Then and Now,
7/17/2015 9:21 AM
How many of you have actually seen Nazi germany's biggest propaganda film, Leni Riefenstahl's TRIUMPH OF THE WILL (TRIUMPH DES WILLENS)? It was released in 1935. and It's been countless years since I've seen it in its entirety so how does it hold up after all these years? To form an objective opinion, I watched it first casting myself as a member of its original audience and now looked at it 80 years later as if I've never seen it.
The film follows four days during the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg and you can read about its production history elsewhere. The opening shots show Hitler's plane descending from the clouds as some have noted like a god descending to earth while "the cruciform shadow of Hitler's plane is visible as it passes over the tiny figures marching below, accompanied by an orchestral arrangement of the 'Horst-Wessel-Lied'." Hitler's open limousine drives past streets lined with adoring worshippers of all ages and over 700, 000 people attended the events Rudolph Hess opens the 6th Party Congress invoking the memory of the late Field Marshall and President Paul Von Hindenburg and other "fallen comrades of the Great War" followed by highlights of speeches by others promoting the party's goals. We see, hear, and feel the enthusiastic response by the crowd in the hall as reporter William Shirer observed: "This morning's opening meeting... was more than a gorgeous show, it also had something of the mysticism and religious fervor of an Easter or Christmas Mass in a great Gothic cathedral." The film moves outside where soldiers are singled out informing us from where in Germany they came. Hitler tells them how everyone must work hard to rebuild Germany.
Then we see night scenes with parades, torches, bonfires, and firework displays. Back to daytime with young marching bands welcoming Hitler adored by the humongous crowd before speeches about how the nation's youth will serve the country and must be "peace loving" and "courageous." Of course these and the previous uplifting speeches were said years before Germany started invading their neighbors and killing anyone branded as their enemy but here one sees how effective these speeches were in motivatng their listeners.
Then we see Hitler watching army maneuvers followed by more long parades full of flags. More speeches to the "200,000 men brought together by nothing other than the call of their hearts.... and their loyalty." Then we see massive crowd scenes of flags and soldiers arranged in geometric formations photographed effectively by slow tracking and overhead shots. Next up are speeches praising the SS and SA, the latter whose former leaders aren't shown because he brutally eliminated them. Another endless parade with fanfare, flags, and endless saluting. TOTW ends by moving indoors with Hess again introducing Hitler who gives his closing and longest speech praising the perseverance of the Party from its beginnings with seven members to what it's become, how the youth will continue the work of the old. and how together the "glorious army" and the Party will lead the nation. (After seeing the film the military and its leaders complained they were slighted by not being shown enough and Hitler had Riefenstahl appease them by making a documentary about their role in the 'new' Germany). More applause and saluting while singing 'Horst Wessel' again amid a long shot of the filled hall.
I can see why TOTW's original audiences flocked to it. Here was a downtrodden nation that never recovered from their defeat in WWI, full of economic and political unrest, and then comes along a man determined to change all that. Hitler wisely doesn't mention the Jews unlike in his earlier published 'Mein Kampf' because he wanted to reach the largest audience possible as he was aware of the power of film where you can see it in any of his speeches. Foreign viewers observing the massive crowd scenes of worshipping citizens and ready soldiers were alarmed that Germany was gearing up to make trouble for its neighbors.
TOTW's visual style is its strongest point. We are subjected to complimentary closeups of faces and objects. effective camera angles, deft editing, enthusiastic supporters, lots of flag waving and uniforms on display, speeches kept to a minimum so not to bore listeners, and, last but not least, a stirring musical score mixed amid rousing marching bands that match the visuals. And there's a reason the film uses all these measures. According to Riefenstahl: "Shortly after he came to power Hitler called me to see him and explained that he wanted a film about a Party Congress, and wanted me to make it. My first reaction was to say that I did not know anything about the way such a thing worked or the organization of the Party, so that I would obviously photograph all the wrong things and please nobody - even supposing that I could make a documentary, which I had never yet done. Hitler said that this was exactly why he wanted me to do it: because anyone who knew all about the relative importance of the various people and groups and so on might make a film that would be pedantically accurate, but this was not what he wanted. He wanted a film showing the Congress through a non-expert eye, selecting just what was most artistically satisfying - in terms of spectacle, I suppose you might say. He wanted a film which would move, appeal to, impress an audience which was not necessarily interested in politics."
Riefenstahl accomplished Hitler's goal and TOTW won several awards but as her life story has shown, she accomplished it all too well. The film's success ruined her post-war career and life as she and her defenders will say. Because she made it 'too good' does that mean she was pro-Nazi? Or was she just using her artistic skills to make an interesting film out of dull speeches and flag waving? I'm not here to debate or defend her dubious political naivety or other statements she made later but if I had to make a film about a political rally, I would try to make it interesting as possible by probably copying some of her technique on display here. How to does this film relate to today's audiences? Neo-Nazis use it as a recruiting film but I find it tedious at times due to the long parade sequences and endless flag waving and saluting. But this is the kind of pomp & ceremony loved by the Nazis and almost everyone likes parades, no matter what's your beliefs. But it's what happened not too long after the film's release that casts a dark shadow on this film: I will dare say like some others that if the Nazis didn't start WWII and the Holocaust, and didn't murder the mentally and physically infirm or anyone else that didn't fit into their agenda or opposed them, we would look at TOTW with different eyes and say how this film glorified a great leader who rebuilt his peaceful country. Should you watch this film? Yes if you never saw it because it is history in motion (pun intended) and it shows how one skilled talker and his followers managed to win over the majority of a nation, hence the film's title.
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