Jun 1, 2007

Leni Riefenstahl: Content and Form

I briefly discussed the form-content distinction in my post on the New Criterion’s recent essay about Robert Bridges, which came out in the NC’s annual poetry issue in April. Two new essays about the Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefensthal have come out that also concern this subject. The essays were occasioned by the publication of two new biographies of Riefenstahl, which have brought up the issue of the content as contrasted to the form of her unsettling films concerning the heyday of German National Socialism. The first essay is by Charles Taylor, entitled “Ill Will” from the May 7, 2007 issue of The Nation. Taylor’s first paragraph makes it plain what he will have to say:

The most durable piece of Nazi propaganda may yet turn out to be the belief that Leni Riefenstahl is an artistic genius. Ever since Triumph of the Will goose-stepped across movie screens in 1935, Riefenstahl has been central to the arguments about whether politics can be separated from art, whether form can be separated from content.

Taylor has more in mind than that “content” is highly important to how we understand and evaluate works of art, an idea Yvor Winters would have approved strongly. Taylor seems to think that not only is the “content” of Riefenshahl’s best films (she's pictured with the leader she lauded) quite obviously morally unacceptable, probably even dangerous (though he makes no case for this view), but also that her aesthetic form, which has been so often acclaimed by film critics, is deeply wanting as well. I believe the article is worth reading and pondering in the light of the critical theories of Yvor Winters. It can be found at:


In light of Taylor’s essay, I thought of a passage from Terry Comito on Winters’s views on the dire importance of the literary arts to life and of the importance of “content” as well as “form”. This quotation comes from Comito’s fine study of Winters In Defense of Winters (1986):

Poetry was a matter of life and death to Winters just because it does make sense: “makes,” creates, islands of understanding, structures of intelligibility where none were visible before. This was for him not a theory but an irreducible datum of experience that any plausible theory would have to explain. His objection to Eliot and Ransom was their failure, for all their professed regard for such admirable things as logic and tradition, to find a way of thinking about poetry that adequately accounted for this fundamental capacity; and their encouragement, among those for whom their talk and their own poems had a prescriptive force, of poetry in which this capacity was in fact impaired.

How many critics and aficionados think of poetry or any literary art form as providing some kind of “structure of intelligibility”? Not many any longer, I would suppose, judging from all my reading in poetry and poetry criticism. Poetry seems to be written either to muse surreally on images or symbols, to give an emotional buzz of some sort, or to provide some sort of rapt immersion in the quotidian. How many people turn to poetry for knowledge or understanding -- when they simply want to find something out? Not many. Yet Winters’s theory is distinctively focused on the issue of knowledge and understanding. Is Riefenstahl a bad artist because she tries to give us a badly flawed “structure of intelligibility,” as Comito would put it?

The second recent essay that I think worth your time is the New Yorker’s review of the Riefenstahl biographies by Judith Thurman, entitled “Where There’s a Will: The Rise of Leni Riefenstahl,” which can be found at:


The essay also gives us an interesting and valuable look at Riefenstahl, though Thurman does not endeavor to make as direct a statement as Taylor has of the dangers of the “form” art takes in the hands of a person who is delivering dangerous “content.”

I might come back to this issue in the future. I offer this post just to make you aware of the discussion of Riefenstahl and its possible bearing on Winters’s critical theory. If you wish to pursue this issue in greater depth in Winters, the best essay to start with is probably the piece in In Defense of Reason, “John Crowe Ransom, or Thunder Without God.” But that entire book is sprinkled with ideas that are germane to this issue.

I am also aware that the New York Review of Books has published an essay on the Riefenstahl biography. I have not yet had a chance to look it over. If anyone else has, I'd be interested on your take on it or either of these other pieces.

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