“Triumph of the Will” - Leni Riefenstahl (1935)

Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens, 1935) is a famous documentary film about the 6th Nazi Party Congress held in Nuremberg, Germany, in September 1934, when Adolph Hitler had just completed establishing dictatorial control over the whole country.  The film has been praised as perhaps the greatest documentary film ever made [1,2], but because of its controversial subject matter, it has also been condemned as a contemptible piece of propaganda [3]. For many observers, then, the question comes down to whether a piece of one-sided propaganda (which Triumph of the Will clearly is) can still be appreciated purely on aesthetic terms as a great work of art [4].  And that still leaves the question outstanding as to whether Triumph of the Will really is a great piece of propaganda.

Triumph of the Will was produced, directed, and co-written by Leni Riefenstahl, an interesting personage in her own right.  Born in 1902, Riefenstahl was a prominent dancer and movie star before she launched her career as a film director.  In 1932 she met Adolph Hitler, who was so impressed with the young woman that he soon offered her the opportunity to make propaganda films for his rising Nazi Party.  This she accepted to do, which led her to make several Nazi-sponsored films, the most famous of which are Triumph of the Will (1935) and Olympia (1938 – about the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin).  

For her first Nazi-commissioned production, Riefenstahl was asked to make a film of the 5th Nazi Rally in Nuremberg held in 1933, but she wasn’t given much time to prepare for this work.  The result was a modest, hour-long documentary, The Victory of Faith (Der Sieg des Glaubens, 1933) that soon disappeared from public view.  For Triumph of the Will, however, she had plenty of preparation time and resources to do what she wanted.  She was equipped with a crew of 172 people, operating and carrying out the lighting for 30 cameras and also providing aerial photography (it had an estimated shooting ratio of more than 30:1) [4,5].  In addition, the film was provided with a detailed, tradition-based orchestral score (background music is present through much of the film) by prominent composer Herbert Windt.  For its day, the film was an extravagant production.

Note that in many respects, the film was not just a passive recording of 6th Nazi Party Congress.  Instead, the rally and the film can be thought to have been planned and staged in conjunction with each other.  This notion is reinforced by Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels’s claim in 1933 about the strategic importance of social media [6]:
“Our way of taking power and using it would have been inconceivable without the radio and the airplane,”
(The airplane afforded Hitler the opportunity to travel rapidly about Germany, making fiery speeches.)  So we can presume that the Nazi leaders had a growing appreciation of the film medium and thought that a carefully planned and staged film could prove to be a valuable instrument for accruing power.  

As the film plays out, we see that it doesn’t cover meetings or discussions among the party leaders, but instead shows various public events that took place sequentially over several days during the Party Congress.  It opens with Hitler’s plane flying high in the sky over Nuremberg as he arrives for the congress.  He is met by a rapturous crowd hailing him with the Nazi straight-armed “Sieg Heil” victory salute.  It is said that there were more than 700,000 people who attended  this Nazi rally [5].  The scene then shifts to the evening, when there is shown a cheering rally held outside Hitler’s lodging.  

Relatively early on in the film, we get a display of the dramatic cinematographic style employed by Riefenstahl – extreme long shots showing massive crowds, which are intercut with tight closeups of individual participants.  There is also a liberal dosage of high-angle and low-angle shots (Hitler, himself, is usually shown from a low-angle perspective).  It is also interesting to see the large number of women among the cheering crowds (I intuitively think of Naziism as primarily a male-dominated phenomenon).  
In the morning of the next day of the party congress, the viewer is shown the large number of young people who have come to the congress and are camping outside.  They are shown getting up and preparing themselves for the day’s spectacle.  This is followed by various celebratory parades of local people marching through the city.  Later, indoors, there is shown brief excerpts of mostly-shouted speeches given by various Nazi leaders.

Then Hitler is shown reviewing the 52,000-strong worker corps (the Sturmabteilung, referred to as the SA).  No real reference is made here to the relatively recent (on June 30th) “Night of the Long Knives”), when much of the earlier SA leadership had been purged and murdered.  That was another example of Hitler’s rapid consolidation of power during this period.  That evening, after a torchlight parade, the new SA leader, Viktor Lutze, is shown giving a speech to the multitudes

The next day Hitler greets the official Hitler Youth group on the parade grounds.  This is followed by a particularly harsh and strident speech to this group, calling on his youthful listeners to toughen up.  This is probably the most interesting portion of the film, because, rather than serving up platitudes, it puts Hitler’s full ruthlessness on display.

On another day, Hitler is shown walking past some 150,000 SA and SS (Schutzstaffel) troops standing at attention while he lays a memorial wreath to honor the fallen German soldiers of World War I.  This is followed by Hitler’s closing speech, which is again belligerent and imperious.

So what are we to draw from this film?  What is its message?  The film’s essential message seems to me to be that the Nazi vision of a proper social state is one that operates like a well-oiled machine with all its parts operating synchronously in automatic response to the commands of its supreme leader.  The Führer, Hitler, is ordering all the workers to think of themselves as soldiers under his absolute command.  This mechanistic view of the state, where no consideration is given to individual autonomy or creativity, is emphasized throughout the film, with multiple images of various groups of people marching in unison or standing at rigid attention.  In order for this powerful state machine to operate effectively, absolute loyalty is required.  So loyalty is another significant theme in the film.

But these ideas are just presented as a sequence of images – there is no dynamic thrust, no narrative to what is on display.  Narrative in visual form, is, however, truly an essential virtue of film [7], and I have discussed this on many occasions.  So the lack of a real narrative is a fundamental, indeed fatal, weakness of Triumph of the Will.  The camera work is great, but that by itself is not enough.  In fact you might be surprised (as was critic Roger Ebert upon re-watching the film [2]) at how monotonous and boring the film is if you see it now.

Nevertheless, Triumph of the Will remains as an important document of the Nazi rise to power.  And it is not surprising that after the end of World War II, Leni Riefenstahl was imprisoned for some time by the victorious Allied Powers for being an instrument of Nazi criminality.  Riefenstahl, however, always steadfastly maintained her innocence on this matter and insisted that she was just passively recording the events of the Nazi Party Congress and not a Nazi co-conspirator.  She later even made the absurd claim that she was actually a practitioner of cinéma vérité.  I won’t delve further into this issue, but if you are interested, I recommend for your enjoyment Susan Sontag’s interesting and thoughtful article on this topic, “Fascinating Fascism” [1].

We are still left, though, with the basic question – is Triumph of the Will worth seeing now?  I would say it is, because the film’s subject matter is, perhaps surprisingly to some people, still of renewed significance today.  In the decades after World War II, many people came to believe that Hitler and Naziism were such anomalous embodiments of pure evil that they were beyond the scope of meaningful analysis.  In today’s more democratic world, they believe such a monstrous phenomenon could only appear again by means of military coercion.  

But sociopolitical evolution is more complicated than many people’s understanding.  Naziism was accepted by more German people than is commonly thought, as recent demographic analysis has shown [8].  Many middle-class Germans at the time dismissed Hitler’s overblown rhetoric as mere pablum for the masses and thought he might turn out to be a strong leader.  Similarly, when Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran in 1979, many educated Iranians thought that Khomeini’s stern rhetoric was mainly intended for the religiously conservative masses and that Khomeini was, in their view, more humane and not the ruthless autocrat that he turned out to be.

And at the present time, we see disturbing populists (such as Trump, Bolsonaro, Duterte, Erdogan, . . .) attracting surprisingly large portions of public support, despite their divisive  policies that restrict freedom and damage common-pool resources.  The public images of these newer demagogues seem to be as simple-minded as Hitler’s (and in fact some of them could perhaps turn out to be as pernicious as Hitler was).  So their presence today is a worrisome reminder of the ever-present dangers of fascist appeal.  Even in the face of the positive outcome in the recent U.S. presidential election, there are indications that a sizable segment of American society is susceptible and responsive to what I would say is neo-fascist propaganda [9,10].  Thus it is important for us to have a better understanding of how and why such visceral public imagery seems to derive public support among large sectors of the population for these ever-present divisive figures [1].  

In the final analysis, can we say that Triumph of the Will is a great movie?  I would say, no, it is not, given its narrative shortcomings.  Nevertheless, it is still an important document.  In this regard, it would probably be good for many of us to take a serious look at Triumph of the Will’s appeal to certain sectors of society and think what should be done to counter it.
★★★        

Notes:
  1. Susan Sontag, “Fascinating Fascism”, New York Review of Books, (6 February 1975).   
  2. Roger Ebert, “Propaganda über alles”, RogerEbert.com, (26 June 2008).    
  3. J. Hoberman, “‘Triumph of the Will’: Fascist Rants and the Hollywood Response”, The New York Times, (3 March 2016).    
  4. Eddie Cockrell, “Triumph of the Will”, Variety, (29 April 2001).   
  5. “Triumph of the Will”, Wikipedia, (26 December 2020).   
  6. Heidi Tworek, “A Lesson From 1930s Germany: Beware State Control of Social Media”, The Atlantic, (26 May 2019).  
  7. Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey, 2nd Edition, Michael Wiese Productions (1998).
  8. Dan Simon, “Who Voted for Hitler?”, The Nation, (15 January 2021).  
  9. Anne Applebaum, “Coexistence Is the Only Option”, The Atlantic, (21 January  2021). 
  10. Josh Dawsey and Michael Scherer, “Trump jumps into a divisive battle over the Republican Party — with a threat to start a ‘MAGA Party’”, The Washington Post, (24 January 2021). 

Leni Riefenstahl

Films of Leni Riefenstahl:

“Amongst White Clouds” - Edward A. Burger (2005), “Hermits” - He Shiping (2015), & “Searching for Monks in China with Red Pine” - Jack Estes (mid-1990s?)

Bill Porter (aka “Red Pine”, his pen name) is an American writer and translator known for his works describing his travels through China and documenting spiritual practices there, particularly that of Daoism and Buddhism.  His best-known work is Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits (1993) [1], and in this article I wish to discuss three documentary films that were inspired by that book and that provided further elaboration of its fascinating subject matter.

As a young student, Porter had dabbled in several academic disciplines before enrolling as a graduate student in anthropology at Columbia University in New York.  But there in New York he encountered Buddhism and began receiving instructions on meditation.  He eventually became so fascinated with Buddhist practice that in 1972, after two years of study, he dropped out of school and moved to a monastery in Taiwan in order to more fully engage in Buddhism [2,3].

In Taiwan, Porter met his future wife, Ku Lien Chang, and learned Chinese well enough that he could begin translating some of the classic Chinese teachings into English.  This was the beginning of Porter’s career as an outstanding translator of Chinese poetry and classic works.  In the process, Porter became fascinated with the spiritual practices associated with these classic teachings, particularly the practices of devout Chinese hermits that he had heard about, and he wondered if there were still any spiritual hermits is present-day China.  However, his interests in going into mainland China to investigate this issue further were blocked for some time by restrictive Chinese policies toward Taiwanese (including Porter’s wife) entry into China.  Eventually these restrictions were relaxed in 1987, and Porter finally first traveled to China in 1989 in order to see if he could find some authentic Chinese hermits.  

Finding hermits out in the wild, of course, is not an easy task, because the hermit does not want to be found – he or she has gone out into the wilderness in order to be alone and completely isolated from the distractions and concerns of society.  They seek to ignore the past and the future and just focus on the now in order to connect with all of conscious and subconscious reality.  Nevertheless, thanks to both some diligence and luck, Porter did manage to find some hermits meditating in caves in the Zhongnan Mountains near Xian.  These mountains have a rugged terrain and a suitable geographic location that has made them appropriate for many hermits seeking meditative isolation.  Because Porter was fluent in Chinese and presented himself as a fellow spiritual seeker, he was able to approach and converse with a number of these hermits, and their conversations make up the principal material contained in his book Road to Heaven.  

A key aspect of these conversations in Road to Heaven is that they do not much concern theological principals or abstract ideas, but are instead focused on the mundane, everyday practice of the hermits.  This gives the reader a unique opportunity to get a feel for what the daily life of the hermit is all about, and this is why I strongly recommend that you read the book, yourself.

So what did these hermits believe in?  Their source belief systems were several ancient traditions which, despite their varying origins, had a certain degree of commonality – Daoism, Zen (in Chinese “Chan”) Buddhism, and Pure Land Buddhism.  In all cases there is an interest in turning the mind away from reflection and thinking about things and, instead, getting it to embrace all of experience.  As a result, these three spiritual practices historically got along harmoniously in China, and the hermits Porter encountered were usually followers of one of them, or sometimes even a mixture of them.  

But although these hermit practices have coexisted harmoniously, they have sometimes had difficulties gaining acceptance in the wider compass of Chinese society.  This is perhaps due to a general suspicion of religious practices on the part of governmental authorities that can be traced back to the horrific experiences of the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864).  This was the civil war between the Qing Dynasty rulers and the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, a cultish offshoot of Christianity that had theocratic ambitions, and this disruption was one of the most devastating conflicts in world history [4] – Chinese society was eviscerated during this period, and the struggles resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of people (some estimates are as high as 70 million deaths [4]).  As a result, there has since been a concern that subsequent religious fervor of any kind might get out of hand.  

And, of course, the later Chinese Communist Revolution (1945-1949), which led to the installation of an officially atheistic government, put further anti-religious pressures on Chinese society.  In this connection, the rejection of religion and traditional Chinese cultural practices was also an underlying motivation behind the Cultural Revolution (1965-1976), the depredations of which led not only to intense suppression of traditional practices, but also to the destruction of a great many Daoist and Buddhist monasteries and architecturally symbolic stupas.  All of these disruptive phenomena and anti-religious social policies undoubtedly put further pressures on would-be spiritual practitioners to isolate themselves in the wilderness as hermits.  

And so all of these effects add further to our respect for the humble hermits.  However, in addition to reading about conversations and commentary describing everyday hermit life in Porter’s book, it can be nice to get visual imagery showing these people and their environments.  And this is where three documentary films related to Road to Heaven can contribute:

All three of these films involve trips to the Zhongnan Mountains in search of the hermits Porter had interviewed for his book, and all three films are currently available for watching on YouTube.    

Searching for Monks in China with Red Pine was produced and directed by Jack Estes and shows Porter visiting hermits sometime in the mid-1990s.  The film is narrated, presumably by Estes, throughout, but it also includes commentary by Porter, as well as the interactions he has with the various people he meets in China.

Amongst White Clouds was written and directed by Edward A. Burger, a convert to Zen Buddhism who was inspired by reading Porter’s Road to Heaven to come to China and study under a Zen monk for four years.  This film does not show Porter directly, but it is very much influenced by Porter’s work.  It traces Burger’s journey through the Zhongnan Mountains looking for and talking to hermits that he meets [8].  Although the film is a bit marred by some too-brief subtitles of translated comments from Chinese speakers, nevertheless, this is an interesting film that is accompanied by some contemplative background music, and it is worth seeing.

Hermits is a film written, directed, and filmed by He Shiping, Fu Peng, and Zhou Chengyu that shows Porter’s visit to the Zhongnan Mountains twenty-five years after his first visit in 1989.  This film is particularly interesting, in part because it shows more of Porter and more details of his encounters with hermits, some of whom he had seen twenty-five years earlier [2].  The vérité virtues of the film can be traced back to the film’s interesting “Director Statement” [2,9]:

Director Statement – 13 Commandments

It took us 3 years and 14 trips to Zhongnan Mountains to accomplish this documentary. It was difficult to communicate with the hermits. Our requests for interview were mostly rejected, but when some of them agreed, we got the precious opportunities. Due to our humbleness, sincereness and patience, about ten hermits finally agreed to be filmed and might be willing to have further communication with us. Unfortunately, our author/leading character--Bill Porter was only allowed to stay in China for a short while this time. However, with three years’ hard work and preparation, we’re quite ready for the revisit.

1. Zen. Everything moves except the camera position. The dynamic state of men, wind, water, birds, grass and trees contrasts with the static state of the camera. No zoom shots, no pans and tilts, no dolly or crane shots. The balance of composition is pursued, with the steady scenes to reveal inner peace and quietness.

2. Humility. For shooting the hermits, we adopt only low angle and the static camera position. The camera should be no higher than the cameramen’s heads when they are shooting on their knees. We do our best to avoid the disrespectful high angle shots, and while shooting the conversations between Bill Porter and the hermits, the cameramen step back or leave the scene once the camera is set and rolling.

3. Moderation. We use mainly medium shots for shooting characters instead of close-ups, so as to avoid the dramatic effects. The frames of interior shots and exterior shots of dialogues are limited to one zhang (c. 3.333 meters) wide, symbolizing Fang Zhang (square zhang, or 11 1/9 m2), as in “The room of one square zhang can contain all.” in Vimalakirti Sutra. Static camera position is required for the scenes of people sitting in meditation, apprehending the doctrines, practicing martial arts, living, etc. Following shot or other kinds of moving camera shots are prevented.

4. Selection. The unnecessary gorgeous scenery is left out. Just the simple life of the hermits is filmed. This documentary is to show both the elegant, poetic, leisurely and carefree aspects, and the impoverished, choice-less, agonizing, and sometimes dirty sides of the hermits’ life.

5. Micro-Budget. Total cost is under $92k(€65k). To reveal a way of low budget life, we adopt a way of low budget shooting. Instead of professional movie cameras, we shoot the whole documentary with Canon EOS 5D Mark II, using only prime lens and telephoto lens.

6. Keeping it natural. Absolutely no props, setting, or artificial lighting are added. Everything you see is the actual living condition of the hermits.

7. Simplicity. During post-production, no special effects -- fade-in, fade-out, dissolve or blank screen -- are added. Scenes are directly connected by the footages of Bill Porter’s journey.   

8. Silence. There may be awkward situations when the hermits refuse to let our crews in, or are not willing to talk with us, which, however, lead to precious scenes that definitely need to be captured. Moreover, we let such shots last, in order to brew interesting and profound impression.

9. Slowness. Slowness is the rhythm of the hermits’ life, and the style of this documentary. Bill Porter is required to speak slowly, as he’s thinking. The hermits talk slowly, with pauses, or even sit in silence from time to time. In addition, streams in the documentary are slow and soft ripple instead of water pouring down.

10. Vitality. We do not peruse intentional vitality so as to get rid of the tediousness. In fact, the spontaneous self-mockery and movement are of vivid eastern wisdom and humor. Besides, Bill Porter’s body language is vivid enough.

11. Quietness. No score. No narration. Only the hermits and Bill Porter’s sound recorded on location, with occasional birds’ chirping, dogs’ barking and water babbling.

12. Freedom. We did not direct any of Bill Porter’s topics.

13. Fast. After going into the mountain, our crews were forbidden to have alcoholic drinks, meats, scallion, or garlic.

As I watched these three films, I was struck by how humble and austere were the living circumstances of the hermits that were visited.  Porter had to climb up very steep, barely visible trails and cliffs to get to the hidden, often hand-excavated, caves where the hermits lived.  The hermits would grow their own food, and they would only every month or so make the arduous climb down mountain peak to a local village in order to buy some meager supplies.  And yet the hermits that Porter would meet (at least the ones that are shown) were extraordinarily hospitable and would invariably offer him a meal from what little they had.  One thing that surprised me in all this was the number of women hermits that Porter met in his searches.  These nuns would usually look after themselves in the same way that the male hermits would.  There seemed to be no gender discrimination in these outlying quarters.

Overall, over the course of the book and the three films, one can only have respect and admiration for Porter’s remarkable perseverance, as well his general understanding and sensitivity towards his subject matter.  But my greatest appreciation is for the hermits, themselves, many of whom are in their seventies and have been living as hermits for fifty years.  They are truly humble, compassionate, and dedicated spiritual seekers.  We can see that they are not cutting themselves off from the world, but are instead seeking to embrace all of it with love.
 ★★★★ 

Notes:

  1. Red Pine (William Porter), Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits, Mercury House, (1993)
  2. H. E. Tsem Rinpoche, “Hermit – A Profound Documentary by Bill Porter”, TsemRinpoche.Com, (21 August 2018).    
  3. Robin Dudley, “'Red Pine' talks translation, fluff and writing”, The Leader, (18 October 2016).
  4. “Taiping Rebellion”, Wikipedia, (2 January 2021).   
  5. Jack Estes, Searching for Monks in China with Red Pine”, (“Hermits1" on Youtube), (mid-1990s?, posted on YouTube on 19 June 2018).      
  6. Edward A. Burger, Amongst White Clouds (Documentary - 2005 - Zen), (2005, posted on YouTube on 27 March 2018).      
  7. He Shiping, Fu Peng, and Zhou Chengyu, Hermits, (Chinese monks / Documentary Movies 1080p), (2015, posted on  YouTube 9 May 2020).    
  8. Marwood Larson-Harris, "Amongst White Clouds", Journal of Religion & Film: Vol. 12 : Iss. 2, Article 7,  (October 2008).    
  9. “Hermits (87min_1080p)”, FilmFreeway, (14 January 2015).     

He Shiping

Films of He Shiping:

Jack Estes

Films of Jack Estes:

Edward A. Burger

Films of Edward A. Burger: