History of Documentary: Analysis of Propaganda This paper defines, illustrates, and analyzes various innovations in propaganda and notions to promote government that were refined in the documentaries of Leni Riefenstahl “Triumph of The Will” (1936) and Pare Lorentz “The River” (1937) and “The Plow That Broke the Plains” (1936). According to Barnouw, by systematically excluding rational elements in the films Leni Riefenstahl made for the Third Reich, she succeeded in finding the balance between propaganda and its aestheticism and in combining both in a perfect symbiosis (23-26). Indeed, without the help of a theoretical program and completely intuitively, she founded the fascist film aesthetic in her first movie, about the 1933 Nazi Party rally, entitled Victory of Faith. She then so perfected it in her Triumph of the Will a year later that she set with this film some strong standards that remained unchallenged up to the end of the Third Reich. The documentary in general what the Nazi film later pursued to excess: one of the weaknesses of the documentary has always been the exclusion of the individual. Riefenstahl’s accelerated dynamic rhythm, which drives the images forward, does not give the viewers any insights that allow them to grasp new developments and situations; does not give them time for cogitation or room for catching their breath; in short, does not leave them any time to think (Grant and Sloniowski 11-13). According to Barnouw, moviegoers are to be overwhelmed by the breathtaking events that Nazism generates around them; they are to be captured by its fast tempo. Riefenstahl always rejected the reproach that she had allowed herself to be abused as the handmaiden of ideology. She is right. After all, she was the standard-bearer of the Fuhrer in fascist film that, according to Susan Sontag “glorified subordination, celebrated blind obedience, and heroicized death” (qtd in Nichols 23). The flag was also a sign of the Nazi ideology’s irreconcilable hatreds: anti-Semitism, anti-communism, anti-clericalism, and later, as the regime prepared for war, its anti-plutocratic campaign. The swastika flag reflected many of the irrational beliefs that were foisted on millions of Germans through the multiple effects of the weekly newsreels and Party congress films. Leni Riefenstahl used the flag as an emotional and sentimental prop with which to orchestrate a dizzying symphony of flags which disseminated the Nazi world-view in staged aesthetic events that indicated the ‘correct’ way to regard art (Nichols 45). Riefenstahl liked to show the flag blowing in the wind, as a sign of movement: the optical opium of the people, forests of flags as a psychological field of force (Barnouw 56-59(. Pare Lorentz also raised the question of propaganda’s role, and the role of movies in the Government in The River (1937). He has seen something more in his story of the river, a great deal more. And he has let audience see it, too. It has an epic equality, this tale of revenging nature and of man--resolutely, repentantly--striving to placate it and conquer it again. So the narrative runs like an epic poem, cadenced and rhythmic and mournful. The River runs for about half an hour, which is not half long enough. Photographers have taken shot after shot of brooding beauty and impact. With tremendous economy, Mr. Lorentz has fitted them into a swift-moving and engrossing unity and has leavened them with his poetic commentary. The motion picture is of course propaganda, in the largest sense of that word, but it is constructed as the truly powerful piece of propaganda that was presented to viewers of those times. It is impossible to sit through it without being deeply stirred, mentally as well as emotionally--a film that demands attention with a serene authority. Mr. Lorentz starts you near the headwaters of the great river and then the atmospheric pressure of the picture is changed, and the brooks and rivulets are no longer flowing together to make a river, but are destroying the land through which they course.
And so, without your knowing it, you arrive at the Tennessee Valley--and if this is propaganda, make the most of it, because it is masterly. To continue, the question, “Should a democratic government make documentary films?” finally becomes, “Is it possible for American government agencies to make documentary films?” (Barnouw 77-80) Does not the conservative effect of the American separation of powers--as well as the fear of a normally conservative public opinion, which objects to government propaganda --mean that films like “The River” are seldom, if ever, possible? (Barnouw 80) Perhaps only brand-new agencies, staffed with men devoted to a new enterprise, willing to accept the hazards of action, will enter into the arena of information with the determination to publicize the program creatively. Nichols argues that, perhaps, only crisis can bring these mattes into existence in America (83). Even then, as soon as the crisis and the newness wear off, enthusiasm will become caution, and the spending of money merely to inform the public will be harder and harder to justify. The excitement in another film by Lorentz “The Plow That Broke the Plains” was not going to lie in any simple story of individual human tragedy. The Plow was to document great geographic and economic forces, as far as film could do so. “We had a special lens made to get the largest possible spread. The motion in our motion picture was going to be architectural, the ominous changes in the land itself” (qtd in Barnouw 38). Lorentz wanted The Plow to be presented as a problem film, but he didn’t wish for any radical solutions at the end, and no radical conclusions about capitalist society, either. He was interested in human problems, in the bitter results of human mistakes, in the vast drama of the impact of the elements on human beings. Despite the fact that The Plow and The River were primarily propaganda about problems and not about politics, these two extraordinary films were nonetheless linked inextricably with partisan politics. They made an impression on eye and ear which was memorable, and if they did not call for specific action--did not say, “Vote for Democrats!” Or even “Support the Farm Security Administration!”--these films were certainly on the side of action. It hardly seemed an accident that “The Plow That Broke the Plains” was being circulated with persistence, pride and vigor during the summer months of 1936. It was an election year which found regional offices of the RA energetically promoting the movie among mid-western theater chains. There was an even more serious objection to The Plow than the straight political one. This illustrated extended problem since it reveals the heart of the truth of propaganda in film-making, and also showed how close was the relationship of documentary method to the publicity purpose, especially when the publicity is for a government agency’s program in a democratic state. Social Context in the Documentaries This paper examines how social context in documentaries of the 1930s is represented and used in the work of Pare Lorentz “The River” (1937) and “The Plow That Broke the Plains” (1936) along with King Vidor’s “Our Daily Bread” (1934). According to Lorentz, after The Plow he was through making films for the Government. Barnouw notes that the film’s director was tired, and the critics’ reviews weren’t enough reward. He didn’t like having to be a disbursing agent (26). He didn’t like quarreling with cameramen or dickering with musicians. His salary wasn’t in the least comparable to a Hollywood producer’s salary.
And anyway, why produce films if you can’t distribute them? And yet it had been quite an experience, after all. The best of his film-making, and after that, the worst of his troubles, were yet to come (27-29). The story of “The River”, which began under the working title, Highway to the Sea, but fortunately yielded to simplification, is much the same as the story of “The Plow That Broke the Plains”. The photographers were different, the negative cost was much larger and the result was a better film the sense drama and poetry. But the production process, with one exception, was basically the same. The Comptroller General did insist, this time, that greater care be taken in incurring expenditures, and a man named John Bridgeman was sent along with Lorentz to be agent cashier (Nichols 73-75). These two actually got along almost too well together, and apparently Lorentz, whose enthusiasm was infectious, did not feel burdened with penury. Lorentz had read the Mississippi Valley Committee report of the Public Works Administration. It impressed on him some of the larger dangers of water erosion, and some of its causes. “The problem of checking erosion”, the committee had said, “is chiefly one of control of the surface run-off of water on sloping ground” (qtd in Nichols 48). Lorentz was willing to start with surface run-off, but in his own way. His opening words have become widely known to the wide array of readers: From as far West as Idaho, Down from the glacier peaks of the Rockies--From as far East as New York, Down from the turkey ridges of the Alleghenies-- Down from Minnesota, twenty-five hundred miles, The Mississippi River runs to the Gulf. Carrying every drop of water that flows down two-thirds the continent, Carrying every brook and rill, rivulet and creek, Carrying all the rivers that run down two-thirds the continent, The Mississippi runs to the Gulf of Mexico (Lorentz, The River). And later on, he used a sharp visual image which summarized for the public imagination everything the committee said about run-off. “Year in, year out, the water comes down, Down from a thousand hillsides, Washing the top off the Valley” (Lorentz, The River). He hoped to get some flood scenes, but didn’t know yet whether they were available as stock shots. The final sequence, he knew, would be about the TVA--the plans and the work going ahead for flood control and erosion control. The camera job was pretty nearly finished by January 1937, when it suddenly became clear that flood waters were pouring down from upper tributaries of the great river. Much of the flood footage has since been used for other purposes, but only a small part of it, of course, got into “The River”. It should be remembered, however, that this was the second film he had ever made. To continue, it is not altogether clear who first thought of the idea for “The Plow That Broke the Plains”, but apparently Lorentz was in Des Moines on at least one occasion talking about films to LeCron, the government official who provide recommendations on the film. Lorentz says he talked to various people for nearly a year specifically about a film on the tragedy of the Great Plains. He had taken a trip himself through the Midwest. As an example of social context in the film, Lorentz chose to emphasize the three-fold history of Great Plains exploitation— crowded with by cattle, filled with early settlers, and finally the widespread turbulence of the plains under pressure of World War needs and post-war speculation (Grant and Sloniowski 53-55). He wrote his script in the spirit of MacLeish’s opening words: For more than three centuries men have moved across this continent from east to west. For some years now, increasingly in the last two or three, dust has blown back across the land from west to east.
The movement of men, long understood, is taken for granted. The blowing of dust, little understood, has filled the newspapers and rolled across the newsreel screens. And yet the two are linked together like the throwing and rebound of a ball (Lorentz, The Plow) He had two prime objectives in making the picture: one, to show audiences a specific and exciting section of the country; the other, to portray the events which led up to one of the major disasters in American history--to show, in other words, the Great Drought which is now going into its sixth year (Nichols 45-47). These were the real objectives, not propaganda objectives. There was actually some murmuring about this on the part of Agriculture people when they saw the Lorentz films. They felt both films should have been more definitely instructional--should have shown exactly was being done about all this and what further political changes were going to be needed. Lorentz felt keenly the pains and injustices of the increasingly organized and interdependent world (Barnouw 34). But he never had more than the faintest idea what he wanted done about it. He visualized the pains and stresses, chose blunt and forceful words to describe them, and above all was a consummate artist in the use of sound. The scenes themselves, and the sound, were propaganda, certainly. They forcefully spread the news of desolation and poverty. But he himself was not a political propagandist. The Plow does end with a long string of Okies turning into a government camp somewhere in California, but this is obviously not offered as an answer to anything and could as easily have been Republican in its mockery: Is this all we can do about the dust bowl? The picture leaves the audience with two main reactions--a sense of hopelessness at the size of the problem, and a sense of guilt, which the history of the western plains lays upon us all (Grant and Sloniowski 74). Next we move to “Our Daily Bread” (1934) by King Vidor and John Grierson. The social theme receives its boldest and most sophisticated treatment in the work of director King Vidor. His work is regarded beyond the general works of those times, both in his bold approach to film style and in his radical reinterpretation of popular culture (Barnouw 33). His classic social films of the late twenties and early thirties—“The Crowd” (1928), “Hallelujah!” (1929), “Street Scene” (1931),”Our Daily Bread” (1934)—as pointed by Barnouw, are very personal views on the individual’s relation to society that avoid most of the film trappings of those days (35). Often cast with unknowns rather than stars, shot either on location or on sets designed to highlight ordinary reality and dealing with ordinary characters in everyday situations, Vidor’s pictures of this period cancels out the notions of glamour and needless sensation. Vidor’s chronicle of his ordinary couple, John and Mary Sims, thoroughly explores the differing worlds of the city and country. Their story concentrates on ”Our Daily Bread”, presenting their search for an alternative on a cooperative farm in the Depression. This film is remarkable for taking a stance far beyond the social conventions of their times. “Our Daily Bread” sees the Simses, broke and unemployed, flee the city for a dispossessed farm in the hope of living off the land. But a simple return to the soil is not enough, since neither of them have any conception of how to reap the soil's bounty. A social structure must be devised which will utilize the skills of unemployed city dwellers as well as dispossessed farmers. And it must do away with the massive institutions that alienate and frustrate the individual. The new John no longer hungers for personal success in a competitive system but for fulfillment within a cooperative framework where the priority is the mutual good of all.
Our Daily Bread is a frustrating blend of daring social experimentation and naive, fuzzy wish fulfillment, of striking narrative technique and the most maudlin melodrama. Vidor attempts to adapt populist idealism to the actuality of the Depression by extending good neighborliness into a cooperative community remarkably similar to a socialist commune. In one sense, the cooperative is pure populism: the little people join together as a community to work hard and help one another. It is much like Capra's small town where a group of individuals apply their own initiative to solve their problems without any interference from government agencies. John underscores the populist nature of their project by paralleling it with the efforts of the first Pilgrims: When they arrived on this continent, what did they do? Stand around and beef about the unemployment situation or the value of the dollar? No. They set to work to make their own employment, build their own houses, and grow their own food. On the Mayflower, there was a planter, a printer, a doctor, a soldier, a bookkeeper and so on. And that's what we've got here. If they got along without landlords and grocery bills, so can we. What we've got to do is help ourselves by helping others. We've got the land and we've got the strength (Vigor, Our Daily Vread). But the Pilgrims had to move out of European society entirely and Vidor sees a similar necessity in Depression America (Barnouw 55-58). The structure of the cooperative represents a rejection of the system and its traditional goals. To truly recapture the sense of human worth inherent in populist values, those values must be projected into a new social order. Rugged individualism, monetary gain, the whole capitalist framework are rejected in favor of cooperative exchange of goods and labor. Because they all contribute equally to the growth of the farm, the cooperative members will share the produce. They even throw together their belongings into a "common pool," apparently rejecting the idea of private ownership, so basic to American society and to popular culture (Barnouw 58). In this film, capitalist competition has been eliminated and the individual pursuit of happiness has merged with the collective spirit. However, as Nichols points out, collectivism and populism are ultimately irreconcilable philosophies, converse political attitudes, which cancel each other out ideologically while producing a double surprise dramatically (90). The film is structured around two dramatic poles: the dynamics of group action and the emergence of John (Tom Keene) as individual leader. On the whole, group scenes provide the best and most unique moments in the film--the co-op members swarming onto the field to plough and plant it, the erection of living facilities (a stone mason builds a carpenter's fireplace and chimney while the carpenter constructs the wooden frame for the stone mason's house), and the tour-de-force ditch-digging finale. This finale is the best example in the film of communal spirit and is captured in a rhythmic montage more related to Eisenstein than the Formula. Teams of surveyors, land-clearers, and diggers all move across the countryside inexorably racing against time to irrigate the dying crop. Finally, John proves to be the uncommon common man, a strong leader who personally owns and runs the farm, a rugged individualist who has at last achieved personal success.