Recently my group have been exploring the relationship between documentary and propaganda films.
One of our key points of reference has been Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the will 1934. And our discussions has raised the problematic of the amorality of formalism as a means for constructing or reading movies. It seemed to me that the main evidence against formalism is the distortion of apparent narrative economy and elegance by racist and morally bankrupt ideological perspectives.
The films which spring most readily to mind in this context are Riefenstahl’s record of the Nazi party congress of 1933 and DW Griffith’s Birth of a notion 1915. It is curious that both film seem to purport to a kind of unifying endeavour. Riefenstahl’s through its use of shot selection and editing and the way that Griffith’s film seeks to position its audience in relation to the representations of African Americans, which has at its heart an underlying assumption of shared racist perspectives.
What’s also similarly interesting is the ways that history has judged these films and how this has been extrapolated to a damning indictment of formalism and to some extent the preoccupation of modernism with form