In the first panel, the mountain films, heavily dressed people strain upward to prove themselves in the purity of the cold; vitality is identified with physical ordeal. Middle panel, the films made for the Nazi government: Triumph of the Will uses overpopulated wide shots of massed figures alternating with close-ups that isolate a single passion, a single perfect submission; clean-cut people in uniforms group and regroup, as if seeking the right choreography to express their ecstatic fealty. In Olympiad, the richest visually of all her films, one straining scantily clad figure after another seeks the ecstasy of victory, cheered on by ranks of compatriots in the stands, all under the still gaze of the benign Super-Spectator, Hitler, whose presence in the stadium consecrates this effort. (Olympiad, which could as well have been entitled Triumph of the Will, emphasizes that there are no easy victories.) In the third panel, The Last of the Nuba, the stripped-down primitives, awaiting the final ordeal of their proud heroic community, their imminent extinction, frolic and pose in the hot clean desert.
It is Gotterdämmerung time. The important events in Nuba society are wrestling matches and funerals: vivid encounters of beautiful male bodies and death. The Nuba, as Riefenstahl interprets them, are a tribe of aesthetes. Like the henna-daubed Masai and the so-called Mudmen of New Guinea, the Nuba paint themselves for all important social and religious occasions, smearing on their bodies a white-gray ash which unmistakably suggests death. Riefenstahl claims to have arrived “just in time,” for in the few years since these photographs were taken the glorious Nuba have already started being corrupted by money, jobs, clothes. And, probably, by war—which Riefenstahl never mentions since she cares only about myth, not history. The civil war that has been tearing up that part of Sudan for a dozen years must have brought with it new technology and a lot of detritus.
Although the Nuba are black, not Aryan, Riefenstahl’s portrait of them is consistent with some of the larger themes of Nazi ideology: the contrast between the clean and the impure, the incorruptible and the defiled, the physical and the mental, the joyful and the critical. A principal accusation against the Jews within Nazi Germany was that they were urban, intellectual, bearers of a destructive, corrupting “critical spirit.” (The book bonfire of May, 1933, was launched with Goebbels’s cry: “The age of extreme Jewish intellectualism has now ended, and the success of the German revolution has again given the right of way to the German spirit.” And when Goebbels officially forbade art criticism in November, 1936, it was for having “typically Jewish traits of character”: putting the head over the heart, the individual over the community, intellect over feeling.) Now it is “civilization” itself that is the defiler.
What is distinctive about the fascist version of the old idea of the Noble Savage is its contempt for all that is reflective, critical, and pluralistic. In Riefenstahl’s casebook of primitive virtue, it is hardly the intricacy and subtlety of primitive myth, social organization, or thinking that are being extolled. She is especially enthusiastic about the ways the Nuba are exalted and unified by the physical ordeals of their wrestling matches, in which the “heaving and straining” Nuba men, “huge muscles bulging,” throw one another to the ground—fighting not for material prizes but “for the renewal of sacred vitality of the tribe.”
Wrestling and the rituals that go with it, in Riefenstahl’s account, bind the Nuba together:
Wrestling provides, for the Nuba, much of what the search for wealth, power and status does for the individual in the West. Wrestling generates the most passionate loyalty and emotional participation in the team’s supporters, who are, in fact, the entire “non-playing” population of the village….
[Wrestling is] a basic concept in the idea of “Nuba” as a whole. Its importance as the expression of the total outlook of the Mesakin and Korongo cannot be exaggerated; it is the expression in the visible and social world of the invisible world of the mind and of the spirit.
In celebrating a society where the exhibition of physical skill and courage and the victory of the stronger man over the weaker have, at least as she sees it, become the unifying symbol of the communal culture—where success in fighting is the “main aspiration of a man’s life”—Riefenstahl seems only to have modified the ideas of her Nazi films. And she seems right on target with her choice, as a photographic subject, of a society whose most enthusiastic and lavish ceremony is the funeral. Viva la muerte.
It may seem ungrateful and rancorous to refuse to cut loose The Last of the Nuba from Riefenstahl’s past, but there are salutary lessons to be learned from the continuity of her work as well as from that curious and implacable recent event—her rehabilitation. Other artists who embraced fascism, such as Céline and Benn and Marinetti and Pound (not to mention those, like Pabst and Pirandello and Hamsun, who became fascists in the decline of their powers), are not instructive in the same way. For Riefenstahl is the only major artist who was completely identified with the Nazi era and whose work—not only during the Third Reich but thirty years after its fall—has consistently illustrated some of the themes of fascist aesthetics.
Fascist aesthetics include but go far beyond the rather special celebration of the primitive to be found in The Nuba. They also flow from (and justify) a preoccupation with situations of control, submissive behavior, and extravagant effort; they exalt two seemingly opposite states, egomania and servitude. The relations of domination and enslavement take the form of a characteristic pageantry: the massing of groups of people; the turning of people into things; the multiplication of things and grouping of people/things around an all-powerful, hypnotic leader figure or force. The fascist dramaturgy centers on the orgiastic transactions between mighty forces and their puppets. Its choreography alternates between ceaseless motion and a congealed, static, “virile” posing. Fascist art glorifies surrender; it exalts mindlessness: it glamorizes death.
Such art is hardly confined to works labeled as fascist or produced under fascist governments. (To keep to films only, Walt Disney’s Fantasia, Busby Berkeley’s The Gang’s All Here, and Kubrick’s 2001 can also be seen as illustrating certain of the formal structures, and the themes, of fascist art.) And, of course, features of fascist art proliferate in the official art of communist countries. The tastes for the monumental and for mass obeisance to the hero are common to both fascist and communist art, reflecting the view of all totalitarian regimes that art has the function of “immortalizing” its leaders and doctrines. The rendering of movement in grandiose and rigid patterns is another element in common, for such choreography rehearses the very unity of the polity. Hence mass athletic demonstrations, a choreography and display of bodies, are a valued activity in all totalitarian countries.
But fascist art has characteristics which show it to be, in part, a special variant of totalitarian art. The official art of countries like the Soviet Union and China is based on a utopian morality. Fascist art displays a utopian aesthetics—that of physical perfection. Painters and sculptors under the Nazis often depicted the nude, but they were forbidden to show any bodily imperfections. Their nudes look like pictures in male health magazines: pinups which are both sanctimoniously asexual and (in a technical sense) pornographic, for they have the perfection of a fantasy.
Riefenstahl’s promotion of the beautiful, it must be said, was much more sophisticated. Beauty in Riefenstahl’s representations is never witless, as it is in other Nazi visual art. She appreciated a range of body types; in matters of beauty she was not a racist. And she does show what could be considered an imperfection by more naive Nazi aesthetic standards, genuine effort—as in the straining veined bodies and popping eyes of the athletes in Olympiad.
In contrast to the asexual chasteness of official communist art, Nazi art is both prurient and idealizing. A utopian aesthetics (identity as a biological given) implies an ideal eroticism (sexuality converted into the magnetism of leaders and the joy of followers). The fascist ideal is to transform sexual energy into a “spiritual” force, for the benefit of the community. The erotic is always present as a temptation, with the most admirable response being a heroic repression of the sexual impulse. Thus Riefenstahl explains why Nuba marriages, in contrast to their splendid funerals, involve no ceremonies or feasts. “A Nuba man’s greatest desire is not union with a woman but to be a good wrestler, thereby affirming the principle of abstemiousness. The Nuba dance ceremonies are not sensual occasions but rather ‘festivals of chastity’—of containment of the life force.”
In the official art of communist countries, there is some democracy of the will: the workers and peasants are sometimes shown doing something on their own. In fascist art, the will always reflects the contact between leaders and followers. In fascist and communist politics, the will is staged publicly, in the drama of the leader and the chorus. What is interesting about the relation between politics and art under National Socialism is not that art was subordinated to political needs, for this is true of all dictatorships, both of the right and the left, but that politics appropriated the rhetoric of art—art in its late romantic phase. Politics is “the highest and most comprehensive art there is,” Goebbels said in 1933, “and we who shape modern German policy feel ourselves to be artists…the task of art and the artist [being] to form, to give shape, to remove the diseased and create freedom for the healthy.”
Nazi art has always been thought of as reactionary, defiantly outside the century’s mainstream of achievement in the arts. But just for this reason it has been gaining a place in contemporary taste. The left-wing organizers of a current exhibition of Nazi painting and sculpture (the first since the war) in Frankfurt have found, to their dismay, the attendance excessively large and hardly as serious-minded as they had hoped. Even when flanked with didactic admonitions from Brecht and concentration camp photographs, Nazi art still could remind these crowds of—other art. It looks dated now, and therefore more like other art styles of the 1930s, notably Art Deco. The same aesthetic responsible for the bronze colossi of Arno Breker—Hitler’s (and, briefly, Cocteau’s) favorite sculptor—and of Joseph Thorak also produced the muscle-bound Atlas in front of Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center and the faintly lewd monument to the fallen doughboys of World War I inside Philadelphia’s Thirtieth Street railroad station.
To an unsophisticated public in Germany, the appeal of Nazi art may have been that it was simple, figurative, emotional; not intellectual; a relief from the demanding complexities of modernist art. To a more sophisticated public now, the appeal is partly to that avidity which is now bent on retrieving all the styles of the past, especially the most pilloried. But a revival of Nazi art, following the revivals of Art Nouveau, Pre-Raphaelite painting, and Art Deco, is most unlikely. The painting and sculpture are not just sententious; they are astonishingly meager as art. But precisely these qualities invite people to look at Nazi art with knowing and sniggering detachment, as a form of Pop art.