“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.

  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). 

No comments: