Fascism and the Female Form: Performance Art in the Third Reich

Terri J Gordon. Journal of the History of Sexuality. Volume 11, Issue 1/2. Jan/Apr 2002.

Nazi Germany is generally understood to have been a sexually repressive society, and in fundamental social and political ways, it was repressive. The National Socialist Party intervened in the private space of the body to an extent never before experienced and in hitherto unprecedented ways. The state instituted a politics of the body that rendered the individual body a public site whose purpose was to further the larger social organism. In the drive toward the establishment of a pure, thriving Volk, the National Socialist regime conducted a dual campaign, a pronatalist campaign encouraging “healthy” Aryan women to bear and rear children and an antinatalist policy aimed at preventing the reproduction of “undesirable” elements (Jews, Poles, Africans, and the mentally disabled, among others). Whereas pronatalist policies operated through incentives, such as government subsidies, child allowances, tax rebates, and medals for childbearing, antinatalist measures were carried out through repressive laws, including compulsory sterilization of the genetically “inferior,” forced abortions, and marriage prohibitions. The body became a social site onto which political ideals were mapped. The notion of the healthy body as a microcosm for the healthy state was reiterated in the images of the “sacred wife and mother” in officially sanctioned art and promoted in a vast propaganda campaign enjoining women to lend their bodies to the movement to maintain the vitality of the race.

Yet despite the radical political intervention into domestic life, sexual iconography persisted in Nazi Germany in ways highly reminiscent of that of the Weimar period. Another face of sexuality was visible in the Third Reich, one that was reflected in the cult of the body that marked much of the performance art of the period. Both the cabaret revue and Ausdruckstanz (expressionist dance) flourished in the Nazi period. These two forms of dance signal two distinct areas in which nudity and female eroticism were employed in Nazi culture: the revue in the realm of mass culture, Ausdruckstanz in the realm of the avant-garde. Both forms were culturally continuous with the Weimar period, against whose “decadent” and “degenerate” norms Nazi Germany continually positioned itself. In the Nazi period, the Hiller Girls provided the German counterpart to the British Tiller Girls, the fashionable dance troupe whose highly synchronized movements set the tone for popular entertainment in the Weimar period. Touted in the press as the “New Woman,” the Tiller Girl was heralded by many as an icon of modern sexuality, the new, independent woman whose control over her body and her life reflected the liberated norms of the Roaring Twenties. Expressionist dance, the deeply subjective, avant-garde dance form developed by the schools of Rudolf von Laban, Mary Wigman, Jutta Klamt, Berthe Trumpy, and others in the Weimar period, was integral to state-sponsored events in the Nazi period, including the German Dance Congresses (Tanzfestspiele) held in Berlin in 1934 and 1935 and the opening night ceremonies of the 1936 Olympic Games. On an aesthetic level, the prevalence of both the cabaret revue and expressionist dance under the Nazi regime is surprising. Why was the revue, the prototypical expression of modernity, appropriated by the regime? On the other hand, why did expressionist dance continue to prosper under the Third Reich while expressionist art was cast out, castigated as degenerate in the Entartete Kunst Ausstellung (Degenerate art exhibition) in Munich in 1937? And why did Rudolf von Laban and Mary Wigman fall out of favor with the regime despite their aesthetic endeavors to further a National Socialist ideology?

This essay advances the thesis that the cultural liberation of sexuality in performance art in the Third Reich served in a number of cases to fortify the otherwise restrictive sexual politics of the state. The redeployment of sexuality in Nazi Germany often had domestic and political resonance, reinforcing the role of woman as “natural” wife and mother and rechanneling female sexuality into the service of the state. As opposed to anti-Semitic propaganda, whose aim was to induce aversion and separation, projections of femininity in the Third Reich fostered desire. This essay examines the complexity of the issue of desire in the Third Reich, exploring the extent to which a discourse of inclusion in the social body provided the necessary complement to a discourse of exclusion from it. It examines the extent to which the successful deployment of a Nazi ideology was driven as much by seduction as by separation, by the projection of female iconography in positive identificatory images and individually overwhelming spatial patterns. In drawing on but also reworking Weimar norms, some of the performance art in the period performed a twofold operation whereby it simultaneously met audience expectations and desires and redirected them into the interests of the larger Gemeinschaft (community).

This thesis builds upon an observation made by Herbert Marcuse in his writings of the 1940s. According to Marcuse, sexuality in the Third Reich was marked not by repression but rather by liberation, by a liberation from the Christian precepts of chastity, monogamy, and the sanctity of the home that have informed so much of Western morality: “The Third Reich has done away with discrimination against illegitimate mothers and children, it has encouraged extra-marital relations between the sexes, introduced a new cult of nudity in art and entertainment, and dissolved the protective and educational functions of the family.” Marcuse argues that the abolition of taboos in the Third Reich led paradoxically to a “greater repression of liberty” in that it coordinated the private and political sphere, integrating private functions into political life and deepening individual allegiances to the political system. “The abolition of highly sanctioned taboos is one of the most daring enterprises of National Socialism in the field of mass domination,” Marcuse writes. “For, paradoxical as it may seem, the liberty or license implied in this abolition serves to intensify the ‘Gleichschaltung’ of individuals into the National Socialist system.” Marcuse designates three factors that effectively counteracted the “abolition of taboos” under National Socialism:

  1. The emancipation of sexual behavior was bound up with the eugenics policies of the Third Reich, which connected released sexual desires to an external state end.
  2. The political intervention in sexual life destroyed the emancipatory potential of the private sphere, which no longer served as a locus of privacy and protest.
  3. The exclusive nature of Third Reich sexual privilege fostered antagonistic sentiments of racism and biological superiority.

This essay takes up what Marcuse has called the “new cult of nudity in art and entertainment,” examining the question of Gleichschaltung (coordination) of the sexual and the social in the realm of performance art. In the larger context of a discussion of the staged revue and revue film, the Koperkultur (body culture) movement as it developed from the early nineteenth century, and the expressionist dance movements of Laban and Wigman, I will focus specifically on two films, the 1939 German revue film, Wir tanzen um die Welt (We’re dancing around the world), and Leni Riefenstahl’s two-part documentary of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. In exploring the aesthetic significance of dance in the Nazi period, this study aims to further our understanding of the complicated relationship between sexuality and sexual politics.

From Troupes to Troops: Fascist Appropriation of the Female Revue

In the winter of 1933, German dramatist and National Socialist Hanns Johst made a visit to the Folies-Bergere in Paris. The holiday show featured the leading French music-hall artist, Mistinguett, and a giant Christmas tree lit up by the luminous bodies of twenty naked women. In the show, Mistinguett wants to clothe the living candles but finds that her wallet is empty. At a signal, the orchestra intones a mass, and a prayer is sent to the heavens. The prayer is answered, thanks are offered, and an English waltz sweeps the entire group off to the latest fashion studio. In Maske and Gesicht: Reise eines Nationalsozialisten von Deutschland nach Deutschland, Johst draws our attention to three central elements of the theatrical display: the sounds of “unleashed jazz” opening the act, the “stark naked virgins” adorning the tree, and the unholy mixture of the secular and the sacred. Johst is appalled at the depths to which the “foreign industry in eroticism” has sunk. “If we staged the same tastelessness and infamy against the sacred rites of the church in Germany,” he writes, “the whole world would gnash their teeth and clack their typewriters in indignation and offer up psalms against heathenism.”

Harms Johst’s verdict is emblematic of a National Socialist stance. As a cultural paradigm, the cabaret revue stood for all that National Socialism eschewed: modernity, mass culture, and French and American decadence. Associated with “Nigger-jazz” music and Jewish capitalist interests, the Weimar revue was considered a form of pseudoculture that reflected the overall degeneration of the modern metropolis. For Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, Berlin in the Weimar period was a “Babylon of Sin,” a den of iniquity whose throbbing nightlife bore the imprint of foreign hands. In an article entitled “Rund um die Gedachtniskirche” that appeared in Der Angriff in January 1928, Goebbels describes the “spirit of the asphalt democracy” as “the eternal repetition of corruption and decay, of failing ingenuity and genuine creative power, of inner emptiness and despair, with the patina of a Zeitgeist sunk to the level of the most repulsive pseudoculture.” Berlin West, a metropolitan mixture of pan-Europeanism, bolshevism, and jazz, which Goebbels attributes to the “Israelites,” has rendered the German people alien and superfluous. Zivilisation has replaced Kultur. Judea has conquered Rome. “This is not the true Berlin,” Goebbels laments.

Yet, following the Nazi purification of the arts in 1933, the “Girls” remained an important staple of Berlin’s entertainment industry, performing for civilians in the city’s major music halls and for German soldiers stationed abroad. In the 1930s three variety theaters, the Wintergarten, the Scala, and the Plaza, regularly showcased revues, and the German revue film, which borrowed heavily in style and content from Busby Berkeley musicals, became a genre in itself. Under the direction of Rolf Hiller, the German Hiller Girls became a national icon: “It is Germany’s best and most famous Girl troupe. What the Tiller-Girls are for America [sic], the Hiller-Girls are for Germany: our most spirited and most thoroughbred Girl troupe.”

This appropriation of the “decadent” dance by the far Right is surprising. The erotic images deployed on stage stand in sharp counterpoint to the natural, healthy body espoused under the Third Reich. The female iconography in the eight Great German Art Exhibitions held at the House of German Art in Munich from 1937 to 1944 presented a monotonous variation on the theme of the sacred wife and mother. Frequently depicted were neoclassical nudes in allegorical poses by No Saliger and Friedrich Wilhelm Kalb and neorealist paintings of the nurturing mother with child by pastoral artists such as Franz Eichhorst, Alfred Kitzig, and Fritz Mackensen. Nudity in the Third Reich was to be “schon and rein” (beautiful and pure), as the headline in an article entitled “Fur echte and edle Nacktheit” (For authentic and noble nudity) reads. The piece, which appeared in October 1938 in the SS organ Das Schwarze Korps, features a photographic series of nude women bathing and hiking in nature. As Peter Jelavich points out, the appropriation of the revue under National Socialism points to a contradiction and hypocrisy in Nazi rhetoric, which some on the far Right did not hesitate to protest. In 1936, for example, a storm trooper registered outrage at the display of three half-naked dancers at the Stella-Palast in Berlin: “One feels that one has been sent back to the worst times of the Weimar era. National Socialism has not fought its battles so that today, in the seventh year of the Third Reich, German people are offered such Semitic-oriental-erotic veil-games as diversion.”

What accounts for the prevalence of these “Semitic-oriental-erotic veil-games” in cinematic and theatrical productions under the Third Reich? This question rejoins the larger issue of the significance of entertainment film in the Nazi period. Under the aegis of Ufa (Universum-Film Aktiengesellschaft), the “deutsche Bildimperium” (German empire of images), the Nazi period was the “golden age of German cinema,” producing over one thousand feature films. In a diary entry dated March 1, 1942, Goebbels noted that entertainment was of particular political value due to its capacity to promote “unsichtbare Propaganda” (invisible propaganda): “Even entertainment can be politically of special value, because the moment a person is conscious of propaganda, propaganda becomes ineffective. However, as soon as propaganda as a tendency, as a characteristic, as an attitude, remains in the background and becomes apparent through human beings, then propaganda becomes effective in every respect.” Outside of any manifest political import, entertainment was useful in and of itself as a powerful tool for distraction, particularly in the war years. In a speech made in March 1942, Goebbels claimed that “auch die gute Laune ist kriegswichtig” [good spirits are also important to the war effort]. In a speech entitled “Der Film als Erzieher” (Film as educator), made on the occasion of the opening of the Filmarbeit der HJ (Cinema of the Hitler Youth) in October 1941, Goebbels announced that “we should not fail to appreciate the fact that film, as the greatest and most profound form of mass art there is, also serves as a medium of entertainment. But in this time, in which the entire nation is burdened with such heavy weights and worries, entertainment also takes on particular political value.”

On a formal level, the aesthetic of the revue lends itself to political appropriation. A troupe, which dance critic Andre Levinson calls “a caterpillar with thirty-two feet,” performs as a geometrical unit. In the press of the Weimar period, the collective ethos of the popular dance troupes gave rise to visions of the assembly line and the military corps. Products of a thriving “Girl” industry, the girls performed in kaleidoscopic patterns that reflected the regularity and replication characteristic of mass production. In “Girls and Krise” (Girls and crisis), a review of the performance of the Alfred Jackson Girls at the Scala in 1931, Siegfried Kracauer compared the revue as a whole to the “ideal of the machine,” a “girl contraption” comprised of indivisible and indistinguishable parts. For German critic Alfred Polgar, the collective corps of the revue evoked not the movements of the machine but “the magic of militarism”: “the obedience to invisible but ineluctable orders, the marvelous ‘drill,’ the submersion of the individual into the group, the concentration of bodies into a single collective ‘body.’“ The girls themselves often assumed the form of the images they evoked, appearing on stage as automatons, factory parts, conveyor belts, wooden dolls, and uniformed soldiers. Due to the absolute synchronicity of their gestures and the highly mechanical nature of their movements, the dancers deployed notions of order, discipline, and control.

The reactionary potential of such an aesthetic is most clearly expressed in the works of L. F. Celine, whose passion for cabaret dancers is reflected in his entire oeuvre as well as in his raw writing style, a style that formally emulates the art of the dance. In his works published in the early 1930s such as Voyage au bout de la nuit (1932), L’Eglise (1933), and Progres (1932), Celine saw the Anglo-Saxon cabaret dancer as a model of biological strength and hygiene. The American dancer in Progres, for example, fulfills the promise of a new world order based on health and harmony. In a maison de rendez-vous, she reveals the strong, rhythmic lines of her contoured body, giving rise to a vision of “the day in which women will be dressed only in muscle … and music.” In his correspondence in the 1930s, Celine wrote: “This stay in England was an enchantment. What a cult of physical beauty! What marvelous music halls! What legs! What outof-this-world entertainers! Ah! How one feels boring, insipid and tired next to these muscular comics. Life is there, nowhere else, alas!” In a piece that appeared in Theatre Arts Monthly in 1928, Andre Levinson took a more critical stance on this serialized cult of beauty, viewing the girls as a sign of the supremacy bestowed upon the biological and mechanical in the modern age. “They are pure symbol, the living image of our life, which substitutes for the glamour of the mind and the quest of the sublime the worship of biological forces and mechanical forces,” Levinson wrote. “That is the lesson we should take to heart, as we watch-like the Romans of the Decadence-the parade of these ‘sturdy, blonde Barbarians.’“

It is the esprit de corps at the heart of the aesthetic that, I suggest, allowed for the fascist appropriation of the revue. In their projection of uniform images of health and harmony, the dance troupes generated an illusion of wholeness, which, as Linda Schulte-Sasse has persuasively argued, was integral to cinematic productions in the Third Reich. According to Schulte-Sasse, Nazi spectacle was both “creative and camouflaging,” fulfilling the function of renewing communal sensations, “of incessantly reinforcing an imaginary collective identity via rituals sustaining the illusion of social harmony.” The performances of the German Hitter Girls constituted a rappel a l’ordre, an aesthetic that is most clearly manifested in the opening sequence of Es leuchten die Sterne (The stars are shining) (Tobis 1937-38), in which a starry-eyed young hopeful finds herself transported into a royal performance in the genre of the baroque court ballet. To the sounds of a march, long lines of soldier-girls in matching uniforms march up and down a sweeping staircase, forming rhythmic patterns of vertical and diagonal lines and performing court-martial exercises with their swords. Already the disciplined body of the British Tiller girls had left a strong impression on Hitler, who described these “Aryan dancers” as the “fantastic Tiller Girls.”

As Karsten Witte points out, the geometric ordering of space in the revue provided a ready forum for the manifestation of military spirit, mediating both a fear of chaos and a fear of decadence.30 “By 1939, the Girls had already joined the gigantic process of getting into uniform … ,” Witte states, “turning troupes into troops from which the soldiers of art were supposed to sally forth.” In their formal composition, the troupes provided an aesthetic vehicle for political propaganda, often appearing on stage in full military attire. In a 1937 performance at the Wintergarten featuring the Hiller Girls, the show opened with a parade march in front of the Brandenburg Gate. The 1940 program of the Scala, whose insignia is an iconographic imprint of saluting soldiers, shows the Scala girls executing a Prussian military march under a waving red banner. A 1939 poster features a shot of the Hiller girls outfitted in military uniform and fully armed, above which a caption reads: “Das Hiller-Ballet: Deutschlands beste Girltruppe: Ein Korper-, Ein Rhythmus-, Ein Schlag-!” [The Hiller-Ballet: Germany’s best Girl troupe: one body-, one rhythm-, one beat-!]. Troupes become troops, and the revue takes on its original meaning as military parade. Hiller Girl Maria Milde disavowed any political import, claiming in her memoires, “Wir wollen uns mit Kunst beschaftigen, nicht mit Politik” [We want to deal with art, not politics].

Wir tanzen um die Welt (Karl Anton), a revue film produced by statecontrolled Tobis in 1939, exemplifies the military ethos characteristic of the staged revue in the Nazi period. The film, characterized by Gerd Albrecht in his Nationalsozialistische Filmpolitik as an “H” (heitere) film, a “light” or “cheerful” film, centers around the eighteen Jenny Hill girls, a dance troupe that conquers the world. Making a clear allusion to the Hiller Girls, the film provides a cinematographic rendition of the trials and tribulations of “Germany’s best Girl troupe.” Wir tanzen um die Welt premiered on December 22, 1939, in Dusseldorf and opened on January 19, 1940, in the Ufa-Palast am Zoo in Berlin, accompanied by a full press and advertising campaign. The film grossed over 1.6 million RM in its run in Germany, ranking it among the most popular of the light entertainment films of the 1939 season. Evaluated twice by NS film censors in December 1939, the film was rated as “kunstlerisch wertvoll” (artistically worthwhile).

The film opens in the Jenny Hill dance studio to the sound of the ticking of a metronome, whose rhythmic beat is picked up in a montage of initial shots. Like the British Tiller Girls, whose “machinelike precision” served as a “regulating metronome,” the German Jenny Hill girls perform with clocklike precision, the beat of the metronome resounding in the martial movements of their dance. Outfitted in metallic Roman gladiator costumes and feathered helmets, the girls perform a singular military march on the stages of Europe’s capital cities, from Paris to Bucharest to Stockholm to Rome. Set against a backdrop of Olympic torches perched on Roman pillars, the dance sequence recasts antiquity in a modern mode. The curtain opens to a backlit stage. Like figures in a shadow show, the girls march in silhouette to the top of the steps, at which point the lights go up, the Olympic torches burst into flame, and the dancers swing their batons in the air with a flourish. In groups of two, they march dramatically down the steps, forming a military V formation and performing a synchronized dance and tap routine. As the performance comes to a climactic finale, the music reaches a crescendo, and the troupe sweeps triumphantly down the steps in a final military march. The whole of the sequence is filmed with sharp camera angles, visible cuts, and a high depth of field that add a dimension of magnitude, power, and space to the visual iconography.

In Wir tanzem um die Welt, troupe is an extended metaphor for troop. The legs of the girls, which Kracauer compared to the hands of the factory worker, now figure as a metaphor for the arms of war. The caption of a publicity piece of the time reads: “Beine erobern die Welt” [legs conquer the world]. The troupe, whose motto is “to be young and victorious,” is organized according to militaristic, hierarchical principles, with Jenny Hill (Lucie Hoflich) as the general, Norma (Charlotte Thiele) as the lieutenant, and Eva (Irene von Meyendorff) as the second-in-command. Under the guiding hand of Norma, the “iron-willed” blond “captain-girl,” the girls develop a deep sense of discipline and order. An article in the press extols, “Hard work, camaraderie, discipline and readiness to assume responsibility-herein lies the secret to the Girls’ success in all of the major variety theaters of the world.” The troupe prevails heroically in the face of a series of sinister sabotage attempts by Jonny Hester, the fast-talking, cigar-smoking New York agent who represents “Jewish” capitalist interests. Even a fire that destroys their dressing rooms and costumes cannot prevent them from taking the stage in the last performance on their tour, a feat that the emcee calls “ein Musterbeispiel von Beherrschung and Disziplin” [a model of control and discipline]. The final victory of the troupe marks an international triumph, as is indicated by the closing image of a rotating globe, upon which images of a ship, a train, and a plane are superimposed.

On the surface, Wir tanzen um die Welt appears to follow in the tradition of the nonintegrated, escapist entertainment film in the genre of the Busby Berkeley musical. The film contains elements of classic Hollywood fight entertainment fare: a clear demarcation between good and evil (the pure Jenny Hill Girls versus the three “bad boys” of the corrupt entertainment industry), a transparent plot (Jonny Hester’s attempt to destroy the troupe through the decoy of handsome Harvey Swington), a linear narrative development (a series of sabotage attempts that increase in seriousness as the film progresses), passion and romance, and a moralistic happy ending (the troupe prevails, Norma and Harvey are united, Harvey is reformed and repentant). Like the nonintegrated musical, dance numbers are interspersed (here in ever briefer sequences) throughout the story in the “real” setting of a stage. But on a more profound level, Wir tanzen um die Welt acts in a decidedly “unrevue” way. Karsten Witte suggests that the German revue reverses the hierarchy of spectacle over plot that prevails in American musicals, a thesis that is borne out by Wir tanzen um die Welt. “It is not at all a question of a revue film!” claimed composer-writer Willi Kollo in an interview. “Dance in this film is only background. The subject matter of the story is the life of a world-famous girl troupe, how, behind the scenes of the glittering music halls, so to speak, it furthers its inexorable fate through every single Girl and through the community!” In an article entitled “The Soul of the Girls,” critic H. W Furth deplored the “triumph of the body over the soul” evident in the militarized erotic of the revue but also emphasized the film’s “deeper” import. “When you see them on the stage, when they, moved by a single, taut rhythm, goose-stepping and tapping in a hard staccato, perform their art, they blend into an anonymous whole, into a singular, giant ornamental figure. But the deeper appeal of this show lies precisely in the fact that living, blooming, sensitive Girl-bodies are hiding behind this masquerade, and that their hearts beat just as quick and strong as the hearts of all girls and women.”

The deeper meaning of the film lies not in the romantic life of the girls but, rather, in the communal ethos that binds them together, the end of which remains unnamed. Articles in the press of the period repeatedly refer to the Gemeinschaftsgeist (communal spirit) of the group and its Gemeinschaftsschicksal (communal fate). As opposed to the thematic divide between socially realistic narratives and escapist numbers that often mark Busby Berkeley musicals, here narrative and numbers cohere. Here we find none of the spectacular flights of fancy that are the hallmark of the American musical, none of the sweeping transformations in space and time that are typical of the genre. Unlike the Busby Berkeley-styled films of the 1930s and 1940s, such as the Depression-era classics Footlight Parade (1933) and Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) or the World War I musical For Me and My Gal (1942), whose magical dance sequences provide a utopian elsewhere to a grim social reality, the stirring martial dance in Wir tanzen um die Welt formally reinforces the plotline. With the film’s emphasis on the communal good, the collective dance sequences themselves take on deeper meaning as a physical expression of the spirit of the troupe. This vision of community for community’s sake allows the film to differentiate the German revue from its American counterpart. Here, the National Socialist-oriented vision of the Weimar revue as a decadent Jewish phenomenon serving capitalist interests is projected onto the American entertainment industry, while the “German” troupe stands outside of the system in which it operates. A publicity notice emphasizes the stark divide between the values of the principled troupe and the “evil machinations” of their American rivals: “Berlin-Copenhagen-Rotterdam-Bucharest-Paris-Rome-Lisbon-Oslo-Vienna-Stockholm-these are the cities of their triumph, but also the scenes of their worries, their plight and their struggle: through the most evil machinations of their American rivals and their unscrupulous agents, the girls will be put in grave danger. But the lowest schemes of the enemy founder against the formidable strength of will of the principled leader [Fuhrerin] of this troupe, Norma, and the unity of the Girls.” In his famous 1927 essay, Kracauer called the mass ornament an “end in itself,” a self-contained system that reflects the closed economy of the larger capitalist system. Wir tanzen um die Welt effects a shift in the end of the revue from capitalist consumption toward a greater good. The primordial principle of the troupe is the troupe itself. Participation in the organization is guided solely by principle, not pecuniary or personal gain. Sylvia, Julika, and Margrit, the three performers who leave the troupe to pursue independent careers, are considered deserters. “We belong together,” Norma berates them. “There is no such thing as autonomy. Get that through your heads.” In sharp contrast to the purity of the world of the Jenny Hill ballet, the “deserters” end up as prostitutes in the quintessential space of capitalist corruption, an exotic strip joint, where they perform half-naked in Oriental attire.

In its culture of physical and spiritual collectivity, the world of the Jenny Hill Girls resembles that of the Bund deutscher Maidel (League of German Girls, or BDM), the female equivalent of the Hitler Youth. In 1939 there were over 1.5 million girls registered in the BDM. An organization for girls between the ages of fourteen and twenty-one, the BDM, whose activities included nature walks, sporting events, social services, and political rallies, provided training in body and mind. Like the members of the Hitler Youth, the girls in the BDM received instruction in National Socialist ideology, learning at a tender age to direct their personal interests into service of the state. “The oath that the girls swear when they are initiated on the eve of Hitler’s birthday includes the clause of self-sacrifice,” writes Gregor Ziemer in Education for Death. “From the minute they don the BDM uniforms, elaborate with emblems, letters, triangles, and swastikas, one thought governs their lives; a mature thought, nourished by biological eagerness and restlessness: What can we do, what can we learn, how can we live to prepare ourselves for our great mission-to be the mothers of Hitler’s future soldiers?”

Like the Bund deutscher Madel, the Jenny Hill dance school ingrained ideals of discipline, camaraderie, leadership, and service for a higher cause. An indissoluble unit, the Jenny Hill Girls danced, ate, and traveled together, dressing in uniform and often speaking in chorus. Like the members of the BDM, the girls were initiated into the life of the group at a very young age, as the refrain of the theme song indicates:

Dance with us, be young
Sing with us, be young
Laugh with us, be young …
Dance with us, victor
Sing with us, victor
Laugh with us, victor
Such is the motto of our troupe
And we’re dancing, dancing, so
dancing across the entire world.

As in the BDM, communal physical activities provided the means to achieve a more profound sense of unity and camaraderie. “What is at stake in my school is not that the children learn to dance but, rather, that they learn to bond with one another at an early age and to become real comrades,” says Jenny Hill in the opening scene of the film. With the emphasis placed on communal service and self-sacrifice in the aim of a greater good, Wir tanzen um die Welt transformed the paradigm of the revue. Through a redeployment of the popular aesthetic that characterized the Roaring Twenties, the film manages simultaneously to renounce the “decadence” of the Weimar period and to promote a more reactionary vision in its place. This subtle operation, by which the film disavows the very aesthetic that it deploys, allows it to both meet audience expectations and reconstitute them. In this reorientation of the end of the revue from entertainment for the masses to an indoctrination into the mass, the Jenny Hill ballet school fulfills the dictate of Nazi education programs, whose aim was “to redirect students’ values away from ‘decadent’ Weimar individualism and toward Nazi self-sacrifice.” In the most dramatic scene of the film (a close-up of Eva’s luminous face superimposed over the movements of the dance troupe), the tragic figure dies, the sound of the troupe’s theme song a final music to her ears. In the others, her Geist will live on, as the embodied soul of the surrogate family-troupe.

In its lightly veiled promotion of youthful self-sacrifice, Wir tanzen um die Welt serves a function similar to that of Hitlerjunge Quex (Hitler Youth Quex) (Hans Steinhoff, 1933), a German propaganda film that premiered in Munich in September 1933. Subtitled Ein Film vom Opfergeist der deutschen Jugend (A film on the sacrificial spirit of German youth), the film narrates the story of Heini Volker, a fifteen-year-old boy who breaks away from the violent disorder of his proletariat surroundings to join the Hitler Youth, eventually becoming a martyr for the cause. The distinction between the decadence of the Communist Party and the purity of the National Socialist movement is drawn most sharply in the summer solstice sequence, in which Heini escapes a rowdy, proletarian gathering in a smokefilled tavern to stumble upon an open-air Hitler Youth celebration in the woods. As we move from proletarian disorder to the wholeness of nature, the music sweeps us up into the film’s elevating refrain, “Unsere Fahne flatten uns voran” [Our flag waves before us]. In a ceremonial gathering, the Hitler Youth stand four square around the mythical emblem of a large bonfire. As the flag with a swastika waves in the wind, the leader makes a rousing speech to youth and Germany. In the morning, the call of the bugle heralds a sun-dappled day to be filled with a series of communal activities, from bathing in the lake to marching on the sandy beach. At this moment, Heini is seduced into the party for which he will give his life.

While Wir tanzen um die Welt contains no overt political symbolism, the film promotes the same vision of order and sacrifice to the whole as Hitlerjunge Quex, fulfilling Goebbel’s call for “invisible propaganda.” Both films center around a cult of youth. Like the Hitler Youth, the Jenny Hill girls are incorporated at a very young age into the group, which stands as a substitute for the biological family. As Eric Rentschler writes, “National Socialism sought to organize the will of youth, to enlist it in a historical mission … The NSDAP institutionalized Oedipal revolt, directing the young against ‘the parental home, church, school, and other outdated forms and role models. In its youth organizations it assumed the central role in the rebellion of sons against their fathers.’“ In both films, the display of order in the whole provides a counterpoint to the chaos and corruption of countermovements (Communism and the International in Hitlerjunge Quex, capitalism and decadence in Wir tanzen um die Welt). Like Heini, who dies in the service of the Third Reich, Eva sacrifices herself for the cause. As Heini’s death dissolves into a montage of waving swastikas and huge crowds of Nazis marching in cross-cut formations in ever-swelling numbers, Eva’s death is intercut with a triumphant performance of the troupe under the watchful eyes of mother-figure Jenny Hill. In both cases, the sacrificial death enables the life of the organization, filled as it were with the spirit and soul of the martyred youth.

If the revue mediates a fear of chaos, this chaos takes on the particular form of female sexuality. In his analysis of the aesthetic composition of the revue film, Karsten Witte claims that the German revue film contains more frequent cuts than its American counterpart, severing the flow of physical movement. Visual pleasure, then, never stands still: “The inhibition of visual pleasure must lie at a deeper level than in the fear of decadence which pervaded the consciously National Socialist body. This fear of decay was a physical fear of flowing into dissipation. That is why the fragmented dancers are so hastily reassembled by the cutting technique, as if it had to be ashamed of every jump, every excursion into daydreaming, in short: of the dancing conquest of erotic fantasy.” The fear of decay is also mediated in the formal aesthetic of the revue itself. In Male Fantasies, a twovolume study of the diaries and writings of Freikorps members, many of whom became SA officers and functionaries in the Third Reich, Klaus Theweleit understands fascism in gendered terms. The obsession with swamps and floods in the diaries, with overflows and excesses, with all that exceeds and threatens to break down borders, reveals a deep-seated fear of dissolution, a fear arising from the pre-Oedipal struggle for existence itself. Woman in the (fascist) male unconscious is a “nameless force that seeks to engulf,” a tidal wave, a deluge, an overwhelming force against which the soldier-male must armor himself. In the case of the revue in the Nazi period, the excesses associated with female sexuality are harnessed and directed into the service of the state. The feminine is deployed in a particularly masculine form as a singular, ordered, disciplined body fully inscribed in the nation’s ego boundaries. To this end, a description by Captain Heydebreck of his troops in retreat in Belgium in November 1918 is of interest: “The demeanor of the troops was exemplary… In Prussian goose-step, they marched past me through the square in front of the city hall. They halted and stood firm there, a rock amid the surge of the gaping masses.” The military troop, then, was a unit, a boulder, a stronghold against which the surging masses could not make headway. In rendering the swelling tide a stronghold, the girl troupe served a curious function of deploying female sexuality in order to contain it.

The use of the revue in the Nazi period provides a particularly interesting lens through which we may assess the significance of the cultural material of the Third Reich. The popularity of the staged revue and the revue film under National Socialism brings out the ambiguous nature of many of the cinematic and theatrical products of the Third Reich, an ambiguity that recent film critics stress and that highlights the regime’s complicated relationship to modernism and mass culture. In its continued deployment of the controlled sexuality of the revue, Nazi culture perpetuates a heterosexual norm integral to the larger patriarchal culture in which it is embedded. The Propaganda Ministry’s embrace of this prototypically modern and machinelike form provides a cultural instance of what Jeffrey Herf has called reactionary modernism, the incorporation of modern technology into the romantic and irrational vitalism of German nationalism. In its visible similarity to cultural products in the preceding period and political products in its own time, the revue in the Nazi period stood at a particular crossroads between mass culture and mass politics. As a larger field of investigation, two points of comparison are of interest here: a diachronic comparison of the revue in the Nazi and Weimar periods and a synchronic comparison of the German entertainment revue and the military revue proper. While an in-depth comparison is beyond the scope of this study, a few preliminary remarks may be of interest here.

The elements of collectivity and order that lend the revue to political appropriation are characteristic not only of the genre in the Nazi period but also of the staged revue in American and European capitals in the interwar period (and the American musical in the 1930s and 1940s). What, then, distinguishes the German revue in the Nazi period from its cultural predecessors? According to Kracauer, the Weimar revue lacked the political meaning and import that he attributes to the mass ornamental patterns of Nazi spectacle. The “living constellations” of girls are for Kracauer self-referential units that provide no greater military meaning due to their lack of patriotic content and effect. For Andre Levinson, on the other hand, the staged revue was a form of military propaganda, a parade march “where desirable and delicate beings evoke in a martial manner military glories of days gone by.” Referring to a performance of the Jackson Girls in Berlin, Levinson wrote, “The other day, when the Jackson Girls, helmeted and be-plumed, descended the great staircase of the German Reichstag, hands on hips, in a goose-step, were they not alluding to the pomp of the vanished Empire, to the solemn splendor of its Wachtparade?” If for Levinson the Weimar revue harked back to the German Empire, the revue under the Third Reich pointed forward to the dream of a greater Germany. As I have suggested in a longer study of the girl troupes that emerged in the wake of World War I, it is likely that the synchronized troupes suggested a fantasy of restoration, a restoration of the individual and social body, one that would be particularly appealing to a nation emasculated by military defeat. However, direct patriotic effects were limited as the great majority of girl troupes playing in Weimar Germany, including the Tiller Girls, the Empire Girls or Lawrence Tiller Girls, the Jackson Girls, and the Hoffman Girls, were international performers trained in the United States and Great Britain and exported to European capitals for consumption. What is particular to the Nazi period is its explicit nationalization and instrumentalization of the genre. The visual display of the female form in ornamental patterns in the Weimar period was imbued with political content in the Nazi era, finding its ultimately hypertrophic form in fascist mass spectacles. The Propaganda Ministry capitalized on the latent political content of the staged revue, drawing on the collectivity, discipline, order, and control inherent in the form and redirecting it into the interests of the larger community. By supporting the production of a national girl troupe and the development of the genre of the revue film, the National Socialist regime offered the German public a homegrown counterpart to American mass cultural productions. Similar to its vision of a cinematic “dream machine” that would rival Hollywood studios and lower the need for foreign imports, the Propaganda Ministry fulfilled the public’s apparent wants in the context of its own national borders, in the hopes of rendering Germany a self-sufficient and self-sustaining cultural unit.

In the context of Nazi Germany, such an effort was of course fraught with contradiction. If a coordination (Gleichschaltung) of the sexual and the social is what was ultimately at stake in the appropriation of Girlkultur by the Third Reich, as I am suggesting, then the Cultural Ministry ran the double risk of diminishing entertainment value and trivializing politics. The particularities in the German revue film that Karsten Witte has so aptly analyzed-its accentuation of melodramatic meaning over spectacle, its emphasis on psychic over physical energy, its sharp and frequent cuts, its vertically oriented visual field, and the explicit militarization of the genre of the staged revue-all combine to produce sexuality in a straitjacket, to release but simultaneously restrain desire, to “inhibit” and inhabit visual pleasure. Of course, desire can never be wholly contained. While the African American dancers associated with the “primitive” and the “exotic” in the Weimar period (forcibly) disappeared from the stage, erotic elements still prevailed in staged and film performances in the Nazi period. The most fashionable popular performers of the day were the Hungarian Marika Rokk, the Swedish Zarah Leander, and self-styled “exotic” Austrian dancer Henriette Hiebl, alias “La Jana.” Many dance sequences borrowed from a codified lexicon of the erotic, as did La Jana’s com-magic striptease to bring a knight in armor to life in Es leuchten die Sterne and Marika Rokk’s Oriental belly dance as “bad” sister Kora in an Algerian hotel in Kora Terry (Ufa, 1940), sequences that merit further study for a larger understanding of the deployment of female sexuality in the Nazi period.

If the militarization of the sexual in the staged revue and the revue film ran the risk of reducing pleasure, the sexualization of the military ran the risk of trivializing politics. Did the overdetermination of the political in the cultural realm reinforce or reduce its import? In other words, how did mass culture connect to mass politics? On the surface, the production of revue girls in ornamental patterns looks very much like the political pageantry of Hitler Youth and SA men at Nazi rallies and mass marches. In his later work, Kracauer makes a direct connection between the cultural and political mass ornament, referring to the “living ornaments” and “tableaux vivants” of Nazi spectacle. The parades of bonded male soldiers produced a sexually laden homosocial paradigm, as the homoerotic bathing scenes in the prologue to Riefenstahl’s Fest der Schonheit suggest. Embodying what Peter Reichel has called “der schone Schein des Dritten Reiches” [the beautiful appearance of the Third Reich], the SS in particular has provided material for erotic fantasy. In “Fascinating Fascism,” Susan Sontag claims that theatricality stands behind any sadomasochistic fantasy provoked by the SS, whose appeal derives from a visual emanation of the dual forces of supreme beauty and supreme violence. In its visible projection of force, Nazi spectacle reverses the power of what has come to be understood as the “male gaze.” Power resides in the object, as opposed to the subject, operating as a sort of kinetic force that seeks to draw the spectator into its field of influence. It is in the deployment of power that the fundamental difference between the representation of male troops and female troupes lies. While both are objects of the gaze, the former embodies state power in an aesthetic globalization of space that threatens to eclipse the spectator, while the latter remains a devalued object whose sexuality is contained in a nonthreatening, linear form. While mass politics cannot be reduced to mass culture, culture here appears to map onto politics, providing both a welcome escape and a subliminal support.

Ausdruckstanz: A Secular Religion?

Je donnerais tout Baudelaire pour une nageuse olympique [I would give all of Baudelaire for an Olympic swimmer]. ~ L. F. Celine

If the aesthetic of the revue was informed by the machine, Ausdruckstanz drew its inspiration from nature. Influenced by the avant-garde art movements of Dada, expressionism, and Neue Sachlichkeit (new objectivity), Ausdruckstanz shared with expressionism a rejection of objective representational modes and the quest for an outward expression of inner subjectivity. With its emphasis on improvisation and subjective expression, Ausdruckstanz would provide an important legacy for later American modern dance movements. Anti-Enlightenment and antimodern in its orientation, expressionist dance promised a return to the body and a return to the earth. As such, Ausdruckstanz was deeply informed by the Korperkultur movement, which began in the early nineteenth century in Germany and found its extreme manifestation in the fascist cult of the body. In the early twentieth century, Lebensreform (life reform) philosophers promoted body culture as a means to recover the body from the industrial machine and to restore a more natural mode of existence. Alongside the “decadence” of cabaret culture, a cult of the body flourished in the Weimar period, promising to reenergize a war-weary population and to forge a new connection to the body. The era was infised with a sense of movement, as is illustrated by the cover of a 1931 issue of the Swiss magazine Die neue Zeit (The new era), which featured a young, naked couple leaping in the air. In 1925, Ufa produced a documentary film entitled Wege zu Kraft and Schonheit (Ways to strength and beauty), which featured an array of beautiful bodies in motion, healthy young people engaged in group dance, sports, and rhythmic gymnastics in the serenity of the great outdoors.

The Korperkultur movement dates back to the beginning of the nineteenth century, when Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, known as “Turnvater Jahn,” founded the first gymnastics club (Turnverein). The movement came into full flower at the turn of the century with the development of a number of life reform sects and youth organizations, such as the Wandervogel movement, a mixed gender youth group that would be subsumed in 1933 by the Hitler Youth. The schools of the anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner and the Swiss composer and pedagogue Emile Jaques-Dalcroze were based upon the vision of a healthy life in tune with natural rhythms. At his artist’s colony in Hellerau, Jaques-Dalcroze developed the practice of “rhythmic gymnastics,” an attempt to harness cosmic rhythms through body rhythms. Associated with nudism, vegetarianism, life reformism, and counterculture, the body culture movement was embraced by movements that crossed the political spectrum, from anarchists to Social Democrats to nationalists, including German nationalists, the Czech Sokol body culture movement, and Zionist organizations.

While the Koperkultur movement’s emphasis on communal living, life reformism, and environmentalism aligned it with artistic and cultural movements on the Left, its mystical and nationalistic overtones lent it a particular appeal for the Right. Nationalism was deeply embedded in the Koperkultur movement. Beginning with Turnvater Jahn, physical vitality was seen as a crucial component in the restoration of national health and the maintenance of racial hygiene. Lebensreform philosophers envisioned the individual body as an integral part of the social body, whose national vitalism was dependent upon the health of its members. In an article entitled “Physical Fitness-A National Necessity” (1926), Ernst Preiss wrote, “That the German people have suffered a significant decline in their vital energies over the last two decades has been proven repeatedly… In the face of this threat to our national body, adequate social-hygienic measures must be implemented to reinvigorate our endangered common vitality.” Jahn’s gymnastics movement, which he characterized as “love of fatherland through gymnastics,” was originally inspired by military aims to create a disciplined and united Germanic youth corps to prevail against the invading Napoleonic armies. Hans Sure n’s Der Mensch and die Sonne (Man and sunlight), originally published in 1925 and reprinted in 1936 with the subtitle Arisch-olympischer Geist (Aryan-Olympian spirit), provided a written articulation of the vitalist philosophies that run through the Korperkultur movement. Championing natural living, the work was based upon the central thesis that a nation’s health is contingent upon the physical vitality of its population. The work was so popular that it went through sixty-eight editions in its first year of publication, a success that Suren attributed to “how aptly it reflects the aspirations of the true German race.”

Much of the nationalistic philosophy of Ausdruckstanz, particularly in the Nazi period, drew upon the notions of social and racial hygiene already embedded in the Lebensreform movements. For Jaques-Dalcroze, rhythmic gymnastics provided the means to establish physical and moral hygiene, which he considered the necessary foundation for the “new society.” Ausdruckstanz founder Rudolf von Laban conceived of his movement as a “new dance cult” that was “racially bound through and through.” In the program of the 1934 German Dance Festival, Laban envisioned Germany as the cradle of modern dance through whose force alone the beauty of the physical world could be rendered and human beings spiritually moved. “Germany is the country in which this ideal took root first and most profoundly,” Laban wrote. “That is why people from all nations … call this dance ‘German dance.’“ In the program for the 1935 dance festival, Laban’s protegee Mary Wigman also linked dance to the earth: “The dance conveys man’s deeply rooted love for all that binds him to the earth and to his homeland.” Like Laban, she considered Germany the heart of modern dance, whose aesthetic expression served as a living embodiment of the essence of the people. As Susan Manning has illustrated, whereas Wigman’s earlier philosophy had conceived of Ausdruckstanz in terms of universal expression, her later writings viewed it as an expression of the people. In Deutsche Tanzkunst (German dance art, 1935), Wigman envisioned expressionist dance as a supranatural force that reached into the soul of the nation: “We German artists today are more aware of the fate of the Volk than ever before. And for all of us this time is a trial of strength, a measuring of oneself against standards that are greater than the individual is able to fathom. The call of the blood, which has involved us all, goes deep and engages the essential.”

Despite their openly stated nationalist sentiment, both Laban and Wigman fell out of favor with the Nazi regime at the time of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. In preparation for the opening night spectacle of the Olympic Games, Laban created a choreographed work entitled “Vom Tauwind and der neuen Freude” (Of the warm wind and the new joy). A “choric consecration play” that put Nietzsche to music, the piece was a massive production performed by a lay movement choir of one thousand dancers. As Dianne Howe points out, the lay choir, which Laban called “the new folk dance movement of the white race,” was particularly appealing to National Socialist ideologues because of its communal nature and volkisch echoes. Laban’s assistant for lay movement pedagogy stressed the link between the communal nature of the movement choirs and the fascist state: “We have grown out of the I-and-You era into the We era-but not so that we are merely ‘masses’: we are a people’s community [Volksgemeinschaft], led by the Fuhrer, and our lay dance is education in this sense: to lead and become led.” However, at the final dress rehearsal, the work was abruptly dismissed by Goebbels, who claimed in a diary entry that the work was “too intellectual”: “Dietrich-Eckart Buhne dance festival rehearsal: loosely based on Nietzsche, a shoddy and artificial thing … It is all so intellectual. I don’t like it. We go there all dressed up, and it has absolutely nothing to do with us.” Wigman, on the other hand, made a significant contribution to the Olympic Games, collaborating on Olympische Jugend (Olympic youth), the elaborate opening night ceremony that celebrated youth, peace, and the fatherland.” Reminiscent of Wigman’s 1930 Totenmal (Call of the dead), a choric commemoration of World War I heroes that Susan Manning considers her only protofascist work, Wigman’s Olympic contribution celebrated the fallen German soldier. The fourth scene of the evening, the piece entitled “Heldenkampf und Totcnklage” (Heroic struggle and death lament), cast a tragic pall over the spectacle. Following the sacrificial deaths of sixty soldiers in a sequence choreographed by Harald Kreutzberg, Wigman’s composition featured eighty women engaged in a dance of lamentation. Despite the nationalist overtones of the piece, this was the last commission Wigman was to receive from the Cultural Ministry. While Laban left for England the following year, Wigman stayed in Germany through the duration of the war, holding her work to be “apolitical.”

Why did the Nazi regime incorporate the form of Ausdruckstanz into its aesthetic productions while excluding its two figureheads? Why did the regime retain the dance while rejecting the foremost dancers? In Tanz unterm Hakenkreuz (Dance under the swastika), Lilian Karina puts forth the compelling idea that the dance movements of Laban and Wigman are fundamentally mystical in nature, representing alternative and threatening sects to the Germanic, Nordic cult of National Socialism. The Korperkultur movement of the early twentieth century was already imbued with mystical overtones. In Der Mensch and die Sonne, for example, Suren wrote, “We experience a marvelous revelation in the beauty and strength of the naked body, transfigured by godlike purity shining from the clear and open eye that mirrors the entire depth of a noble and questing soul. Placed in the bright frame of exalted nature, the human body finds its most ideal manifestation.” The mystical aspects that inform Suren’s discourse-the revelatory nature of the body, the exaltation of nature, the godlike purity of the body and soul-found their echo in Ausdruckstanz beliefs and practices. Through its creation of a spiritual community, through the ritualistic aspects of the dance, and through its hypnotic effects, the new dance, which Peter Adam calls “a messianic happening,” constituted a sort of spiritual cult. As such, it stood as a threat to the “mystical positivity” that Julia Kristeva attributes to fascist ideology in her discussion of Celine in Pouvoirs de l’horreur (Powers of horror). In an article entitled “Tanz in dieser Zeit” (Dance in this time) Max Merz considers the dances of Elizabeth Duncan (Isadora Duncan’s sister) the expression of a “natural religiousness”: “In Elizabeth Duncan’s aesthetic creed a strong ethos and a natural religiousness expresses itself. Life and art are identical.”

This “natural religiousness” found its strongest manifestation in the dance productions choreographed by Laban and Wigman. Laban in particular, who saw himself as a “begnadeten Fuhrer” (gifted leader), took on the status of a cultlike figure. When he assumed the position of ballet director of the Staatsoper, an article in Der Tanz (The dance) exclaimed, “Habemus Papam” [We have a pope]. Mary Wigman called him the “Magiker, [den] Priester einer unbekannten Religion” [magician, the priest of an unknown religion]. In accordance with the Greek practice of openair performance, Laban envisioned the creation of performance spaces in what he called “dance temples,” cathedral-like amphitheaters covered by cupolas. Wigman articulated the unifying aspects of the “festival”: “The Greeks had a theater that was inseparable from religion and the state, that embodied their being as Volk, nation, family, and individual. A theater that belonged to all, that served God and humanity, that became a festival [Fest] in the highest sense.” The sacred aspect of Laban’s dramaturgy applied to his teaching as well. In his commune in Ascona, Laban projected an almost magical aura, creating a cultlike atmosphere of devoted disciples bound to him by artistic and erotic ties. According to Karl Toepfer, Laban’s “harem of devoted women” demonstrated that “Ausdruckstanz involved the construction of a mysterious personality with an almost hypnotic control over the dynamic, liberated body.” A “gifted leader,” a “priest,” a “pope,” Laban stood as a Fuhrer substitute, a magnetic leader with a powerful hold over the group.

While Wigman did not project the same erotic mystique as Laban, she considered herself a spiritual messenger, an apostle of the new dance. In a diary entry, she wrote, “I am the dance / And am the priestess of the dance.” Wigman’s dance cycles drew on the natural cycle of life, incorporating death into life in a way that rendered her alternatively ecstatic, demonic, and Dionysian. Her spiritual scope was extensive, ranging from the occult to the sacred. While some dances, such as Tanztrance (Dance trance) and Hexentanz (Witch dance), were mystical in nature, others, such as Totentanz (Dance of death) and Seraphisches Lied (Seraphic song), exuded a more sacred quality, incorporating religious symbolism in the form of the cross or hands clasped in prayer. Wigman’s costumes, which included long capes, dark hooded shawls, somber masks, and Oriental gowns, also shrouded her in a mystical aura. According to Howe, Wigman’s preference for cosmic powers over human forces rendered her threatening to the National Socialist state: “Her philosophy was considered dangerous by the Reich; she gave the highest importance to a superhuman power, and more importance to fate and the cosmos than the state, the party, and the Fuhrer.”

The Propaganda Ministry’s response to the two central proponents of Ausdruckstanz underscores the importance of mysticism to National Socialism as well as its privileging of the totality over the individual. In a lecture given in 1990, dance historian and Wigman biographer Hedwig Miller emphasized the shift that Ausdruckstanz underwent under National Socialism from a dance serving individual expression to a functional dance in the service of the state:

The central concept of Ausdruckstanz is individualism … Self-realization got a new orientation [under National Socialism]. It would no longer support uncontrolled, free personality development, rather functionally oriented self-fulfillment. The dance no longer serves the individual exploration of its own personality and its relation to the outer world, rather there was a goal-orientation added to this individual exploration: the experience of individuality became part of the integration into an overall structure.

The expressionist dance sequences in Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia provide an exemplary instance of “functionally oriented self-fulfillment” and the experience of individuality as an “integration into an overall structure.” Like Laban and Wigman, Riefenstahl effected a return to nature, drawing upon the mystical aspects of Lebensreform and the sacred qualities of the human body in her choreography. However, Riefenstahl’s role behind the scenes in the Olympia film allowed for the body to emerge as a signifying metaphor for the social body, one that effectively subsumed the individual body. Two sets of images in particular exemplify this process: the expressionist dance sequences in the prologue to “Fest der Volker” (Festival of the nation), the first part of Riefenstahl’s documentary, and the mass gymnastics display in the “Fest der Schonheit” (Festival of beauty), the second part of the film. Taken together, these two sequences illustrate the way in which aesthetic representations of the female form may serve to privilege the dance over the dancer.

Riefenstahl’s Olympia premiered on April 20, 1938, to much critical acclaim. The German premiere was held in Berlin at the Ufa-Palast am Zoo, which was draped with banners of the swastika and the five Olympic rings. The event drew important representatives of the film industry and the main figureheads of the National Socialist regime. In the six months following its release, the film was screened with pomp and ceremony in almost every European capital, including Vienna, Athens, Brussels, Belgrade, Paris, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Helsinki, and Rome.105 Olympia was awarded the German Film Prize of 1937-38 and the Coppa Mussolini at the International Film Festival in Venice in September 1938. With its release to the general public, the film became a box-office hit, bringing in between 7 and 8 million RM in its European run. The film found a much less receptive audience in the United States, where a boycott was carried out against the documentary and its director. On a trip to the United States in 1938, Riefenstahl was shunned by the American film industry, deemed by an American columnist “as pretty as a swastika” and later a “Nazi pin-up girl.” The political import of the film is a subject of ongoing controversy. It has been considered both “a paean of praise to physical culture and to the glory of,victory on the fields of sport” and a model of fascist art, which, in Susan Sontag’s words, “glorifies surrender,” “exalts mindlessness,” and “glamorizes death.”

As a medium for total expression, the art of dance was a particularly resonant form for Riefenstahl. Riefenstahl herself was a dancer. She trained at the schools of Jutta Klamt in Berlin and Mary Wigman in Dresden and performed in cities in Germany and central Europe, only to turn to a career in film after an accident on stage. The staging of the female form in Riefenstahl’s Olympia bears the mark of her mentors. As Susan Manning has pointed out, both Mary Wigman and Isadora Duncan, the American pioneer of modern dance who opened a dance school in Berlin in 1904, understood dance in gendered and nationalistic terms. In “The Dance of the Future,” an essay written in 1903, Duncan conceived of dance as the means for the development of an ideal female race. The art of the new dance, she maintained, is “a question of race”: “It is not only a question of true art, it is a question of race, of the development of the female sex to beauty and health, of the return to the original strength and to natural movements of woman’s body. It is a question of the development of perfect mothers and the birth of healthy and beautiful children. The dancing school of the future is to develop and to show the ideal form of woman.” As opposed to sexually “frivolous” modern dance forms such as the fox-trot and the Black-Bottom, Duncan envisioned what she called a “Greek dance” of the future: “Long-legged strong boys and girls will dance to this music-not the tottering, ape-like convulsions of the Charleston, but a striking upward tremendous mounting, powerful mounting above the pyramids of Egypt, beyond the Parthenon of Greece, an expression of Beauty and Strength such as no civilization has ever known.”

Fulfilling Isadora Duncan’s vision of a dance of Beauty and Strength transcending the wonders of the ancient world, Riefenstahl’s prologue to the “Fest der Volker” transports the viewer back to classical times. Set in the ruins of ancient Greece, the prologue is a sustained hymn to the body beautiful. From the ancient acropolis, the camera travels in slow motion across the ruins, focusing on Doric columns and the remains of Apollonian statues. The mood is misty and oneiric, an effect achieved through the use of soft focus and smoke powder. A Pygmalion dream come true, Myron’s statue of a discus thrower comes to life, to segue into a montage of male forms in motion. As the heavy beats of Herbert Windt’s score soften to the whimsical sounds of high woodwinds and strings, the lyrical movements of the shot-putter dissolve slowly into the feminine arms of four naked dancers, one of them perhaps played by Riefenstahl herself.

The dance sequence in the prologue, choreographed by Riefenstahl and shot by Willy Zielke, is organized around elementary symbolism. Filmed in the Baltic sand dunes of the Valley of Silence in Lithuania, the sequence roots the dancers in an atemporal space of organic nature. Archetypal female forms, the dancers represent “ancient Greek temple dancers, the keepers of the sacred flame.” In keeping with the mythopoeic symbolism, the dance combines primary forms and fundamental elements. A backlit, shadowy sky casts a mystical light upon the naked forms, and a series of cross-dissolves sustains the dreamlike mood of the prologue: the shadowy arms of the four dancers blend into two hands playing catch in slow motion, into two legs slowly skipping. One dancer sways gently with an oversized hoop against a field of waving wheat; another moves against the silent rhythms of the sea. Finally, the three Greek temple dancers are united. Silhouetted against the gray sky, the dancers join hands and kneel to the ground. The sacred ritual comes to an imminent, ecstatic climax as the female forms dissolve into fire, a fire that envelops the entire screen. It is this flame that serves to kindle the Olympic torch. A series of male runners cross the map, taking the flame from the ancient Greek acropolis to the modern German Olympic stadium, where the prologue reaches its culmination in a fanfare of ringing bells, roaring crowds, and waving flags. Eric Barnouw writes, “The sequence seems to tell us that the torch of civilization has been carried from its ancient center, Greece, to modern Germany, watched over by a pantheon at whose apex is Hitler.”

As the bearers of the sacred flame and the physical embodiment of the Olympic torch, the dancers are the primary symbol of the Olympic Games, a symbolism recalled in the closing ceremonies of the Olympics in which human ornaments describe the Olympic hoops and a dome of light envisioned by Albert Speer settles over the Olympic stadium. The sacred flame was not only a symbol of the international games but also an important symbol of the Third Reich. As George Mosse has pointed out, the sacred flame was a potent emblem of the harmony and purity of the Germanic people. The symbolism of fire, which is rooted in Christian and pagan traditions, was used for nationalistic purposes in the Romantic period. The “holy flame” brought together religion and nation, symbolizing the “sacred light” of Germanic unity and salvation. Of the “sacred light” that was rekindled in the Third Reich, Mosse writes, “The flame as it stood symbolized light over darkness, the sun as against the night. It reflected the mystical forces of the life-bringing sun which gave men strength and vitality. To the Nazis it meant `purification,’ symbolized brotherly community, and served to remind party members of the ‘eternal life process.’“

At the heart of the symbolism of the sacred flame in the film is ancient Greece. As Peter Adam has pointed out in his study of art in the Third Reich, the notion of a “Nordic” aesthetic in art and architecture was not limited to northern Europe but included the temples of ancient Greece, the coliseums of the Roman Empire, and the pyramids of Egypt. Nazi aesthetics drew upon the classical Greek ideals of beauty and the monumentality of Roman architecture, the fusion of which is exemplified in the hypertropic sculptures of Arno Breker and Josef Wackerle that adorned the Olympic stadium. Greek cultural norms were deeply ingrained in the body culture movement, from the ideal of the sculpted, athletic male body in Jahn’s gymnastics clubs to Duncan’s vision of a “Greek dance” of the fixture to Laban’s open-air “dance temples.” The influence of classical norms is particularly evident in the 1925 Korperkultur film Wege zu Kraft and Schonheit, in which Riefenstahl herself performed. In the program notes to the film, Felix Hollaender pointed to the classical roots in the modern forces of gymnastics, dance, and sports, which drew on the “pedagogical principles of Greek gymnastics” and the “sophisticated body culture of the Romans.” In the ritualistic language common to Lebensreform philosophies, Hollaender understood body culture as a means for the “regeneration” of the individual body and with it the national body:

What was created was meant to be a hymn to endeavors aimed equally at awakening the sense of beauty and contributing to recovering the nation’s health. It sought to show with what vigor our maligned era has seized upon and developed the issue of body culture-the extent to which it has been able to approximate the Greek ideal of beauty … This film seems to indicate the kind of forces now at work that would make a rebirth of the body in the spirit of antiquity possible.

It is precisely the rebirth of the body in the spirit of antiquity that is realized in Riefenstahl’s Olympia. The classical proportions of the nude dancers in the prologue accord with Greek standards of beauty, while their physical movements integrate the open-air physical culture of Greek life. Riefenstahl’s Greek temple dancers fulfill not only a classical ideal but also a “feminine” one. In their strength and proportion, the dancers realize the beauty, health, and wholeness integral to Duncan’s vision of the ideal woman and perfect mother. Through the associations drawn between the dancers and the primary elements of water, air, and fire and the fluid, circular gestures of the dancers’ movements, the dance sequence establishes a mythical, organic community that echoes both the neoclassicism and Romanticism essential to German nationalism. The trajectory covered from Greece to Germany is thus a movement not only from the ancient world to its modern apotheosis but also from the heart of the earth to the full flowering of civilization. The mother remains as the core of the fatherland, its mystical and magical support.

The mass gymnastics sequence in the “Fest der Schonheit” partakes of the same mystical quality that characterizes the prologue to the “Fest der Volker.” The scene opens with a shot of a serene, golden-haired woman swaying rhythmically in a grassy field. The gentle cadences of the woodwinds recall the dance sequence in the prologue. Four or five women become visible, all performing “eurhythmics”—slow, waving movements of the limbs. A series of wide, low-angle shots reveals groups of dancers set against the vast sky, reinforcing the wholesome quality of the open-air movements. The camera focuses in on a smiling, blond woman with a Nordic air. The lilting melody emphasizes the mellifluous motions of the dancers, while the triple meter characteristic of a polonaise or Austrian landler lends a folksy quality to the sequence. A wide-angle shot reveals long, diagonal lines of dancers, all swinging batons in uniform, curving arcs. As the camera angles widen, more and more women are revealed until ten thousand women in row upon vertical row fill the screen, becoming what Kracauer has called the mass ornament, the representation of the masses in highly rational, abstract patterns. The final aerial view of the patterned mass marks the climax of the sequence, which is punctuated by sweeping strings and a triumphant brass fanfare.

As in the visual parades of soldiers in Riefenstahl’s 1934 Nazi Party Congress film Triumph of the Will, the composition of the gymnastics display in Olympia fills the frame, enfolding the spectator into the image itself In the movement from the dance sequence in the “Fest der Volker” to the gymnastics display in the “Fest der Schonheit,” the mystical, mythopoeic dancer becomes a rational abstraction and the individual dancer a living part of the social organism. Unlike the cabaret revue, in which the viewer has critical distance from the image, here the spectator is implicated, one of the docile and instrumental bodies of the body politic. The image is a seductive one, inviting the viewer to join in the cult of the body and take part in the organic wholeness of the social sphere. Through the use of cross-dissolves, slow motion, and wide-angle tracking shots, the dance sequences in Riefenstahl’s Olympia possess a certain hypnotic power. What was mechanical reproduction in the revue becomes mesmerizing repetition in the mass ornament. What was a linear ordering of space becomes an architectonic filling of the sensory screen. What evoked the technological calls forth the grandeur of sublime nature. An appeal to the senses becomes an appeal to the will.


Despite the radical differences in the dance idioms, important similarities can be found in Anton’s Wir tanzen um die Welt and Riefenstahl’s Olympia. Both films draw on classical roots, and both rechannel female sexuality in politically productive ways. While Wir Tanzen unz die Welt constructs the female body as a quasi-military corps that demands sacrifice, unity, and discipline in the service of a greater good, Olympia establishes the female body as an organic part of the whole. The linear revue in Wir tanzen um die Welt deploys female sexuality in a particularly contained form, sustaining a heterosexual norm and mediating potential fears of an uncontrolled female sexuality. The Ausdruckstanz sequences in Olympia, on the other hand, construct an image of essential femaleness, reinforcing the “natural” role of woman while also producing a homosocial paradigm usually reserved in Nazi aesthetics to the erotic “homophilic attachments” created through male bonding.

Eric Rentschler’s designation of three key elements in Nazi film aesthetics-the elemental, the ornamental, and the instrumental-is particularly useful for understanding Riefenstahl’s orchestration of space in Olympia. Rentschler has pointed to a triadic paradigm at work in Riefenstahl’s 1932 mountain film, Das blaue Licht (The blue light), one that can be found in much of “Nazi fantasy production”: the establishment of a mythic community (the elemental), the restructuring of this community in new shapes and patterns (ornamentalization), and the realization of this process in accordance with a larger instrumental rationality (instrumentalization) whose function usually remains hidden. If we take the two expressionist dance sequences in the Olympia film as a narrative unit, we find a striking example of the ornamentalization of the elemental to an instrumental end. In the first sequence, the female body is anchored in the roots of civilization and the earth, the feminine established as an essential element of nature. In the second sequence, this organic woman becomes part of a coordinated whole whose ornamental function is laid bare by the aerial patterns of the camera but whose instrumental value as a symbolic member of the larger social community remains hidden. In the movement from the theatrical mass ornament exemplified by the Hiller Girls to the massive, ornamentalized patterns in Olympia, the rational ordering of space achieves an irrational effect, a mystifying process by which the product is imbued with a magical power of its own. While the viewer maintains distance and objectivity in the case of the linear revue, he or she is integrated into the mass of ordered and cohesive bodies that form the political mass ornament. In the end, Riefenstahl’s vision of the female form is a more seductive one than that found in Wir tanzen um die Welt, as the nudity of the female figures in the film is “natural,” and their powers of seduction are hidden.

The dance sequences in Wir tanzen um die Welt and the Olympia film are emblematic of the larger dance movements of the period in that they harness both the “modern” and “antimodern” aspects of modern dance, the former drawing on the formal machine aesthetic of the revue and the latter on the neoclassicism, life reformism, and nationalism embedded in the expressionist dance movement. However, the question of the political value of the revue and Ausdruckstanz under the Third Reich remains a complicated one. While the militarized kickline harnesses the “excesses” of female sexuality by creating a masculinized body whose libidinal energy is often deployed in the service of the state, the prevalence of erotic dance sequences in filmed and staged performances and the continued popularity of individual, “exotic,” non-German performers such as Zarah Leander and Marika Rokk open up further questions concerning the value of popular entertainment in the Third Reich. Furthermore, whereas Ausdruckstanz forms such as the lay choir proved popular in state-supported events, the Propaganda Ministry’s lack of interest in the movement’s two figureheads suggests that Ausdruckstanz performances may have projected an appeal to the self and to mystical forces that exceeded the boundaries of the state. In broaching the complexity of the issue of desire in Nazi Germany, this study has pointed to a number of specific instances in which female performance figured in fascist politics. In rendering the female body a vehicle for the projection of a seductive state, Wir tanzen um die Welt and Olympia politicized the erotic and eroticized the political, infusing the body politic with a libidinal charge. Like much of the iconographic material of the period, the imagery in these films has a subliminal appeal, one that could be as powerful a magnetic force for the state as explicit political measures and incentives.