In Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Words “The Danger of Symbolism in Imagery”

“What I am trying to do when I use symbols is to awaken in your unconscious some reaction. I am very conscious of what I am using because symbols can be very dangerous. When we use normal language we can defend ourselves because our society is a linguistic society, a semantic society. But when you start to speak, not with words, but only with images, the people cannot defend themselves.”

Alejandro Jodorowsky

Jodorowsky’s argument surmises the main reasons why cinema can be a perfect propaganda tool. Theodor Adorno once said that cinema is so powerful as a propaganda medium because in the theatre, we are confronted with a stream of images, and as Jodorowsky says, cannot really “defend ourselves”, stop for a moment, think about the things we have seen. When we read a book, we can turn the pages, stop reading etc., but when we watch a film, at least in a theatre, we cannot. We are confronted with an endless stream of images, which include powerful symbols that can affect us on an unconscious level. Jodorowsky wanted to convey that any film can have a strong impact on the people’s unconscious, if symbols are used without a sense of responsibility on the part of the director, or worse, with a conscious, malign intent to influence the minds of viewers according to one’s wishes. Michael Haneke once said that every film is manipulative, the difference lies in the director’s motives behind this manipulation. Jodorowsky essentially says the same.

In this short essay, I will not focus on the thoroughly researched, and the most obvious phenomena of National Socialist propaganda films, but on a film made in the Weimar era, which used powerful symbols with an intent to strengthen the German nation and boost its confidence in an era characterized by the lack of it, and whose symbols were later used, as Kracauer notes, for National Socialist propaganda. This film, called Die Nibelungen, was directed by Fritz Lang, who directed masterpieces of expressionist German cinema Metropolis and M. Die Nibelungen was based on The Song of Nibelungs, an epic German poem written in the 1200s. The film follows Siegfried, a German national hero, as he embarks on a journey to kill a dragon and win Kriemhild’s hand, the sister of the King of Burgundy. The film is abundant in mythological imagery and archetypal characters; its goal was not simply to rework the German myth, but to give the nation its mythology through the cinematic medium.

Die Nibelungen #3

Siegfried Kracauer, author of the book From Caligari to Hitler wrote the following words: “These patterns [of authority in “Die Nibelungen”] collaborate in deepening Fate’s irresistible power,” Kracauer wrote. “Certain specific human ornaments in the film also denote as well the omnipotence of dictatorship. […] It is the complete triumph of the ornamental over the human. Absolute authority asserts itself by arranging people under its domination in pleasing designs. This can also be seen in the Nazi regime, which manifested strong ornamental inclinations in organizing masses. Whenever Hitler harangued the people, he surveyed not so much hundreds of thousands of listeners as an enormous ornament consisting of hundreds of thousands of particles. ‘Triumph of the Will,’ the official Nazi film of the Nuremberg Party Convention in 1934, proves that in shaping their mass-ornaments the Nazi decorators drew inspiration from ‘Die Nibelungen’.”

Triumph of the Will

Fritz Lang was one of the most vehement opponents of National Socialism when it comes to confronting the regime through the artistic medium. In his films Hangmen Also Die! and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse consciously used symbols which portrayed Hitler and Nazis in the most abhorrent manner. In other words, along with Thomas Mann, who left Germany and went into exile, he was one of the main German artists who opposed Hitler, using freedoms granted by the United States. In a 1974 interview with Focus on Film, Fritz Lang said:

I would like to make a remark about [From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film]. In my opinion this book is wrong about a lot of things and it has done a lot of damage, I feel, particularly among young people. When I made my films I always followed my imagination. By making ‘Die Nibelungen’ I wanted to show that Germany was searching for an ideal in her past, even during the horrible time after World War I in which the film was made. At that time in Berlin I remember seeing a poster on the street, which pictured a woman dancing with a skeleton. The caption read: ‘Berlin, you are dancing with Death.’ To counteract this pessimistic spirit I wanted to film the epic legend of Siegfried so that Germany could draw inspiration from her past, and not, as Mr Kracauer suggests, as a looking forward to the rise of a political figure like Hitler or some such stupid thing as that.

Even if Kracauer is correct when saying that Nazis drew inspiration from Die Nibelungen, we can safely assume that Fritz Lang’s intent was not to fuel totalitarian regimes with symbols they can use to control and hypnotize the masses. Lang’s intent was purely nationalist and in line with the idealization of the past characteristic of the romantic movement. Lang did not take into account was the fact that an authoritarian regime could dismantle the Weimer Republic, and his films could be used to fuel nationalist sentiments and for warmongering. What actually happened was even worse [Nazi propaganda].

Another irony is that while the Nazis appreciated the first part of Der Niebelungen, they deemed the second part Kriemhild’s Revenge to be too nihilistic. In the end, Germans are trapped in a castle, and the Huns are burning it down, while the supposed German virtues of bravery and devotion are emphasized. In fact, the mood of Kriemhild’s Revenge is rather similar to Nazi propaganda films made at the end of the war, for example Veit Harlan’s Opfergang, which tried to prepare the German nation for the defeat and a catastrophe. Nazis could use Kriemhild’s Revenge as a portrayal of German bravery and virtues (common tropes of Nazi propaganda), while the ‘Mongolian hordes’, as Hitler called the Russians, were invading. It is possible, of course, that Lang thought that he did not make a political film, but merely reconstructed a mythology to enhance the spirit of the German people.

Die Nibelungen #1

The romantic authors did the same, they were consciously apolitical, but in fact, their writings and the understanding of nation became extremely political as time passed. It can be argued that the retrospective reading of director’s intentions, and things that he could predict or could not is problematic. Nevertheless, Jodorowsky emphasizes that a director must use symbols responsibly and be conscious of the possible effect they could have on people. We can be certain that Lang could not have predicted National Socialism, but it must be noted, that history plays many tricks on people, its contingency allows the scenario in which some cultural products made with one intent end up serving another. Jodorowsky’s understanding of the danger of images and symbols which the director uses is paramount to the notion of responsibility of a director, not only in his own time but also in the times to come.

Die Nibelungen - naslovna fotografija #2

3 thoughts on “In Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Words “The Danger of Symbolism in Imagery”

  1. That was a very fascinating article of sorts. The cinema can still be used for questionable purposes even today. I wasn’t aware of the connections between Triumph of the Will as some of the unintended consequences of Die Nibelungen. This applies to America. Think about it, the first full-length movie was Birth of a Nation which was also the first movie to be shown in the White House and it was a propaganda tool for the KKK. The aftereffects are still incorporated in stereotypes, but in much more subtler fashion. You could see that with gangster characters in crime dramas, Skidz & Mudflap from the 2nd Transformers movies, or the hyenas in The Lion King. Those negative images can be portrayed in different ways. You could even throw in several war movies that came out in a post-9/11 world which come off as jingoistic. Never underestimate cinema. In the wrong hands, it could lead to dangerous inspiration.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comment! It is interesting that you mentioned Birth of a Nation, haven’t seen it, but have heard about the controversies, and that it portrayed KKK in a positive manner. I believe that it has left a legacy, which must not be underestimated as a dangerous tool for manipulation. I agree, one must not underestimate the power of cinema and images to influence the masses.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re certainly welcome. Be glad you haven’t seen Birth of a Nation. Not only is it obviously racist, but it’s also quite boring. Yes, it unfortunately portrayed the KKK in a heroic light and it was a recruiting tool for that hate group for several years. It has the legacy of being the first full length movie and still shaped up Hollywood in different ways. One aspect I noticed was when Nate Parker made that movie about the Nat Turner rebellion by naming it after the original film (talk about inverting the original’s meaning), his movie got sabotaged and there were false rape accusations towards Nate Parker which was heinous. There’s a double standard because Parker got slandered in the media for making a movie about a slave rebellion and never raped anyone yet Roman Polanski can win awards decades after the fact with what he did.

        Thanks! I’m glad you started this discussion because it needed to be said.

        Liked by 1 person

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