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Fascinating Fascism

Riefenstahl’s work is free of the amateurism and naïveté one finds in other art produced in the Nazi era, but it still promotes many of the same values. And the same very modern sensibility can appreciate her as well. The ironies of pop sophistication make for a way of looking at Riefenstahl’s work in which not only its formal beauty but its political fervor are viewed as a form of aesthetic excess. And alongside this detached appreciation of Riefenstahl is a response, whether conscious or unconscious, to the subject itself, which gives her work its power.

Triumph of the Will and Olympiad are undoubtedly superb films (they may be the two greatest documentaries ever made), but they are not really important in the history of cinema as an art form. Nobody making films today alludes to Riefenstahl, while many film makers (including myself) regard the early Soviet director Djiga Vertov as an inexhaustible provocation and source of ideas about film language. Yet it is arguable that Vertov—the most important figure in documentary films—never made a film as purely effective and thrilling as Triumph of the Will or Olympiad. (Of course Vertov never had the means at his disposal that Riefenstahl had. The Soviet government’s budget for propaganda films was less than lavish.) Similarly, The Last of the Nuba is a stunning book of photographs, but one can’t imagine that it could become important to other photographers, that it could change the way people see and photograph (as has the work of Weston and Walker Evans and Diane Arbus).

In dealing with propagandistic art on the left and on the right, a double standard prevails. Few people would admit that the manipulation of emotions in Vertov’s later films and in Riefenstahl’s provides similar kinds of exhilaration. When explaining why they are moved, most people are sentimental in the case of Vertov and dishonest in the case of Riefenstahl. Thus Vertov’s work evokes a good deal of moral sympathy on the part of his cinéphile audience all over the world; people consent to be moved. With Riefenstahl’s work, the trick is to filter out the noxious political ideology of her films, leaving only their “aesthetic” merits.

Thus praise of Vertov’s films always presupposes the knowledge that he was an attractive person and an intelligent and original artist-thinker, eventually crushed by the dictatorship which he served. And most of the contemporary audience for Vertov (as for Eisenstein and Pudovkin) assumes that the film propagandists in the early years of the Soviet Union were illustrating a noble ideal, however much it was betrayed in practice. But praise of Riefenstahl has no such recourse, since nobody, not even her rehabilitators, has managed to make Riefenstahl seem even likable; and she is no thinker at all. More important, it is generally thought that National Socialism stands only for brutishness and terror. But this is not true. National Socialism—or, more broadly, fascism—also stands for an ideal, and one that is also persistent today, under other banners: the ideal of life as art, the cult of beauty, the fetishism of courage, the dissolution of alienation in ecstatic feelings of community; the repudiation of the intellect; the family of man (under the parenthood of leaders).

These ideals are vivid and moving to many people, and it is dishonest—and tautological—to say that one is affected by Triumph of the Will and Olympiad because they were made by a film maker of genius. Riefenstahl’s films are still effective because, among other reasons, their longings are still felt, because their content is a romantic ideal to which many continue to be attached, and which is expressed in such diverse modes of cultural dissidence and propaganda for new forms of community as the youth/rock culture, primal therapy, Laing’s antipsychiatry, Third World camp-following, and belief in gurus and the occult. The exaltation of community does not preclude the search for absolute leadership; on the contrary, it may inevitably lead to it. (Not surprisingly, a fair number of the young people now prostrating themselves before gurus and submitting to the most grotesquely autocratic discipline are former anti-authoritarians and anti-elitists of the 1960s.) And Riefenstahl’s devotion to the Nuba, a tribe not ruled by one supreme chief or shaman, does not mean she has lost her eye for the seducer-performer—even if she has to settle for a nonpolitician. Since she finished her work on the Nuba some years ago, one of her main projects has been photographing Mick Jagger.

Riefenstahl’s current de-Nazification and vindication as indomitable priestess of the beautiful—as a film maker and, now, as a photographer—do not augur well for the keenness of current abilities to detect the fascist longings in our midst. The force of her work is precisely in the continuity of its political and aesthetic ideas. What is interesting is that this was once seen so much more clearly than it seems to be now.

II

Second Exhibit. Here is a book to be purchased at airport magazine stands and in “adult” bookstores, a relatively cheap paperback, not an expensive coffee table item appealing to aesthetes and the bien-pensant like The Last of the Nuba. Yet both books share a certain community of moral origin, a certain root preoccupation. The same preoccupation at different stages of evolution—the ideas that animate The Last of the Nuba being less out of the moral closet than the cruder, more efficient idea that lies behind SS Regalia. Though SS Regalia is a respectable British-made compilation (with a three-page historical preface and detailed notes in the back), one knows that its appeal is not scholarly but sexual. The Last of the Nuba, whatever the dubious aesthetic underlying it, is certainly not pornographic; SS Regalia is. The cover already makes that clear. Across the large black swastika in the Nazi flag is a diagonal yellow stripe which reads “Over 100 Brilliant Four-Color Photographs” and the price, exactly the way a sticker with the price on it used to be affixed—part tease, part deference to censorship—dead center, covering the model’s genitalia, on the covers of pornographic magazines.

Uniforms suggest fantasies of community, order, identity (through ranks, badges, medals which “say” who the wearer is and what he has done: his worth is recognized), competence, legitimate authority, the legitimate exercise of violence. But uniforms are not the same thing as photographs of uniforms. Photographs of uniforms are erotic material, and particularly photographs of SS uniforms. Why the SS? Because the SS seems to be the most perfect incarnation of fascism in its overt assertion of the righteousness of violence, the right to have total power over others and to treat them as absolutely inferior. It was in the SS that this assertion seemed most complete, because they acted it out in a singularly brutal and efficient manner; and because they dramatized it by linking themselves to certain aesthetic standards. The SS was designed as an elite military community that would be not only supremely violent but also supremely beautiful. (One is not likely to come across a book of this sort called “Brownshirt Regalia.” The SA, whom the SS replaced, were not known for being any less brutal than their successors, but they have gone down in history as beefy, squat, beerhall types.)

SS uniforms are stylish, well-cut, with a touch (but not too much) of eccentricity. Compare the rather boring and not very well cut American army uniform: jacket, shirt, tie, pants, socks, and lace-up shoes, essentially civilian clothes. SS uniforms were tight, heavy, stiff. The boots made legs and feet feel heavy, encased, obliging then wearer to stand up straight. As the jacket of SS Regalia explains: “The uniform was black, a color which had important overtones in Germany. On that, the SS wore a vast variety of decorations, symbols, badges to distinguish rank, from the collar runes to the death’s head. The appearance was both dramatic and menacing.”

The tone of the cover is an almost wistful come-on, not quite preparing one for the banality of most of the photographs. Besides those celebrated black uniforms, SS troopers were issued almost American-army looking khaki uniforms and camouflaged ponchos and jackets. And besides uniforms, there are pages of collar patches, cuffbands, chevrons, belt buckles, commemorative badges, regimental standards, trumpet banners, field caps, service medals, shoulder flashes, permits, passes—few of these bearing either the notorious runes or the death’s head; all meticulously identified by rank, unit, and year and season of issue. Precisely the innocuousness of practically all of the photographs testifies to the power of the image. For fantasy to have depth, it needs detail. What was the color of the travel permit an SS sergeant would have needed to get from Trier to Lubeck in the spring of 1944? One needs all the documentary evidence.

If the message of fascism has been neutralized by an aesthetic view of life, its trappings have been sexualized. This eroticization of fascism has been remarked, but mostly in connection with its fancier and more publicized manifestations, as in Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask and Storm of Steel, and in films like Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising, Visconti’s The Damned, and Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter.

The solemn eroticism of fascism must be distinguished from a sophisticated playing with cultural horror, where there is an element of the put-on. The poster Robert Morris made for his recent show at the Castelli Gallery in April, 1974, is a photograph of the artist, naked to the waist, wearing dark glasses, what appears to be a Nazi helmet, and a spiked steel collar, attached to which is a large chain which he holds in his manacled, uplifted hands. Morris is said to have considered this to be the only image that still has any power to shock: a singular virtue to those who take for granted that art is a sequence of ever-fresh gestures of provocation. But the point of the poster is its own negation. Shocking people in this context also means inuring them, as Nazi material enters the vast repertory of popular iconography usable for the ironic commentaries of Pop art.

But the material is intransigent. For one thing, Nazism fascinates in a way other iconography staked out by the pop sensibility (from Mao Tse-tung to Marilyn Monroe) does not. No doubt some part of the general rise of interest in fascism can be set down as a product of curiosity. For those born after the early 1940s, bludgeoned by a lifetime’s palaver, pro and con, about communism, fascism—the great conversation piece of their parents’ generation—represents the exotic, the unknown. Then, there is a general fascination among the young with horror, with the irrational. Courses dealing with the history of fascism are, along with those on the occult (including vampirism), among the best attended these days on college campuses. And beyond this the definitely sexual lure of fascism, which SS Regalia testifies to with unabashed plainness, seems impervious to deflation by irony or overfamiliarity.

In pornographic literature, films, and gadgetry throughout the world, especially in the United States, England, France, Japan, Scandinavia, Holland, and Germany, the SS has become a reference of sexual adventurism. Much of the imagery of far-out sex has been placed under the sign of Nazism. More or less Nazi costumes with boots, leather, chains, Iron Crosses on gleaming torsos, swastikas, have become, along with meat hooks and heavy motorcycles, the secret and most lucrative paraphernalia of eroticism. In the sex shops, the baths, the leather bars, the brothels, people are dragging out their gear. But why? Why has Nazi Germany, which was a sexually repressive society, become erotic? How could a regime which persecuted homosexuals become a gay turn-on?

A clue lies in the predilections of the fascist leaders for highly sexual metaphors. (Like Nietzsche and Wagner, Hitler regarded leadership as sexual mastery of the “feminine” masses, as rape. The expression of the crowds in Triumph of the Will is one of ecstasy. The leader makes the crowd come.) Left-wing movements have tended to be unisex, and asexual in their imagery. Extreme right-wing movements, however puritanical and repressive the realities they usher in, have an erotic surface. Certainly Nazism is “sexier” than communism. (Which is not something to the Nazis’ credit, but rather shows something of the nature and limits of the sexual imagination.)

Of course most people who are turned on by SS uniforms are not signifying approval of what the Nazis did, if indeed they have more than the sketchiest idea of what that might be. Nevertheless, there are powerful and growing currents of sexual feeling, those that generally go by the name of sadomasochism, which make playing at Nazism seem erotic. These sadomasochistic fantasies and practices are to be found among heterosexuals as well as homosexuals, although it is among homosexuals that the eroticizing of Nazism is most visible.

Fascism is theater,” as Genet said.4 And sadomasochistic sexuality is more theatrical than any other. When sexuality depends so much on its being “staged,” sex (like politics) becomes choreography. Regulars of sadomasochistic sex are expert costumers and choreographers; they are performers in the professional sense. And in a drama that is all the more exciting because it is forbidden to ordinary people. “What is purely realistic, slice of life,” Leni Riefenstahl said, “what is average, quotidian, doesn’t interest me.” Crossing over from sadomasochistic fantasies, which are common enough, into action itself carries with it the thrill of transgression, blasphemy, entry into the kind of defiling experience that “nice” and “civilized” people can never have.

Sadomasochism, of course, does not just mean people hurting their sexual partners, which has always occurred—and generally means men beating up women. The perennial drunken Russian peasant thrashing his wife is just doing something he feels like doing (because he is unhappy, oppressed, stupefied; and because women are handy victims). But the Englishman in a brothel being whipped is recreating his own experience. He is paying a whore to act out a piece of theater with him, to re-enact or re-evoke the past—experiences of his schooldays or nursery which now hold for him a huge reserve of sexual energy. Today it may be the Nazi past that people invoke, in the theatricalization of sexuality, because it is that past (imaginary, for most) from which they hope a reserve of sexual energy can now be tapped. What the French call “the English vice” could, however, be said to be something of an artful affirmation of individuality: the playlet referred, after all, to the subject’s own personal case history. The fad for Nazi regalia may indicate something quite different: a response to an oppressive freedom of choice in sex (and, possibly, in other matters), to an unbearable degree of individuality.

The rituals of sadomasochism being more and more practiced, the art that is more and more devoted to rendering its themes, are perhaps only a logical extension of an affluent society’s tendency to turn every part of people’s lives into a taste, a choice. In all societies up to now, sex has mostly been an activity (something to do, without thinking about it). But once sex becomes defined as a taste, it is perhaps already on its way to becoming a self-conscious form of theater, which is what sadomasochism—a form of gratification that is both violent and indirect, very mental—is all about.

Sadomasochism has always been an experience in which sex becomes detached from personality, severed from relationships, from love. It should not be surprising that it has become attached to Nazi symbolism in recent years. Never before in history was the relation of masters and slaves realized with so consciously artistic a design. Sade had to make up his theater of punishment and delight from scratch, improvising the decor and costumes and blasphemous rites. Now there is a master scenario available to everyone. The color is black, the material is leather, the seduction is beauty, the justification is honesty, the aim is ecstasy, the fantasy is death.

Letters

An Exchange on Leni Riefenstahl September 18, 1975

Feminism and Fascism: An Exchange March 20, 1975

Credit for Kracauer March 6, 1975

  1. 4

    It was Genet, in his novel Pompes funèbres, who provided one of the first texts which showed the erotic allure fascism exercised on someone who was not a fascist. Another prescient description is by Sartre, an unlikely candidate for these feelings himself and who may have heard about them from Genet. In La Mort dans l’âme (1949), the third novel in his four-part Chemins de la liberté, Sartre describes one of his protagonists experiencing the entry of the German army into Paris in 1940.

    [Daniel] was not afraid, he yielded trustingly to those thousands of eyes, he thought ‘Our conquerors!’ and he was supremely happy. He looked them in the eye, he feasted on their fair hair, their sunburned faces with eyes which looked like lakes of ice, their slim bodies, their incredibly long and muscular hips. He murmured: ‘How handsome they are!’… Something had fallen from the sky: it was the ancient law. The society of judges had collapsed, the sentence had been obliterated; those ghastly little khaki soldiers, the defenders of the rights of man, had been routed…. An unbearable, delicious sensation spread through his body; he could hardly see properly; he repeated, gasping, ‘As if it were butter—they’re entering Paris as if it were butter.’… He would like to have been a woman to throw them flowers.”

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