Consider the Fuhrer

Elizabeth Pearce | Posted on August 21, 2013

Did you know Hitler was a vegetarian? You probably did – or, conversely, you are spitting at the screen right now: ‘He was not a vegetarian, that is a myth!’ Indeed, type the key words into Google and you will find whole forums dedicated to discussing the Fuhrer’s warm-and-fuzzy or otherwise feelings for furry critters. Wiki says he was one, though (vego, not furry critter). It’s interesting to consider why it matters so much. On the one hand, it throws into starker relief the cruelties he perpetuated on his own species. But on the other hand – and more menacingly – it draws attention to the flimsy and contingent nature of any moral system. We want to draw the blanket conclusion: monster: but his sensitivity (imagined or otherwise) to the lives of some, and not others, mirrors back to us in monstrous form our own hierarchy of species. A question stirs somewhere: is there an inherent cow-ness or pig-ness that throws open the door to these creatures’ slaughter? Or is it just because we can? (The question stirs, but only for a moment. Hitler’s abstinence from animal flesh is swallowed whole by the holocaust, which unites us in our horror.)

The reason I am compelled to consider the Fuhrer is because I am researching Leni Riefenstahl’s 1938 film Olympia on display as part of the Red Queen exhibition at Mona. I heard from someone at some stage during the installation of The Red Queen that Olympia is ‘a documentary about Jesse Owens and Hitler at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games’. That’s an interesting distillation, but an inaccurate one. The film is actually not a documentary but a highly stylised work of creative non-fiction. The ‘non-fiction’ part is the fact that the subject of the film is, indeed, the ’36 Games; but these events are shaped by Riefenstahl into a form as exquisite as the bodies on screen: these finely honed fetish-objects, fit for the mythical apotheosis of the human form. Jesse is there, amid the other Gods. Hitler is, too.

If you’re not clear on the significance of ‘Jesse Owens, American negro, the world’s fastest sprinter…’ (as put by the commentator for the men’s 4x100m relay) basically it is this: Owens won four gold medals at the Games and was its most successful athlete. Born in Alabama in 1913, at nine he moved with his family to Ohio, part of the ‘great migration’ of 1.5 million African Americans from the segregated South to more prosperous parts of the country. At Ohio State University he broke track-and-field records willy-nilly but was compelled to live off campus like other black students and also was not permitted to patronise the same hotels or restaurants when he travelled to events with his teammates. (I find myself given to the temptation to rehearse these Wiki-facts with tired shock: we’re well versed in the realities of racial segregation but still that reality has the capacity to amaze me). In one day (actually, according to Wiki, in the space of forty-five minutes), May 25, 1935, Owens broke three world records and tied for a fourth at the ‘Big Ten’ college athletics event at Ann Arbor, Michigan. The ’36 Games were set in his sights.

But here, Wiki and I say our goodbyes: Owens apparently ‘countered’ ideologies of Aryan racial superiority ‘by winning four gold medals’, irking Hitler. But surely his superb athleticism could be conveniently explained away by the belief that ‘primitive’ peoples inhabit their bodies more fully – devoid, as they are (according to ‘master-race’ theory), of the need to direct as much energy as whites to higher intellectual, social and moral functions? Apparently Hitler muttered something like that into his moustache as he turned away from the field in disgust. I made that last bit up. And someone else, apparently, made up the well-known story that Hitler refused to congratulate Owens after his first gold-medal win, storming out of the stadium in a terrible huff and going home to fondle his guinea pigs. (Sorry, it’s just that I saw a bumper sticker yesterday that read ‘Justice for vegetarians: Hitler was no animal lover’).

(And on the vegetarian issue: I have recently partaken of flesh – I think some drama is appropriate – for the purposes of nurturing my unborn child i.e. I’m normally a vegetarian but my obstetrician told me my iron is too low. This is the first of many instances, I sadly concede, when my broader vision will be obscured – obliterated – by my desire to bolster in any way I can the wellbeing of my progeny, in some sort of bizarre, compulsive faith in the belief that as my child thrives, so the world turns. One of the caricatures of a bio-cultural approach to human psychology is that we are puppets moving on the strings of our genes – a caricature, I say, because good bio-cultural explanations do not in any way displace the importance of culture, environment and personal choice in favour of ‘genetic determinism’. But in this case, I feel a bit puppet-ish, I admit. At exactly sixteen-weeks pregnant, which was when I felt my baby move, I started to feel near-hysterical levels of anxiety in regards to its safety – I’ve since been told this will never get better, which is terrific, thanks. And when I say ‘near-hysterical’ I mean signing up to Choice Magazine, itself an appalling act, and compulsively scanning articles on pram and change-table safety, and hence managing to be both a lunatic and hideously boring at once. This new me sits outside of me, somewhere apart, totally disintegrated with what I consider my character. I am not enjoying it. The sensation is captured in a beautiful book by Anna Goldsworthy, Welcome To Your New Life, in which the narrator attempts to take her husband and new baby on holiday ‘from sleep deprivation, from hyper-vigilance… from ourselves’. At their coastal holiday house she is horrified to discover a long-drop toilet, a repository – or suppository, if you’d prefer – of maternal anxiety:

Quickly I close the lid, but it is too late. I have seen how you would fall. That moment in which clumsiness ticks over into disaster. The dense plummet of your body; the viscous splash...

‘The baby must never go in there!’

That night, so fearful is she that her husband will succumb to the toilet’s ‘sinister gravitational pull’ and offer up the child as sacrifice to its ‘moist and malodorous’ belly, that she builds a fortress of suitcases around him as he sleeps, so that if he wakes he will rouse her as well. Recently David wrote a blog post about his daughter Grace’s accident which many of you read. One comment on our Facebook page in response to his post read: ‘A very nice example of why a scientific world view can, and does, help us deal with shit of the emotional kind’. This made me feel cheerful because it is something I have learned, and I’d like to think that it has come across to those who engage with what we do at Mona. So, science consoles. Something I have always known, have never had to learn, is that so, too, does literature).

Yes: so while it’s true that Hitler did not shake hands with Owens, neither did he shake hands with any competitor that day. Initially he had decided it was appropriate to congratulate only German victors on the podium; the Olympic committee gave him an ultimatum: shake hands with all of them or none. He chose the latter. Which I find a little amusing. It reminds me of a recent failed attempt at a veiled ultimatum for my husband’s eight-year-old: ‘If you don’t go for a walk with Dad, I might find some jobs here at home I need help with’. ‘Good. I like helping’. (His reward for piercing my pathetic attempt at manipulation was that I let him off the hook, which he would have appreciated because no one likes helping. It’s something our mothers made up to wreak revenge on the human race for the pain of childbirth).

The artistic and historical significance of Olympia is twofold. Firstly, it exemplifies many cinematic techniques – such as creative camera angles, tracking shots and use of non-diegetic sound – that were, for its time, groundbreaking. Its release brought widespread acclaim for Riefenstahl, who beat Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to take the grand prize at the 1938 International Film Festival in Venice. During a tour of the United States to promote the film, she was received by Disney and publically praised by him for her achievement. But there in America, awareness was growing of the horrors gathering in Germany. In November that year, Riefenstahl was asked to leave the country.

It seems clear that Riefenstahl was to some extent consciously participating in a Nazi propaganda campaign, especially when you consider Olympia alongside an earlier film, Triumph of the Will, about the Nuremberg Rally, as well as her close personal association with Hitler and Joseph Goebbels. But whether or not she was really conscious of what she was collaborating in – how could we possibly know? In her autobiography she claims that she learned of Nazi Kristallnacht attacks against Jews from American reporters, and was shocked. The historical debate could go on forever and is not super interesting to me. Much more interesting is the relationship between artistic intention and outcome the film generates.

Firstly, is there any propagandist purpose evident in the film itself? I find it impossible to say. I watched it without knowing much about the historical conditions of its production, and I didn’t find that it dwelled in particular on German athletic supremacy. You could argue that the shots of Hitler looking calm and sane in the face of racially diverse athletic success are terrible visual lies, but they are not in themselves propaganda (i.e. they obscure, as oppose to champion, his true agenda). Secondly, and more importantly: does it matter whether or not she ‘meant’ for the film to carry any special message? Is what the artist wants or intends to express a priority, when considering the value of a work of art to us, the human race?

I made out like that was a hypothetical question. The truth is that I’ve already made up my mind. Artist intention does matter, but not that much. I might not have meant to pull the trigger, but I did, and now you’re dead. The fact it was not a malicious murder matters, sure, but you’re still there on the floor, gathering your own meaning as the blood pools behind your head. In less violent imagery: there is no perfect transmission of intent. The space between my words and their echo in your ear is the engine of social interaction, the imperfection that perfects the system. Reading is always misreading, listening mishearing; art is art, by definition, when its message gets lost in translation. Otherwise, it’s just advertising. Olympia is art, then, and not (just) propaganda, because it takes us close to the Fuhrer, and then onwards, elsewhere. Indeed, that is the power of the arts, to exercise the human double-bind: that we are infinitely malleable, amenable to past and future, but also share a common nature, ‘that which binds us,’ and that which ‘literature [and art] has always, knowingly and helplessly, given voice to’ (Ian McEwan). And it is also to remind us, more urgently perhaps, that ‘no one, however smart, however well educated, however experienced … is the suppository of all wisdom’ (Tony Abbott).


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shuvus | August 21, 2013 at 03:15 pm

I am beginning to recognise that there is an innate barbarism in humanity. That by referring to Hitler as a monster we are separating him from humanity, rather than realising that it is within all of us . He didn't personally push those people into the gas chambers, he simply provided them with an excuse "obedience to authority" to then justify their barbarity. Everyday Germans committed those atrocities in pursuit of a perceived ideal. That, as the Milgram experiment reminds us that more than eighty percent of us will keep increasing the voltage until its terminal.

heidi ruckriegel | August 22, 2013 at 07:36 pm

If post-modernism is right, nothing really matters, because it doesn't exist. Including post-modernism. So I'm just going to ignore it. The end.

Tim lynch | August 22, 2013 at 12:16 am

Mmmm nazis. Good for science and engineering as well. And Hitler loved his dog. But this does not matter one jot. They were an evil group of gangsters and spivs with a murderous obsession with racial cleansing. They needed to be teared down at all costs, as did the artists that supported them. Look at this film in the same way you look at the Hugo Boss fashion that clothed their officer class. A glossy facade for the darkest of intent.

David Walsh | August 21, 2013 at 04:54 pm

If you dream you’re dreaming, is the dream you dream less real than the dream you dream you’re dreaming? -Fernando Pessoa reading is always misreading... -From the above essay. The last few paragraphs of your piece convey in rock-solid narrative an affirmation of what is known in various artistic endeavours as post-modernism, and in science as instrumentalism. Reality isn't, in this formulation, real. Reality is watered down until, as in a homeopathic remedy, there is nothing left of the original. Reality is framed by narratives, not by an instantiation of of a state of the universe. The point of art might well be to highlight the perverseness of reality or enhance its impact. Brett Whiteley weighed in on that with “Drawing is the art of being able to leave an accurate record of the experience of what one isn't, of what one doesn't know. A great drawer is either confirming beautifully what is commonplace or probing authoritatively the unknown." Your contention that perfect fidelity in the rendition of information is impossible ("there is no perfect transmission of intent") is a limitation that applies to art, but not to reality. A scientific law is an attempt to encapsulate a principle in shared symbols. Although the symbols themselves are imprecise, they are not the message. In fact scientific meaning can be transmitted perfectly, even in the presence of error (I'll come back to that). When Newton contended that F=ma (Force=mass*acceleration) he may have been wrong, or his understanding may have been approximate, but his communication of his contention is precise, because the principle is itself precise, not merely a rendition of symbols. Einstein later contended that E=mc^2 (Energy=mass*speed of light squared) and if Newton's and Einstein's contentions are correct, and their symbolic representation are common, we could extract a further contention about reality by a rendition of their meaning (here, for example, F=aE/c^2). The symbolic meaning is not the message but it does crystallize the message. After music is recorded, these days it is digitized. Digital recordings can be duplicated, provided the noise remains below the error checking threshold, with complete fidelity. An important area of computer science investigates the compromise between compression and information degradation. A random signal, which contains no information at all, cannot be compressed. As more information, more order, is embedded in a message, the message becomes more compressible. Claude Shannon, the founder of this field, called information theory, noted that loss of information during transmission (noise on a line) is identical to a probability that information is correct. In terms that I know well, a horse having a 20% chance of winning a race is the same as being told the winner on an 80% noisy line. That noise, that error, can be reduced to any arbitrary value with error checking, or by re-transmission. The great thing about art, whatever the art, is that it boldly uses low bit rate transmissions to convey a great deal of information. That means that it is very lossy. Literature is less wide band than painting, but they both communicate imperfectly because they, and as I say it's a virtue, bite off more than they can computationally chew. I'm trying to get across an idea here, and I can keep going, keep whittling down the possibility of misinterpretation, but I'll never get there. That's because my understanding is imperfect, and English is a mediocre tool in my hands. It's very arbitrariness is a virtue that leads to expressiveness and euphony. There is a bit of redundancy built in, so I don't go completely astray (spelling, syntax, a small number of correlates between characters and phonemes). This same redundancy exists in DNA, it could be more accurate with more error checking, but the wriggle room left for cock-ups, mutations, is just wide enough for evolution, without everything turning into a Patricia Piccinini work. Reality is out there, and we can discover it, and we can communicate about it, and we can paint pictures of it and yes, they aren't depicting reality, but our narrative engagement with it. But that doesn't mean narrative is all there is. And the post-modernists can go fuck themselves. And then claim they did it for compelling axiological reasons. Of course I might have completely misunderstood what you meant.

Ian Milliss | August 21, 2013 at 04:12 pm

Hitler also banned art criticism and exempted artists and performers from military service. And as the Reich collapsed he spent his time lounging around gossiping about theatre and playing with his model of the proposed rebuilding of Lintz which he had brought down into his bunker. He actually had a taste for neo-classical simplicity but preferably over scaled and spread rather thinly, hence his liking for Speer's architecture. Make of that what you will. I am inclined to think that an obsession with refined notions of beauty often goes with barbaric social principles as a sort of window dressing and that is the real propaganda that is innate to Riefenstahl's work, it's glorification of a sociopathic inability to see beyond surface aesthetics.

Brett | August 22, 2013 at 05:28 pm

Your comments, David, remind me a lot of John Ralston Saul's take on Deconstructionism, and his view that the postmodern insistence on an infinite multiplicity of valid view points, when applied to literature, basically equates to a denial of the ability of language to hold meaning. So it does not just deny that an objective reality exists, it effectively asserts that even if it exists, that language cannot describe it. Which besides being absolute bollocks, is magnificently ironic, being as we can read and understand the texts making that assertion.
I really like the way you have mixed information theory into literary analysis. Cheers for that. It felt my brain up a little.

Rob | August 26, 2013 at 04:35 pm

Post modernism and it's silly theories are just a plague on the Arts. They used to teach art history at art schools and then replaced it with vague theory. Which in the end just meant 'make up things as you go along', with some sort of safe meaningless left wing bias sprinkled over the top. I remember an art theory lecturer stating that Hitler’s paintings were rubbish. What was odd about this, there was no explanation of why his work was rubbish. Looking at it objectively, Hitler’s paintings were probably a little pedestrian and were not of the standard required to get into a traditional European art school. They were not a sign of future megalomania or inherent racism. They were simply run of the mill. But having said this, looking at some of the work coming out of the local art schools now, they were objectively better. They can be judged as quite good or bad. But because everything about art teaching now is totally subjective it is difficult to make a rational decision about any work presented because there is no standard required, no bar to reach and no quality to attain. So you are left with…not much.

As far as post modernism goes I like Professor Sokal. After reading his books I feel a lot better about the future of arts education if it survives the silliness of post-modern theorising.