The Arc of a Dive: Photographs by Alexander Rodchenko and Leni Riefensthal


Published in CineAction magazine 2015


We think of photographs as works of art, as evidence of a particular truth, as likenesses, as news items.  Every photograph is in fact a means of testing, confirming and constructing a total view of reality. 

John Berger – The Sense of Sight


The daily papers talk of everything except the daily.  The daily papers annoy me, they teach me nothing.  What they recount doesn’t concern me, doesn’t ask me questions and doesn’t answer the question I ask or would like to ask.  What’s really going on, what we’re experiencing, the rest, all the rest, where is it?

Georges Perec – Approaches to What?


Leni Riefenstahl 1936

Leni Riefenstahl 1936

Alexander Rodchenko 1934

Alexander Rodchenko 1934

It is not unusual that the Soviet Alexander Rodchenko and the German Leni Riefenstahl would both find themselves photographing diving competitions and sporting events throughout the years 1933-1936 as they were both celebrated artists in their fields working at the peak of their powers. He was a collage artist, graphic designer, photographer and painter, and she was a filmmaker, photographer, dancer and actress. What they had in common was that photography was a means of expression both had mastered despite the fact that neither Rodchenko nor Riefenstahl at the time considered themselves exclusively photographers or photojournalists. The Olympic Games of 1936 held in Berlin, and the trials leading up to it, would allow them a chance to show what they could do in photography and to express the ideas that both artists had been developing in their work. However, there was more at stake, in part because the photography of athletic events held special meanings for all concerned peculiar to their time and place, and in part because both artists were at turning points in their careers. According to Alexander Lavrentiev: “Sport was not merely a symbol of strength, agility and the quest for new records. In Russia sport symbolized social liberation, given that prior to the Revolution only the better situated members of society took on gymnastics, figure skating or light athletics.”[1] The photography of sports for Rodchenko, and the more radical artists of the post-revolution years under Lenin, was part of a general trend toward a democratization of cultural activities depicting working people enjoying classical music, reading newspapers while having coffee, talking on their own phones, going to a museum or swimming and diving in Olympic pools – all activities that had before 1917 been the province of the wealthy and the privileged. These pictures, which to westerners might look banal, slice of life, and quotidian held a special meaning to Soviet viewers that signified economic progress and cultural emancipation.

Olympia  1936 Leni Riefenstahl

Olympia 1936 Leni Riefenstahl

For the Third Reich the Olympic Games were to be a test of their abilities in public relations – the competition was seen by many journalists of the time as analogous to the growing militarization that was then prevalent, but the Nazis took a more sophisticated approach to the Games than journalists imagined. This is David Welch: “The Olympic Games were held in Berlin only a few months after the uncontested remilitarization of the Rhineland… and were to be an exercise in national respectability. Albert Speer noted that ‘Hitler exulted over the harmonious atmosphere that prevailed during the Olympic Games. International animosity toward the National Socialist Germany was plainly a thing of the past, he thought’… Even before the Games had begun, specific instructions had been given to the various media on how the event was to be covered… Signs such as “Jews not admitted” were carefully taken down from the restaurants, hotels and shops… the Games were to prove an ideal vehicle for Joseph Goebbels' propaganda and his strategy was not without success.”[2] The Olympic Games, and Riefenstahl’s film of the event, was from the beginning a calculated media campaign to ingratiate the Third Reich into the world community as a presumably civilized nation that commanded respect, envy, and fear.

Alexander Rodchenko 1934

Alexander Rodchenko 1934

After the October Revolution that converted Russia to the Soviet Union in 1917, Rodchenko was experimenting with extreme and unusual angles, often taken from above looking down or from ground level looking up, fragmenting and abstracting the image while also de-familiarizing everyday life. In this way the viewer could see reality presumably without the bourgeois preconceptions associated with anachronistic art conventions. Such unspoken rules, from Rodchenko’s viewpoint, straight-jacketed viewers into stock responses to images limiting their ability to think for themselves. For Victor Shklovsky, a literary theorist and cultural critic of the period, perception was a creative act that people performed for the most part unconsciously, and thus could be easily manipulated by shrewd propaganda and advertising. Both Rodchenko and Shklovsky sought new ways to counteract traditional conventions of image making. One possible way to neutralize this passivity was to startle the viewer into a new way of seeing by some shock to the system that would slow down looking and allow the individual to perceive in different and more complex ways, perhaps seeing relationships not previously considered. In effect defamiliarization encouraged the viewer to respond critically rather than to have a knee-jerk emotional reaction. This defamiliarization was analogous to Ezra Pound’s exhortation (before his move to fascist rhetoric) to “make it new,” and to Bertolt Brecht’s ideas for a new theater, but were perhaps most spectacularly developed in the cinema. It is in the work of Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, Hans Richter, Walter Ruttmann, and Jean Vigo that the search for the new found its most powerful visionary artists. In 1917 Rodchenko was 26, and like many young artists of the time he wanted a fresh start, and Shklovsky’s ideas were germane to his search for the new. In an effort to further these causes, Rodchenko, aside from the shock effects of unusual angles, adopted an "open frame" that suggested that what was being photographed was merely a fragment of a larger, uncontained, world in flux; angles were askew and people often were caught looking intensely at something unseen outside of the frame. 

Riefenstahl had throughout the 1920’s clearly delineated an aesthetic of mythic and what she considered timeless a-historical values. In her financially successful mountain series, consisting of seven films made over eight years (1926-1933). These were melodramas that followed the boy-meets-girl template that had been standardized by the 1920’s, due to the financial success of Hollywood films and Italian spectacles. Unlike most melodramas that took place indoors, usually in mansions, the mountain films were shot on location outdoors, often using documentary elements that would come to play a part in the narrative. The emphasis was on a highly theatrical sensibility, sensitive to subtle nuances of emotional cues, but using decorative, traditional framing that depicted grandiose landscapes and the heroes that traverse them (or in their terms conquer them). The blocking and mise-en-scène followed the formulas dictated by the film industry including a fairy tale aspect that was always present as a subtext. The lighting subscribed to what was then called “the Garbo effect” - that is shimmering close-ups, usually done in the studio, with a strong key-light that washed over the face, eliminating details, with hard dramatic shadows, giving emphasis to the eyes and the mouth. Riefenstahl’s favored a "closed frame" that contained its subject within a strict and rigorously orchestrated content.

The other influence on the mountain films were the sporting images of the time that were seen regularly in advertising, fashion and popular films, and that depicted healthy, vigorous young people embodying the Nazi idealization of the Aryan ideal – personified in the mountain series by Riefenstahl herself who starred in all of the films. These early works were in the beginning co-directed by Arnold Franck, but by the end of her alpine series Riefenstahl was the sole director. These films were, as Susan Sontag described them, “… pop Wagnerian vehicles… an irresistible metaphor for unlimited aspiration toward the high mystic goal, both beautiful and terrifying, which was later to become concrete in Fuhrer worship.”[3] Sigfried Kracauer called the films “half monumental – half sentimental concoctions.”[4]

More interestingly Kracauer shows how the aesthetic of the mountain films was transferred easily to Triumph of the Will (1936) Riefenstahl’s faux documentary on the Nuremberg Nazi Party Convention of 1934. “The films picture the horrors and beauties of the high mountains, this time with particular emphasis on majestic cloud displays. That in the opening sequence of the Nazi documentary Triumph of the Will similar cloud masses surround Hitler’s airplane on its flight to Nuremberg reveals the ultimate fusion of the mountain cult and the Hitler cult.”[5] In the mountain series Riefenstahl is a highly sexualized being, particularly in her lingering close-ups shot in the style used successfully in the Hollywood “dream factory,” but, unlike the overheated melodramas made in California, no nudity (in the pre-code period) or sexual acts were ever depicted. The films reference sexuality and significantly put it on hold in the traditional manner of Puritan art, which manages to be sanctimoniously asexual while simultaneously suggesting an idealized eroticism - a pure wholesomeness - transformed into a spiritual force that is powerful and intoxicating. We see something very similar today in the popular images of American football cheerleaders and in European fashion advertising. As Susan Sontag describes it: “Fascist aesthetics is based on the containment of vital forces; movements are confined, held tight, held in.”[6] The obvert, playful sexuality of Louise Brooks in G. W. Pabst’s brilliant film Pandora’s Box (1928), or Marlene Dietrich in her sexually charged series of films with Josef Von Sternberg, where she toyed with sexual identity, and role playing, were considered decadent, obscene, and degenerate by the cultural overseers of the Third Reich.

Triumph of the Will  Leni Riefenstahl 1934

Triumph of the Will Leni Riefenstahl 1934

In Triumph of the Will the sex object is no longer the young vigorous female but the strong male leader with an iron will - a sexualized superman who comes dressed for war. The massive staging of the Nuremberg rally was put on as a spectacle to be filmed, and when retakes of speeches that had experienced technical problems in the recording were necessary, they were redone in a studio.[7]  Kracauer makes a telling comparison of the sense of theater involved in the production of the Nuremberg rally with the sorts of deceptions common at the time when royalty ruled Europe: “[Triumph of the Will] represents the complete transformation of reality, [and] its complete absorption into the artificial structure of the Party Convention. The Nazis had painstakingly prepared the ground for such a metamorphosis: Grandiose architectural arrangements were made to encompass the mass movements, and under the personal supervision of Hitler, precise plans of the marches and parades had been drawn up long before the event. Thus the Convention could evolve literally in a space and a time of its own; thanks to perfect manipulation, it became not so much a spontaneous demonstration as a gigantic extravaganza with nothing left to improvisation. This staged show, which channeled the psychic energies of hundreds of thousands of people differed from the average monster spectacle only in that it pretended to be an expression of the people’s real existence. When in 1787 Catherine II traveled southward to inspect her new provinces, General Potemkin, the Governor of the Ukraine, filled the lonely Russian steppes with pasteboard models of villages to give the impression of flourishing life to the fast-driving sovereign; instead of pasteboard, however, they [the Nazis] used life itself to construct their imaginary villages.”[8] Riefenstahl in effect used reality as a stage and the people as actors in a contemporary costume drama. Riefenstahl’s photographic and film work for the Third Reich are documentaries by default. The elements of reality used were in fact real, but they were orchestrated as an ensemble to play a part in a dramatic fictional construction. Yet it would be wrong to say that everything in the films is a prop and everyone an actor, as the films have a high degree of narrative complexity that make such generalizations impossible. 

The faux documentary, from where Triumph of the Will finds its lineage, was not an invention of Riefenstahl, as the form had been pioneered at the very beginning of film history in the late 19th century. These short works were called actuality films, many of which were staged news events shot with actors and sets that depicted contemporary events deemed historically important such as coronations, celebrity marriages or meetings between politicians. Often actuality films were shot before the event and were released to coincide with the depicted occasion to capitalize on audience interest. In essence the actuality film continues to be used today in dramatic reenactments of news events using actors, usually accompanied by a voice-over explaining the action, and using a hand-held camera that mimics the documentary form. Triumph of the Will used the techniques of actuality films, but was much more sophisticated, as it brilliantly used the language of documentary – treating it as a style – and superimposed on it the full theatrical force of a dramatic, almost operatic, sensibility. Riefenstahl’s documentaries are in effect dramas that use reality and the visual cues of the documentary form to create a theatrical spectacle with a clear, fictionalized, thematic thread. In Triumph of the Will a savior comes from the sky (Hitler arrives by plane) and receives the unconditional love and the mandate of a people to lead them to greatness, to victory in war, and as the title makes explicit, to a “triumph of the will.” This savior is modeled on stock characters seen in the popular writings (from that time) of Karl May and other authors of adventure stories filtered through Richard Wagner’s bombastic, epic operas.

Varvara Stepanova  Alexander Rodchenko 1932

Varvara Stepanova Alexander Rodchenko 1932

This conscious blending of fictional narrative and stylistic devices with the documentary was also being explored by other directors during this period, such as Orson Welles in It’s All True (1941), Robert Siodmak in People on Sunday (1930), Roberto Rossellini in Rome, Open City (1945), and Michelangelo Antonioni in The Vanquished (1952). There are, of course, vast differences in how these directors approached this new composite essay/fiction form, yet for all of them it became a way of exploring subjects that resist easy explanation, categorization, or summation. This polyphonic fiction/documentary hybrid enabled the use of multiple perspectives within the same work, with none having dominance or providing an "objective viewpoint."  We can see that the subsequent work of Welles and Antonioni in particular, with films such as F is for Fake (1974) and Blow-Up (1966), builds upon that foundation. Riefenstahl did not pursue this line of inquiry. In her work, the powerful dialectical relationship between the two contrasting forms of documentary and fiction is manipulated to the point that reality and theater become one, a conceptual all-embracing ‘aestheticizing of politics’ (Walter Benjamin) that is formally very complex, but whose overall poetics is simplistic as the single overriding concept guides the work toward only one possible meaning or conclusion. In the case of Triumph of the Will the warrior/savior brings purpose and direction to the people and unifies all differences into a single overriding emotion of euphoric solidarity and well being. Unlike Roberto Rossellini or the other directors searching for new narrative forms, for Riefenstahl there was never a question of exploring the various levels of reality, the relationship of individuals to their environment, or the psychologies of crowds and power. Instead she championed an ideology through the established conventions of the heroic genre seen in her mountain films. This body of work was the foundation for all of her subsequent films and photography. Yet unlike the other hired artists in the Nazi talent pool, who were hopelessly antiquarian, moralizing and sententious, in Riefenstahl the Nazis found an aesthetic visionary who could understand the complexity of the ideas and emotions involved and how they related to the present moment.  Just as importantly she could communicate this to masses of people so they would be emotionally moved leaving the rhetoric, which she found pedantic and boring, to politicians and intellectuals. A close look at her photographic work during the Olympics allows us a rare glimpse into her techniques and their underlying philosophical ideas.

Diver  1936 Leni Riefenstahl

Diver 1936 Leni Riefenstahl

Diver  1934 Alexander Rodchenko

Diver 1934 Alexander Rodchenko

Riefenstahl was working for the Reich under Joseph Goebbels, the “Reich Minister of Propaganda,” and was to photograph and film all of the Olympic events overseeing the details of hiring crews and supervising them. For Triumph of the Will she had at her disposal thirty film cameras and a staff of a hundred and twenty members, not including the architects and designers who created the “set” for the Nuremberg rally that was the climax of the film.[9] For the Olympic Games Riefenstahl had sixty cinematographers at her disposal and the film was, as to be expected, elaborate and ambitious. Her editor Walter Ruttmann and his many assistants had to assemble thousands of hours of footage into a coherent narrative that followed the trajectory of the games themselves. The film’s final length of 200 minutes was eventually shown on its release in 1938 in two parts: Festival of the Nations and Festival of Beauty, each emphasizing a particular aspect of the games. Ruttmann was himself a highly talented filmmaker who had made a series of brilliant short avant-garde films such as the abstract Opus 1 (1922) and the highly influential Berlin Symphony of a Great City (1927). During the Nazi period Rutmmann shifted his allegiance from his avant-garde work, which the Nazis regarded as decadent, to eventually making propaganda films for the Reich. Later during the war he was killed in 1941 while filming the German advance, in the summer months, on the Russian front before the winter retreat.

Realizing that the light during the actual diving competition was mid-day light, direct and flat with deep shadows, Riefenstahl asked the divers to perform their dives outside of the competition in the early morning so she could shoot them in the light of dawn.[10] In this way, she avoided presenting the divers in the harsh daylight that would remorselessly show every straining muscle, every bead of sweat and every hair. The face of divers in mid-dive is often not particularly flattering because of the immense strain and concentration involved. The divers agreed to the off-hour dives, some posing naked, and the images of bodies taking off in the morning mist are photographed by shooting with a strong back light from the rising sun. The resulting silhouettes turn the divers into anonymous types that appear to be flying and to have none of the strain of divers as they make their difficult acrobatic moves on the way down to the water. The details of the body – clearly evident in Rodchenko’s image - have been eliminated by the extensive use of back lighting. For a fraction of a second humanity appears to have conquered mere mundane reality as the divers in Riefenstahl’s images are anonymous, as no particular qualities can be ascribed to any of them except gender. They are not only free of gravity, but of individuality as they pass beyond individual quirks toward a category of demi-god, free of the limitations and constraints of mere mortals. The marble of classical Greece is finally made into a living silhouette that is both in movement and statically frozen, the two opposites in perfect harmonious balance. The synthesis or unification of opposites is one of the primary objectives of classicism, the academic ideology based around the presumed ideas inherent in classical art - although what was going on in the minds of the artists who made art in Greece over two thousand years ago is not known. While some of the divers are naked in Riefenstahl's work, their nudity is there not so much to titillate as to make the connection to classical art absolutely clear. The aesthetics in Olympia are up front and center in a way that was not so evident in Triumph of the Will - we can summarize by saying that in the latter film the politics is overt and takes center stage, in every sense, while in Olympia, a far more sophisticated film, the politics is a subtext that is subtle but constant, and it is seamlessly integrated into the aesthetic form of the film.

Self Portrait  1935 Alexander Rodchenko The radical open frame seen to full effect, with a slanted horizon that tilts right as the subjects looks off camera left.

Self Portrait 1935 Alexander Rodchenko The radical open frame seen to full effect, with a slanted horizon that tilts right as the subjects looks off camera left.

Self Portrait  1939 Leni Riefenstahl The classical style adapted to photography and the closed frame seen to full effect, with the camera's two "eyes" perpendicular to the frame as Riefenstahl's hands create a closed circle.

Self Portrait 1939 Leni Riefenstahl The classical style adapted to photography and the closed frame seen to full effect, with the camera's two "eyes" perpendicular to the frame as Riefenstahl's hands create a closed circle.

Rodchenko in the 1930’s was working for Building the USSR, a newspaper that disseminated news and propaganda, and was shooting various preliminary competitions as preparation for the Olympic Games. Rodchenko wanted to shoot his divers from above so that he could have the crowd below watching and the diver in the frame at the same time. What was his reasoning? One possible answer is that the architecture of the stands and the crowd, both dressed and comporting themselves in ways peculiar to their time, would automatically historicize the image and ground it (literally and figuratively) in the present moment (1934). Rodchenko was after a certain dialectical tension between the dive and the historical circumstances surrounding it. His choice of 35mm film, then a relatively new format, and his beautiful assimilation of the snapshot aesthetic, were consciously anti-classicist. Rodchenko was keenly aware of the divide in photographic aesthetics during the 1930’s. A brief look at the warring aesthetics in this period throws light on the differences between Rodchenko and Riefenstahl.  

On the one hand photographic classicism, otherwise known as pictorialism, was best exemplified by artists such as Edward Steichen, Gertrude Kasebier and Alfred Stieglitz, for whom a photograph had to be manipulated, either through elaborate staging, and/or in the darkroom, to affect the conventions of realist painting, in order to become Art as a matter of course. Photographs that did not follow this line practice were dismissed as "snapshots." While pictorialism had been around since the 19th century, and was concurrent with academic European painting, it came of age officially in 1910 when Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery had an exhibition and some prints were purchased by museums including the Albright-Knox Gallery.[11]  Riefenstahl clearly belonged to this camp. On the other side of the photographic/ideological spectrum was the documentary or “anti-graphic” aesthetic (as it was called at the time) exemplified by Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Manuel Alvarez Bravo. This group received formal recognition in 1935 when the influential New York dealer Julien Levy, then famous for championing avant-garde and surrealist art, put on an exhibition entitled: Documentary and Anti-graphic Photographs by Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans & Alvarez Bravo.[12] Rodchenko consistently sided with the documentary artists, pushing his snapshot aesthetic and his highly developed sense of radical formalism to extremes, until the boundaries between personal, intimate snapshots and art photography was erased.

Rodchenko was not alone in these efforts, as similar experiments in the blending of photographic genres were being done elsewhere, perhaps most spectacularly at the Bauhaus, (1919-1933) and later by the radical New York’s Photo League (1936-1951). Not coincidentally the Bauhaus was permanently closed by the Nazi Party when it came to power, and the New York Photo League was forced to disband during the second “red scare” in the US known as McCarthyism. These radical photographic experiments came to an end for Rodchenko and for the artists of his generation, at least in public exhibitions, with Stalin’s eventual crackdown on all avant-garde art in the Soviet Union and his push for a civic minded, heroic neoclassicism that, ironically, mirrored Riefenstahl’s aesthetic and the films made by the “dream factory” in Los Angeles. These clashing aesthetic paradigms are not simply historical remnants but are very much with us now as we can see the basic criteria of pictorialism at work in the contemporary photographs of Jeff Wall, Uta Barth and Gregory Crewdson, just as we can witness modern versions of the “anti-graphic” aesthetic in the work of Alixandra Fazzina, Steve McCurry and Valerie Jouve.

To photograph divers using his small Leica Rodchenko would hang from scaffolding overlooking the dive. He had no problems with midday light as it permeated every hair and straining muscle. Rodchenko wanted a porous quality of skin and an immediacy of the jump in his pictures. Even the very awkwardness of the divers, and the humor resulting from it, were all emphasized and made into thematic elements in the pictures. The fleetingness and evanescent quality of the moment permeates the image like the water that seems to be everywhere, including the hairy legs of the divers. The photograph emphasizes the spatial relationship, the distance between diver and audience, and the ephemeral chance elements within the strictly controlled dive. Because of the unusual angle – the element of de-familiarization – we also become aware of where the photographer might have been standing when the picture was taken. In effect one is asked to consider the photographer's point-of-view. The audience below mirrors the photographer above and the diver is caught in the middle like a specimen being examined. The self-reflexive act of looking and being seen become primary elements in the image, as does the minutiae of detail that Rodchenko clearly loves.

Olympia  1936 Leni Riefenstahl's "petrified eroticism."

Olympia 1936 Leni Riefenstahl's "petrified eroticism."

Riefenstahl was militant about escaping the historical into the presumably timeless classicism of a Platonic fantasy world where there were no awkward moments, no sweat, and no hair - a fantasy world that existed in the past, in this case classical Greece. Substance, evidence and analysis were not merely subsumed but rejected altogether in favor of symbols, slogans and sensation - the fundamental aesthetic regime of fascist politics – which evokes a mythic past, relying on a sense of unreality and victimhood, and that invariably uses the cloak of “law and order” or “a return to order” to hide corruption, attack scapegoats, and create a sense of “us and them” which they use to divide and conquer. Riefenstahl herself stated it clearly: “Whatever is purely realistic, slice of life, which is quotidian doesn’t interest me… I am fascinated by what is beautiful, strong, healthy, what is living. I seek harmony.”[13] In this very revealing statement, she assumes that the realistic/slice of life and the beautiful/healthy are mutually exclusive. More importantly, throughout her writings and her work she takes for granted that the harmony she seeks to capture on film is extraneous to the observer and so it must be created by an artist from base raw materials. Riefenstahl had a concept in mind, that she referred to as “harmony and beauty,” and photography or film were the means to and end, rendering not individuals but carefully composed and lit types that represented Aryan ideals of beauty, purity and strength. In Riefenstahl's work the human body exists in a higher, aesthetic plane, it dissolves ecstatically as it becomes a part of a larger coherent whole that is seen as healthy and vigorous. The modernist idea – post-Einstein and quantum physics – that one affects the search and brings to it as much as one takes, and that this applied to presumably documentary images that recorded reality, was completely foreign to Riefenstahl. When Andre Kertesz photographed a sleeping student in a café or when Dorothea Lange photographed poor laborers hitchhiking to California, they were also interested in harmony and beauty, but it was different from Riefenstahl’s. As she herself said, realism held no interest for her except as coarse, unprocessed material that she could mold into an elaborate fantasy theater – which was also being formulated at the same time by the propaganda machine of the Third Reich – a spectacle that Sontag brilliantly described as “petrified eroticism.”[14]

Unlike Riefenstahl, Rodchenko was interested and invested in reality.  He wanted to not only transcribe it faithfully, as any good photojournalist, but to interact and improvise with it in an almost musical sense - he didn’t treat it like raw material waiting for the “master artist” to turn straw into gold. If reality were mud, Rodchenko would like to be knee deepp in it, like a kid discovering the pleasures of playing with the earth. In their respective photographs of diving competitions he sees himself as already inside of reality and existentially a part of the action, while Riefenstahl is outside looking from a distance at the bigger concept. From Riefenstahl’s perspective Rodchenko only got the small picture – what she called “the purely realistic” – but missed the big picture because he had no vision. What is the big picture? What is the vision?  The transcendental moment reaching to a higher spiritual consciousness and to presumably eternal truths such as “purity” and “beauty” that were, for her, essences beyond historical reality. For Rodchenko, Riefenstahl missed the moment as her work is merely pictorialism in contemporary garb, essentially fantasy illustration more related to the turgid, erotic kitsch of Lawrence Alma-Tadema or J.C. Leyendecker than to any documentary artist.

Riefenstahl was in her head. One could say even that she was alienated, but did not know it or did not dare to admit it, so she suppressed her alienation and constructed her own reality - a superior one to, as she called it, “the quotidian that doesn’t interest me” - one related to the quality ascribed to the spiritual. Susan Sontag: “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’ 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.”[15] Clearly Goebbels is not only making a distinction between the intellect and the spirit, but suggesting that they cannot coexist. What makes Riefenstahl’s work so seductive for so many people is that the ideas in the film do not seem imposed but grow organically out of the narrative and the form of the film, as they build almost like counterpoint in music. This sense of an orchestration of visual contrasts was Riefenstahl’s strong suit in which she had few equals – one of them ironically being Sergei Eisenstein, the Marxist, Soviet filmmaker and theoretician. 

Watering the Streets  1932 Alexander Rodchenko

Watering the Streets 1932 Alexander Rodchenko

Fascist art was not strictly about idolizing one man (although that was an important element). It was – as Goebbels’ speech makes clear – about freeing oneself from the burdens of thinking and entering a realm of ecstatic feeling or spirit. An individual that was part of a crowd under the spell of Nazi ideology could presumably be transformed, as Goebbels stated in a very revealing sentence: “From a little worm into part of a large dragon.”[16] In her work Riefenstahl wanted to synthesize the mannered German kitsch of her mountain films with established documentary techniques, fusing them into one new total work of art - similar in some respects to Wagnerian ideals regarding the future of opera. In her photographs and films the crowd, the human factor, may play a crucial role but it is always placed there to serve the master narrative and the overriding concept. The crowd in Riefenstahl’s work is clearly there to worship and act as witnesses in the realization of a Hellenic or mythic ideal in modern dress. Riefenstahl’s humorless, but emotionally resonant work, is fundamentally an epic, religious fantasy art. Complex historical realities are not to be found in her work, not because Riefenstahl would like to suppress such information, but because the historical is of fundamentally no interest to her. She is, as we have seen, interested in the mythic and the spiritual, and its manifestation in the world of contemporary reality as a physical force that emotionally captures and overwhelms the viewer and renders historical or critical reasoning superfluous.

For Rodchenko aesthetics always played a subordinate role to his subject and their historical context. He was genuinely interested in people and their present situation and saw photography as a means to an end – seizing the intangible everyday. He saw the historical in the present tense and had an ethnographic and a poetic sensibility that he held in extraordinary dialectical tension when producing his best work. For him it was the complexity of the real, and its ambiguous relationship to his carefully considered point of view that was ever present in his work, and continues to be the lasting source of its emotional power. Those resonant poetics are not only historical documents of a turning point in Western history, but have much to tell us about contemporary realities and the ways that photographers and filmmakers then and now depict them; the way that politics and philosophy interact and interpenetrate with aesthetics; the choices artists make, actively or passively, and their long-term consequences.

©2015 George Porcari


Rodchenko's Mother Reading the Paper  Alexander Rodchenko 1932

Rodchenko's Mother Reading the Paper Alexander Rodchenko 1932


[1] Alexander Lavrentiev, Alexander Rodchenko, Photography 1924-1954 (Konemann, 1996)

[2] David Welch, Propaganda and the German Cinema 1933-1945 (Tauris, 2001)

[3] Susan Sontag, “Fascinating Facism” in Under the Sign of Saturn (Anchor Books, 1980)

[4] Sigfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler: a Psychological Portrait of the German Film (Princeton, 1974)

[5] Ibid 4

[6] Ibid 3

[7] Ibid 2

[8] Ibid 4

[9] Leni Riefenstahl, Olympia (St. Martin’s Press, 1994)

[10] Ibid 9

[11] Pam Roberts, Alfred Stieglitz: Camera Work (Taschen, 2013)

[12] Jeff Rosenheim, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans: Documentary and Anti-Graphic Photographs: a Reconstruction of the 1935 Exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York (Steidl, 2004)

[13] Leni Riefenstahl interview in Cashiers du Cinema in “Fascinating Fascism” from Under the Sign of Saturn (Anchor Books, 1980)

[14] Ibid 3

[15] Ibid 2

[16] Ibid 2