A new BBC poll once again saw Nazi-era filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl rehabilitated—but a contemporary documentarian captured a more complex side of fascismby Cathy Brennan / December 4, 2019 / Leave a comment
Last week, the BBC released a poll that saw 368 critics, programmers and academics across the world vote for their top ten films directed by women. The results were then compiled into a ranking of the top one hundred films.
Some observers were taken aback by the fact that two Nazi propaganda films made it into the top fifty. Film director Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935) and Olympia (1938) were commissioned by Adolf Hitler’s regime, and claimed the 45th and 37th spots respectively. Out of the 368 who voted, 35 placed a Riefenstahl in their top ten.
The repeated presence of fascist art on this self-avowed feminist project is made more egregious considering there was another German documentary made during the same period that has been largely forgotten by our popular tastemakers.
Directed by German artist Ella Bergmann-Michel, Wahlkampf 1932—Election 1932, also called The Last Election—documents the final days of Weimar Germany. Bergmann-Michel filmed the streets of Frankfurt in January 1933, mere weeks before Hitler was appointed Chancellor and a month before the Nazis took advantage of the Reichstag Fire to tighten their dictatorial grasp.
Bergmann-Michel’s footage highlights the presence of election posters and flags hanging from windows. The hammer and sickle insignia of the Communist Party is equally visible, as are the three arrows of the Social Democratic Party.
Despite the prevalence of voter intimidation and political violence from the Nazis, Bergmann-Michel paints a more serene picture of the political moment, in which the only hint of struggle is suggested by an empty space left by a torn poster. Instead, she films children in a playground, and average people walking the streets. The mundanity of these images clash with our retrospective knowledge as 21st century viewers.
If you were to watch Bergmann-Michel’s film on your laptop in a Starbucks or Costa, the most disquieting part would be when you look up, unable to meaningfully distinguish between the images you saw on-screen and the reality before you. What happened in 1930s Germany is…