2003 NEMLA
Aesthetics and Politics III:
Film and Television

Jennifer Barker
Indiana University

H.D. and Leni Riefenstahl: Film and the Politics of Beauty, 1927-1934

Throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, film-makers and critics argued about film's purpose (as art, propaganda, education, entertainment), its language and meaning, and its power to influence. At a time when boundaries between politics and art were blurring, film was a hotly contested site for the union of aesthetics, politics and violence. In my paper I will examine H.D.'s essays on film and her poems "Projector" and "Projector II" in relation to Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will and Olympia. H.D., a modernist poet who believed that filmic images, as psychological and visual symbols, represented a universal understanding, and Riefenstahl, a film-maker concerned with the creation of beauty regardless of political affiliations, have much in common when it comes to aesthetics. During the late twenties and early thirties, both demonstrated in their work (and criticism) a fascination with transcendent beauty, bodies (in their classical simplicity), sublime nature, the ecstasy of submission to a god, a focus on images as psychological symbols of truth, restraint, violence and militarism (both real and metaphorical). These issues converge in interesting ways, especially in relation to the act of watching film and H.D.'s personification of projection as the god Hermes. The problem of abstracted images and the use of beauty also find eloquent expression in H.D.'s Tribute to Freud. In it she ponders the confusion of beauty, spectacle and violence contained in various representations of a single image, the swastika. It is both "confetti-like showers from the air, gilded paper swastikas" and "death-head chalkmarks." Is it possible to resist fascism by "increas[ing] private beauty; the scattered beauty which needs only to be combined by artists in order to become visible to all," as Virginia Woolf suggests in Three Guineas? Or is beauty inextricably tied up with the portrayal of power? By examining the ways in which H.D. and Riefenstahl approach these various manifestations of beauty and violence in their art and criticism, I will ascertain how their images of beauty and violence work towards meaning literally and metaphorically, psychologically and visually within the larger context of aesthetics and politics in the early 20th century.