by Infinite Thought
Where did Riefenstahl get her ideas from? What precise cinematic affects capture the spirit of the Third Reich, and how and why did Riefenstahl come to express these themes and techniques so well? The pre-Nazi Bergfilmen (mountain film), such as Fanck’s The Holy Mountain (1926), give us some alarming hints. It is impossible not to see the embryonic horrors of Nazism prefigured in the unseemly coalescence of highly advanced cinematic technique with thunderously banal emotional content that makes up the Bergfilmen. We see Riefenstahl herself slipping with ease between acting and directing – from dippy dancing mountain-girl to steely-nerved all-powerful director of the two highly-stylised propaganda films that best document Nazi ambition and cinematic manipulation, Triumph of the Will (1935) and Olympia (1938).
Much of the dynamism of Riefenstahl’s documentaries, as well as that of the earlier mountain films, depends upon the profound manipulation of contrasts, both visual and sonic: light and shadow, earth and sky, man and heavens, the solitary face and the mass rally, human beauty and inanimate nature, music and blackness. But these pairs are not simply presented as opposites. There is a third element that perhaps best characterises the fascist aesthetic, and that is obfuscation. What takes place at the limits of these stark contrasts, as if to cloak any potential rational absolutism, is the relentless presence of mist, cloud, fog, steam, shimmering light, dust, haze, the fluttering of flags – anything to prevent the emergence of reflexivity or critical resolution. Cinematic totalitarianism, or rather the cinematic attempt to aestheticize totalitarianism, thus precisely depends upon occult confusion and the attempt to make impossible any clarity of thought. We see this everywhere: from the miasma out of which Hitler’s plane descends in Triumph of the Will to the mist that floats across the Olympic rings at the beginning of Olympia; from the steam rising from the cooking in the army barracks to the trails left by the torchlights by skiers in the mountain films and Hitler supporters in Triumph of the Will.
In contrast to the Soviet cinematic output of the 20s, with its relentless attention to process, production and the tracking of movement of people and machines from one point to another, Riefenstahl’s films present scenarios that simply are. The crowds waiting to greet Hitler are simply there, just as the mountain is simply there. What this third element does – this opaque, cloudy dizziness of unreason that smears the edges of presentation in a dream-like manner – is prevent any attempt to track both origins or consequences. There is no point at which the characters of the Bergfilmen or the figures in Triumph of the Will can reach a point of decision because that point of subjective self-assertion has already been filled in by the combination of post-romantic mantras (brotherhood, loyalty, strength, the fatherland) and metaphysical haze – the light-headedness of one who climbs a mountain in a snowstorm to escape the urban quotidian drudgery of the ‘valley-pigs’ (a term used in the mountain films to differentiate the ‘nobility’ of the climbers from the homogeneity of the city-dwellers).
This commitment to presenting extremes in a smothered way, to promote lofty sentiments – love, destiny, infatuation – to absolutes as stirring as they are vague, is Riefenstahl’s and the Bergfilme’s aim. By doing so they summon up a universe that is at once meaningful, intensive and occasionally beautiful – a kind of religion without transcendence, whose Earthly yet mysterious skies and clouds drift through one’s heart with a sublime significance. Taking a cue from Kant’s 1790 definition of the distinction between the beautiful and the sublime, one finds the following point:
The beautiful in nature is a question of the form of object, and this consists in limitation, whereas the sublime is to be found in an object even devoid of form, so far as it immediately involves, or else by its presence provokes a representation of limitlessness, yet with a superadded thought of its totality (§23).
The capture of the beautiful in nature (whether it be the rushing rivers and snowy peaks of the Bergfilmen or the bodies of the divers in Olympia) is a representation of pure form, and astonishes before one has a chance to distance oneself from such reactive immediacy. The sublimity of the mountain, on the other hand, symbolises both the limitlessness of ambition and the impossible desire to make such an ambition all-consuming. It is no coincidence that the ‘Holy Mountain’ of the film results in death for all three of the characters (even if Riefenstahl doesn’t die at the end of the film, it is her death-mask that forms the first frame). But the proto-Nazi sublime mistakes, and indeed does so deliberately, the subjective judgement with the object itself. Kant takes care to guard against this temptation:
True sublimity must be sought only in the mind of the judging subject, and not in the object of nature that occasions this attitude by the estimate formed of it. Who would apply the term "sublime" even to shapeless mountain masses towering one above the other in wild disorder, with their pyramids of ice, or to the dark tempestuous ocean, or such like things? But in the contemplation of them, without any regard to their form, the mind abandons itself to the imagination and to a reason placed, though quite apart from any definite end, in conjunction therewith, and merely broadening its view, and it feels itself elevated in its own estimate of itself on finding all the might of imagination still unequal to its ideas (§26).
Unfortunately, we know exactly who would, and did, apply the sublime directly to these ‘shapeless mountain masses’: the vapid enthusiasm of the young mountain climbers and their willingness, indeed desire, to die rather than stay in the world of the everyday, is the ominous precursor of a generation prepared to sacrifice itself in the name of an opaque all-consuming passion. Whereas Kant’s sublime reinforces the subtle self-rule of reason, the Nazi sublime conflates nature with the subject, and the strong mountain-climbing youth with a paradigm of beauty and determination that cannot but exclude vast swathes of humanity.
The ordered human masses of Triumph of the Will are prefigured in the opaque ‘thereness’ of the shapeless mountain masses in the Bergfilme (and one recalls Mallory’s famous response when asked why climb Everest: ‘because it is there’). One can speak here of Riefenstahl’s ‘frozen style’. Even in the midst of exertion, movement, vitality and dynamism, there is a distinct stillness both in her representations of nature and in the statuesque bodies of the gymnasts and blond boys listening impassively to Hitler’s speeches in Triumph of the Will. It is no surprise that Riefenstahl’s still but emotive presentation (as well as the devastating banality of Nazi proclamations and exhortations) has served as a privileged model for contemporary advertising, with its necessarily empty sloganeering and manufactured product fidelity. The pacing of Riefenstahl films, similarly, reflects the combined, repetitive boredom and false excitement of spectacular consumer capitalism – the combination of moments of supreme tedium and utter beauty. This model of aesthetic commodification can in turn be reflected back onto Nazism itself. As Lutz P. Koepnick put it in 'Fascist Aesthetics Revisited': ‘Circulated as one of many other objects of popular desire, the politics of fascism should thus ultimately be understood as a form of commodity aesthetics.’
Siegfried Kracauer, in his 1947 book From Caligari to Hitler, notes that in the Bergfilme ‘immaturity and mountain enthusiasm were one’. This association of youth and the mountain is crucial. The mountain is the place to test one’s strength, to reach as far up into the clouds as possible. Nature, and the mountain in particular, is simultaneously the object of youth-worship, the place of non-religious, but nevertheless mystical, destiny and key symbol of the sublimation of sexual desire. For later film-makers such as Werner Herzog, who in many ways works with many of the same themes as the Bergfilme, the crucial point of separation comes with undoing of the idea that nature has a privileged relation to youth. In fact, if anything, for Herzog, it has a privileged relation to madness, the outsider, the renegade. Nature for Herzog is also profoundly indifferent to human concerns, and reveals little of one’s ‘destiny’ or role. He states: ‘I believe the common character of the universe is not harmony, but hostility, chaos and murder’.
For the Bergfilme and Riefenstahl, however, it is the combination of physical exertion and stillness in the face of natural beauty that calms and attempts to discipline, even if it cannot quite entirely eradicate, sexual desire. At every point in The Holy Mountain, in particular, where sexual desire threatens to explode into language or physicality, the characters go skiing or climb mountains, pausing occasionally to admire an Alpine view. Mountain-climbing is pure sublimation that removes sex in order to raise an increasingly fit youth to ever greater emotional and patriotic heights.
When Hitler in Mein Kampf surveys the contemporary cultural world, one of his main complaints, aside from its ‘regression’ and ‘degeneracy’, as we might expect, is of the lack of cultural access permitted to the youth: ‘It was a sad sign of inner decay that the youth could no longer be “sent” into most of these so-called “abodes of art” – a fact that was admitted with shameless frankness by a general display of the penny-arcade warning: “Young people are not admitted!” What, Hitler asks, would the great dramatists have had to say about the exclusion of the young from art galleries and theaters? ‘How Schiller would have flared up, how Goethe would have turned away in indignation!’ If the theaters and art galleries don’t want the youth, then the mountains will welcome them with open (if occasionally deadly) arms – they certainly pleased the most infamous of Goethe’s teen-suicides, Werther, whose immature sorrows and nature-worship precisely circulate around mountains:
Stupendous mountains encompassed me, abysses yawned at my feet, and cataracts fell headlong down before me; impetuous rivers rolled through the plain, and rocks and mountains resounded from afar. In the depths of the earth I saw innumerable powers in motion, and multiplying to infinity; whilst upon its surface, and beneath the heavens, there teemed ten thousand varieties of living creatures.
And, perhaps more revealingly, ‘as I contemplated the mountains which lay stretched out before me, I thought how often they had been the object of my dearest desires’. The fusion of the Nazi sublime with this youthful ‘mountain-lust’ captures a devastatingly strong irrationality that feeds directly into those later presentations of fascism that no longer need to rely upon mountain imagery directly. What Riefenstahl learned above all from the Bergfilme was the supremely dangerous power of lightheadedness.