Say what you will about the demented, paranoid, mass-murdering cretin Germans elected as their leader in 1933, but Adolf Hitler understood the power of cinema. In Leni Riefenstahl, the actress turned filmmaker, he saw someone certainly able and perhaps also willing to portray the National Socialist movement in as flattering light as possible. When Riefenstahl agreed to make a documentary on the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg, she allegedly first encountered obstacles in the shape of party officials who didn’t understand the need to allow her cameras close to the Fuehrer. He made sure she wasn’t bothered again.
The film famously begins with the Fuehrer’s plane descending from the heavens, home of the gods. The religious theme is always present throughout the film, cleverly balanced to make sure that people tie the divine message to the Party and the Leader, not the actual Christian church. Coupled with the Nazi Party’s fascination of the Roman Empire, there are many visual aspects of the party days in Nuremberg that are supposed to remind viewers of the good old days when emperors were regarded as gods. The exact cadence, the uniforms, the happy, smiling people of Nuremberg enthusiastically greeting Hitler and the country’s leadership as they parade through the city, the vigorous looks of Hitler Youth members, the dedication and passion evident in not only Hitler’s speeches but those of his closest men… the whole spectacle is there to turn us all into supporters.
Triumph of the Will has always been reluctantly admired by film historians and it is quite an achievement. The symbolism and powerful, militaristic portrayal of a reinvigorated Germany helped its people feel better about themselves, something they had longed for after having been humiliated by the Allies after the Great War. The Nazis brought hope and change, at least to the masses who were too blind to see through them.
Brilliantly shot and edited
Technically, the film is a tour de force, brilliantly shot and edited in a way that wouldn’t be standard until decades later; just study those powerful shots of Hitler giving a night-time speech during a rally where the camera never stops moving. It is absolutely fascinating to watch this monster up and close, how he carefully chooses his poses and how to present the key phrases of the speech as emphatically as possible.
The downside to the film is that anyone who isn’t a German watching it in 1935 will be unable to understand how these people can be perceived as trustworthy enough to support politically; most of the time, Hitler’s collaborators and the Fuehrer in particular look either cold or aggressive. Scenes where hundreds of SA and SS men, along with Wehrmacht troops and armored vehicles march passed the Nazi leadership show Hitler saluting his men, but most viewers will find the endless parading tedious.
When I studied film in college, my teacher would only show us the opening scene with Hitler’s plane. I can understand why anyone would loath and fear the work of Riefenstahl to the degree that they refuse to see the movie. But it is a comfort to know that only film scholars will get anything out of watching Triumph of the Will; everyone else will shake their heads in disbelief.
Triumph of the Will 1935-Germany. 110 min. B/W. Produced, directed and edited by Leni Riefenstahl. Screenplay: Leni Riefenstahl, Walter Ruttmann, Eberhard Taubert.
Trivia: Original title: Triumph des Willens. There is a predecessor to this film, Victory of Faith, made by Riefenstahl during the 1933 Nuremberg rally, but it features then-SA leader Ernst Röhm who was executed the following year. The film became an embarrassment to Hitler’s regime and most copies were destroyed.
Last word: “I had no political reasons for making these films. There was one Hitler and one government. Everyone shouted: ‘Heil Hitler’. It was normal at that time. You have to put yourself in the past to look at it from the right perspective.” (Riefenstahl, The Guardian)