Do artists have a social responsibility for their creations?

Film maker or Nazi Propagandist?

Just finished watching a very interesting documentary about the actress and director Leni Riefenstahl. For those who are not familiar with the artist or any of her work, you are likely to have seen part of one of her movies without knowing it.

Before Hitler came to power he was very impressed by Mrs Riefenstahl’s acting and directing abilities. Not into politics at all, she was persuaded to attend one of Hitler’s speeches by a friend of hers. She, like most of the nation, was pulled into the atmosphere and was intrigued by Hitlers rhetorical abilities. After attending the speech she wrote him a letter and was promptly invited to meet with him. On that meeting, Hitler told her “when we come into power, I’d like you to make our party’s movie”.

The documentary swings back and forth between excerpts of her movies, her amazing history and live interviews. When Sternberg, the director who ‘created’ Marlene Dietrich, asked her to follow him to Hollywood so that he could ‘create’ her as well, she refused due to her involvement with a German man who she didn’t want to leave. “A decision that I regret to this day”, she comments in the movie. So she remains in Germany, starts to shoot her own films and sets many new standards with her movie “The blue light”. She obviously had an enormous talent, vision and determination to make films, her perfectionism clearly visible in her passion about the subject during the live interviews as well as the excerpts of her movies.

Fast forward: she meets Hitler, Hitler gains power and requests her to make a short film about the party, which she, according to her own words never wanted to do. Not so much because of political reasons (which she claims herself to have been utterly uninformed about) but because she wasn’t interested in that type of documentary. But refusing one of Hitler’s request in 1934 was very difficult and she finally agreed. Hitler purposely chose an artist and not a political party director for that movie which later became (in-)famous as “Triumph des Willens” (Triumph of the will) , a documentary about the Nazi Party rally in Nuerenberg in 1934.

I am including parts of a review found on the imDb website:
“Utterly brilliant film. Just look at the long shots. Absolutely no cameras visible. Truly meticulous work. Astounding score. The opening sequence of Hitler’s descent is brilliant artistry, with the director creating the implicit parallel of God’s descent from heaven. , ……., Riefenstahl is an amazing director, one that should have done more films.”

Riefenberg’s “Triumph of the will” gained international prizes before the war, recognising her unprecedented achievement. But History happened, and her art piece became the infamous propaganda movie of the Nazis.

To the interviewer’s question how she felt 50 years after, watching her movie, that she must be partially proud and yet concerned about of what her movie propagated, she responds:
“Proud? How can I be proud of something that I never wanted to do, that cost me so much work and almost my health, just to then ruin any opportunity to ever do again what I so much wanted to do, that is making movies”.

She never was able to make another movie again, being completely chastised after the war (she lived to be 101 years old).

The question on whether she was a Propagandist or a Documentary film maker may still end in a heated discussion nowadays.

Hearing her speak, and as a creator myself, I can easily imagine that her obsession with creating ‘the perfect film’ (with an unlimited budget during a time of economic despair) left no room to deal with the politics that time. And in 1934, the message was about hope and peace, which Germany badly wanted to hear at the time. As a human being with the advantage of hindsight, it does raise some important questions about the freedom and the responsibility of artists.

I strongly recommend the documentary “The wonderful horrible life of Leni Riefenstahl”. For more information on that movie and Leni, I’ve attached the following link:


~ by spasmicallyperfect on May 31, 2007.

8 Responses to “Do artists have a social responsibility for their creations?”

  1. No.

  2. I have heard of her work and I have heard it was very talented. Social responsibility for artistic creations, an interesting conundrum. Still whom gets to determine what qualifies as socially responsible art? Often art work, especially films do hold others socially responsible for their actions within the content of the story. Yet so many artists scream about artistic freedoms and censorship when that content is challenged. It becomes hard to be taken seriously if you are unwilling to hold yourself to the same standards that you expect from others.

  3. anything related to Hitler, whether doc. or not, I can’t stand. I just get absolutely and instantly furious. This guy is one of the most manipulative psychotic killer of men’s history. I just feel very sad for that woman.

  4. Hitler was one of the most despicable individuals that has ever walked the Earth. Reading about current Holocaust disbelief and untold amounts of analogies comparing his actions and every despot since his death, leaves me to believe that the World does a poor job of teaching the horrors of the Holocaust. That is why I tend to gravitate towards any media source offering information concerning the people and period of the time. As I said in a post about the fading memories of the Holocaust, some things should never be forgotten. I do not think the World can ever totally understand the evil that made up the Nazi regime, but I believe that the only way to fathom even a minimum is to expose one’s self to as much of the period information that is available.

  5. I’ll answer this one in a comment rather then comments within comments.
    First of all thanks for all the responses.
    Nach: Thanks for your opinion, short but to the point. Well done and welcome.
    PL and scoundrel:
    Explaining bad things that happen with labeling someone or a group of people as ‘evil’ has never satisfied me. Humans are and life is multi-faceted in my opinion, the more we try to inform ourself the more (we hope to) understand. Sticking the ‘evil’ or ‘bad’ -label on one or a group also runs the risk of washing our hands from any responsibility or accountability that we as a society might have within the picture. Granted, this might not always be the case, but in my experience, we are often too quick to point the reprimanding finger, when in actual fact, it could be pointed in our direction as well.

    I wasn’t there, and can only rely on my opinion gained from the amount of research that I have done in trying to explain how my neighbour nation, not one full generation back from my own, could commit such crimes against humanity. It didn’t happen overnight. Although Hitler had a very clear idea on where he was heading, in order to have ‘das Volk’ behind him, he had to have progressed like a wave. He didn’t start with proposing to deport Jews. Germany wouldn’t have agreed to that. By the time the majority of the population clued in to what was going on, he and his regime had gained too much power to protest against.

    The documentary mentioned in my post confirms the complexity of that whole part of history by telling the story of one individual. The view from an artist’s angle adds another facet.

    I agree that we cannot forget. I pray that we are open enough to ask ourselves some though questions as a nation or society. Based on the Nazi regime history, there is no doubt in my mind that something like that could happen again. Not just in countries where is no stable democracy, but in any of the European countries or even North America. All it takes, is an unhappy and/or scared nation, a leadership figure with the ability to speak the common man’s language as well as an directly or indirectly labeled scape goat. All it takes is “they are not like us”.

  6. Spaz,
    I read this the other day and I thought it was a spectacular post. I didn’t know any of this and it changed my opinion of her. I feel sorry for her and the course her life took afterwards.
    While I do think people are accountable for their own actions, there are mitigating circumstances in many cases, as I think there are in this one.
    Thanks for bringing this up.

    Actually, I went book hunting after the documentary and came across two of them. One of them seemed deadset on the fact that she was infact in deep with Hitler and the Nazis while the other tried to show both sides. Will have to read them both and then it would be interesting to see whether I can find a biography written by from the German side. History always varies depending on which side of the coin it is written from. Based on the documentary I did get the feeling that she wasn’t quite telling the entire truth on some questions but on other questions I am sure she did.

  7. good post

  8. hi spaz,
    sorry i haven’t been around much. i like it when you do these posts. you’re very good at them and you pose a compelling question. and it brings to mind the phrase, ‘there but for the grace of god, go i.’
    i wonder what would have happened had she refused. would she have been sent to a concentration camp, killed, or worse? in the end, her life was ruined so it seems though she wasn’t killed literally, she suffered a death nonetheless, yes?

    Hchm, you not around? I have been completely missing 😉 . Thanks for the compliments on these kind of posts of mine, the more lines the more risk of me getting caught up in my own opinion. I do like your image of an ‘artist’s death’. Having said that, there is this one voice in me that has a difficulty believing that a strong woman like her didn’t find a way to make more movies. There are other controversial directors out there who somehow manage to get their stuff out. I might be wrong, and I really wasn’t in her shoes, maybe it was because she didn’t leave Germany, but seeing her personality it seems a bit difficult to believe that she would sit back when confronted with the obstacles that her ‘tainted’ reputation posed. But I don’t know, I have to read the two books I have lined up to get a better understanding of the situation. Either way, I am fascinated by her and her surrounding story.

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