Saturday, October 10, 2009

Comparative Propagandists, Genius Division

I'm still posting at a gruesomely slow pace - at least I have reasons: a class - I got some posts out of the class I took in the spring, hopefully we'll get some material from this one. Like this post! Which - if I'd had a bit more time this week, I might have posted as part of the double billathon - of course I could have posted the paper I was writing for the double billathon too...) Still.... the Nazi Cinema Class has had me watching, well - Nazi cinema - Leni Riefenstahl, in the early going. And this week, the HFA showed Sergei Eisenstein's October - offering a nice chance to do some comparing. The class has made quite a bit of "fascist aesthetics" - what it is, whether it's a valid and useful term... I suppose thinking about that guided what I noticed watching the Eisenstein this time around.

I don't know how much you can generalize from Eisenstein and Riefenstahl about Nazi and Soviet propaganda and cinema - they're both exceptional, both relatively unique... But I think there are some patterns there - things he does that she didn't that other Russians did and other German's didn't.... I suppose I can say something about them. Let's see:

1) Faces - after watching a Nazi films, especially Riefenstahl's, Russian films are quite a shock. Everyone in Triumph of the Will is beautiful (except the party leaders - a distinctly unimpressive bunch...), young and healthy - October is full of all kinds of faces. Young, old, handsome, not handsome - scraggly beards, snaggly (missing) teeth, lined skin, awkward, plainspun clothes, all kinds of ethnicities.... but they're all shot with the same heroic lighting, framing, all treated as though they were beautiful - the film celebrates their diversity, their individuality, though also their ability to be representative, of Russia, or Siberia, or Woman, or whatever they are... I think this is logic to it: the Russians act as though the cause confers beauty - being on the right side makes you beautiful; the Germans - Riefenstahl in particular, but this seems pretty common in Nazi propaganda and art - act as though beauty proves the rightness of the cause. All those faces in October are made beautiful or ugly depending on their righteousness - the bourgeoisie, the government, the cadets and women in the Winter Palace, the Mensheviks, are shot to look distinctly unattractive - but overall, they don't really look much different from the Bolsheviks and workers. They're just shot differently- and the ones who switch sides, immediately start getting better lighting... Triumph of the Will doesn't do anything like that - everyone is beautiful, everyone gets a cool uniform.... not because they're right and the enemy is wrong - rather, beauty is a guarantee of the rightness of the cause - if they weren't beautiful, they wouldn't be Nazis. (Though the bets are off when it comes to Himmler of Hess's unibrow...)

2) Jokes - there is no comedy in Triumph of the Will. There are some smiles and laughing - there are German men playing rough games, but there are no jokes. October on the other hand is, basically, a comedy - it's more like one of those comic book histories of the world than serious history or propaganda. It is packed from end to end with jokes - mostly visual puns (Kerensky and the peacock, the empty coats of the provisional government), but plenty else, including some neat verbal/visual jokes, like Kerensky's introduction - the repeated shots of him and a pair of cronies going up the same set of stairs, with the intertitles listing his many government offices... Of course, since the actual October revolution was fairly bloodless, it makes sense to shoot it as a comedy. The government was done for - the soviets took over without much effort - Kerensky (at least according to Eisenstein) bravely ran away. (And Eisenstein treats it in just about those terms - though most of the Eisenstein quotes in The Holy Grail are from Alexander Nevsky.) And it is, in fact, funny....

3) Voices - Triumph of the Will is a completely controlled production - nothing we see, nothing we hear comes from anyone but an authorized source. The only voices we hear are Nazis, speaking as Nazis - we don't even hear Nazis "off duty" as it were - everything is official, everything has a controlled source.... October is just as controlled (though Eisenstein's control is certainly at least a counterweight to that of the communists proper) - but it has a very different approach to words. Everyone speaks - there are words everywhere - the narration in the titles, dialogue (some in the titles, quite a bit just shown - but you barely get that (seeing, not hearing, people talking) in Riefsenstahl's film) - banners - pamphlets.... People act, as crowds, as individuals making up crowds - there's a much stronger sense of the individuality of all those people - coming together to form whatever they form... And this is quite obvious in the proliferation of words (actual or implied) in October...

4) Style - those relationships between the mass and the individual in Nazi and Soviet propaganda films remain pretty consistent. Riefsenstahl, particularly, is completely controlled - the mass is a mass, individuality is stripped away - indiivduals become blocks in the mass.... But in Eisenstein's film - for all the mass movements, the types, the choreography, the heroic angles - there remains a significant amount of chaos. Chaos, individuality, are harnessed by the communists - in theory at least. (Obviously, this is all how they are presenting themselves - what the commies were really up to is another matter.) But it's still striking - the choreography of Eisenstein's crowds is far more chaotic, kinetic - they don't form patterns and masses, they flow - they have the turbulance, unpredictability, and sheer power of rivers and oceans - they never form into the blocks you see in Triumph of the Will. Again - the end results may have been terror and control, state violence and repression, in both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia - but the two movements present themselves, their ideal image of themselves, very differently. The Germans are all arranged in blocks - mass ornaments (in Siegfried Kracauer's term) - individuals function as blocks in these masses. Their films are full of lines, lines of people - static blocks, that retain their shapes as they move - parades, lines of men, salutes en mass, all in unison, all together.... The Russians though - Eisenstein, at least - also deal in masses, but masses that are not blocks, but - to pick up the metaphor above - flows. They move - they don't form rigid lines, or they lose them quickly when they do - when crowds act as masses, they do so in turbulent pulses. A crowd voting in October, everyone holding up a kind of ballot - does not do so in uniform, but rather, a roomful of men waving their cards in the air and shouting. Everyone moves on their own, to create a massive pulse of energy.

Now, obviously, some of this does come down to the filmmaker - Eisenstein is a shockingly kinetic filmmaker. Even now - October is an overwhelming onslaught - as fast a film as I have ever seen. (Though Eisenstein also modulates - he builds tension, uses longer shots, still shots, quieter shots - that explode when the action comes...) Riefenstahl - though a dynamic editor, with a superb eye for imagery, has none of his protean powers, none of his energy. She is too in love with the compositions, the patterns, the aesthetics - Eisenstein is more in love with the movements, flow, energy, making images clash and bang off one another - Riefsenstahl prefers editing that builds to a grander pattern - editing that reinforces its underlying imagery. She hammers away at her ideas sometimes - she seems to be aiming at a kind of monumentalism, awe... I find it, I'm afraid, much less appealing than what Eisenstein does - it seems simple minded and pretentious, very quickly. Eisenstein might have his pretentious moments, but they're gone in a flash, the second or two it takes him to cut to something else.... There have been comments from people in this class about how good Riefenstahl is, how important - I can almost see it in Olympia, but not Triumph of the Will. Its wickedness aside, it's a chore to watch. Good or evil, Eisenstein's films are all revelatory, and thrilling, every time I see them.

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