Director: Leni Riefenstahl
Writer: Leni Riefenstahl, Walter Ruttmann, and Eberhard Taubert
Cinematographer: Sepp Allgeier and Franz Weihmayr
Producer: Leni Riefenstahl
by Jon Cvack
Triumph of the Will is a one of a kind film, serving as not just a documentation of history but as an historical documentation in and of itself. I had seen clips in college, never all that excited to put on the two hour propaganda film that follows Hitler and his cronies around Berlin. Yet with a growing passion for history and in a time when those on both side of the aisle like to compare the other side’s president to Hitler, and as I’m trying to work my way through an increasingly shorter list of films I need to see, I figured that now was the time.
It was directed by Leni Riefenstahl, who was brought specifically for her ignorance of Nazi politics, which as my professor recently told me, is a shame in that one of the first great female filmmakers unfortunately created one of the strongest pieces of propaganda ever made. The film opens up in the skies as we cut between Hitler and his/the plane’s POV looking down upon Germany, as the infamous Godlike figure that’s descending upon Berlin to bring hope and salvation to the troubled masses. For Hitler Nazism was the religion, and it was even Hitler’s grand plan to have his Nazi ideology take over as the state religion and usher out all other organized religions.
We then watch as he heads from rally to rally, involving all his esteemed generals - Goebbels, Himmler, Rommel, and countless others - as they inspect countless parades throughout the Berlin streets and parks, culminating in a gathering of 150,000 troops (which honestly sounds like a small number) as Hitler lays a wreath down at the First World War memorial.
What you notice throughout the film is there is no mention of a Master Race or Jews, Christians, political dissidents, or the handicapped who he would begin to systematically murder by creating the first Nazi concentration camp at Dachau. And it wasn’t until three years after the film’s release that the Jews were increasingly rounded up and sent off to the camps. Made in 1935, Triumph of the Will captures the moment before Hitler’s determination to create Welthauptstadt Germania (aka New Germania) and usher in a new era of German excellence, comprised of white, blond, blue-eyed, and physically and mentally strong individuals.
It’s with this fact in mind that the film becomes all the more terrifying, as the endless display of the Swastika and Eagle (both references to the Roman Legions) trump any Christian or Judeo symbols; if any at all. While there are cathedrals and churches, they’re hijacked to promote the Nazi message. They offer ideas of hope and change, and in age where it’d take a wheelbarrow full of money to buy a loaf of bread, with unemployment rampant, the masses found inspiration in a leader who was vowing to return Germany to a former great time - to Make Germany Great Again; blaming the Jews and other non-German ethnic or religious group who could take the blame and provide an easy and tragic scapegoat for far more complex problems.
What makes the film so terrifying is that the images seem so innocent. We see how easy it’d be insert American flags and our American Eagle, make some adjustments to the uniforms and see that, in terms of the how the public responds, it wouldn’t be all that different. One of the finest examples of this fact being the Hitler Youth rallies, along with the hardly adult recruits. We see young men picking on and teasing each other. I have faith that the at least the slim majority of those who served the Nazi cause genuinely thought they were doing the right thing. I keep finding myself wanting to avoid comparing the cause to our current situation, but again, this was shot before Hitler invaded Poland and started World War II. His famous Time Magazine “Man of the Year” would be awarded three years later. What’s most terrifying is that beneath all of these shallow bells and whistles there was an effort to kill millions in order to advance a cause. I was left wondering what some of these same people would say watching the film today; why they believed it or the feelings that it brought about.
What Riefenstahl captures is the most terrifying element of any murderous regime; that the people first have to accept the leader's’ intentions as noble and righteous, often to the point of being willing to fight, die, and kill all in the name of that virtue. Before there was internet or phones, I think of how hard it must have been to have ever found the truth; hearing it only from the community or in partisan newspapers, until the information channels were then taken seized and exchange was based purely on hearsay.
I don’t believe Trump is a Nazi (at all), but I do think he has a self-serving agenda that makes him want to do whatever it takes to preserve his well being. It creates endless lies and exaggerations, and you can see how much he’d like to control information in order to protect himself. And yet amidst all this, and given all of the information we have access to, it still doesn’t matter to most of his supporters and 90% of Republicans. There are people who choose to ignore facts and are on the wrong side of the history and while I absolutely do not believe this will result in the deaths of millions, I do think it’s defending a crook and generally bad person who's saying what just under half the country wants to hear.
Triumph of the Will is effective because it makes you focused on what the future could be rather on the way of getting there. It’s easy and superficial, serving as a tragic demonstration of human nature’s timeless way of choosing such. It’s function as an historical document should serve as a harbinger; that in 1933 it was possible to make an effective piece of propaganda to sway millions of people over to your side; in 2017, with VR, AR, video games, films, television, and endless avenues of media, think of all there is utilize and how effective it could now be.
BELOW: Great mini-doc about the film's power and significance
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