Triumph of the Will vs. Hearsay of the Soul

Both multimedia presentations were created by German filmmakers; one a well known documentarian and the other who is trying his hand at media installation for the first time. However, it is my belief that both their presentations offer opposing positions in terms of the history of Germany.

“Triumph of the Will” is a war time propaganda documentary of Hitler arriving at Nuremberg, Germany and delivering a famous speech. Leni Riefenstahl, the film’s director, or if you consider the documentary an art piece, she would be the artist. She was contracted by the Nazi Party to undertake the expansive project to document this moment in history. Riefenstahl more than delivered a visual account of what happened, but went a step further, by choreographing Hitler’s entrance. She also used certain angles to give the viewer the sense of awe, importance, and power. In addition, her seamless editing keeps the viewer engaged throughout the lengthy entrance sequence. The message Riefenstahl successfully conveys to any viewer, whether they speak German or not, is that this man, Hitler, is important. She highlights him, and by extension his importance by featuring him alone in the frame, in essence giving him the central focus. This film was ground breaking for its time in 1935, and was instrumental in building support within Germany for Hitler. This war time propaganda film along with others is often believed to be one of the key parts of why Germany was so successful in WWII. The position “Triumph of the Will” has taken in regards to Germany’s history is that it displays and demonstrates Germany’s military power and might to their population during the pre WWII era. Now, close to 80 years after the documentary was made, many German people, artists, and filmmakers alike have a very different view of their nation’s history.

For Werner Herzog, who is primarily a filmmaker and documentarian himself, the creation of “Hearsay of the Soul” is a first time experience. His close to eighteen minute in length, video art installation, features not only video footage of contemporary music with seeming avant-garde style influences from composer and cellist Ernst Reijseger, but also beautiful projections of landscape etchings by Hercules Segers which were created between 1589 to 1638, that fade in and out and over top of the footage.

My description of the installation piece does not do it justice by any measure. In The Getty Museum the “Hearsay of the Soul” looks like just a sign, but when you walk closer you see a small dark doorway. I was unsure of whether I wanted to actually go in or not at first. However, the distinctive, folk-like beginning to the music intrigued me enough to draw me in. Once I was inside I chose a spot near the back wall to watch from because I was unsure if I was going to stay or not. During the entirety of the piece the cellist and pianist build to a slow crescendo, it is gradual enough for the patron to almost not even notice it. The other on lookers, as well as myself were captured by the expertly drawn etchings which moved around the room and faded into one another.

The etchings depict landscapes, one looks as though smoke rises from it, or perhaps mist. When this particular etching is featured on the right hand side, the music took a haunting and saddened turn. I immediately thought of the montage of concentration camps in the film, “Schindler’s List.” This thought coupled with the images before me evoked strong emotions as I felt a lump form in my throat; if my understanding is correct that the piece is supposed to convey a history of Germany, which gives the viewer a sense of guilt for the travesties that occurred during the 1930s-1940s. In addition, another viewer at the exhibit mentioned she thought she saw faces in the etchings of sad or perhaps dead people. Furthermore, this piece would then function as a multimedia expression in opposition to the “Triumph of the Will,” conveying the guilt, and humility of a German filmmaker instead of power and might as seen in the 1935 documentary.

However, what does the title say about the piece? “Hearsay of the Soul” conveys a sense of intimacy that the viewer should expect to experience inside. After contemplating the title, I began to think that my understanding of the piece altogether might be wrong. Perhaps, that was just what my first reaction to what the overall message might have been. I was practicing Orientalism without meaning to, I heard emotion evoking music and read the word “German” on the sign and I, an American, assumed it was about concentration camps.

However, I have come to believe that what this exhibit offers if much more than just that surface level meaning. I believe what made this piece so strong was the combination of its elements. The subtle movements of the etchings, the simple footage which might be handheld, and especially the music work together to make the installation, which composes a new experience. For each individual person the piece is something different. It does not contain words, it does not tell you out right what it is symbolic of, but allows the opportunity for a unique and intimate moment for each person who ventures in through that dark door.

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