Riefenstahl, whose cinematic genius gave a heroic veneer to the horrible undercurrents of Hitler's Germany in the 30's, is a fascinating person to study, especially in light of the ubiquitous imagery we're currently seeing of the war in Iraq. Throughout the documentary, Riefenstahl maintains that her work was clearly nonpolitical. She did not orchestrate the events she filmed, she says. Instead she merely used creative cinematography to tell an interesting and artistic story. To back this up, she points out that her films even won awards in France prior to World War II.
Whether or not you believe Riefenstahl's convienient assertions that she was oblivious to politics and social issues, she raises interesting points about the nature of art and imagery in a politically-charged environment. Is it possible to be nonpolitical yet still produce meaniningful images? Are photographers, filmmakers, and journalists responsible for the reality they document?
Riefenstahl chose to document one side of the Nazi rise to power -- the glorious rallies and public events. At the same time, her art entirely ignored other defining elements of the Third Reich's rise to power -- including the vicious antisemitism that became boiled to the surface on Kristallnacht.
Riefenstahl's misdeeds were those of omission, not commission. Rather than impartially chronicling the important events occurring in 1930s Germany, she focused only on events that she felt portrayed the heroic spirit of the German people. She ignored the seamy aspects of this spirit, which fed on the hate, fear, and longings of a German people embittereed by war and depression. As a result, her work, while admittedly brilliant from a technical perspective, is seen as propaganda that presents a stilted image German life.
I have heard criticism of a photo that appeared in the paper a few days ago of a clearly-anguished Iraqui man crouching in the dirt between the coffins of his family, who were evidently killed by US bombs. Why would the paper run this photo? This, I hear, is merely propaganda that weakens our country.
By and large the front-line media coverage of this war has been nothing if not complementary. Embedded with the troops, photographers and videographers have sent back material that clearly portrays the hardship and confusion of war, and highlights the heroic acts soldiers undertake to carry out their mission in spite of all this.
Yet one photo showing what happens at the other end of our advanced weaponry is somehow considered unpatriotic -- something that we should not even think about when our brave soldiers are overseas.
But I'm glad that the photo was published. If a media organization bows to popular opinion and shows only heroic and monumental, it is in the propaganda business, not the news business. And no matter how popular or technically superior the material is, it can only lead to misperceptions and poor political judgement. Riefenstahl's films didn't tell lies -- they merely omitted critical truths to support an alternate view of what the Reich was up to. If we demand that the news media only cover things we are comfortable seeing, we are nudging our country toward a myopic and destructive worldview.