Triumph of the Will (1935)

Leni Riefenstahl’s controversial propaganda film depicts Hitler’s arrival in Nuremberg in 1934.

leni_riefenstahl_triumph_will_poster_14aEditor’s Note: This piece was written for a class in which we were instructed to review a film that is considered controversial, acknowledging how it can still be viewed as a work of art despite its controversy. 

What’s peculiar about “Triumph of the Will,” the infamous Nazi propaganda documentary from 1935, is that it doesn’t start with a magisterial shot of fascist grandeur and marching citizenry (although there will be plenty of that), but a peaceful image of soaring through the clouds.

Documentarian Leni Riefenstahl imagines Adolf Hitler’s view as he lands in Nuremberg for 1934’s gathering of hundreds of thousands within the Nazi Party to be “reviewed” by Hitler. When he arrives on the ground, the camera rides along in Der Fuhrer’s car and gets a perspective of almost exactly what Hitler would’ve seen that day in 1934.

No doubt, it’s an incredible sight that we can today recognize as bone-chillingly evil. So many smiling people giving the Nazi salute to their leader, so many star-struck kids gleaming in the sunlight, and all of it so terrifying to today look back and recognize the immense power this monster held over the masses.

But as much as Riefenstahl’s film is made to showcase Germany’s power, it has traces of calling attention to the region’s beauty. Early on the documentary has a travelogue look at the tranquil and old fashioned stone architecture, all the local farmers arriving in traditional lederhosen, the girls in braids and lacy gowns, with the shimmering canals and flags flying gracefully in the wind. You just have to ignore the fact that those flags are all carrying the Nazi insignia.

What’s more, it might be instructive to watch “Triumph of the Will” divorced from its rousing score of victorious marches. With the exception of the film’s several speeches from Nazi elite and Hitler himself, “Triumph of the Will” is practically a silent film, and Riefenstahl’s eye, taking cues from Old Hollywood’s approach to lighting, deep focus cinematography and striking low angles, is not as blindingly celebratory as you might imagine. There is an unconscious, sinister undercurrent to everything you see here, from intense, stoic looks on the faces of the Hitler Youth, to the geometrically precise armies of people gathering in stadiums and plazas that have come to define the look of fascism. In fact, the propaganda proved so powerful and effective, American filmmakers were able to use Riefenstahl’s footage in their own propaganda against the Nazis.

It would be wrong to oversell how impressive “Triumph of the Will” looks, because Riefenstahl’s documentary is by no means a “behind the scenes” account of Nuremberg in 1934. “Triumph of the Will” is exactly the film the government wants you to see, a sparkling, even sanitized look at the Nazi Party. While the film depicts hundreds of thousands celebrating Hitler, it neglects the many more both in fear and in danger of his rise to power. It would be tempting to see “Triumph of the Will” as a powerful historical document, but you quickly realize the film is decidedly one-sided.

That polished, rubbed clean sheen even reflects in the Nazi speeches. Speaking to the Hitler Youth at a massive stadium, the Fuhrer says with all his conviction that the children need to “practice obedience,” “steel yourselves” and “learn to sacrifice,” and you may raise an eyebrow when he says that Germans should be both “peace-loving and strong.” The Nazi leadership all speak of Germany’s greatness in the endurance and fortitude of their culture, economy and jobs. Their words serve as a reminder for how Germany rebuilt itself after the first World War, and Riefenstahl even opens “Triumph of the Will” with a title card that says this all takes place 16 years after the beginning of Germany’s suffering.

While “Triumph of the Will” doesn’t have any of Hitler’s directly inflammatory rhetoric and racism that would prove so terrifying and damning, his speech to close the film evokes and demands a slavish loyalty among the party, an us against them mentality that the enemy must be removed in order for the country as a whole to thrive. You can see how evil can fester under this lens.

But perhaps these images themselves aren’t far different from that of American flag-waving patriotism and militaristic advertisements and propaganda. The Nazis were responsible for some of the greatest evil known to man, but Riefenstahl’s film simply wants to celebrate a country’s power and unity.

Granted, “Triumph of the Will” isn’t exactly thrilling viewing for modern audiences. Have I mentioned the sheer amount of marching? All the parading and mass gathering as Hitler stands firmly in observation makes for the most tedious of pageantry. More interesting would honestly be a documentary about how “Triumph of the Will” was made. Hitler himself said Riefenstahl was his favorite filmmaker (hey, at least the Nazis were progressive in championing female directors) and gave her complete access and free reign to film as she pleased. Riefenstahl deployed 30 cameras and 120 technicians to film the rallies, and the sheer scale and production value necessary to capture everything must’ve required elaborate cranes and detailed, carefully orchestrated tracking shots. Ultimately, the finished, nearly two hour film represents just 3 percent of all the footage Riefenstahl shot.

star-wars-triumph-of-the-will-1935

Even films as massive as “Star Wars” have borrowed liberally from “Triumph of the Will,” and the countless images that have come to define fascism and the Nazis throughout modern popular culture all owe a huge debt to Riefenstahl.

Perhaps the greatness of her propaganda helped stoked the flames of war. Perhaps the world was right to label her a pariah. Or perhaps Riefenstahl’s artistry had the power to put the monstrous evil of Adolf Hitler into perspective.

3 thoughts on “Triumph of the Will (1935)”

  1. pretty courageous choice there, brian, if only because no matter what critical position you take on the film you’re gonna get slagged for it * so let’s get that out of the way right now and simply say that CHAPLIN REALLY NAILED IT!!!–i.e., in THE GREAT DICTATOR * “what???–why that’s just … just trivializing hitler!” * um, no: HITLER’s trivializing hitler … * example: there’s a shot in TRIUMPH where, i don’t remember what exactly the führer’s said, but the crowd’s gone up for grabs and … hitler does a double-take!: “mmm-hmmm, nice line!” … * that’s ON CAMERA, mind you, as if the guy can’t get his head around an idea without gauging its effect on everyone else * so unlike streicher, the real madman in this clown show and the only true believer in the lot–every word he says he means literally, with full venom * but hitler?–at base he’s a PERFORMER, who doesn’t know what true belief is * o, he can work himself into a state where the difference between dogma and performance tends to disappear–a necessary state, i guess, if he’s gonna get anywhere with his aggrieved national clientele * but again, not to trivialize–except, again, we’re ALREADY trivial …

    but the main problem we have with TRIUMPH today is that it’s hard to see it as something new * except at one time it was–so what would our reaction to it have been then? * i mean, consider this: if hitler’d been, let’s say, assassinated in 1938, ’39. or even as late as 1940, how would riefenstahl’s hagiographic monument play out today? * as the memory of someone with a fairly minor place in human historical affairs? * as a symbolic coda to militant german-nationalist revanchism, out with a whimper but certainly not a bang? * there was a lot of seat of the pants flying going on, even up to the great concentration camp “solution” at wansee in ’41 * (after all there was talk–serious? who knows?–even into the late 30s of moving all germany’s jews to madagascar–no slaughterhouse then, no “world class evil,” whatever that implies, that would have to be accounted for * in fact, the whole “evil” thing looks to me like a distancing device, of not facing up to the film’s most “terrifying” aspects (if that’s the operable term) full bore * in my case it left me pretty uneasy: these are people i know, these are friends i grew up with * that’s how near these “golden youths” under the nuremberg stadium struck me as being * the distance between them and me not very large–in fact, maybe it’s no real distance at all: “there but for the grace of …,” whatever * i had an uncle, a policeman, who, as the tale was told around the thanksgiving table, would shoot every alleged “black perp” he met, then throw a razor blade on the floor * “he came at me with a razor” was his usual explanation, until a police captain warned him: ” better get a new razor, that one’s looking pretty dull” * true? false?–in any case we were all supposed to laugh … i mean, what’s a little alien blood among pals and relatives? * except his wife never did: she wound up in an asylum … and we all thought SHE was the crazy one!
    (incidentally, this man was one of my favorite childhood uncles, and all my memories of him are good … so go live with THAT one for a while!)

    also incidentally, hitler himself was a great sentimentalist, who’d shed tears at the drop of a hat over the sufferings of some poor dumb animal or other (yeah, right–like a wolfhound in ILSA, QUEEN OF THE SS!), a child’s dead goldfish, etc * his own relations knew him as “uncle addie,” a beloved member of the family, especially among favorite nieces and nephews (sure do know what THAT’s about–firsthand, you might say!) * which we come to “appreciate” from THE CONFESSIONS OF WINIFRED WAGNER, a different kind of documentary altogether, more intimate, more homey than the riefenstahl brand * also that h. was a vegetarian–again, that soft soft “heart” of his at work–who’d invariably chide herr bormann for the “corpse soup” he’d slurp down at dinnertime: what barbarism! no feelings at all for the planet’s lesser creatures, their blood being spilled simply to feed … us thoughtless carnivores! * which we learn from sokurov’s MOLOCH (1999), a “delightful” mountain fiction based on incontrovertible, hard FACT …

    all of this by the way, of course–which makes TRIUMPH not at all an easy film to shake * or if it is, i haven’t done a very good job of it

    (incidentally again: those clouds at the beginning of TRIUMPH aren’t about “peace”–a motif borrowed from nietzsche and the echt german romantics that’s actually more about “power,” the “purifications” of the upper air … ah, well …)

    1. Thanks Pat, we talked in class about the degree to which Hitler and this movie would be perceived differently had history played out differently, and it’s an interesting thing to consider. That does surprise me though about your closeness to it and how that impacts how you watch the film. I can imagine it’s troubling in ways more so than it is for me. And that’s interesting about the clouds at the beginning. I guess I think there’s a contradiction between some of the speeches and prose spoken than what the Nazi Germany mentality was in reality, and I thought the clouds served as a good metaphor.

  2. not to belabor the point (except i’m belaboring it–well, duhhh!) but here’s a sampling of recurrent motifs at work in the nazi aesthetic: clouds, the “blue empyrean,” the mountains–think berchtesgaden, the eagle’s next, g.w. pabst’s WHITE HELL OF PITZ PALU (in which riefenstahl starred), the “alpine films” of, e.g., luis trenker and riefenstahl’s own BLUE LIGHT–blankets of snow and cumulus as emblematic of death, the “silences” of eternity, of valhalla (what hitler’s house architect albert speer was ultimately about: imposing white halls–some would argue “crushing,” in the way every hypothetical viewer is overwhelmed and dwarfed–clad in the marble of mausoleums, of funerary remembrance … albeit he’s simply following in the footsteps of karl friedrich schinkel, supreme german “classicist” of the napoleonic era, the nation’s obsession with the greeks of antiquity ultimately playing itself out, via echt acolytes hitler and speer, as farce) * my own views on this (still evolving, i hope) mainly derive from susan sontag’s 40-year-old essay on the subject, “fascinating fascism” * some representative quotes:

    “[M]ountain climbing … was a visually irresistible metaphor of unlimited aspiration toward the high mystic goal, both beautiful and terrifying, which was later to become concrete in Führerworship. The character that Riefenstahl generally played was that of a wild girl who dares to scale the peak that others, the “valley pigs,” shrink from. Her first role, in the silent The Holy Mountain (1926), is that of a young dancer named Diotima being wooed by an ardent climber who converts her to the healthy ecstasies of Alpinism. …

    “Riefenstahl herself directed six feature films. Her first, which was released in 1932, was another mountain film—The Blue Light (Das Blaue Licht). Riefenstahl starred in it as well, playing a role similar to the ones in Fanck’s films for which she had been “so widely admired, not least by Adolf Hitler,” but allegorizing the dark themes of longing, purity, and death…. As usual, the mountain is represented as both supremely beautiful and dangerous, that majestic force which invites the ultimate affirmation of and escape from the self—into the brotherhood of courage and into death. (On nights when the moon is full, a mysterious blue light radiates from the peak of Mount Cristallo, luring the young villagers to try to climb it. Parents try to keep their children home behind closed window shutters, but the young are drawn away like somnambulists and fall to their deaths on the rocks.)”

    the ultimate parody of the sensibility will arguably be found in guy maddin’s CAREFUL (from 1992, i think), where alpine villagers refrain from making any sounds at all for fear of … DIE AVALANCHE! * so yes, “peace,” if you want to call it that–but at such a price! * in any case, it’s fascinating, as sontag herself admits, almost against her better judgment, her own hebraic cum holocaust antecedents * if anyone’s interested you can find the whole thing HERE:

    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1975/02/06/fascinating-fascism/

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