Documentary/Propaganda : Porous Zones

Two propaganda movies: Triumph of the Will and Housing Problems


Abbie Hoffman

“Propaganda is establishing vision as a reality” said Abbie Hoffman. This very broad definition contradicts the common idea of “propaganda”, derived from the use of the term in the wars of the 20th century. “Propaganda” has very negative connotations: we usually associate the term with disinformation, manipulation of the audience, and it is generally admitted that propaganda is incompatible with democracy. Contrastingly, Hoffman’s definition bears no trace of moral condemnation. According to Hoffman, propaganda designate any means used to make one’s vision appear as reality. This provocative definition is disturbing in that it could be applied to a lot of works of art. Whoever who would be then tempted to dismiss Hoffman’s definition as deliberately provocative but groundless, could turn to the altogether more classical Webster Dictionary. It defines propaganda as: “the dissemination of ideas, information or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person”. So, it turns out that it is very difficult to draw a line between any speech or art bearing a conviction (a “message”) and propaganda. The ambiguity is even more disturbing when it comes to documentary. The form has a particular relation to truth: it is assumed to somehow search for truth, and one could say there exists a tacit “contract of truth” between the filmmaker and the viewer. Therefore, documentary and propaganda seem mutually exclusive. Propaganda would use dishonest means to lure the viewer, when documentary would show fairly the truth. But when one starts to examine movies searching for specific propaganda cinematic means, one soon realizes that it is very difficult to pinpoint such devices. Since the documentary is the production of a mediated truth, carefully crafted at every stage of the process (writing, selection of the events and characters filmed, composition of the shots, cinematic technique and last but not least editing), it turns out to be much closer to propaganda than one initially thought.

To advance the reflection on documentary vis-à-vis propaganda, we will examine two movies that can be both considered as propaganda, both released in 1935: Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary on the Nuremberg Rally of the National Socialist Party, and Housing Problems, produced by Arthur Elton and E.H Anstey, from the Grierson team in Britain. Triumph of the Will is considered the epitome of the propaganda movie, whereas the Grierson’s team one stands for an example of social documentary – a term that hardly fits with propaganda. Actually, Grierson himself referred to his team’s work as “social propaganda” (Winston, 1988: 79). Comparing these two apparently opposite movies will allow us that they actually have much in common. They both advocate a cause. And despite their differences, they both perform on “reality” the same kind of operations to create their film truth – however different the cinematography may result. For various reasons that we shall now examine, both these films can be called propaganda.

The first reason is contextual and lies in the condition of their production. Both were commissioned and paid for by powerful institutions that needed to prop up their own interests. Hitler himself commissioned Riefenstahl’s movie. He had just taken power (in 1933) and his domination was not unquestioned yet. The Nuremberg 1934 Rally was scheduled only two months after the bloody night of June 29 to 30th, where Hitler had hundreds of the S.A wing of the Nationalist Party killed. Hitler needed to publicly reaffirm the unity of his party. As for Housing Problems, it was sponsored by the Gas Light and Coke Company, persuaded by Grierson that the destruction of the slums would benefit the company, for more new homes would create more use of gas. As a result, these two movies were conceived as ideological tools to convince audiences not of the “truth”, but of a message that would benefit the sponsors’ interests.

These films are also propaganda because the filmmakers themselves endorsed the ideology of the sponsors. In the terms of the Webster Dictionary, they wanted to help “an institution, a cause, or a person”: Nazi ideology or Hitler on one hand, the working class or the Gas Company on the other. In Hoffman’s terms, both Riefenstahl and Grierson had a “vision”. Although some contemporary critics have accused Grierson of being conservative and of maintaining the status quo, his social convictions seem authentic. Even his harsh critic Brian Winston is willing to give him that (Winston 1988: 37). The son of a Calvinist teacher, he witnessed brutal labor during World War I and taught in Durham’s slums after the conflict, before winning a fellowship for the United States, and form there the conviction that professionals were needed to translate the increasingly complex social issues to the masses (Aufderheide, 2007: 33). The team he assembled shared the same social values: “Not many of us were communists, but we were all socialists”, said Grierson (Winston 1988: 37). Grierson explicitly believed that the documentary had to be used to convey political ideas. He explained in 1942 that “The documentary idea was not basically a film idea at all”, but “ a new idea for education” (Aufderheide 2007: 35). The case is more complex for Riefenstahl. The nature of her participation to the Third Reich has been the core of a decade-long debate surrounding her. After World War II, Riefenstahl has claimed she was dazzled by Hitler, but disliked his entourage (Barnouw 1988, 103), and in Nuremberg, just tried to make the best documentary under the circumstances. Although this version has laid the ground for her later rehabilitation, Susan Sontag has recalled that Riefenstahl was doing more than recording the facts, but that the rally had actually been staged for the movie (Sontag 1976). She sees in Triumph of the Will “ the most successfully, most purely propagandistic film ever made, whose very conception negates the possibility of the filmmaker’s having an aesthetics or visual conception independent of propaganda” (Sontag 1976: 34). Sontag also argues convincingly that the Fascist aesthetics is perceivable all along Riefenstahl’s artistic career. Both Riefenstahl and Grierson were defending a vision, because they were paid for it, and more importantly because they believed in it.

They then produced their movies to display that vision. This implied that in both films, a very selective vision of reality is presented, with no counterpoint.

Triumph of the Will presents a united Nazi party, when it was actually still dealing with the aftermaths of the struggle between the SA and the SS. The sequence devoted to successive speeches of the Party officials is emblematic. Officials make their speech one after the other, all framed exactly in the same way: all embodying good Nazi personalities, creating the image of a strongly bond party. The movie also exaggerates the size and might of the German army – notably by extending the marching sequence and repeating the parades. This can be considered disinformation, and a blatant mark of propaganda. At a lesser scale, Housing Problems presents also a very selective truth. The builders of the slums and the officials are not interviewed in the movie: the viewer is not given the official point if view on the state of dereliction of the slums. Likewise, only one solution is proposed in the movie: the construction of new houses. No word on the destitution of the City Council, for example, or a legal action. The movie does not either take the particular dramatic situation of the slum-dweller to a larger analysis on class relations in Britain. Grierson’s movie presents a carefully oriented vision of the world. The voice-over definitely embodies this framing voice and opinion on the “reality” of the slums. Grierson and Riefenstahl select what they want to show, the kind of reality they want to implement in their viewer’s minds. When this selection happens at the content level, it is in both cases an example of what we could name “disinformation”, or at least, in Grierson’s case, “misinformation”.

However, to give their vision the kind of strength they want, the filmmakers need more than work at the content level. To “establish their vision as reality”, they need to use cinematic techniques to touch psychological or symbolical levels – and this gets close to what we call “manipulation”.

The whole cinematography of Triumph of the Will illustrates the Nazi aesthetics and doctrine. The composition of the frames emphasizes the unity of the German people on the one hand, the uniqueness and almost divine quality of Hitler on the other hand, echoing the motto of the Reich: “Ein Land, ein Volk, ein Fürher”. Hitler and the people are never both in focus in the same frame: beside Hitler the crowd appears blurry and undefined – a united mass. The editing alternates series of wide shots of the crow, with close-up or middle frames of Hitler filmed from below or behind, but always alone. While Hitler’s voice is neat and loud, the crowd essentially makes a muffled noise of cheers and applause. The ideas of strength, virility, power, central to both the Nazi politics and aesthetics, find visual equivalents throughout the movie, in the importance given to vertical lines (the buildings, the standards and standard bearers, the proud soldiers standing at attention). Susan Sontag (1976: 40) brilliantly sums it up: “Fascist aesthetics . . . exalts two seemingly opposite states: egomania and servitude. . . . The fascist dramaturgy centers on the orgiastic transaction between might forces and their puppets. Its choreography alternates between might forces and their puppets. Fascist art glorifies surrender, it exalts mindlessness; it glamorizes death.” The repetition of shots and scenes, the irrational night scenes, the extended length of certain sequences (such as the famous 20 minutes long marching scene) indeed give this movie a particular and undeniable psychological impact. Frank P. Tomasulo analyzes in depth how Riefenstahl’s style echoed and reinforced the Fascist psychology as described by her contemporary Wilhelm Reich, and concludes “Through the emotional appeal of Triumph of the Will, viewers are positioned in a very accustomed place – their own psyches. . . . The epic film succeeded because its emotional program resemble that of the vast cross-section of the public know collectively as the nation” (Tomasulo 1998: 114).

The psychological impact can seem less obvious in the case of Housing Problems. The Realist Film Unit’s movie does not identify with an ideology that bears as strong an aesthetics as the Nazi’s. But if less visible, it still creates aesthetics with psychological effects on the viewer. It presents itself as a documentary showing social problems of the time in the more direct way available. The cinematography does not use Riefenstahl’s spectacular devices or conspicuously geometric composition. But it is precisely its “realistic” aesthetics that is its cinematographic way of establishing a vision as a truth. The sound recording in situ of the slum-dwellers, the interviews in their house, their speaking right at the camera… All this contributes to creating an effect of absolute reality. Riefenstahl’s movie is extremely composed and stylized. Housing Problems is conspicuously not stylized – it aims at giving the feeling that the form has merely followed the necessities of the subject, that it is completely secondary. Its apparent “realistic” cinematography, of showing the naked truth, is actually crafted to impact the viewer in the way wanted. For example, the characters speaking right in front of the camera call out to the viewer. She is put in the position of the witness. This is a psychologically powerful device, to make viewers feel concerned and involve them emotionally in the movie – and the content. Triumph of the Will and Housing Problems both impose their vision at reality cinematographic devices, by playing on the psychological dimension and effect of the cinematography. The difference that exists between them is maybe in degree: but not in nature.

Triumph of the Will was intended mainly for a German public. According to Barnouw, it was a huge success, widely screened for propagandistic purposes. Interestingly, some images were used for the Allies propaganda (Capra’s Prelude to War features some). What was in one context a praise of Nazism and Hitler became in another an illustration of the destructive threat of Germany. Housing Problems was probably intended for a well-off, middle-class audience, and it is difficult to establish its success at the time. But as Brian Winston remarked (Winston 1988), it has not changed the slums.

As these movies’ reception history show, propaganda is rarely a hugely effective weapon. It can strengthen one’s conviction, but probably not implement a totally new idea. It is interesting to note than today, Housing Problems seem stilted and outdated, and has lost all its propaganda efficiency. On the other hand, Triumph of the Will is still very powerful. The repetition of the shots, the disorientation that Riefenstahl subtly creates, the presentation of Hitler… still has a strong impact on the contemporary viewer. The viewer is not convinced by the Nazi ideology, of course – but she experiences the imprint it could leave on minds.


To sum up, Triumph of the Will and Housing Problems have a lot of features in common that make them propaganda work. They were both sponsorized by non-neutral institutions that expected these movies to be ideological tools. They both present a carefully selected vision of reality, and resort to cinematography and psychologically effective device to implement this vision as “truth”. Therefore, both the Nazi movie and the social democrat movie appear to be propaganda work. The only difference between Riefenstahl’s film and Realist Film Unit’s is maybe in the degree of disinformation and psychological manipulation – but it is not a difference in nature.

This raises another question. Are the criterions we used to define these movies as propaganda work specific to them? We pinpointed the existence of a sponsor who wants its interests to be defended, the personal convictions of the filmmaker, the selection of the material to support this conviction, and the use of cinematographic techniques to get the viewer involved. But these characteristics could be applied to any movie. Any documentary would share these characteristics. There is no such thing as neutrality, honest communication as opposed to propaganda.

To conclude, it seems hard, even impossible, to distinguish formal features specific to propaganda. In this light, it seems easier to accept the ambiguity we initially pointed in Hoffman’s definition, “Propaganda is establishing a vision as reality”, and the disturbing idea that we could then not draw a moral line between art and propaganda. This might be because our conception of “propaganda” is inaccurate. Since formal devices cannot distinguish it, the use of the term derives from moral standards exterior to the form. So the use of the term could well be saying more about the moral values of whoever uses it, than of the movie itself.