Friday, February 24, 2012

Triumph of the Will (1935)

Once a famed German actress Leni Riefenstahl would be thrust into the limelight of being one of the all time well known filmmakers due to the commission of a film by Adolf Hitler. Riefenstahl’s Nazi masterpiece Triumph of the Will captured the romanticism that German Chancellor Hitler was looking for in envisioning a strong and perfect nation. Hailed as perhaps the most famous of all propaganda films, Triumph would record for all history the commanding and frightening images of the Third Reich as it came to power leading the once broken nation to a new rebirth, foreshadowing the military state it was to be for the next decade. It would be this film that defined Nazi German for most of the world to see.

Triumph of the Will is a propaganda film that chronicles the 1934 National Socialist (better known as Nazi) Party Congress in Nuremberg, capturing the grand images and influential speeches of many of the country’s leaders, centering on Adolf Hitler and his vision of German. Edited together are the major events of the four day Nazi Rally from the moment Hitler lands in Nuremberg to his rousing concluding speech. Throughout Hitler is praised as the country’s leader and savior from the ruble that the country was left in after the horrors of the Great War. We witness vast armies and military precisions as tens if not hundreds of thousands of soldiers showcase their marching and dedication to the words of the Fuehrer. Hitler is praised for his construction plans that revitalize the nation’s economy, presenting soldieries with spades as a sign of construction rather than with firing arms presenting them as killers. Hitler speaks out to the youth of the country and their importance to the continual rise in the faith of the country and the need for their allegiance. The climax shows Hitler in a vast sea of soldiers at attention, paying respect to the fallen soldiers of the past while Hitler presents a stirring speech of the future of Germany, stating how the National Socialists are the only true Germans and how they must protect their ways. To thunderous applause and countless salutes the people pay their respects to the nation’s one leader.

It is difficult to study the history of world in the late 30s and early 40s without paying close attention to the actions of Nazi Germany. When studying cinema in this period it is vastly important to notice Leni Riefenstahl’s epic documentary that has come to embody the images forever linked to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. The picture creates an appearance of Hitler as if a messiah of the Germanic people. Positioned in angles of great power with countless soldiers, civilians, and youth saluting him as the architect of the nation’s great future, Hitler is made into an image nearly of a god.

Throughout the film are many figures of religious inspired imagery used to craft this stirring visualization of the Nazi party and its leader. Large idols of golden eagles and swastikas are continually manifested as great visions of power. It is very shocking to comprehend the size of many of these statues, banners, and monuments that were constructed for the means of this film, all to stir up inside audiences the means that Nazism is great. It was meant to make you feel that if you were not with them you were very much on the outside of what was right in the country.

The great crowds during the rally.
Countless soldiers fill the screen, standing in perfect formation, marching with great angular precision. It is strangely beautiful in its own way, like that of a Busby Berkeley film, keeping in mind that Berkeley was a military man himself and inspired by large formations in his musicals. At the same time the vast numbers are menacing with the size and loyalty that would frighten those that wished for more free will. In the future these kinds of images would help to inspire similar formations seen in the Empire in the Star Wars saga, or the armies in the Lord of the Rings pictures. Clearly these images have come to mean evil power in our minds due to their use in Nazi Germany and its propaganda.

At the middle of this whole picture is one filmmaker, the German actress turned director Leni Riefenstahl. After directing her first picture The Blue Light, for which she also starred, Hitler came to enjoy the film and by chance the two would one day meet. Riefenstahl states that she was fond of his great oratory skill and fell in some ways under his spell. Hitler would commission her to produce Triumph of the Will, eager to manifest the greatness of the Nazi Party and be used as a tool to record the rally to all of Germany, and the world, to view.

The images, grand. The music, stirring. The speeches, inspiring ( for the Germans at that time). The editing, precise. Of all films produced to exemplify the Nazi way, this picture was perfect. There is more than one reason for that: One, Hitler would have wanted it that way; and two, it was Riefenstahl’s second try at producing the same type of film.

Riefenstahl was in fact commission a year earlier, in 1933, to record that year’s Nazi Rally in Nuremberg, ultimately producing the film Victory of Faith. With the Nazi party having just taken over control of the German government the picture would success, both with audiences and in box office receipts. Unfortunately with Riefenstahl she was ill-prepared for the task, and the film had its flaws. Also due to the events of a Nazi cleansing of the certain leaders presented in the film, some of the figures were being erased from German history. The Nazi Party would order that the film be destroyed and Hitler issued Riefenstahl to make a new film.

Riefenstahl in Nuremberg for production.
For Triumph of the Will Riefenstahl  would prepare greatly, pre-envisioning many of the images she wished to capture and recreate that which she liked from her previous work. With a literal army of crew members manning a large artillery of cameras, Riefenstahl was able to produce many angles of the large numbers of people and the speakers. What makes this film more innovated is the use of aerial shots and moving cameras that create an even more motivating vision of the Nazi rally and Adolf Hitler. Her use of a large score and editing assembled a masterpiece of a picture that many would long remember. For many years until her death in 2003 Riefenstahl would be greatly praised for her work on this picture, being considered one of the greatest female filmmakers of twentieth century.

There are really two ways to look at this picture, from the point of view of when it was initially released and from respect of looking back on it many years after the World War II and the fall of Nazi Germany. For its time the picture was highly praised. This was a film that was directed completely by Riefenstahl and not interfered with by the propaganda department of Germany. The Nazis loved it and Hitler praised it, embodying all that he wished to see in his own utopian vision for his motherland. The film won many prizes in Germany and in foreign countries, including Italy and even the United States. The film was wonderfully produced with quality that surpassed any newsreel anyone would have ever had seen. The picture was majestic for its time. From a contemporary standpoint the movie has been used in documentaries all over the world to show Hitler at his height of power. Now the film is menacing, an ominous vision of things to come in the mid-1930s. We hear similar issues being discussed then in Germany as we do today in the United States, issues like the need to build the economy and a vision of the future. This displays that the film was about a country too with a people looking for a bright hope for tomorrow.

Riefenstahl would produce other films for the Nazi government in the coming years, but nothing that came close to the majesty of this picture. After World War II she would be imprisoned for four years as a Nazi sympathizer. She however made the case that she served as a historian in this production, merely recording the events in the best manner she could, not creating a piece of propaganda. Despite her past in Nazi Germany, Riefenstahl would be to some especially in the film world as a sympathetic figure as her few films made radical contribution to the cinema community with unparalleled quality and skill. She proved to be well ahead of her time and passed away to some fanfare in the cinematic world in 2003.

Propaganda or not, this film served a great deal of evil, winning over allies to the Hitler led Nazi Germany leading to the second World War, ultimately slaughtering millions. In that respect it is a immoral picture that brought many opportunities for evil in the world. On the other hand it is a piece of cinematic art, masterful in its quality and skill for which Riefenstahl work painstakingly on for a great deal of time to perfect into the final piece we see today. Her vision would inspire filmmakers for years to come, and though this film would be banned in many countries for so many years it is an artifact of film history, both as a piece of fine celluloid art as well as a time capsule preserving a vision of a precursor to one of the world’s most tragic times in all of history, forever captured for all to see.


  1. I agree with everything you say about this important film, but want to add that as for entertainment value alone, most viewers are going to be impressed (briefly) with the amazing images and then look for the fast forward button. The movie has no real linear narrative or suspense. Granted that no one can call themself a student of 20th Century history without watching this film, but it's way too boring to start running on TCM every month.

    What brings interest and suspense to the film is what we know about what comes after, and our genuine curiousity about how so many millions were drawn into the immense evil of Nazism. Notice that Hitler et al do not rally support for mass murder or bombings, it's all about teamwork and building roads and harvesting grain and raising strong children.

    There are considerable similarities with the contemporaneous NRA images, like the NRA blue eagle that resembles the icon Leni is pictured with. Not to say that is a bad thing, community spirit and cooperation are a good thing when they are not used to rationalize oppression and murder.

    1. I agree with you as well. Of course it is not an entertaining film, or (I believe) one that should play on television, like TCM or even The History Channel. (if they ever would play significant historical programming again.) I see the motion picture as a recorded moment of time we get to see today, instead of a retrospective documentary produced with modern day entertainment value a year XXXX modern perspective. To get the full appreciation of the film you have to know the prologue of Germany to this point and what is to come. (I love the fact that it was the second such film Riefenstahl made after Hitler made "changes" to history) It unnerving to think that most of those people in the film would die within the next decade due to war.

      As for watching it in fast forward, that is the sign of one just not trying to grasp the fullness of what this film brings to us as a modern day audience. I was naive and use to say films like 2001: A Space Odyssey was a far more entertaining film in fast forward. I have since learned to appreciate the filmmaker, the artists, the vision, and the perspective in which the film was presented, giving me a sense of awe when I such films. (Take for example Intolerance. What a production of its time! But that is a different subject)

      I find the NRA logos in this era of American cinema to be laughable when thinking about the self-righteous Hollywood we see today. At that time the movie moguls were Eastern European immigrants that came to this country in the late 19th century and made themselves into American citizens they were, even creating the vision of the American Dream for millions in their films. They were Republicans that supported organizations such as the NRA to especially show their patriotism. Times have changed. The eagle symbolism was such illustration of power that inspired many, American and Nazi alike. The NRA used the symbol obviously to parallel American values with the organization's vision of respectability at that time.


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