By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.
It is difficult to decide what Star Wars’ fans like to do more: Watch Star Wars, or identify all the influences and cultural references within the Star Wars film universe? Countless books, articles and blog posts have attempted to decipher the shoulders that George Lucas stood upon in making his space opera. Most people by now have heard that Lucas created a tale that fit Joseph Campbell’s meta-myth structure, or that he gave life to characters similar to those in the samurai films of Kurasawa, or that he sometimes blatantly copied old Flash Gordon television serials.
Star Wars’ fans devour this seemingly arcane information, and I am a Star Wars’ fan. As such, I have always been intrigued with the sometimes obvious, sometimes obscure cultural references contained within Lucas’ masterpiece. But, as a student, and now professor of European history, one reference/influence has always struck me above all others. George Lucas obviously created his evil Empire in the guise of the ‘fascist aesthetic’ most infamously formed by the German director Leni Riefenstahl, and her 1935 Nazi propaganda film ‘The Triumph of the Will.’
Leni Riefenstahl was a famous, talented, groundbreaking German filmmaker in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. And like many of her German cohorts of the era, Riefenstahl became a follower of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party. She used her immense talents for the party, directing a number of full length propaganda films. ‘The Triumph of the Will’ is her most influential and troubling work. ‘Triumph’ is a roughly two hour celebration of the 1934 Nazi party rally in the Medieval city of Nuremberg. 120 minutes of Nazis goose-stepping and cheering the ‘Führer’. If you have in your mind’s eye an image of fascist spectacle, it has probably been molded by Riefenstahl’s film.
Riefenstahl’s films were as artistically influential as they were politically abhorrent. Filmmakers could not ignore her innovative cinematography. Her techniques of wide shots, crane shots and sweeping cameras were co-opted by many after her. When I first saw ‘Triumph’ as a sophomore in college, I realized Lucas was one such director. Riefenstahl made the 1934 Nazi rally look massively popular and powerful by setting a camera high above the whole parade grounds, recording thousands upon thousands of Nazi party members lined in rows. In such shots, the Nazi hordes are a man-made sea, being parted by the all- powerful leader, Adolf Hitler. In the same film, Riefenstahl records Hitler high above the masses, standing upon a giant concrete viewing station and watching stoically as his SA and SS march by on the parade ground. When viewing such scenes, it is impossible not to see Darth Vader and the Emperor marching through masses of Imperial Stormtroopers. Lucas made such scenes even more powerful by using John Williams’ ‘Imperial March’. In this, he was no different than Riefenstahl, who used music in much the same way. Of course, the music she chose for her celebratory film made the Nazi Stormtroopers seem heroic, whereas Williams’ march makes Vader’s Stormtroopers dreadful. For Lucas, the Empire and its’ leaders become the personification of political evil by being the reincarnation of Riefenstahl’s Nazis. The empire is fascism revived.
With such thoughts in mind, I must say I was excited to see if J.J. Abrams would continue utilizing the ‘fascist aesthetic’ of Riefenstahl for ‘The Force Awakens’. I was not disappointed. With modern computer graphics, Abrams was able to do so even more effectively, and spectacularly than Lucas.
Abrams’ ‘First Order’ feels fascist. The military outfits, the giant image of the supreme leader and the symbology that surrounds the movement illustrates that Abrams continued the fascistic look of evil from Lucas’ galaxy. Like Lucas, Abrams used Riefenstahl as the ‘First Order’s’ reference point. Just look at the apocalyptic speech by General Hux, as he prepares his troops for the destruction of the Republic. Wearing military haute couture, Hux stands on a massive concrete platform with red ‘First Order’ banners hanging behind him. He speaks to thousands of ‘First Order’ troops lined in formation. When he is finished, the troops raise their left hands in salute. Hmm, that definitely looks familiar, doesn’t it?
Riefenstahl and fascism are living on in this new Star Wars galaxy. Happily, Rey, Fin, Chewy, Leia and Luke will be fighting it in Episodes VIII and IX. We must do the same in our own galaxy.