The next major development in documentary was mixed up with what was happening in the world in the coming decades, the ugly reality of world war and the rush to control the dominant narrative in western civilization. During World War II, war photographers, for the first time on a large scale, began filming right in the middle of the battles, capturing more of the actual fighting than ever before. The United States was fighting what they considered to be a propaganda war for the sympathies of the American people. The question was how to present the footage of the war and the events leading up to the war in a way that did not compromise the war effort.
This propaganda war was largely a response to German films in the 1930s that were designed to advance Nazi ideology. The most prominent German filmmaker in this regard was Leni Riefenstahl, who in 1935 produced Triumph Des Willens or The Triumph of the Will. Triumph of the Will is a feature length film that follows Hitler as he travels to Nuremberg to deliver a speech to the Hitler Youth about the future of the German people. It is, like Flaherty’s films, engaged in the staging of events, yet implicitly claiming to be merely observational. The film depicts speeches from Hitler and other German elites but also many staged demonstrations of German superiority and power, relishing in iconic images such as thousands of blonde-haired youth saluting Hitler, lines of soldiers or tanks and artillery performing for his approval. These events were set up in part to play to Riefenstahl’s camera, much like Flaherty’s staging of igloos and seal hunts, yet with the cooperation of the German government.
– from the upcoming book “How to Film the Truth: The Story of Documentary Film As a Spiritual Journey” to be released in the Summer of 2018 by Wipf & Stock