Triumph of the Will (1935)


*. Adolf Hitler was already Reich chancellor when, after the death of Hindenburg, he became Reich president as well. He was now simply the Leader, a radical point that this movie was made to both announce and promote. This film was “commissioned by order of the Fuhrer.” No name, or even official title, necessary.
*. That meant everything. One people, one Reich, one leader. As Rudolf Hess shouts at the end (they are the final lines we hear before the closing anthem): “The party is Hitler! But Hitler is Germany, and Germany is Hitler!”
*. This is a record of the 1934 sixth annual Nazi party rally at Nuremberg. The year before, Leni Riefenstahl had made a record of the fifth party rally, titled The Victory of Faith. It was basically a dry run for this film, a way of showing Hitler what might be done along these lines. But also a lot had changed in a year.
*. In particular, in 1933 Hitler had been paired with the head of the SA (the stormtroopers, or brownshirts), Ernst Röhm. Röhm, along with much of the SA hierarchy, had been purged in the Night of the Long Knives, and for obvious reasons Hitler wanted them erased from the historical record. Hence, a new movie, with an overriding message of party unity.


*. The SA are, however, still central. Their new commander, Viktor Lutze, is prominently displayed throughout, and both he and Hitler make speeches about how old wounds have been healed. The events of the previous year are silent subtext to all this, never directly referenced or referred to beyond mention of a “dark shadow” that had passed over the movement.
*. Continuing the film chronicle: the army wasn’t happy with their brief appearance here so Riefenstahl had to make another movie, Day of Freedom, featuring the troops. Despite all the uniforms on display in Triumph of the Will, what you’re seeing are party members and members of paramilitary civilian organizations, not soldiers.
*. The opening is famous, seeming to be located in a city of clouds, an aerial landscape that might suggest Valhalla. Does the shadow of the plane over the old city of Nuremberg also seem like Mephistopheles spreading his wings over the town in Murnau’s Faust? Well, not consciously.
*. Roger Ebert: “It is a terrible film, paralyzingly dull, simpleminded, overlong, and not even ‘manipulative,’ because it is too clumsy to manipulate anyone but a true believer.”
*. I don’t agree. Ebert is particularly put off by the fact that — unlike the film that he chooses for comparison, Woodstock — “Riefenstahl’s camera is oblivious to one of the most fascinating aspects of the Nuremberg rally, which is how it was organized.” In part this is forgetfulness on Ebert’s part (he asks, for example, “how did the thousands eat,” but mass food preparation and serving is shown in the Hitler Youth camp), but such neglect was also a creative decision. In The Victory of Faith you do see the stands being constructed before the arrival of Hitler, the preparation of the ground. But I don’t think Riefenstahl (or Hitler) wanted that in the final cut. The rally is a giant Wizard of Oz production: if you see the little old man behind the curtain working the lights and the bellows to make all the effects then those effects are ruined.
*. That said, I am curious about how much overtime the workers at the flag factories got producing all the swastikas that get carried around here. How many sheets had to get sewn together to make those giant banners?


*. The “sea of flags” effect, by the way, was Albert Speer’s idea. He should have got a production design credit for this film, as the look of the Nuremberg rallies was all his inspiration. But he isn’t even here in a cameo.
*. While I don’t agree with Ebert about the movie being dull, I find a great deal of boredom in it. I think this can only be fully appreciated by someone who has some experience with military drill, and the excruciating dullness of spending long periods of time “marching up and down the square” and, even worse, standing at ease in formation.


*. Those massed phalanxes of stormtroopers sure look pretty, but they must have been standing out there for hours just so Riefenstahl could get her shots. God that must have been painful.
*. I wonder if sheer boredom was behind a lot of the cheering and waving the Nazi salute. At times it almost looks like the crowds are doing an early version of “the wave” to keep themselves occupied.
*. It’s a wonderful job of editing. I doubt there’s a single cutaway to a reaction shot that actually matches up with anything said by any of the speakers. I think Riefenstahl just used generic shots of people saluting and cheering in the same way television studios use a laugh track on a sitcom, as a way of reinforcing the mood. But it works.
*. I also like the editing in the speeches. They were probably quite dull, but as we get them here they’re little more than sound bites. Even Hitler’s final address, which I think may be presented in its entirety, is only a few minutes. Riefenstahl does keep things moving.
*. The only really boring part of the movie for me is the parade, which unfortunately comes near the end. I guess it would have been a slight to leave anyone out, so we have to watch as everyone marches past. In rather poor formation, I might add.


*. We can give Hitler credit for at least one thing: killing the toothbrush (or, as it has come to be known, “Hitler”) moustache. This wasn’t a very fashionable scrap of facial hair even at the time, though we see several people here sporting them, perhaps in imitation of their boss. Hitler thought it offset his long and pointed nose, but I think it still looks awful. Hitler also wore a slightly bushier variation than regular, which makes it even worse. Oddly enough, the only film stars I can think of to sport one were comedians: Chaplin and Hitler’s almost exact contemporary Oliver Hardy. I guess it always seemed somewhat pompous and funny.


*. What kind of salute is Hitler giving in response to the outthrust arm of the Nazi “hail” motion? It just looks like a casual, even lazy, backward flip of his hand.
*. While the theme of the rally is party unity, and it’s true that the masses of people tend to become geometric shapes on the ground, it’s not true that there is no personality on display. In a manner reminiscent of Eisenstein, Riefenstahl is always cutting between the crowd and the individual, juxtaposing character portraits with group formations.
*. Take two examples. In the first, the individual women in the crowd when Hitler arrives. They aren’t just excited but aroused, in a couple of instances even licking their lips. This Fuhrer is a sexy beast.




*. That attraction is underlined by the physically magnetic effect he seems to have on the crowd (again, an effect achieved wholly through editing). We see people standing on tiptoe, climbing poles and buildings, getting up on shoulders, hanging out of windows, looking through binoculars and holding cameras over their heads, straining, always straining, to see over the crowd, to see a show that we in the theatre audience have the best seat in the house for.
*. A second example of individual portraiture: On stage during Hitler’s final speech, Hess looks on with rapt adoration while Goebbels is clearly taking mental notes from someone he considers to be the master. Julius Streicher, arms curiously akimbo while seated, looks like a gorilla, blinking and nodding his head as though having trouble following along. Goering is the only one who appears thoroughly bored (as I suspect he was). He can’t wait to get off the stage and head to the banquet hall.





*. What about Hitler as orator? Today he’s easily derided as foolish looking, but if you watch him here with an open mind you can see what appealed to people. He could emote, he could rhetorically pluck the strings of an audience’s feeling. Was it all an act? Historians still debate his authenticity. He was certainly a performer on stage, one who practiced the art of public speaking tirelessly. But I think he took his calling seriously.


*. It’s sometimes said that Hitler wouldn’t have been successful in the television era, but I’m not so sure. He wouldn’t be a successful politician in our era, to be sure, but that’s because of other shifts in style (I leave aside the content of his message). I think a movie like Triumph of the Will makes it clear that he understood how the new medium of film could be used to shape and package a message. Indeed he understood this better than Goebbels, who didn’t get along well with Riefenstahl and didn’t much care for her movie.
*. So is it a great movie? I think Riefenstahl does a great job making something out of some pretty dull material. You just have to compare this film to The Victory of Faith or Day of Freedom to see what she could do when inspired. In those movies she was only doing a job, providing a record of the events. Triumph of the Will, despite her protests to the contrary, is a crafted work of manipulation from beginning to end.

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