The Fractured Lens: Propaganda Filmmaking from Eisenstein to Jennings

Charlie Ritchie

PropagandaThis course considers a dynamic 20 year period of world cinema and the status and effect of propaganda film. From 1925 to 1945 revolution, fascism, and resistance was documented and championed through the developing medium of cinema. We will discuss some of the most powerful and influential documentary films from this era. Eisenstein’s experiments with montage in Soviet Russia transformed the possibilities of political cinema and created some of the most enduring representations of revolutionary conflict. Leni Reifenstahl’s glamorous promotion of the Nazi regime poses continuing questions about the power of state-sponsored spectacle and the responsibilities of the filmmaker. Humphrey Jennings’ work on the British home front throughout WW2 is uniquely innovative in its exploration of film’s role in forging the structure of feeling within a nation at war.

In discussing the formal and aesthetic tactics of films like Battleship Potemkin (1925), Triumph of the Will (1935), and Diary for Timothy (1945), we will be considering fundamental questions about how film affects our feelings, perception and understanding. These films relate to their historical origins as Eisenstein put it ‘like a reflection in a broken mirror’. How do we respond now to their manipulative power and beauty?

Pre-requisite knowledge required: This course assumes no prior film or historical background.

Transferable Skills: Taking this course will help students develop skills of analysis, argument and critical reasoning. It functions as an introduction to film studies and key arguments about history and representation.

Core Reading

Recommended but not compulsory

  • Imagining Reality; the Faber Book of Documentary, (ed. Mark Cousins and Kevin Macdonald), Faber 1996.
  • Fascinating Fascism, Susan Sontag, New York Review of Books, Feb 6 1975
  • Humphrey Jennings, Kevin Jackson, Picador 2004


1 Final Essay (2,500-3,000 words): 50%

1 Final Exam: 50%

Lecture Hours: 12 x 1 hour 15 minutes (total 15 hours)

Seminar Hours: 8 x 1 hour 15 minutes (total 10 hours)