Directed by Leni Riefenstahl, “Triumph des Willens” (aka “Triumph Of The Will”) was released March 28, 1935 in Germany.
I got interested in doing an opinion piece on Leni Riefenstahl’s movie “Triumph of the Will” after seeing clips of it on the excellent CBC six-part series entitled “Love, Hate and Propaganda.” Viewing those brief clips reminded me that I had never seen the movie in its entirety, yet this movie had been hailed, on more than one occasion, as the greatest propaganda movie of all time and as a masterpiece as well. It seemed imperative to take a closer look at what made it worthy of such superlative praise. My goal was twofold, analyze the movie not only in terms of its propagandist aspirations, but also in terms of its aesthetic aspirations.
Riefenstahl was personally commissioned by Adolf Hitler to produce a film document of the Nuremberg week-long Nazi rally of 1934. Said document turned out to be Nazi gold since it was later projected to packed houses all across theaters in Germany.
The following are just my impressions upon viewing the film. I didn’t seek out any other more-authoritative sources, since anybody can do that and it wasn’t the intent of this piece.
Taking into consideration the time (it was made in 1934) and the lack of sophisticated, technological equipment, Riefenstahl’s achievement is impressive. It’s fairly obvious she used a wide variety of cameras and telephoto lenses to magnify her objectives, made use of aerial photography, probably unheard of at the time, and also used music and lighting to striking effect. Not content with just straight, stationary shooting, Riefenstahl’s cameras roved around and into the crowds to capture not only the faces and bodies but the oddest, most intriguing cinematographic angles she could get away with. Irrespective of her subject matter — which is extremely distasteful — there is no denying the incredible level of artistry at work.
“Triumph of the Will” contains many impressive scenes, but the most impressive one certainly has to be an overhead shot of Hitler, Himmler and Victor Lutz marching in unison towards the monument found at the end of the Nuremberg stadium, while flanked on either side by enormous formations of Nazi soldiers standing at perfect attention in unbroken line, after line, after line. The scene is utterly chilling, but it’s undeniably beautifully framed by a knowing artist’s eye. Riefenstahl also succeeded in lighting Hitler in such a way as to make him always appear masterful and in control. At times, he literally fills the frame, almost glowingly so, while everything else recedes into the background.
Regardless of its prodigious aesthetic achievements, there is no doubt ” Triumph of the Will” — which could have easily been subtitled “The Making of a Myth” — had only one goal in mind: the deification of Adolf Hitler.
The opening shot of Hitler’s plane soaring above the old town of Nuremberg, high over the clouds, leaves little doubt a Messiah and Savior is about to land to bestow his good graces and largesse on the unfortunately benighted people below.
The movie is solely preoccupied with being a witness to and recording this de facto anointment with the endless streams of parades, the fiery speeches, the adoring crowds, the Nazi symbols and banners prominently displayed everywhere, the youthful Nazis engaged in homoerotic tinged horseplay, the farmers dressed in traditional costumes intent on bearing gifts and paying homage to this newly-anointed deity.
In fact, the whole movie plays like one long, adoring love fest, but it’s a love laced with malice and rabid fanaticism. There is something deeply disturbing about all these upturned faces intent on their adoration and on their fixation at the sight of this one man. It can be said that there has never been a movie so utterly devoted to the creation of a mythology as embodied by one man, that man being Adolf Hitler. What resonates the most is the single-mindedness of purpose reinforced over and over again in Hitler’s often histrionic speeches: “One People, One Leader, One Reich, One Germany.”
I have to confess that I had to overcome my innate distaste of everything Nazi in order to try to view this movie from a more dispassionate angle. It was more interesting as a curiosity than as a work of art because I could never get past the message and the propaganda. It’s not a pleasant viewing experience; in fact, one might even call it downright boring, regardless of its masterpiece status.
Fascism, and there’s no doubt that Nazism was fascism, is always ugly. It appeals to what is at its most base and coarse in humans. Regardless of its artistic trappings and pretensions, it’s hard to judge this movie on anything other than the ugliness and the fanaticism which it conveys all too well. I saw it on a DVD, but for those of you who might be interested after reading this piece, it’s easily available, free of charge, online.
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