not in our stars, but in ourselves
Note: I’m cheating. So sue me. I’m still all steamed up about that execrable piece of pap from yesterday, and so today’s post is something I wrote back in the bad old days when I was a professional student. Now I’m an amateur blogger – oh, the iniquity of it all. Anyway, I got a REALLY bad grade on this, but ask me how much I care. Hint: not a whit.
Art and artists are seldom stagnant for long. The very fact that contemporary artists do not paint in caves (at least, not usually) and do experiment with different tools, media, forms and functions is testament to this. Whether the progression is from church frescoes to iPhone applications or from Gregorian chants to The Beatles, the arts have evolved throughout human history. Even key moments in human thought have originated in dreams: George W. Linden writes that René Descartes “had a wondrous dream. In this dream, he had a vision of a ‘wonderful discovery’ and a ‘marvelous science.’ He saw … that all things – the measurement of mountains, sticks, stones, galaxies, and this hypermagical bit of ultraomnipotence: man could be explained by one unified, comprehensive, rational, and certain method” (1984, 37). That the essence of rational, modern thought came to him in a dream is ironic – but also an illustration of just how powerful a dream can be when it is realised. Indeed, to return back to art, sometimes an artist’s vision is so grand, so far beyond the boundaries of convention – or even, it might seem, of possibility – that the artist must either choose to let the vision remain just that; or else, must create not only the art, but also entirely new ways to express it. Alison Griffiths notes that medieval manuscript illustrators included “fantastical, supernatural, phantasmagorical, miraculous, divine, satanic, or perverse images … [suggesting] that artists and audience alike were interested in seeing both the spiritual higher echelons and liminal underbelly of their world” (2010, 164), and that these urges to see the fantastical creatures of their imaginations led ultimately, centuries later, to the current preponderance of special effects in film and television (2010, 164-166).
On the subject of film, the swiftest and most technologically savvy of the arts, it has in its history many and varied examples of artistic visions too big to fit within standard film conventions. To bring the vision to screens without compromise, new conventions have been established – and have indeed become the norm. Edwin S. Porter included cross-cutting in The Great Train Robbery (1903), and exploded the possibilities of cinematic time; D.W. Griffith employed close-ups, long shots, panning shots, and epic battle sequences in The Birth of a Nation (1915); Sergei Eisenstein’s use of montage for a specific emotional and visceral effect in Battleship Potemkin (1925); and, more recently, Peter Jackson’s use of real-time motion capture for the Gollum character in his Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003). In some cases, these artists have taken concepts or technology that existed elsewhere and applied them to their creative work; in others, they have used the tools they had at their disposal in revolutionary ways.
Sometimes, however, the dream is powerful enough to destroy, rather than create. The two cases we will examine are Richard Wagner and Leni Riefenstahl. Wagner insisted so forcefully on his operas being performed as he wished, for their full edifying effects to seep into their German audiences, that he built his own theatre in Bayreuth for a festival of his own work. Riefenstahl was so deeply devoted to exalting Adolf Hitler that she filmed sweeping “documentaries” that utilised and invented techniques still popular in narrative films – all for the sake of showing him to be more of a god than a man. While it is certainly not the intent of this essay to suggest that artistic visions should be policed and controlled, it is nevertheless an unavoidable conclusion that these two particular artists – indirectly and directly – helped to bring to life a similarly grandiose political dream.
Richard Wagner was a prolific composer, librettist, writer, political activist, and conductor. He was a man of strong opinions: he participated in the Revolution of 1848 and was exiled to Switzerland for eight years (Columbia 2011); his articles and views on Jews and Judaism were, in Patrick Lo’s words, “odious” (2009, 73); but one of his strongest opinions, and the most interesting and relevant for our purposes, was that the German people could and should be united, ennobled, and elevated through art (Aberach 2003, 4). He had grown deeply dismayed with the status afforded to art – particularly to music – in nineteenth-century German society. Rather than inspiring and instructing, it merely entertained and amused (Aberach 2003, v). Wagner, however, believed fervently that opera should adhere to “the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) … [with] use of the uninterrupted melody, the art of transition, and Durchkomposition (dramatic ductility)” (Cogeval 2001, 24). For over twenty years, he worked on the four operas comprising Der Ring des Nibelungen. As Alan David Aberbach explains,
The Ring cycle is an intricate and sometimes convoluted work intended to raise important questions. Wagner meant it to be an interactive experience in which the audience would have to digest complex political, intellectual, and emotional situations that involve questions relating to the growth, decay, and destruction of a deliberately created civilization. Detesting passive spectators who went to the theater as a diversion, Wagner refused to bow to the average opera listener’s desire for superficial pleasure. Attending the Ring cycle was not meant to be a vicarious emotional experience that did not require the use of our intellectual faculties but the precise opposite. At its conclusion, we should be so intellectually stimulated by the important questions raised that we should want to reevaluate our lives as well as our civilization. Wagner will do his best to force us to understand our world’s problems and shortcomings so that we may ultimately help change the course of history or else share in the responsibility for not having done so. Not only does he anticipate that his views will be taken seriously, but also he is asking something entirely new of the audience – its total involvement in what he has to say (2003, 39).
There is something of the pedant about Wagner, as well as the artist and idealist; or perhaps it is simple tyranny. He was determined that his vision should come true, and so for the Ring cycle’s 1876 premiere, rather than rely on an existing theatre with its insufficiencies (as he saw them), he built his own theatre in Bayreuth (Columbia 2011). Up to that time, attending the opera could easily be a social, distracted affair: lights remained on in the audience; columns or other architectural details might obstruct some spectators’ views of the stage; and the orchestra was in full view. At Bayreuth, the audience was plunged into darkness – thus discouraging them from talking to each other, or even paying attention to each other during the performance. The only lit area in the theatre was the stage, and so spectators’ focus went to that alone. There were no columns or obstructions of any sort to keep any audience member from seeing the stage. Rather than leave the orchestra out for the audience to look at instead of the stage, Wagner had the orchestra pit collapsed so that it was hidden from view (Aberach 2003, 417). Jonathan Crary notes the extraordinary, novel effect of Wagner’s vision:
Not only did the example of Wagner put in question the priority of the individual arts of poetry and visual representation, but it suggested the outlines of a collective cultural experience that Wagner himself compared with festival theater in Greek antiquity. Beginning in the 1840s and evolving confusedly for the rest of his life, Wagner’s social critique had nothing particularly original about it within a broader field of nineteenth-century indictments of the effects of social and economic modernization. What remains singular about Wagner was the relative specificity of his cultural program for social reintegration and his belief in the transformative effects of the collective experience of music drama performed and produced as a ritual communal event (1999, 248).
The physical plan of Bayreuth was, in part, the outcome of Wagner’s desire to exercise a fuller control over the attentiveness of an audience, to subordinate it to the will of the artist and to generate a collective state of reception worthy of an art with such social aspirations. One of Wagner’s “reforms,” incarnated in the design of Bayreuth, involved the transformation of the nineteenth-century theater into a construction of visibility that more rigorously structured the spectator’s perceptual experience. His aim was to establish a “theatron,” a “place for seeing,” and it was through the collective act of seeing that the semblance of a community would come into being (1999, 249-251).
These innovations have become conventions themselves in opera houses since, but their roots are quite firmly in Wagner’s insistent need to control all aspects of his work: not only by writing the music and the libretto, but also by constructing the space in which it was performed and “doing away with the autonomy of the audience” (Crary 1999, 253). Wagner’s vision of an enraptured public paying total attention to his total work of art has come true – with some consequences that he could never have foreseen.
Leni Riefenstahl, like many Germans in the early 1930s, was quite taken by the new Chancellor Hitler. She attended her first rally after reading Mein Kampf, and was elated to hear the book’s ideas being promised as action (Bach 2007, 89). Since she was, at the time, an actress and first-time director of some note, she requested and was granted an audience with Hitler (Bach 2007, 91). Eric Michaud points out that the twentieth century produced “artist-dictators” who sought “to give a normative justification for their existence by identifying political activity with artistic activity as a matter of principle” (2004, 2); in that spirit, Hitler asked her to make a film about an upcoming rally in Nuremberg. She accepted. Both Hitler and Goebbels felt that she correctly understood their vision of German strength and glory, and Goebbels must have understood that her personal hero-worship of Hitler would lead to her making a propaganda film that would cast “a messianic aura around a charismatic leader” (Bach 2007, 104). Her first film, Victory of Faith (1933), is but a faint glimmer of what was to come: in 1935, she released the far more ambitious and influential Triumph of the Will.
To give her Führer a more divine aspect that he naturally possessed – to give Germans their own new god – she employed techniques that had been devised solely for fictional films: reaction shots from the crowd and the officers, re-shooting speeches in a studio setting if they weren’t recorded quite right on location at the time, and an opening sequence in which a god-like figure seems to be gradually descending from the clouds toward Nuremberg – only to reveal itself as the airplane carrying Hitler (Bach 2007, 136-137), further underscoring the messiah idea. To film the rally, she was given a crew of dozens, many of whom she hand-picked (Bach 2007, 132-133). The six-day rally was also meticulously designed: not simply in the enormous banners and stages, but in the very formations, which – like some sort of very literal Busby Berkeley number – made sense only when viewed from on high, as Steven Bach explains:
Leni filmed their processional from a tiny elevator [Albert] Speer built at her request to run up and down one of the huge flagpoles supporting the three swastika banners at the edge of the field (it can be seen moving in the film). Her camera’s high, soaring view is the only one that makes visual sense for a ceremonial that was visually meaningless at ground or even stadium level and is key testimony to the rally’s having been designed as much for its photogenic potential as for its participants (2007, 134).
While she was guided and, in a very real sense, commissioned by the Nazi Party, Triumph of the Will is entirely her vision and creation. It presented Germany with a leader who seemed not merely strong and capable, but divinely appointed. More damningly, it presumes to be a documentary of a rally simply as it happened, but it was in fact as choreographed as a Berkeley sequence. What Riefenstahl sold the German people was a false bill of goods: where she showed them order, there was ruthless and systematic murder; where she showed them a divinely strong leader, there was a paranoid Wagner fan playing at being a Teutonic god.
The Third Reich aided and abetted her in her triumphant idol-making, and it was happy to repeat their success during the 1936 Olympics. Riefenstahl made a two-part sport film unlike any that existed before – but which has influenced virtually all sports coverage since the premiere of Olympia (1938). She and her team, forbidden from shooting in any way that might distract or injure the athletes (Bach 2007, 151), had to invent entirely new, absurdly complex methods of shooting every event at the Games. According to Bach,
Each event required not only ideal camera placements but also the ideal cameras, film stocks, filters, and cameramen. … Cameras ranged from the fastest in the world for slow-motion photography to the smallest in the world for candid shots of spectator reactions (including the Führer’s), supplemented by the world’s longest telephoto lenses for close-ups of athletes in performance when proximity was forbidden …. Because no single stock was suitable for every purpose, reserves of a dozen different types – as much as fifty thousand feet a day – were made available for distribution to cameramen at a moment’s notice based on the events, on weather and light conditions, or on Leni’s orders and whims (2007, 150).
In her determination to make not merely a film about sport, but an aesthetically dazzling film about Körperkultur, she and her enormous team of cameramen devised ingenious camera techniques that led to images of surpassing beauty:
[Cameraman Hans Ertl] built an underwater housing for his Sinclair camera that enabled him to shoot divers poised on the high board from his water-level vantage point and then – without a break in his filming – to follow their dives in flight, to submerge with them underwater, and to try to rise again as they burst to the surface in jewel-like constellations of bubbles. Any single shot required continuous manual focus and exposure adjustments as his camera tracked the movement. Most of his shooting was done before or after the actual competitions, but nothing like it had ever been attempted, let along achieved. Ertl’s inventiveness and manual dexterity were as remarkable as any of the athletic feats he photographed (Bach 2007, 152).
Beyond the filming of the world’s finest athletes, Riefenstahl was intent on linking the physical culture and beauty of the ancient Greeks to that of the Olympics – and, specifically, of Nazi Germany: the film begins with a young man running through Greece and its ruins with a torch, eventually arriving in Berlin to light the ceremonial Olympic torch in the stadium. While Olympia is far less overt in its Nazi propaganda than Triumph of the Will, it nevertheless seeks to equate great civilisations of antiquity with the Third Reich: thus implying, in addition to equality, inevitability.
Richard Wagner and Leni Riefenstahl, while both gifted and visionary artists, both have blood on their hands. While Wagner’s contributions to opera, in his compositions as well as his innovative Bayreuth Festival, are vitally important and of a (generally) sterling quality, his outspoken anti-Semitism coupled with the deeply sentimental and Romantic ideal he held of the German people led to the admiration, adulation, and further “dreaming big” of a frustrated young Adolf Hitler, who found justification and encouragement in Wagner’s music and writings. Riefenstahl, for her part, made extraordinarily powerful propaganda films that seduced ordinary Germans into accepting their Führer and his policies without any meaningful opposition or rebellion. As for their influences on those who have followed them, they are immense: Wagner, as mentioned before, successfully revolutionised opera houses; and, as Philip Kennicott observes, left behind such a legacy of insistence on his own way that opera companies even now struggle not to follow the “historical literalism, and fidelity to his detailed stage instructions” (2012, 30). Riefenstahl’s influence is felt “everything from George Lucas’s Star Wars to the Disney company’s The Lion King to every sports photographer alive to the ubiquitous, erotically charged billboards and slick magazine layouts to media politics” (Bach 2007, 298). Beyond those indelible effects, however, there are others darker and still more indelible. Hitler’s adulation and emulation of Wagner – for the composer’s anti-Semitism as well as for his Romanticism and German nationalism – was well known (Michaud 2004, 10); and, as Bach avers, the images in Triumph of the Will “survive the ashes and graves that may fairly be judged as part of their legacy” (2007, 140). Of course, it is absurd to imply that Wagner is directly responsible for Hitler, and that Riefenstahl is directly responsible for the Holocaust. They created their works of art, not in a vacuum, but not in such a way that all the blame lies at their feet. Wagner was, it seems, quite a misguided idealist whose ultimate wish was for an artist’s utopia; Riefenstahl used her talent to assist her ascent into the highest circles of German society – until 1945, at least. But these two examples are important and instructive in one thing: artists’ dreams will continue to revolutionise art itself in order to make those dreams materialise, whether in films or in music or in literature. This is not necessarily good or bad – simply an inevitability. It is the duty of the spectator, however, to remain vigilant, and not to become lost in someone else’s dream.
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