THE MASSES ARE THE MEDIUM
‘The work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility.’
— Walter Benjamin (1999: 218)
The pre-emption of atrocities fill the screen; cold-bloodedness emanates from the perspective of history that comes to bear on the black-and-white images that flitter by, effortlessly; aerial shots that encompass swathes of buildings and men—armies—masses, all act as mirrors, reproductions of each other: unifying. Their creator, Leni Riefenstahl, a filmmaker employed by the Nazi regime to produce several propaganda films (widely regarded as some of the most effective of their type), hides behind the screen. An actress herself, she remains elusive, an artful trace, a delicate hand behind the images whose fingerprints leave no mark, no mark except one: her films’ ‘aura’.
A latent ‘aura’ is exuded by these films, a dire, guilt-infested one, but an ‘aura’ at that. What does this ‘aura’ consist of? That, in a diluted form, is the question that this essay seeks to answer. We seek this answer through the scrutiny of two significant thinkers’ works, Walter Benjamin and Marshall McLuhan, and by adapting their ideas and clarifying the nature of Nazi propaganda film as an exception to Benjamin’s generalisation of film, i.e., as lacking an ‘aura’, as well as reducing McLuhan’s work to a tautology, albeit a useful one at that.
Benjamin’s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1999) will be used to examine how the mass reproduction of Riefenstahl’s propaganda films generate an exception to Benjamin’s notion that only ‘original’ artworks possess an ‘aura’. Furthermore, his comments on fascism will be used to show how his own thought can be used to support our thesis.
In addition, we will then wield Marshall McLuhan’s work to demonstrate how his notion that ‘the medium is the message’—albeit in an altered form—can account for the ‘aura’ created by Riefenstahl’s work.
As a result, we will be able to demonstrate how the work of two prominent thinkers can be synthesised with minor alterations to account for the unique phenomenon of Riefenstahl’s Nazi-related oeuvre.
WALTER BENJAMIN AND INTERNAL AURA:
Walter Benjamin talks of mass reproduction as a deleterious force, one which destroys the ‘aura’ that accompanies only the ‘original’ object, the ‘unique’ art-piece in its first manifestation, its singular ‘presence’. (1999: 215) Film, in his eyes, is the epitome of mass reproduction, its complete form wrapped up in its ability to be mechanically mass reproduced, thus leaving it lacking any ‘aura’ from an ‘original presence’. He states:
“In the case of films, mechanical reproduction is not, as with literature and painting, an external condition for mass distribution. . . [It] causes mass distribution.” (1999: 237)
Thus, mechanical reproduction is not external to film, but is internal, in the sense that mechanical reproduction has within it the condition of mass distribution—its essence consists of being a mass-related form.
Riefenstahl’s films exemplify this conception: produced to inform, inspire, and indoctrinate the masses into Nazi ideology, they aimed to cater to these masses. At this point, we can assert that its form, the mechanical reproduction essential to its dissemination, is what makes it ‘original’. It finds itself through itself, a self-becoming, its ‘originality’ paradoxically propped up by its lack of ‘uniqueness’, its absence of ‘originality’.
An ‘aura’ is thus born. Benjamin’s attempt to discredit film as lacking an ‘aura’ is discredited itself once one examines film and sees that it has an internal definition, a process within itself that gives birth to itself, much in the same way as a painting or piece of literature in its first manifestation possesses an ‘aura’ through its simple existence.
Relating this to Nazi propaganda—an example of fascist thought—we can see Benjamin notes that films bring the masses “face to face with themselves” (1999: 243) and “that mass movements, including war, constitute a form of human behaviour which particularly favour mechanical equipment” (1999: 244). It is evident in his thought that films inherently reflect the masses, and that this has the effect of stimulating war, as fascism seeks to give the masses expression, doing so through the medium of film (1999: 234).
The only difficulty with our thesis is that film’s ‘aura’ entails a further paradox, in that it possesses a relational self-definition: it has an ‘aura’ of ‘originality’ only in relation to it having an ‘originality’ based upon its mass reproduction. It requires mass reproduction, which is what we mean when we argued that mechanical reproduction is internal to the medium of film. Although this is a difficulty, it is one that is surmountable. To achieve this we will see how Marshall McLuhan’s work can help us to conceive of film as having somethinginternal to its medium.
MARSHALL MCLUHAN AND THE TAUTOLOGICAL DIVISION:
‘The medium is the message’ (McLuhan, 2001): so says the figure of McLuhan, a figure so embedded in popular culture that he appears in films: as himself. Moving on from this irony, this ‘humour’ that he speaks of as a revolutionary force for modern communication, (McLuhan and Fiore, 1967: 92) we can ask: how does the medium of film relate to its message, to its content?
Taking Riefenstahl’s films as our paradigmatic exception, we can note that McLuhan’s phrase has a profound bearing upon the films’ character. We will return to this shortly.
What we must first address is an oft-overlooked criticism of McLuhan’s work, most notably his choice of examples. Most famously, he considers a lightbulb, and how its medium is wholeheartedly its message—this we do not dispute: there is an intimate link between what a lightbulb is, and what it does, what it says. It is when McLuhan branches out from this that problems emerge. A painting’s medium is not its message. An intimate link is not established between the two, there is a wavering communication between them; for example, a Cubist painting provides a different message than an Impressionist one: yet they utilise the same medium.
Synthesising this with our above point, we can argue that most films can also be subject to this latter formula. Nevertheless, we contend that Riefenstahl’s movies cannot be. There is an intimate link between these Nazi propaganda films’ medium and their message. As we have argued above, these films’ mechanical reproduction is internal to the medium of film, and this entails mass reproduction as its message, in that fascist film attempts to give expression to the masses, and that the masses are brought into a direct confrontation with themselves in the medium. The mass reproduction inherent in the medium is mirrored in the mass reproduction that the films wish to exude as its content. The two coalesce, and in this instance, we can say ‘the medium is the message’ as the two are the same to begin with: rendering McLuhan’s thesis a tautology, yet a useful one at that, as it allows us to undermine Benjamin’s gross generalisations about the nature of film, and introduce exceptions to his all-encompassing rules, allowing us to comprehend how certain films can still possess an “aura”, despite its lack of presence (in Benjamin’s sense), and this is achieved through its equivalence, nay—self-identity, of the medium and the message.
In sum, we have demonstrated that Benjamin’s thinking around film is misguided in attributing to it an absence of an ‘aura’ due to its inherent need for mechanical reproduction; and further, we have established a link between Benjamin’s thinking about fascism and the re-evaluated nature of film we outlined. Lastly, we examined McLuhan’s famous mantra that ‘the medium is the message’ and have shown that in regards to fascist film this descends into a tautology that can be used to undermine Benjamin’s conclusions about the nature of film. Perhaps, in a further essay, a new conception of filmic genre could be created based upon this division that the tautology initiates.
Annie Hall (1977) Directed by W. Allen. United States: United Artists [film]
Benjamin, W. (1999) Illuminations. London: Pimlico Publishers, pp. 211- 244.
McLuhan, M. and Fiore, Q. (1967). The Medium is the Massage. Toronto: Random House.
McLuhan, M. (2001). Understanding Media. London: Routledge, pp.7-23.
Olympia (1938) Directed by L. Riefenstahl. Germany: Olympia-Film [film]
Sennett, A. (2014) ‘Film Propaganda: Triumph of the Will as a Case Study’ Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media, Vol. 55, No. 1, Spring, pp. 45-65
Triumph of the Will (1935) Directed by L. Riefenstahl. Germany: Universum Film AG [film]
 Mostly Triumph of the Will (1935) and Olympia (1938).
 Our placing of ‘aura’ in quote-marks is to acknowledge that the word is being used in an ill-defined sense, one closely linked to the field of philosophical aesthetics. Our usage corresponds closely to Walter Benjamin’s, it being a phenomenon generated by something ‘original’, something with ‘presence’. Our contention is not with his use of the word ‘aura’, but of his use of ‘original’ and ‘presence’, in that we believe an artwork can possess ‘originality’ and ‘presence’ through means other than being the first produced version of it, thus can possess an ‘aura’.
 See ‘Film Propaganda: Triumph of the Will as a Case Study’ (2014) by Alan Sennett for comments related to the film’s enduring status as art.
 Saussurean linguistics may be a useful analytical tool here, in that Saussure conceives of signs as having meaning only in relation to one another. Further, the notion of a Lacanian ‘floating signifier’ may yield interesting conclusions if examined further.
 See Annie Hall (1977) by Woody Allen.
 For example, there is no mention in ‘The Method is the Message: Rethinking McLuhan Through Critical Theory’ by Paul Grosswiler of this criticism.
 We understand that McLuhan’s usage of the word ‘message’ holds several connotations that may not seem to be addressed. This, however, only strengthens our argument, in that the ‘message’ is multivalent in its own definition, suggesting that it manifests itself in different ways.
 Consideration of Lacan’s Mirror Stage may suggest that a self-identification of an individual with the mass presented through the medium and with the screen’s content establishes a profound divide between the Real and the Imaginary orders. An individual conflates his limited capabilities as one person with the extensive capabilities of the mass of persons, leading to a puddle of narcissism in which the individual identifies with the mass, interpolating them, leading to all the subsequent ramifications that such identification elicits.