Mary Devereaux, "Beauty and Evil: The Case of Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will" 



         a.      Documentary of 1934 Nuremberg Nazi rally

         b.      Made at Hitler’s request and he gave it title and he helped orchestrate the spectacle

         c.      He liked the film

         d.      Riefenstahl was great admirer of Hitler

                   i.       Never expressed remorse for her association and with Hitler and support of National Socialism


         e.      Radical departure from standard newsreel of the day

         f.       Innovation in documentary film making

         g.      Major contributor to history of film

         h.      Won major awards at the time


         i.       Riefenstahl cut the film and changed order of events to give it a “rhythmic style” and achieve “dramatic intensity”

                   i.       Trying to hold spectator’s attention and generate same excitement felt by rally’s participants.

         j.       Beauty and sheer exuberance of scenes celebrate pro Nazi sentiments

         k.      Evokes fear with massive show of military display at end.

2.      TW’s vision

         a.      Nazi world peopled by heroes and ruled from above by gods

         b.      Hitler is a hero in the grand narrative by which Germany is restored to its ancient splendor

                   i.       Much beloved father of German people

                   ii.      Hitler as a messianic leader and savior of German people



4.      Devereaux’s answer:

         a.      Because it is both beautiful and evil

                   i.       that it is both explains why it is so disturbing

         b.      Troubling as presents a beautiful vison of Hitler and Nazi Germany that is morally repugnant

5.      Perhaps it is it disturbing because it is a documentary and the events it portrays are disquieting

         a.      Watching the precursors of WW II and Holocaust and that’s troubling



7.      Devereaux: Not just a documentary, but Nazi propaganda

         a.      “Designed to propagate the Nazi faith”

8.      Riefenstahl denies it was propaganda

         a.      Claims only concerns were aesthetic (not political)

                   i.       D: But film uses beauty, formally beautiful images to create a vision of Hitler and National Socialism (and that’s political)

         b.      Claims a pure documentary

                   i.       Records the reality of the loyalty and hope Hitler once inspired

                   ii.      Pure historical film; reflects the truth that was then in 1934

                   iii.     Therefore a documentary and not propaganda film

9.      Devereaux argues inconsistent to say both a pure documentary and then also purely aesthetics/artistic:

         a.      As the latter took the boring speeches and endless marching and brought them to life.

10.    Devereaux claims not documentary

         a.      As it switched the order of events and organized film by demands of its narrative vision –a highly selective and distorted story about Hitler that Riefenstahl wrote.

         b.      Much more that ordinary editing and constructing and taking point of view of documentaries and

11.    **Reality that film records is a reality that it helped to create

         a.      Much more than documentary (but a politically powerful tool)



13.    Did Riefenstahl intend to make a propaganda film?

         a.      She did not think to herself “I’m going to make a work of Nazi propaganda”

         b.      She probably did think to herself that “I’m going to show Hitler in a way that will mobilize the German people in his support”

14.    Devereaux: Riefenstahl’s intentions do not determine whether or not film is propaganda

         a.      Whether TW is a work of propaganda is question about film itself, not about Leni Riefenstahl (or her intentions)

         b.      Plainly the film is propaganda



16.    Not only is it propaganda, but a work of art

17.    TW art because

         a.      A work of creative imagination

         b.      In a recognized artistic genre (documentary)

         c.      Of recognized artistic medium (film)

18.    Its great art because it is

         a.      Stylistically and formally innovative

         b.      Every detail contributes to its central vision and overall effect

         c.      It’s very beautiful

                   i.       Offers beautiful sensuous presentation of German people, leader and empire

19.    Both excellent work of propaganda and work of art



21.    TW is problematic as art not just because it is propaganda

22.    What makes it problematic and disturbing as art is its artistic vision: It portrays something morally evil (Nat Soc) as beautiful

         a.      If we see film as intended to be seen, it is to be moved by what Riefenstahl presents as the beauty of National Socialism

                   i.       Is NS beautiful in anyway? The idea of a nation following a leader for the good of all?

         b.      In every detail it’s designed to advance a morally repugnant vision of Hitler

         c.      One that falsified true character of Hitler and National Socialism

23.    Wrong to enjoying this film, be caught up in it or stirred by its beauty (even only slightly)?

         a.      Makes one a bad person?


24.    Not just a description of Nazism, but one that is presented as attractive

25.    *Not just asking us to imagine finding NS appealing, but to actually find it appealing

         a.      Difference between a story that gets us into the head of a sadistic pervert but also condones the behavior of the pervert and tries to get us to do so


26.    Reasons potentially problematic

         a.      Problem not just that I might be led to act badly if enjoy film (support neo-Nazi movements)

27.    But that certain kinds of enjoyments are problematic in themselves apart from their effects

                   i.       E.G., taking pleasure in a work of art that celebrates sadism or pedophilia

                   ii.      Enjoying the images of people suffering after Hurricane Katrina

                   iii.     Enjoying watching wolves tear apart an elk?

         b.      If virtue consists in part in taking pleasure in right things and not in the wrong things, then what is my character now such that I can take pleasure in these things?


28.    What attitude should we adopt toward film as art?

         a.      Should we praise its aes qualities?

                   i.       We admire Pyramids despite the great human cost paid for their production

         b.      Should we bracket questions of good and evil in looking at TW?

         c.      Or should we insist that moral implications of TW undermine its aes value?


29.    General problem of beauty and evil

         a.      Aes and moral considerations may pull in different directions

         b.      Conflict between demands of art and demands of morality




31.    Formalism’s response: Need aesthetic distance (disinterestedness)

32.    When appreciating a work of art must

         a.      Put aside practical considerations like work’s origin, moral effects and

         b.      Focus on work itself (namely its formal features–structural and stylistic features)

                   i.       E.g., appreciate the beauty of the fog at sea despite its danger

         c.      Sever aes evaluation from moral evaluation

         d.      Evaluate the work in aesthetic (formal) terms alone

         e.      Aes and moral are wholly independent domains

         f.       TW is bad morally, but aes it is good

                   i.       We can see this if we get aes distance and set aside moral concerns

33.    No real problem of beauty and evil; its illusory says formalist


34.    Some might argue that adopting aes distance toward film like TW is itself immoral activity–we are hardening ourselves to real suffering

         a.      Being willing to run that risk for mere aes pleasure is morally insensitive



36.    Problem is that if we distance ourselves from morally objectionable elements of film (e.g., Deification of Hitler) we distance ourselves from features that make it the work of art it is

         a.      Will not be able to understand its artistic value

         b.      We will miss the beauty (horrifying though it is) of its vision of Hitler.

         c.      The moral content is not separable from what the film is and if we are to appreciate the film as art we have to appreciate what it is

37.    TW has a message (a content) essential to what it is

         a.      If we bracket that message and focus strictly on its formal elements we omit essential aspects of the film and an essential dimension of its beauty

         b.      To fully grasp the beauty of TW and see it as work of art it is, need to pay attention to its content

         c.      And formalism tells us to ignore this content

         d.      Is the beauty in the way it glorifies Hitler? In the narrative about Hitler and Germany it tells? It’s a great story, though an evil one!

38.    Riefenstahl says if focus purely on formal features of TW apart from their contribution to film’s message, those features are un-problematically beautiful

39.    The genius of TW is not merely its pure formal features, but its artistic vision: its utterly horrifying vision of Hitler and National Socialism–essence of the film

40.    Formalism fails as it has us ignore essence of film



         a.      Can pay attention to the content in the sense that can focus on how presented

         b.      Grasp the relationship between form and content

         c.      Connection between message and means used to convey it

42.    TW has formal accomplishments but also can focus on how these stylistic means are used to convey feelings of awe admiration and oneness with Hitler

43.    Still separates moral and aesthetic evaluation–different domains

44.    Don’t judge the message, but its expression

45.    Finding the message conveyed by TW repulsive should not affect our aes judgment or aes response to the film

46.    Can distance ourselves from work’s content while still paying attention to that content–way film’s content figures in its expressive task.


47.    Devereau thinks SF fails to properly appreciate TW

         a.      SF prevents us from talking about political meaning of TW, truth or falsity of its picture of Hitler, whether it is good or evil–while doing aesthetics

         b.      SF does not ignore content, but it aestheticizes it

         c.      Content of film is relevant to its evaluation only in so far as expressed well or badly

         d.      Leaves essential elements of TW irrelevant to its aes evaluation

         e.      So SF fails to respond fully to work of art that TW is

         f.       Its content (immoral content) is part of what it is as a work of art and if we are to appreciate that work of art must pay attention to that content



         a.      Narrow aesthetics option, broadened aesthetics option

49.    One: Keep aesthetic and artistic separate: More to art than aesthetics

         a.      Allows us to keep 18th century conception of aesthetics (sophisticated formalisms account of aes)

         b.      Keeps boundaries of aes relatively narrow and clearly defined

         c.      Keep aes evaluation simple: quest of political meaning, truth and falsity, good and evil, right and wrong fall outside category of aes

         d.      Since works of art raise these issues, category of artistic outstrips the cat of aesthetic

50.    Two: Broaden aesthetic to include artistic: More to aesthetics than beauty or form

         a.      Broadens concept of aes beyond traditional boundaries

         b.      Respond to work of art ‘aesthetically” when respond not only to its formal elements and relation of form and content, but whenever we respond to feature that makes a work the work of art it is

                   i.       Features can include substantive as well as formal features

         c.      Aes tracks the artistic (however broadly or narrowly we define it)


51.    Devereaux favors the second option

         a.      First option preserves preoccupation with beauty, an important feature of art, but one that is no longer so important to us

         b.      Beauty is no longer central to modern art

         c.      If we insist that beauty, form, relation form to content is only legitimate focus of aesthetics, this marginalizes aesthetics

                   i.       Isolates it from philosophy of art and much of our experience of art

         d.      If accept broader conception of aes, have more inclusive category, one more adequate to what art is in all its manifestations and to the full range of values it has

         e.      Puts much of what we humanly care about back into aes arena and offers a much more complete view of art


52.    Devereaux’s evaluation of TW given 2nd conception

         a.      To get things right about TW must engage with its vision and moral issues it raises

         b.      Doesn’t require we abandon distinction aes and moral value

                   i.       Can still distinguish between formal beauty of TW’s style and its moral status as Nazi propaganda

                   ii.      Needn’t deny that art and morality belong to different domains

                   iii.     Does require that we recognize that these areas overlap and that certain works of art (religious and political art) fall within this overlapping area.


53.    Why TW disturbing? Many reasons

         a.      Because of horrible events it documents

         b.      Because a work of propaganda

         c.      Because it propagates a distorted picture of Hitler

54.    Most unsettling feature of TW is its conjunction of beauty and evil

         a.      ***Film renders something that is evil, National Socialism, beautiful and so tempts us to find attractive what is morally repugnant.

55.    Is “attraction” a kind of overall or underlying valence we have toward things?

         a.      And the morally repugnant would have us respond with a negative valence/value

         b.      And the beauty a positive valence

         c.      So we are pulled in opposite directions

         d.      Note assumption here is that these values are commensurable or have implications on a common denominator

         e.      Formalism would say that these two are not related so don’t go in different directions



57.    First question: How should we respond to film? Is it okay to find it beautiful?

         a.      Yes if the beauty we respond to is the formal features

         b.      Yes if the beauty we respond to is how the content is expressed stylistically

58.    But we must also respond to film’s (evil) vision; the beauty of its vision of Nazism

         a.      Can we find this vision beautiful w/o endorsing fascism and doctrines of NS?

59.    Yes if we separate the doctrine of NS in the film’s vision and focus on its vision of a beloved father of a happy smiling people willing to work for their country

         a.      Then its permissible to find that aspect of its vision beautiful

         b.      Permissible to appreciate the beauty of vision of benevolent leader of unified community and sense of national purpose

         c.      Can find this appealing and reject doctrines and ideals of NS

         d.      I’m not so sure his sort of isolation is possible or desirable

60.    It’s a moral step to accept those doctrines and we need not and should not take that step

61.    So possible to appreciate the beauty of film’s vision w/o compromising ourselves morally

62.    But note that a goal of the film is to get us to take that step–in the direction of evil

         a.      Film is potentially corrupting

         b.      By appreciating its beauty we open ourselves to temptations of fascism

         c.      The film is morally dangerous


63.    Second question: How fact film is evil should affect our evaluation of it as work of art?

64.    Can’t say it has little artistic value: It is perhaps a work of genius

65.    Should also not say it is a terrific work of art (despite is insidiousness)

66.    TW is flawed, as its vision is flawed, as it misrepresents Hitler and National Socialism

67.    And flawed because it presents as beautiful and good things that are evil

68.    Since this vision is part of what the artwork is, it is a flawed vision and so flawed work of art

         a.      What is wrong with presenting evil things as beautiful? Can’t they be? Is the worry that by creating such things we are likely to corrupt people? Or that what we create is somehow a monstrosity

         b.      See work of Edward Burtynsky (class webpage)


69.    Many have the Platonic intuition that beauty and goodness go together (TW shows this is a mistake)

         a.      That the beautiful not just gives sensual pleasure but also engages and satisfies the mind and spirit

         b.      Hence we find it paradoxical art like TW that weaves beauty and evil together

         c.      TW shocks us by showing that beauty and goodness can come apart

                   i.       Not just in simple sense that moral and aes evaluation may diverge

                   ii.      But in more frightening sense that possible for art to render evil beautiful


70.    The unity of beauty and goodness is a standard by which art can be measured

         a.      If good art must not only please the senses but engage and satisfy us intellectually and emotionally

         b.      Then we can criticize TW for rendering something evil beautiful

         c.      Note this is an aesthetic/artistic criticism of TW, not just a moral one

         d.      This standard of good art seems too narrow as some powerful art might leave us emotionally distraught and might affront the senses

         e.      Does this mean the photography of Edward Burtynsky is criticizable for combining these two?


71.    Not saying morally flawed works of art like TW can’t have artistic value

72.    But reason to withhold highest praise from art that presents as beautiful and attractive and good what is evil

         a.      Endorsing evil or simply presenting it as beautiful?


73.    Why watch TW? (Like watching pornography?)

         a.      Might watch it for same reasons some feminists examine works of porn: in confronting these works we may learn something about a way of seeing the world we reject

         b.      Might help us better understand ourselves as humans

                   i.       Imagining seeing the world as Riefenstahl represents it may enable us to confront and comprehend the real and potential tendencies of human evil

         c.      Allows us to see that beauty and evil can and have been conjoined

                   i.       And see that one of most disturbing things about art is it can make evil things appear beautiful and good

         d.      Shouldn’t watch it to appreciate its (flawed?) beauty?


74.    Issues/questions

75.    Tragedy also makes beauty and evil come together

76.    So does predation in nature

77.    Is TW a case of immoralism

         a.      Where the beauty is enhanced and given power, where aesthetic value increased by the immoral character of what it does?

Questions (not complete)

1.      Is TW an evil film? Why or why not? Does it matter what Riefenstahl knew about Hitler? Do her intentions matter?

2.      Why does Devereaux believe TW is so troubling a film?

3.      What is the difference between a documentary and propaganda? Is it that a documentary is neutral and has no point of view? Is TW propaganda? What do Riefenstahl and Devereaux think about this? Do Riefenstahl’s intentions matter in this debate?

4.      Are certain kinds of enjoyments wrong in themselves apart from their affects?

5.      Is it permissible to aesthetically admire the pyramids despite the human suffering involved in building them? If so, is it also permissible to aesthetically admire TW, despite the evil involved?

6.      What is formalism and how does it respond to the problem of beauty and evil (that evil things can be beautiful)?

7.      Explain Devereaux’s claim that formalism would have us ignore the essence of the film and so it doesn’t allow us to appreciate what the film is. Do you agree?

8.      Explain the possible relation between aesthetics (understood narrowly as beauty, form, style) and art which involves content, context, morality, politics and so on (in addition to narrow aesthetic dimensions). How does Devereaux use the fact that much modern art is concerned with issues other than narrow aesthetics to argue that we need to expand aesthetics to include all concerns of art as art?