian (although I don’t eat much meat) but what I know of how slaughterhouses operate kills any appetite for meat–the cruelty and callousness on display make matadors appear models of kindness by comparison.

    Of course, all the Brits and Americans that I’ve heard wailing about the ‘cruelty’ of the bullring over the years are always a bit taken aback when I ask them if they A.) eat meat? B.) speak Spanish? or C.) are familiar with Spanish history and culture?

    The answers are invariably Yes, No and No. Bloody sentiment, again.

  61. mishari permalink*
    April 23, 2009 11:43 AM

    All things considered, freep, I suppose it’s fortunate that Christ wasn’t executed on the gallows. I mean, the cross has a kind of sublime simplicity. A bit harder, I imagine, to convert a gallows into a springboard for divine translation…

  62. obooki permalink
    April 23, 2009 2:11 PM

    A bit harder, I imagine, to convert a gallows into a springboard for divine translation…

    I should think it would only require a small amount of carpentry.

    BM: no, I wouldn’t recommend Ballard to you. He is not a language writer; he is purely an ideas writer – good ones too, but often seems to have no clue how to make a novel out of them.

    No, I haven’t read Rosamund Lehmann: actually, I think you asked me that before (where should I start?) – though, on saying that, I did read Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles last year which was translated by RL, and thoroughly enjoyed.

    Has anyone ever read Richard Llewellyn? I’d always passed his books by before (How Green is my Valley? etc), but picking one up the other day found it written in a very interesting style, so bought it.

  63. April 23, 2009 2:32 PM

    obooki, you should start with The Ballad and The Source and then read the sequel (written 30 odd years later) A Sea-Grape Tree. She was a remarkable translator, too.

    I read How Green is my Valley? many years ago and enjoyed it hugely. It’s a favourite of my father’s.

  64. April 23, 2009 3:03 PM


    “I guess much of the hysterical sentimentality has been sluiced out of the German psyche.”

    Sadly? No.

    Another factor behind What Happened is the little-discussed German reflex of victim-blaming, which ties nicely into the near-autustic lack of empathy, generally, plus revulsion towards/fascination with The Other and a near-hysterical Control Freak gene: the deafening social feedback loop that happens when all these factors are aggravated by a powerful spark (massive unemployment), then mixed in the proper proportions, is what we call History.

    Erm… not that I really believe all this, or want to be deported…

  65. freep permalink
    April 23, 2009 3:20 PM

    I wondered if you would give us an inside view from Deutschland, Steven, thanks. Being there you would pick up the revulsion / fascination peculiarity which is invisible to the occasional visitor. Do they still cut down all trees in the forest that are not straight?
    Hope you escape deportation.

  66. April 23, 2009 4:42 PM

    My grandfather studied in Erlangen in the late 20s (1929-30?). At that time, apparently, you either joined the Socialist party or the National Socialists. He joined the Socialists. But he once saw Hitler speak. He said it was terrifying, the way that, beyond sense or rationality, one became swept up by the fervour and theatre. He found his arm jerking into the air along with all the others, like a puppet’s.

  67. mishari permalink*
    April 23, 2009 5:46 PM

    Alternately fascinating/highly entertaining piece by Steven here. Highly recommended reading.

  68. April 23, 2009 5:47 PM


    Still, much rather live here than in the U.S., where, if the food, the materialism or the gangsters don’t kill you, the heavily-armed family man will! The advantage in living in Berlin a mere half a century (or so) after a large-scale fascist orgy is that they’re still on their best behaviour…

  69. April 23, 2009 5:48 PM


    Only the names have been changed (to keep me out of court)…

  70. mishari permalink*
    April 23, 2009 5:50 PM

    Terrific piece. I was sorry when it ended (as all good things must, apparently)…

  71. April 23, 2009 5:57 PM

    All good things must end????? Fucking hell.

  72. April 23, 2009 6:30 PM


    If I can help just one young Bohemian avoid living in a post-hippie commune… (etc)…

  73. April 23, 2009 7:37 PM

    Very nice story Steven. If there is a heavy use of autobiography in it I must say I suspected that would be your background.

  74. April 23, 2009 8:08 PM


    Not a bit of fiction in it (apart from three or four pseudonyms); learning to only put down half of what happened is the key to doing autobiog that isn’t either boring or disgusting or… somehow both… I think. What was gratifying: I’ve been telling the cannibal story (as told to me by my half brother, who was there) for years, but it wasn’t until I wrote this down that I bothered to check and discovered the “Butt Naked” bit wasn’t his imagination… (Google the phrase plus the word “cannibal”).

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