In May 1999 the cover of Issue 4 featured a new interpretation of the Starry Plough, the flag of Irish socialism, by Catherine Lyons.
Catherine Lyons discussed the free market’s threat to media freedom in Issue 20 (November 2004).
In an essay on ‘The Political Economy of Global Communication’, Robert McChesney refers to the role played by the chronicles of the 1790s in protecting and expanding democracy in the years after the American Revolution. This is ironic when subsequently, by his own reckoning, the USA has evolved into a market-driven neo-liberal state with wide social divisions, whose political, military and commercial institutions facilitate an undemocratic corporate oligopoly across the world. McChesney claims that neo-liberal capitalist democracy is reductive and functions by drawing on the concept of the “liberal individual” and on “a political culture with elections and formal freedoms, but where the elections are largely meaningless due to the constricted range of the debate” (1998, p 16). The leadership of the old Communist regimes of Russia and Eastern Europe used coercive means to sustain their social control. Inevitably this approach proved to be inefficient as it required inexhaustible and expensive effort on the part of the police state. Alternatively, in a neo-liberal capitalist system, the consent of the majority is required and coercive controls of the police and military are only “deployed at those points where ideological hegemony breaks down and political movements erupt into rebellious activity” (Downing and Mohammadi, p 365).
When Communism collapsed so did any “organised opposition to the market system” and the free economy seemed to acquire a new vigour globally (McChesney 1998, p 11-12). Many of the western media tycoons even claimed that they were responsible for the end of Communism and the rise of democracy around the world. Rupert Murdoch announced that “satellite broadcasting makes it possible for information-hungry residents of many closed societies to bypass state-controlled television” (Klein, p 117). The world’s few hundred large private corporations began to integrate production and marketing on an increasingly transnational basis. These global corporations operated very differently to the old multinational ones: “The multinational corporation operates in a number of countries, and adjusts it products and practices to each—at high relative costs. The global corporation operates with resolute constancy—at low relative cost—as if the entire world (or major regions of it) were a single entity” (Theodore Levitt, quoted in Klein, p 116). Globalisation requires national governments to adopt liberal economic policies that allow for the free flow of capital with minimal regulation.
McChesney believes that a democratic society requires “a political culture typified by an active and informed citizenry [which] can only be generated in the final analysis by a healthy and vibrant media system” (1998, p 8). However, modern media ownership and management debilitate this democratic function. By relentlessly pursuing the market, the commercial media provides mostly light entertainment that is diversionary and de-politicising. Serious journalism is aimed at the wealthy while the rest of the community have to make do with bad quality syndicated coverage. Marketing is used to locate the news that would be of interest to affluent audiences, attractive to advertisers. Indeed, in post-industrial societies, communication systems are considered more important to the economy than manufacturing because of their ability to open up new markets and opportunities through advertising, product placement and merchandising. All of the global media organisations are conglomerates with interests in several different media sectors. This convergence maximises profits.
Profound technical and regulatory change has facilitated the globalisation process in the communication industry. Satellite technology allows for international television transmission, while digital broadcasting transmits a compressed signal which facilitates multiple channels. Media organisations provided international television services before the era of globalisation, but these operated within each country’s infrastructure and on a much smaller scale, due to spectrum limitation. Nowadays, on the other hand,
governments are under pressure to cede their traditional regulatory control in this domain in order to maximise wealth on which future national power is ultimately seen to depend. Cherished ideals of public service provision in order to ensure universal access to communication services are being sacrificed in the name of a more rapid development of specialised communications markets. The concept of telecommunications and broadcasting as ‘public goods’ that require stringent controls is giving way to a market model of provision.(Dyson and Humphreys, p 1.)
When BBC radio was established in 1922 its founder John Reith developed the public service concept of broadcasting, the traditional role of which is “to provide entertainment, information and education” (Green Paper, p 151). Critics have remarked that the service was used to force a highbrow culture on an uninterested public. In 1925 Reith wrote that “He who prides himself on giving what he thinks the public wants is often creating a fictitious demand for lower standards which he himself will then satisfy.” (Halligan, p 60.) Although the BBC has always produced popular programmes, this elitist cultural attitude did prevail up until the 1960s. Since then the majority of public service broadcasters have attempted to target the tastes and needs of their general audiences while catering for particular tastes at a more reduced level. Critics also argue that public service broadcasting is no longer relevant or necessary in an age of huge consumer choice, and that it was initially adopted due to spectrum scarcity and funding difficulties. In this analysis it is reduced to “a necessary state intervention to regulate an industry in its infancy and to help with its teething troubles” (Scannell, p 23).
The Green Paper on Broadcasting of 1995 defines what public service broadcasting has probably come to embrace in its entirety. Broadcasting, it says, should be designed to serve the public interest and contribute to the wider and longer term benefits of society as a whole. It should be a universally accessible service, which achieves popular appeal while catering for minorities. It should contribute to the sense of national identity and distance itself from vested interests, especially the government of the day. The service should be directly funded with universality of payment, and strive for quality programming, while endorsing guidelines that liberate programme makers rather than restrict them. The application of these principles has proved to be very difficult; indeed, some of them have been highly problematic.
The ideals, at least, of public service broadcasting would seem to reflect Jurgen Habermas’s notion of the ‘public sphere’. McChesney identifies this as “a place where citizens interact that is controlled by neither business or the state” (1998, p 9). Fintan O’Toole recently commented that the Forum on Broadcasting Report of 2002 pointed to the most important element of public service broadcasting: independence. “A public broadcaster has to be first and foremost a service to the public as a whole, and not to commercial or sectoral interests. This includes, as the forum underlines, its political masters.”
Public service broadcasting first began in Ireland with the establishment of 2RN in 1926. Several years after independence the civil service of the Irish Free State remained largely unchanged, and like its British counterpart, the BBC, the new national radio service was to be the responsibility of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs. However, unlike the British model, the funding for the service was to be generated from advertising and a tax on radio receivers as well as a licence fee. “A modified public service model was employed to try and ensure that Irish radio would reflect the unique culture of Ireland” (Savage, p 5). When Telefís Éireann was established in 1961 it was to be funded in much the same manner. It was broadly believed that “broadcasting must pay its way and the standards of national culture must be preserved and improved. [Irish] Broadcasting has been sitting on the horns of this dilemma ever since.” (Dowling, Doolan and Quinn, p 12.)
From the beginning the balance between RTÉ’s commercial earnings and its licence fee income posed a serious problem. Two thirds of the broadcaster’s revenue came from advertising, a situation which prevailed up until the licence fee increase of 2002. “The dominance of commercial income has been a source of conflict and worry and something that seriously undermined RTÉ’s public service role”, as Michael Foley has written. A heavy reliance on advertising revenue forces a broadcaster like RTÉ to transmit a large amount of mainstream entertainment. This preponderance has been to the detriment of special interest and minority programming. The experience of Irish language programming is one example of this. “Its marginalized location in the schedule and on the second channel has suggested a diminution in RTÉ’s commitment to the language.” (Hazelkorn, p 110.) In the 1980s this lack of commitment provoked a campaign for a separate Irish language channel. In 1996 Teilifís na Gaeilge was established, later renamed TG4.
With the introduction in 1998 of a national commercial broadcaster, TV3, and the current plethora of satellite programming, mainstream tastes have never been met more fully. In November 2002 BSkyB claimed that it “had 255,000 customers, or a quarter of all Irish households”. At that time cable company Ntl had 370,000 customers and Chorus had 240,000. (Smyth.) With all these companies providing multiple commercial services, why should the public pay for programmes which they can find in abundance? Commercial broadcasters complain that it is unfair that they have to compete with firms that are publicly subsidised. This would seem to be a reasonable complaint. “Once commercialism begins, it is very difficult in the long run to justify receiving a public subsidy.” (McChesney 1999, p 241.) A large part of a public broadcaster’s role is to serve those audiences that commercial broadcasters do not find profitable enough to exploit themselves. But if it were possible for RTÉ to focus solely on minority and special interest programming, the opponents of public service broadcasting might pose the question: why should the public pay for “programming that the mass market does not seek?… a national repository of serious music, drama, etc—all the elements in Reith’s old elitist model.” (Halligan, p 64.)
This question presupposes that special interests programming and highbrow culture are the same thing. If programme makers only produced material which the mass market demanded, regional and agricultural programmes such as Nationwide or Ear to the Ground would most likely not be produced, nor would programmes dealing with ethnic minorities such as Mono. RTÉ’s programme to promote adult literacy, Read Write Now, could hardly stand accused of being elitist. By addressing inequalities in society, this type of programming fulfils a major requirement of public service broadcasting, to “contribute to the wider and longer term benefits of society as a whole” (Green Paper, p 151). Denying such services amounts to a rejection of fundamental democratic principles. Part of RTÉ’s remit is to broadcast programmes that “should cater for all interests and tastes” (Green Paper, p 152). This means that popular programmes as well as minority ones are part of the ecology of a successful public service broadcaster. Without balanced programming the service would lose its social position and become ghettoised. A schedule that includes both types of programming can promote interest in minority programmes beyond the target audience and contribute to “an active and informed citizenry” such as McChesney envisages.
Traditionally one of the cherished roles of public service broadcasters has been to promote a sense of national identity. In Britain the chairman of the BBC board of governors assessed the role of the BBC as follows in 1977:
An enormous amount of the BBC’s work [is] in fact social cement of one sort or another. Royal occasions, religious services, sports coverage and police series, all reinforce the sense of belonging to our country, being involved in its celebrations, and accepting what it stands for.(Scannell, p 26.)
In many countries national cohesion has been maintained through the development of a strong highly centralised national public broadcaster. These types of institutions by their nature can be unrepresentative of society as a whole. The danger is that their role as national unifiers can become a hegemonic one, promoting dominant interests and insensitive to inequalities within the nation. This role of nation building can also be highly problematic within countries where the question of nationhood has not been fully resolved.
In Ireland the first national broadcasting service was used by the government to encourage “the development of a stable state that would not be susceptible to radical republicanism” (Savage, p 5). In the 1960s Telefís Éireann was advised by Taoiseach Seán Lemass “to present a picture of Ireland and the Irish as we would like to have it” (Halligan, p 60). In more recent times, it is one of RTÉ’s stated objectives to “reflect the pluralism of cultures and of the diverse traditions in this island”, facilitating greater tolerance between north and south. The broadcaster also states that it will “seek to give a voice to the marginalised”, while TG4 under RTÉ’s statutory umbrella provides a fuller non-centrist perspective. (RTÉ, p 11.) Positive and shared media experience across our society can be beneficial, provided divisions are also adequately mediated. However, with multiple programming and increased audience fragmentation, facilitating shared national experience has become more infrequent.
One aspect of Irish life which still remains a shared communal experience is major national sporting events. Despite the fact that RTÉ had been showing Republic of Ireland soccer matches for forty years, in July 2002 BSkyB bought the exclusive rights to show Ireland’s European Championship and World Cup qualifying matches live for €7.5 million. In a separate deal TV3 bought the rights to broadcast the matches one hour later. Rupert Murdoch, BSkyB’s controlling shareholder, “has often described televised sport as the ‘battering ram’ which will put pay-per-view television in everyone’s front room” (Oliver). In July 2002 it cost €40 per month for a basic Sky Sports package. Earlier that year the Consumers’ Association of Ireland complained about BSkyB’s decision to raise its subscriptions by 13%. They also increased their fee to Ntl and Chorus for carrying their movie and sports channels. In 2001 the British Office of Fair Trade also complained that BSkyB had breached competition laws through its pricing of sports and film channels.
The Broadcasting Act 1999 allows the Minister for Communications to make an order designating certain events of major importance to society which should be televised free of charge. In 2003 the European Union backed the government’s designated list which includes all Republic of Ireland soccer matches as well as the Irish Derby, the Irish Grand National and the All-Ireland hurling and football finals. Now sports bodies like the Football Association of Ireland are obliged by law to provide free-to-air television coverage of major sporting events. Rupert Murdoch regards this as an infringement of property rights. An outspoken critic of public service broadcasting, “he loudly proclaims his belief that the era of subsidized broadcasting, for the BBC and everyone else, has long since passed” (McChesney, 1999 p 246). This controversial episode in Irish sport represents a small democratic victory against a backdrop of large scale privatisation of sports broadcasting.
The threat to a democratic media system does not always come from the market, but sometimes from the government which is supposedly the guardian of public service broadcasting. “Regrettably, in many nations public broadcasting has never been able to escape the control of the state or dominant political forces. In some nations, public broadcasting has also done much to undermine citizen support, through its bureaucratic arrogance, or its subservience to powerful political and economic interests” (McChesney 1999, p 242). Political interference with RTÉ programming can be traced back to 1969 when a documentary examined illegal moneylending in Dublin. The government outrage which followed was directed, not at the practice of illegal moneylending, but at the programme makers. A tribunal of enquiry was set up to investigate the programme. This had the lasting effect of making any vigorous examination of society seem like a dangerous pursuit. However, worse was to come.
In 1971 the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs, Gerard Collins, invoked Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act, issuing a directive which required RTÉ “to refrain from broadcasting any matter of the following class, i.e. any matter that could be calculated to promote the aims or activities of any organisation which engages in, promotes, encourages or advocates the attaining of any particular objectives by violent means” (Curtis, p 190-1). In November 1972 RTÉ reporter Kevin O’Kelly was arrested after interviewing the IRA’s chief of staff Seán Mac Stiofáin. Collins then sacked all nine members of the RTÉ Authority. After this, the new Authority disallowed interviews involving representatives of the IRA, and proposals to interview Sinn Féin members had to be cleared in advance. In 1976 the new minister Conor Cruise O’Brien issued a new directive under Section 31 prohibiting interviews or reports of interviews with Sinn Féin or any other organisation banned in Northern Ireland. Successive governments continued to renew the Section 31 restriction. This censorship had a distorting effect on RTÉ’s coverage of Northern Ireland for years. In 1994, against the background of the peace process, the government agreed to allow the directive under Section 31 to lapse.
More political interference was to come in the early 1990s. The Broadcasting Act 1990 led to the introduction of a cap on RTÉ’s advertising revenue. This was introduced by the Minister for Communications, Ray Burke, so that advertising revenue could be diverted away from the public service broadcaster to assist private radio. This was not achieved, however, and led to severe cutbacks in RTÉ. The Flood tribunal found
that Mr. Burke’s decisions in relation to the proposed capping of RTÉ’s advertising income, the diversion of licence fee income from RTÉ and the possible reorganisation of 2FM were all motivated by a desire on his part to benefit those who had paid monies to him and that proposals on such issues would not have been advanced by Mr. Burke at that time were it not for the fact that he had been paid £35,000.(Flood, p 65.)
When a minister for communications deliberately damages a public service broadcaster for the sake of personal gain, it bodes ill for the creation of a democratic media system.
After granting a substantial increase in the licence fee in 2002, the Minister for Communications Dermot Ahern outlined fundamental and far-reaching reforms. Among these was a mechanism for the licence fee to increase automatically in line with inflation. This means that it will cease to be a gift of the government of the day, and goes at least some way to assisting RTÉ’s democratic function and independence. However, although the ministerial order under Section 31 has lapsed, governments still retain the power to impose such restrictions in future. New advances have changed broadcasting radically, but technology does not have to be used for profit-making alone. The threat to public service broadcasting “has less to do with technological change than it does with the worldwide neoliberal adoption of the market and its commercial values as the superior regulator of the media” (McChesney 1999, p 227). Its struggles are representative of the plight of all public services. In a world of increased privatisation it is more important than ever to establish a democratic media where priority is given to social need over the market.
Curtis, L: Ireland the Propaganda War: The British media and the ‘battle for hearts and minds’ (London: Pluto, 1984).
Dowling, J; Doolan, L; Quinn, B: Sit Down and Be Counted: The Cultural Evolution of a Television Station (Dublin: Wellington, 1969).
Downing, J; Mohammadi, A: Questioning the Media (London: Sage, 1990).
Dyson, K and Humphreys, P (eds): The Political Economy of Communications: International and European Dimensions (London: Routledge, 1990).
Flood, F: The Second Interim Report of the Tribunal of Inquiry into Certain Planning Matters and Payments (Dublin: Stationery Office, 2002).
Foley, M: ‘RTE big winner in broadcasting shake-up’, Irish Times, 13 December 2002.
Green Paper: Active or Passive? Broadcasting in the Future Tense: Green Paper on Broadcasting (Dublin: Stationery Office, 1995).
Halligan, U: ‘Are you being served? Commercial versus public broadcasting’, in D Kiberd (ed), Media in Ireland: Issues in Broadcasting (Dublin: Open Air, 2002).
Hazelkorn, E: ‘Ireland: From nation building to economic priorities’, in M de Moragas Spà and C Garitaonandía (eds), Decentralization in the Global Era: Television in the Regions, Nationalities and Small Countries of the European Union (London: John Libbey, 1995).
Klein, N: No Logo (London: Flamingo, 2000).
McChesney, R W (1998): ‘The Political Economy of Global Communication’, in R W McChesney, E Meiksins Wood, J Bellamy Foster, Capitalism and the Information Age: The Political Economy of the Global Communication Revolution (New York: Monthly Review Press).
McChesney, R W (1999): Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times (Chicago: University of Illinois Press).
Oliver, E: ‘“Green Army” being asked to tune in, turn on and pay up’, Irish Times, 6 July 2002.
O’Toole, F: ‘RTE is still looking for secure financial haven’, Irish Times, 31 August 2002.
RTÉ: RTÉ Response to the Green Paper on Broadcasting (Dublin: RTÉ, 1995).
Savage, R J: Irish Television: The Political and Social Origins (Cork University Press, 1996).
Scannell, P: ‘Britain: Public Service Broadcasting, from National Culture to Multiculturalism’, in M Robay (ed), Public Broadcasting for the 21st Century (University of Luton Press, 1995).
Smyth, J: ‘Sky makes big dent in Irish TV market’, Irish Times, 9 November 2002.
In March 2004 Catherine Lyons gave this assessment of Leni Riefenstahl’s work in Issue 18.
On 8 September, the Nazi film-maker Leni Riefenstahl died, aged 101. The many obituaries that followed seemed to indicate a curious kind of ambivalence towards the only woman who played a significant role in the rise of National Socialism. Her stylistic flair and contribution to film form were widely acknowledged and celebrated among these epitaphs. However, for the most part, accounts of her political involvement were left vague or, worse still, overlooked. It is clear that Riefenstahl has become a member of a particular kind of dead poets’ society, one that includes many formerly objectionable artists who are now celebrated within contemporary culture, their rehabilitation made possible not merely because of their conspicuous talents, but also because of a willingness on the part of liberal society to dismiss the significance of their transgressions.
The whitewashing of Riefenstahl’s work started long before her death. During her lifetime she won over many high profile admirers. Figures such as Jean Cocteau, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Andy Warhol and Mick Jagger championed her cause. Even Jodie Foster recently considered developing a sympathetic film about her life. In the face of such selective amnesia, it is essential to re-establish where precisely her guilt lies, and to ask why this attitude towards her has prevailed in a world which was never supposed to forget.
Riefenstahl was a successful dancer before developing a career as a movie star in the 1920s. Her leading roles in Arnold Fanck’s German mountain films and later in the 1933 Hollywood epic SOS Iceberg made her a household name in Germany. While working with Fanck she learnt about film-making, and in 1932 released her first feature The Blue Light which she both directed and starred in. Later she claimed that the role she devised for herself was a premonition of her own fate. She played Junta, a wild girl who is seen as a witch by the villagers. She is lured by a mysterious blue light which radiates from the mountain on the night of the full moon. Junta dares to scale the peaks of the mountains that the valley pigs shrink from. Indeed, there was not much that Riefenstahl did shrink from.
Shortly after she finished this film, she wrote to Hitler and asked to meet him. He admired her skill as a film-maker, and she agreed to make a documentary film of the 1933 Nazi party congress. The result was Victory of Faith, and the film was an unmitigated disaster. At this point, both Hitler and Röhm shared joint leadership, and certain factions of the party refused to co-operate with her. Until recently it was believed that this film was destroyed, or even never existed. But in the 1980s it was recovered. Riefenstahl consistently distanced herself from this film, interestingly enough, not because of what it represents but because of its shoddy camera work. That same year she made Day of Freedom: Our Army which depicted the beauty of soldiers and soldering for the Führer.
In 1934, after Röhm was murdered, Hitler had full power to stage the party congress he wished for. Riefenstahl’s interpretation of this 1934 Nuremberg rally was to be her most infamous film, Triumph of the Will. The dramatic intensity of the event was pumped up by her creative composition of shots and artistic editing. She managed to inject the sensibilities of dance and movement into film form, to spectacular effect. But throughout the film Riefenstahl constructed reality to serve the image. She claimed that not a single scene of the 1934 Nazi party congress was staged. However, it was planned not only as a spectacular mass meeting but as a spectacular propaganda film. Everything was designed for the convenience of the cameras. The event, instead of being an end in itself, served as a set to a film which was then to assume the character of an authentic documentary. Set to classical music, it had a balletic and monumental quality which glorified Hitler and Nazism. It is considered by film historians to be the best propaganda film of all time. The artistic depth of the film was recognised by its accumulation of many international awards.
After Triumph of the Will, she was commissioned by the International Olympic Committee to make the official film of the 1936 Berlin Olympics—although in reality she was funded by the Nazi ministry of propaganda and provided with unlimited resources to promote the image of a powerful, modern Germany. The result was Olympiad, which was released two years later. This film is considered by many critics to be one of the best films of all time. It demonstrates her creative techniques at their very best. The diving sequences are particularly beautiful, where athletes seem to glide through the air like swallows. During the making of Olympiad she pioneered many technical innovations which have become standard film and television practice. However, throughout the film she managed to transpose the ancient and the modern in much the same way as she did in Triumph of the Will. By doing so, she conferred the Nazi regime with the kudos of ancient Greek civilisation. This was achieved particularly with the help of an imaginative prologue which consisted of a classical Greek sculpture metamorphing into a German athlete. After the war she was reproached because of her preoccupation with strength and athletic perfection within the film.
In 1938, as a present to Hitler, she made Berchtesgaden über Salzburg, a fifty-minute lyrical portrait of the Führer against rugged mountain scenery. In 1939 she accompanied the invading German army into Poland as a uniformed army war correspondent with her own camera team. She witnessed the massacre of Polish civilians by German soldiers in the town of Konskie. But Riefenstahl did not have the stomach for the realities of war, so she returned to film-making.
In 1941 she began working on the feature film Tiefland, fully funded by Hitler. Riefenstahl needed ‘mediterranean types’ as extras for her film, and the nearby Salzburg concentration camp provided gypsies for this purpose. This was one of the main accusations levelled at her in Freiburg where she was tried after the war. Documentation and survivors’ accounts would seem to substantiate this crime. In 1945 two of her sumptuous homes were seized and she was placed under house arrest for three years. Riefenstahl never officially joined the Nazi party and was cleared of active involvement. However, she was declared a Mitläufer or fellow traveller, which barred her from ever seeking public office. After this she went through a lengthy denazification process. Many people at the time felt that she was dealt with too leniently, and that her leading role as a Nazi propagandist was not fully appreciated.
After the war and up until the time of her death, Riefenstahl insisted that she was a politically naive artist caught up in an impossible position. She maintained that she had to make Triumph of the Will because Hitler requested it: under pain of death, she made the film as best she could, only obeying orders as it were. Riefenstahl only ever refers to her three ‘apolitical’ films, The Blue Light, Tiefland and Olympiad, clearly attempting to give the impression that she was an independent film-maker keeping her head down in Nazi Germany. She says that she lived in fear of Goebbels and uses this to back up her claims.
In the 1930s Riefenstahl, by her own admission, enthusiastically attended Nazi meetings, and it was her who approached Hitler and offered to serve the Reich. But how naive could she have been? She worked in the famous UFA Studios in Berlin where all the great classical silent German films were made. A high proportion of the workforce was Jewish, and their subsequent mass exodus to Los Angeles would have been something she would have been fully aware of. Riefenstahl was a gifted artist with sophisticated tastes. She was an ardent follower of avant garde art. There is no doubt that she was well aware of the persecution of artists and intellectuals throughout the thirties.
There were some artists who lived through the regime and produced the obligatory kitsch paintings and sculptures that filled the public buildings and art galleries of the Third Reich—people who had not got the strength of their convictions and played it safe. But Riefenstahl was never one of these. Her creative work flourished within the regime. Far from being persecuted by Goebbels, his diaries reveal that he was a deep admirer and personal friend of hers. She not only socialised with leading Nazis, she worked with them to build the party. Leni Riefenstahl was part of the Nazi establishment, profiting from that regime both professionally and materially. Her decision not to officially join the party was a calculated one. Both she and Hitler knew that the international art world would take her work more seriously if she abstained. Therefore she made films not through the auspices of the ministry of propaganda, but commissioned directly by Hitler. Five of her six films were fully funded by the Nazi party or by Hitler himself.
It seems that Riefenstahl was so talented that people are willing to make excuses for her and to believe the lies she pedalled for over fifty years. But perhaps there is another reason. She is the only female director who consistently appears on lists of what film critics consider the greatest films of all time. Who wants to hear that their feminist pioneer is really a Nazi?
In the 1960s she went to Africa and lived with the Nuba tribe of southern Sudan. For six months she learnt their language and photographed them. In 1973 she published a book of these photographs, The Last of the Nuba. Riefenstahl was ready for a comeback. Shortly after the book was published Susan Sontag, the American intellectual, wrote a negative article in the New York Review of Books which historically and aesthetically re-evaluated Riefenstahl’s work. She convincingly asserted that “although the Nuba are black, not Aryan, Riefenstahl’s portrait of them is consistent with some of the larger themes of Nazi ideology”. Sontag pointed out that, by her own admission, Riefenstahl was drawn to this particular African tribe because of its pugilistic culture. She considered the Nubas’ beauty and their strong athletic physique to be outstanding among African tribes. By focusing particularly on their fighting rituals, Riefenstahl celebrated this athletic beauty and masculine strength. This symbolised a correlation rather than a departure from her work under the Nazis. Funerals are also extremely significant events in Nuba life. Glorification of death was a consistent theme within Nazi culture. Sontag believed that choosing to portray a society whose most enthusiastic and lavish ceremony is the funeral was highly suspect. Furthermore, the tribe survived mainly by hunting, living an elemental existence. Throughout the book Riefenstahl laments what she sees as the imminent erosion of this existence by modernity. Sontag discussed how the Nazis believed that city life was degenerate and that the urban city dweller was corrupted by intellectualism. They aspired to bring the people back to the soil and their true spirit, albeit with modern technology playing its part.
Riefenstahl rather cleverly explored a number of major Nazi themes through the medium of photography, and almost got away with it because her subjects were black. The popular notion that Nazi culture was nothing more than racial hatred made it possible for her to do this. But surely without the racial theory there is nothing obnoxious about Riefenstahl’s ideas? On the contrary, her portrayal of Nuban society is synonymous with Nazi art in that it glamorises death, exalts mindlessness and glorifies brutality and submission. However, it is not entirely true to suggest that Riefenstahl was not motivated by any racial consideration. The Nazis insisted that the Jews were bastardised and not of pure race. The Nuba are the indigenous and most ancient people of the Sudan. They retreated to the Nuba mountains several centuries ago in response to invasion, a remote community who have had little contact with the outside world. Anthropologists say they are a rare ethnically pure indigenous race—a fact which was not lost on Riefenstahl who considered them “an extraordinary phenomenon” and one which took her six years to find. During her search she turned her nose up to many African tribes who did not suit her requirements.
Sontag’s influential essay damaged Riefenstahl’s attempted comeback. Unable to raise substantial backing to produce a film project, she continued to work as a photographer. In the 1980s she joined Greenpeace and devoted herself to photographing exotic plant and animal marine life. It was then that she affirmed: “I can simply say that I feel spontaneously attracted by everything that is beautiful.” However, her sense of beauty was dangerously irresponsible and ultimately cruel. During her Nuban project, many of the tribe had joined the Southern Sudanese Liberation Army to fight against the Arab North. The Nuban people were at that time suffering greatly, yet there is no reflection of this in her work, because it did not fit her fascist aesthetic. She was outraged that this guerilla warfare had begun to modernise the Nuba, who had begun to wear “sunglasses, ugly clothes and clumsy shoes”. Her treatment of the Nuba people is reminiscent of her use of gypsies from Salzburg concentration camp. In both cases her heartless insensitivity was astounding.
The idea that it is impossible for great art to be political is of course a myth. In film terms, the great masterpieces of Pudovkin and Eisenstein are as polemical as Riefenstahl’s work, but less problematic. This is because their political involvement was motivated by a sense of altruism. Admittedly her techniques were brilliant, but they should never be appreciated out of context. Celebrating her as a great artist, without entering any caveat, is to condone the immorality which underpins her work.
Nevertheless, Riefenstahl retains her high profile band of followers, people who wilfully misinterpret her work, who insist that art and politics are two completely different things. Her admirers can hardly deny the political intentions of Triumph of the Will, yet they manage to abstract Riefenstahl’s pioneering techniques from her unsavoury themes. They somehow manage to separate the dancer from the dance and celebrate her cinematic flare with impunity. Failing to grasp the complexities of her work, they merely see her as an aesthetician, a type of classical artist concerned with beauty and form. They see her as an artist who applied these sensibilities to a modern medium, with spectacular effect. Above all else, they recognise her as a great artist who, by a twist of fate, tragically and momentarily lost her way. However, one thing Riefenstahl never lost was her talent for befriending powerful leaders. In 1999 she was invited by Bill Clinton to Time magazine’s 75th birthday party in New York.
A few years before she died, she demanded that Germany recognise her contribution to cinema and photography, and blamed a cabal of “opinion formers” and “left wing intellectuals” for destroying her reputation. However, her work condemns itself. A close and honest examination of her films and photographs reveals that, throughout her career, she consistently aesthetised elements of life and politics that are fundamentally malevolent. However brilliantly she did this is inconsequential. In the end, Riefenstahl was wrong when she claimed that her role in The Blue Light was a premonition of her own fate. Junta was seen by the world as a witch, while Riefenstahl is more often than not recognised as a cinematic genius. Junta fell to her death at a tragically young age. But as we all know, only the good die young. Leni Riefenstahl passed away peacefully in her bed at the grand old age of 101. The same can not be said for the gypsy men, women and children that she took from concentration camps in order to make one of her many twisted fairytales.
This article, by Catherine Lyons, was published in Issue 6 in March 2000.
Marx never wrote about cellulite, though I am quite sure he suffered from this “unsightly condition”. He endured several excruciating physical ailments throughout his lifetime: carbuncles, insomnia, bronchitis, a bad liver, pleurisy and haemorrhoids. If he were alive today I am sure he would definitely have a few more “backaches” to contend with, the current cellulite epidemic being one of the many. It might be very much lagging in order of importance, but nevertheless an examination of this modern phenomenon vividly illustrates the manipulative powers of both advertising and marketing, two wasteful and exploitative processes, which are an integral part of capitalism.
Firstly, what exactly is cellulite? It is quite simply a form of body fat. Obviously fat is an essential biological substance. For health reasons it should not fall below a certain level in the body nor rise too high. Internal fat protects vital organs but the majority of fat cells rest beneath the skin in the adipose layer. This layer does many useful things like cushioning the muscles, conserving heat and acting as an energy store and insulator. It is this layer which gives a person their shape. The adipose is visible beneath the skin. Some of it is tight and appears smooth, but some of it is waterlogged and appears dimpled. Voilà la cellulite—as it was the French who coined the term! It was they who first decided that this dimpled texture or peau d’orange on the body’s surface was unsightly and deeply undesirable.
Cellulite has nothing to do with excess fat, it simply refers to the texture of the skin. A person who is their ideal medical weight can have it. It also can appear anywhere on the body and it is metabolized when food intake is reduced, though not easily. It is a tenacious form of subcutaneous fat that poses no medical threat whatsoever. Many doctors believe that endowment is genetic, a bit like freckles: some people have it and some do not. Cellulite is of course a cosmetic concern rather than a medical one. Even though it appears on male and female bodies, because it is deemed more important for a woman to look good, it is seen as a female affliction.
Until about 25 years ago nobody outside France knew what cellulite was. But since then the beauty industry has managed to enlighten the rest of the world, and in the process has made billions from the sales of anti-cellulite products. Perhaps the most sinister aspect of the marketing campaign is how cellulite has been linked with illness. Cellulite is supposedly the result of a build up of toxins in the body due to bad nutrition, lack of exercise and a sluggish lymphatic system. Yet cellulite is present in newborn babies who have never eaten chocolate or drank coffee, two of the substances which supposedly encourage “the condition”. It is also present in professional athletes who adhere to a strict nutritional diet and a gruelling exercise regime.
The starting price for anti-cellulite treatments is around twenty pounds. Forty Cellasene tablets cost £24.95, whilst 200ml of Lipo Factor Anti-Cellulite Toning Lotion costs £18.95. It is a scientific fact that no substance massaged in the body’s surface can sink through the skin’s layers and dissolve fat—unless it also dissolves the skin. As if it needed to be proved, the John Hopkins University in the USA recently tested thirty two international brands of anti-cellulite cream. It was concluded that none of them work.
Detoxifying diets seem to temporarily reduce cellulite, but levels return to normal when ordinary healthy eating patterns resume. There is a huge range of anti-cellulite treatments on the market: fardic fitness equipment, body brushes, nutritional supplements, bath preparations, tablets and specialised massage treatments, to name but a few. Most of these products and services will improve skin condition, but they all have two things in common: they are all very expensive, and none of them will get rid of cellulite.
The beauty industry has cynically fabricated a disease, so that it can profit by selling false cures. This is not remarkable when you consider that, apart from beauty products, there are thousands of other useless and, in some cases, pernicious commodities which exist solely to exploit people. The variety of these worthless goods is endless. You can choose anything from magic beauty potions which make wrinkles, baldness, cellulite and your money disappear, to countless superfluous household products, which are being successfully marketed as domestic necessities and are usually environmentally harmful. But how would you cope without that handy spray which neutralises that hard-to-deal-with giant odorous teddy bear you have stuck in your wardrobe!
The marketing of household cleaners is similar to that of beauty products. A scientific spiel is spun up, spouted out and swallowed, and a superhero cleaning agent sorts the invisible threat out. It all culminates in a press full of brightly coloured bottles, all for very different tasks made from very similar ingredients.
Whilst beauty and household goods manufacturers shamelessly play on people’s insecurities regarding their appearance or family health to sell their dubious wares, other advertisements adopt a different approach. In general ads for foodstuffs humorously exaggerate one characteristic of the item, the objective being product recognition. It might be argued that advertising a food product is a harmless exercise compared to the unscrupulous promotion of wrinkle potions and questionable cleaning agents. I mean we genuinely need food! But what we don’t need is 145 different types of breakfast cereal. From Sugar Puffs to Alpen, people are partial to different types of flakes in their morning bowl and a little choice is nice. But there are only so many combinations of bran, wheat and sugar you can have before you get duplication, excess and ultimately waste. They will probably all be sold or they would not be on the supermarket shelf, but at what price? In many cases the advertising and marketing of each of these brands costs more than its production. A typical supermarket sells 20,000 different brands. There are currently twenty different varieties of white bread and 64 different types of dental floss on the market. This amounts to an enormous waste of human and natural resources, a very high price to pay for an excessive range of dental hygiene products.
The marketing of potions, lotions and Sugar Puffs is child’s play compared to the antics of some baby food companies. Women in developed countries are being encouraged by the medical profession to breast feed, as it is considered the best form of nutrition. Yet in the third world western food companies are promoting expensively packaged baby food milk. Instead of mother’s milk women are being encouraged to feed their babies commercial formulae, made up with dirty water. The World Health Organisation claims that this practice causes the death of 15 million babies a year. The Nestlé food company, one of the largest producers of baby food in the world, makes $50 billion annually, whilst spending $7 billion on advertising. However you do not have to go to the third world to witness the unscrupulous marketing of pernicious products. The promotion of cigarettes is one commonplace example. Mercenary tactics are as much a part of marketing as clipboards and pie charts.
Advertising and marketing constitutes part of the modern system of production and consumption. Advertising in particular is the dominant cultural form in capitalist society. It mimics and subverts every genre of art and cultural practice to enhance and alter the meaning of lifeless objects. But advertisements do more than exaggerate the basic function of a product. They imbue products with all kinds of social abilities. Marx called this process the fetishism of commodities. But surely people buy a particular soft drink or breakfast cereal because they like its taste and are thirsty, hungry or want to keep regular. They are not hypnotised into thinking that they are going to be or have the beautiful woman in the TV commercial. But advertising does not adhere to such a crude formula. Utilitarian items such as food or drink become exaggerated props in advertisements that subtly portray or imply an ideal lifestyle. This ideal is not an outlandishly glamourous way of life. It is a comfortable and customary one which we can all realistically aspire to, one which the product will bring us nearer to. But some commodities bring us nearer to this coveted lifestyle than others.
It seems that a car is not merely a four wheeled vehicle which gets you from A to B quicker than your feet. If it were, everyone would be driving Ladas (well, pushing them). I do concede that a Ferrari is more mechanically proficient and aesthetically pleasing than its east European counterpart. A Ferrari is never bought for its craftsmanship alone, however, but for the status and lifestyle ownership infers. All cars great and small are marketed on this premiss. The same principle applies to clothes. It is not good enough for the rich and famous to look good, their clothes must have a designer’s signature. Taking into consideration that many of these creations are handmade with fine fabrics, the price is still exorbitant. Indeed the garment’s monetary value is paramount to its appeal. At the same time many ordinary people fork out on overpriced, synthetic sports gear bearing conspicuous logos, which is made for a pittance in the third world. This popular trend has many appeals. The clothes are colourful, comfortable and not just cool but machine washable! But its street credibility probably has more to do with its price tag than its washing instructions. In capitalist culture clothing is not merely an aesthetic and essential pursuit. It is a symbol of wealth, status and lifestyle.
Advertising is the capitalist propaganda machine that attempts to shape people’s aspirations and desires. It is the visualisation of capitalist ideology whose insidious value system prevails and permeates every economic and social class. So the Ferrari-driving, designer-clad rock star is not a zillion light years away from the crystal-collecting housewife, who stores her booty in cabinets resembling Egyptian tombs. From sports cars to sports gear the examples are rife but the ethos remains the same: the accumulation of symbols of wealth, for their own sake, will elevate the self. The belief that money symbolises success tragically dominates our culture. All creativity and human endeavour must be financially profitable before it is truly valued and encouraged. The way capitalism mistreats artistic expression is testament to this philistine philosophy.
Individuals with creative ability are employed as designers of commodities, such as fashion designers, graphic artists, product designers etc. Whilst fine art, artistic expression for its own sake, is hijacked as artists are forced to exhibit their work in exhibitions sponsored by commercial firms. Manufacturers use these events to promote and enhance their public image as patrons of the arts. Paintings are bought as investments to hang in office buildings or, worse still, are sentenced to life imprisonment within a security vault. But artistic expression is a resilient and intrinsic part of humanity, which manages somehow to survive despite the battering it receives within capitalist culture. It is a little known fact that many recognised Irish artists and their families exist on social welfare payments and part-time teaching, whilst relying on Arts Council grants to fund the production of their work. Contrary to popular belief, success and recognition in the art world, for the most part, is not pursued for financial wealth, nor does it result in it. A lot of modern art cannot be easily commodified, such as performance, video, installation, body or land art. Perhaps then it is not surprising that an artistic vocation is something which society fails to value or understand. All cultural practices are stifled by commercial concern. If a brilliant piece of literature is written yet no profitable market exists for it, it will not be published. A system which devalues art is one which rejects human development and understanding. But perhaps this is the least of its crimes.
The consumer society is one which thrives on women’s oppression. Products that profess to change people’s appearance target both men and women. But there is a stark and disturbing difference in the way women are manipulated and exploited for commercial gain. It does not matter how clever or talented a woman is, how much she has achieved career-wise or how hard she has worked to raise her family. She is not considered successful unless she is attractive. This emphasis on female physical beauty has little to do with aesthetics and more to do with power, as it is based on the premiss of inadequacy. A woman’s attractiveness is measured by the discrepancy between her and the ideal of female beauty. Ads for dubious beauty products promote the ideal, which women are urged to tirelessly pursue. A woman should have a pretty face with no facial hair, blemish free skin, shaped eyebrows, voluptuous lips, a small nose and soft silky hair. She should be tall (but not too tall) and slim, with a high centre of gravity. Her legs should be long and hairless and her feet should be petite like her manicured hands. She should have a small waist, firm buttocks and a flat stomach. She should have no underarm hair or cellulite. Breasts are optional depending on the fashion—both reduction and augmentation services are available. Thousands upon thousands of beauty products and treatments are at women’s disposal to aid them in their quest to realise the ideal, or to help those who cannot (the majority of womankind) make the most of themselves. Women’s magazines sponsored by the beauty and fashion industries perpetuate the ideal by publishing articles on how to improve your looks and dress it up like a lesson in self-development.
Every part of the female form has been idealised. This elaborate definition of beauty is relentlessly shoved down women’s throats on a daily basis, from every section of the mass media. The female body has become a commodity in itself. Cosmetic surgery and beauty treatments deal with problem areas of the body as if they were components of a car. A lot of women cannot afford many of these expensive beauty products and services. But because of the promotion of this unobtainable and contrived concept of beauty a staggering number of women loathe their bodies.
But the world is full of women and men who do not value this unnatural concept of femininity. People that reject the dominant culture, who do not swallow the lies of advertising and marketing or crave a materialistic lifestyle. Most individuals simply desire a decent standard of living and quality of life for themselves and their families. These fundamentals capitalism with all its false promises has failed to provide.
Above all other things capitalism purports to offer “choice”. The consumer is supposedly in a privileged position. They can take advantage of a bountiful market of useful goods and services that compete for quality and price, investing their disposable income on items that will elevate their life, whilst manufacturers solicit their patronage through the mass media. A tough but fair system that promises those who are hardworking enough a decent standard of living, and those who are enterprising enough a life of wealth and excitement. A system where production thrives on creativity and exploration by industries into the fields of technology, and medicine accelerates human development.
When the truth is that exclusive advances in the fields of technology and medicine are peddled to those who can afford it. Whilst artistic expression is reduced to a commodity and women are dehumanised in the name of beauty. Wealth is generated by the exploitation of others in a cut throat market, where ordinary people have to incessantly work hard throughout their life to achieve the basics. And those unfortunate enough to fall beneath the poverty line are deemed responsible for their own decline. So what about quality and choice? The average person has their pick of a huge range of overpriced mundane goods dressed in colourful wrappings that cost more than the contents themselves. Products are not created in response to genuine human demand. The exasperation of natural resources and environmental destruction are the results of manic mass production of commodities made with only profit in mind. As the success of anti-cellulite products illustrates, a commodity does not have to be either useful or even beneficial. Advertising and marketing, the great capitalist instruments of persuasion, step in and create false needs, using every form of deception and manipulation imaginable, all with one goal in mind: to persuade people to part with their hard-earned cash. Perhaps cellulite, the paragon of marketing, represents what capitalism truly offers humanity—a multi-billion dollar industry which produces cures for a disease which does not exist.