Triumph of the Will

Original movie poster for Triumph of the Will, directed by Leni Riefenstahl.
Original movie poster for Triumph of the Will, directed by Leni Riefenstahl.

Triumph of the Will (German: Triumph des Willens) is a 1935 film made by Leni Riefenstahl. It chronicles the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg, which was attended by more than 700,000 Nazi supporters. The film contains excerpts from speeches given by Nazi leaders at the Congress, including portions of speeches by Adolf Hitler, Rudolf Hess, and Julius Streicher, interspersed with footage of massed Sturmabteilungand Schutzstaffel troops, and public reaction. Hitler commissioned the film and served as an unofficial executive producer; his name appears in the opening titles. The film’s overriding theme is the return of Germany as a great power, with Hitler as the leader who will bring glory to the nation. Because the film was made after the Night of the Long Knives many prominent SA members are absent, having been murdered in 1934.

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Triumph of the Will was released in 1935 and became a prominent example of propaganda in film history. Riefenstahl’s techniques, such as moving cameras, the use of long focus lenses to create a distorted perspective, aerial photography, and revolutionary approach to the use of music andcinematography, have earned Triumph of the Will recognition as one of the greatest films in history. Riefenstahl won several awards, not only in Germany but also in the United States, France, Sweden, and other countries. The film was popular in the Third Reich, and has continued to influence movies, documentaries, and commercials to this day.  However, it is banned for showing in Germany owing to its support for Nazism and numerous portrayals of the swastika.

An earlier film by Riefenstahl, Der Sieg des Glaubens, showed Hitler and SA leader Ernst Röhm together at the 1933 Nazi party congress. After Röhm’s murder, the party attempted the destruction of all copies, leaving only one known to have survived in Britain. This can be viewed at theInternet Archive.

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Frank Capra’s seven-film series Why We Fight is said to have been directly inspired by, and the United States response to, Triumph of the Will.

Riefenstahl, a popular German actress, had directed her first movie called Das Blaue Licht (The Blue Light) in 1932. Around the same time she first heard Hitler speak at a Nazi rally and, by her own admission, was impressed. She later began a correspondence with him that would last for years. Hitler, by turn, was equally impressed with Das Blaue Licht, and in 1933 asked her to direct a film about the Nazis’ annual Nuremberg Rally. The Nazis had only recently taken power amid a period of political instability (Hitler was the fourth Chancellor of Germany in less than a year) and were considered an unknown quantity by many Germans, to say nothing of the world.

Das blaue Licht (1932). Hata Bildir. Altyazı Dili:
Das blaue Licht (1932). Hata Bildir. Altyazı Dili:

In Mein Kampf Hitler talks of the success of British propaganda in World War I believing people’s ignorance meant simple repetition and an appeal to feelings over reason would suffice.   Hitler chose Riefenstahl as he wanted the film as “artistically satisfying” as possible to appeal to a non-political audience, but he also believed that propaganda must admit no element of doubt.   As such, Triumph of the Will may be seen as a continuation of the unambiguous World War I-style propaganda, though heightened by the film’s artistic or poetic nature.

Riefenstahl was initially reluctant, not because of any moral qualms, but because she wanted to continue making feature films.  Hitler persisted and Riefenstahl eventually agreed to make a film at the 1933 Nuremberg Rally called Der Sieg des Glaubens (Victory of Faith). However the film had numerous technical problems, including a lack of preparation (Riefenstahl reported having just a few days) and Hitler’s apparent unease at being filmed. To make matters worse, Riefenstahl had to deal with infighting by party officials, in particular Joseph Goebbels who tried to have the film released by the Propaganda Ministry. Though Der Sieg des Glaubens apparently did well at the box office, it later became a serious embarrassment to the Nazis after SALeader Ernst Röhm, who had a prominent role in the film, was executed during the Night of the Long Knives. All references to Röhm were ordered to be erased from German history, which included the destruction of all known copies of Der Sieg des Glaubens.

Le riprese di Der Sieg des Glaubens, 1933
Le riprese di Der Sieg des Glaubens, 1933

In 1934, Riefenstahl had no wish to repeat the fiasco of Der Sieg des Glaubens and initially recommended fellow director Walter Ruttmann. Ruttmann’s film, which would have covered the rise of the Nazi Party from 1923 to 1934 and been more overtly propagandistic (the opening text of Triumph of the Will was his), did not appeal to Hitler. He again asked Riefenstahl, who finally relented (there is still debate over how willing she was) after Hitler guaranteed his personal support and promised to keep other Nazi organizations, specifically the Propaganda Ministry, from meddling with her film.

The film follows a script similar to Der Sieg des Glaubens, which is evident when one sees both films side by side. For example, the city of Nuremberg scenes – even to the shot of a cat included in the city driving sequence in both films. Furthermore, Herbert Windt reused much of his musical score for that film in Triumph des Willens, which he also scored. But unlike Der Sieg des Glaubens, Riefenstahl shot Triumph of the Will with a large budget, extensive preparations, and vital help from high-ranking Nazis like Goebbels. As Susan Sontag observed, “The Rally was planned not only as a spectacular mass meeting, but as a spectacular propaganda film.”   Albert Speer, Hitler’s personal architect, designed the set in Nuremberg and did most of the coordination for the event. Pits were dug in front of the speakers’ platform so Riefenstahl could get the camera angles she wanted, and tracks were laid so that her cameramen could get traveling shots of the crowd. When rough cuts weren’t up to par, major party leaders and high-ranking public officials reenacted their speeches in a studio for her.  Riefenstahl also used a film crew that was extravagant by the standards of the day. Her crew consisted of 172 people, including 10 technical staff, 36 cameramen and assistants (operating in 16 teams with 30 cameras), nine aerial photographers, 17 newsreel men, 12 newsreel crew, 17 lighting men, two photographers, 26 drivers, 37 security personnel, four labor service workers, and two office assistants. Many of her cameramen also dressed in SA uniforms so they could blend into the crowds.

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Riefenstahl had the difficult task of condensing an estimated 61 hours of film into two hours.  She labored to complete the film as fast as she could, going so far as to sleep in the editing room filled with hundreds of thousands of feet of film footage.

Triumph of the Will premiered on 28 March 1935 at the Berlin Ufa Palace Theater and was an instant success. Within two months the film had earned 815,000 Reichsmark, and Ufa considered it one of the three most profitable films of that year. Hitler praised the film as being an “incomparable glorification of the power and beauty of our Movement.” For her efforts, Riefenstahl was rewarded with the German Film Prize (Deutscher Filmpreis), a gold medal at the 1935 Venice Biennale, and the Grand Prix at the 1937 World Exhibition in Paris. However, there were few claims that the film would result in a mass influx of ‘converts’ to fascism and the Nazis apparently did not make a serious effort to promote the film outside of Germany. Film historian Richard Taylor also said that Triumph of the Will was not generally used for propaganda purposes inside the Third Reich. The Independent wrote in 2003: “Triumph of the Will seduced many wise men and women, persuaded them to admire rather than to despise, and undoubtedly won the Nazis friends and allies all over the world.”

The reception in other countries was not always as enthusiastic. British documentarian Paul Rotha called it tedious, while others were repelled by its pro-Nazi sentiments. During World War II,Frank Capra helped to create a direct response, through the film series called Why We Fight, a series of newsreels commissioned by the United States government that spliced in footage fromTriumph of the Will, but recontextualized it so that it promoted the cause of the Allies instead. Capra later remarked that Triumph of the Will “fired no gun, dropped no bombs. But as apsychological weapon aimed at destroying the will to resist, it was just as lethal.” Clips from Triumph of the Will were also used in an Allied propaganda short called General Adolph Takes Over, set to the British dance tune “The Lambeth Walk”. The legions of marching soldiers, as well as Hitler giving his Nazi salute, were made to look like wind-up dolls, dancing to the music. The Danish resistance used to take over cinemas and force the projectionist to show Swinging the Lambeth Walk (as it was also known), and, says Erik Barrow, “The extraordinary risks were apparently felt justified by a moment of savage anti-Hitler ridicule.” Also during World War II, the poet Dylan Thomas wrote a screenplay for and narrated These Are The Men, a propaganda piece using Triumph of the Will footage to discredit Nazi leadership.

One of the best ways to gauge the response to Triumph of the Will was the instant and lasting international fame it gave Riefenstahl. The Economist said it “sealed her reputation as the greatest female filmmaker of the 20th century.” For a director who made eight films, only two of which received significant coverage outside of Germany, Riefenstahl had unusually high name recognition for the remainder of her life, most of it stemming from Triumph of the Will. However, her career was also permanently damaged by this association. After the war, Riefenstahl was imprisoned by the Allies for four years for allegedly being a Nazi sympathizer and was permanently blacklisted by the film industry. When she died in 2003, 68 years after its premiere, her obituary received significant coverage in many major publications, including the Associated Press, Wall Street JournalNew York Times, and The Guardian, most of which reaffirmed the importance of Triumph of the Will. Though the actual effectiveness of Triumph of the Will is hard to measure, in terms of numbers or statistics that actually state its effectiveness, its response from the people is well documented with the amount of views and the popularity of the movie during the time period.

Like American filmmaker D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a NationTriumph of the Will has been criticized as a use of spectacular filmmaking to promote a profoundly unethical system. In Germany, this movie is classified as Nazi propaganda and its showing is restricted under post-war denazification laws, but it may be shown in an educational context. In her defense, Riefenstahl claimed that she was naïve about the Nazis when she made it and had no knowledge of Hitler’s genocidal or anti-semitic policies. She also pointed out that Triumph of the Will contains “not one single antisemitic word”, although it does contain a veiled comment by Julius Streicher, the notorious Jew-baiter (who was hanged after the Nuremberg trials), that “a people that does not protect its racial purity will perish.”

However, Roger Ebert has observed that for some, “the very absence of anti-semitism in Triumph of the Will looks like a calculation; excluding the central motif of almost all of Hitler’s public speeches must have been a deliberate decision to make the film more efficient as propaganda.”

Riefenstahl also repeatedly defended herself against the charge that she was a Nazi propagandist, saying that Triumph of the Will focuses on images over ideas, and should therefore be viewed as a Gesamtkunstwerk (holistic work of art). In 1964, she returned to this topic, saying:

“If you see this film again today you as certain that it doesn’t contain a single reconstructed scene. Everything in it is true. And it contains no tendentious commentary at all. It is history. A pure historical film… it is film-vérité. It reflects the truth that was then in 1934, history. It is therefore a documentary. Not a propaganda film. Oh! I know very well what propaganda is. That consists of recreating events in order to illustrate a thesis, or, in the face of certain events, to let one thing go in order to accentuate another. I found myself, me, at the heart of an event which was the reality of a certain time and a certain place. My film is composed of what stemmed from that.”

However, Riefenstahl was an active participant in the rally, though in later years she downplayed her influence significantly, claiming, “I just observed and tried to film it well. The idea that I helped to plan it is downright absurd.” Ebert states that Triumph of the Will is “by general consent [one] of the best documentaries ever made”, but added that because it reflects the ideology of a movement regarded by many as evil, it poses “a classic question of the contest between art and morality: Is there such a thing as pure art, or does all art make a political statement?” When reviewing the film for his “Great Movies” collection, Ebert reversed his opinion, characterizing his earlier conclusion as “the received opinion that the film is great but evil” and calling it “a terrible film, paralyzingly dull, simpleminded, overlong and not even ‘manipulative,’ because it is too clumsy to manipulate anyone but a true believer.”

Susan Sontag considers Triumph of the Will the “most successful, most purely propagandistic film ever made, whose very conception negates the possibility of the filmmaker’s having an aesthetic or visual conception independent of propaganda.” Sontag points to Riefenstahl’s involvement in the planning and design of the Nuremberg ceremonies as evidence that Riefenstahl was working, not as an artist in any sense of the word, but as propagandist. With some 30 cameras and a crew of 150, the marches, parades, speeches and processions were orchestrated like a movie set for Riefenstahl’s film. Further, this was not the first political film made by Riefenstahl for the Third Reich (there was Victory of Faith, 1933), nor was it the last (Day of Freedom, 1935, Olympia, 1938). “Anyone who defends Riefenstahl’s films as documentary”, Sontag states, “if documentary is to be distinguished from propaganda, is being disingenuous. In Triumph of Will, the document (the image) is no longer simply the record of reality; ‘reality’ has been constructed to serve the image.”

Brian Winston’s essay on the film in The Movies as History is largely a critique of Sontag’s analysis. Winston argues that any filmmaker could have made the film look impressive because the Nazi’s mise en scène was impressive, particularly when they were offering it for camera re-stagings. In form, the film alternates repetitively between marches and speeches. Winston asks the viewers to consider if such a film should be seen as anything more than a pedestrian effort. Like Rotha, he finds the film tedious, and believes anyone who takes the time to analyze its structure will quickly agree.

The first controversy over Triumph of the Will occurred even before its release, when several generals in the Wehrmacht protested over the minimal army presence in the film. Only one scene, the review of the German cavalry, actually involved the German military. The other formations were party organizations that were not part of the military. Hitler proposed his own “artistic” compromise where Triumph of the Will would open with a camera slowly tracking down a row of all the “overlooked” generals (and placate each general’s ego). According to her own testimony, Riefenstahl refused his suggestion and insisted on keeping artistic control over Triumph of the Will. She did agree to return to the 1935 rally to make a film exclusively about the Wehrmacht, which became Tag der Freiheit: Unsere Wehrmacht (Day of Freedom: Our Armed Forces).

Triumph of the Will remains well known for its striking visuals. As one historian notes, “many of the most enduring images of the [Nazi] regime and its leader derive from Riefenstahl’s film.”  Extensive excerpts of the film were used in Erwin Leiser’s documentary Mein Kampf, produced in Sweden in 1960. Riefenstahl unsuccessfully sued the Swedish production company Minerva-Film for copyright violation, although she did receive forty thousand marks in compensation from German and Austrian distributors of the film.

In 1942, Charles A. Ridley of the British Ministry of Information made a short propaganda film, Lambeth Walk – Nazi Style, which edited footage of Hitler and German soldiers from the film to make it appear they were marching and dancing to the song “The Lambeth Walk”.  The film so enraged Joseph Goebbels that reportedly he ran out of the screening room kicking chairs and screaming profanities. The propaganda film was distributed uncredited to newsreel companies, who would supply their own narration.

Charlie Chaplin’s classic satire The Great Dictator (1940) was inspired in large part by Triumph of the Will.  The film has been studied by many contemporary artists including film directorsPeter Jackson, and Ridley Scott.

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