Propaganda wars

Film - Philip Kerr agrees with Leni Riefenstahl's low opinion of mainstream American movies

Years ago, in the days when Clive James was fronting a programme about cinema on ITV, I used to think of the entrance to my local cinema in much the same way that Lucy thought of the wardrobe door in the children's novel by C S Lewis: as the gateway to a magical world of infinite possibility. These days, however, whenever some-one asks me about what's worth seeing at the cinema, I find myself exclaiming, like Gaston Lachaille (Louis Jourdan) in Gigi (1958), "It's a bore, it's a bore, it's a bore." Cinema used to seem much less predictable, much less boring. After all, we had Ken Russell and Stanley Kubrick to liven things up a bit, and before them we had Orson Welles.

And before Welles, well, yes, there was Leni Riefenstahl, to whom I think we owe an enormous debt of gratitude. For without her, no one below the age of 70 would have any idea of how it was that so many Germans were captured by the spell of Nazism. Diana Mitford may have adduced the evidence of Hitler's lovely eyes, and his fascinating conversation, but this merely served to make the old girl sound a couple of "heils" short of the full party rally, and brought us no nearer to a visceral understanding of the magnetic phenomenon that was Nazism than a new novel by Jack Higgins.

To see Riefenstahl's technically brilliant film Triumph of the Will (1934), however, is to gain a real insight into how the likes of Unity and Diana were swept away by the Nietzschean imperatives of Hitler and the Nazis. While I find it impossible to believe that Riefenstahl was not a Nazi, it is only through her films that future generations will be able to appreciate how it was that a civilised, law-abiding people like the Germans were able to entrust the Volksgeist to a bunch of psychopathic gangsters. To that extent, Triumph of the Will - and to a lesser extent Olympische Spiele (1936) - serves as one of the 20th century's most salutary films.

Now that Riefenstahl is dead, it will be interesting to see what will happen to Jodie Foster's plan to direct and star in a biopic of Hitler's favourite movie-maker. Shooting was to have begun on the project last year, but at the last minute Riefenstahl refused to sign a contract, on the grounds that she believed Foster's film would not be faithful to her self-serving memoirs. "I have no intention," she said at the time, "of permitting sensationalist lies and distortions to creep into the film, as is so often the case with Hollywood productions."

Watching a new film like Tears of the Sun, starring Bruce Willis, it is hard not to endorse Riefenstahl's low opinion of mainstream American cinema. In this Black Hawk Down-style movie, Willis plays a hard-ass US Navy Seal who is ordered to parachute into a Nigerian jungle to rescue a voluptuous American doctor (Monica Bellucci) from some nasty black men with machetes who do terrible things to white women when they capture them. It's difficult to believe that there is anyone outside of Smallville USA who believes that there is an audience for this kind of garbage - who will actually buy the image of helpless Africans from Bellucci's Christian mission bestowing grateful kisses on the tough but compassionate Brucie when they are delivered from their ruthless oppressors.

To anyone who is aware of the CIA's record in West Africa - it was the CIA that sponsored the 1976 coup that put Olusegun Obasanjo into power in oil-rich Nigeria; and it was the CIA who pursued America's strategic and economic interests at the expense of Nigeria's political stability - it looks a bit thick to make a film about the champions of freedom and democracy turning up to save a white lady and her hapless friends from bad guys who once were armed and backed by The Company.

Riefenstahl, who knew a thing or two about film propaganda, would doubtless have seen the political point - if not the artistic or even commercial one - of yet another Hollywood movie that shows Americans behaving as the conscience of the world while at the same time they and their creatures are prosecuting an aggressive imperial war against the Iraqis. The only trouble is that this kind of chauvinist propaganda no longer works very well. In these turbulent times, people outside America no longer believe that when US Navy Seals arrive with guns in their hands they are making the world safe for democracy. But it is worse than that. Even while the opening credits are still rolling, you know exactly what is going to happen in this film. Tears of the Sun is utterly predictable; and, to quote Gaston Lachaille again: "It's a bore, it's a bore, it's a bore."

Tears of the Sun (15) is on general release

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2003 issue of the New Statesman, One man went to war