I recently saw Triumph of the Will. I felt obligated to watch it because it is considered the penultimate example of a political propaganda film. Such is its notoriety, that when Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911 first came out, right-wing pundits immediately tried to smear it by comparing it to Triumph of the Will. Of course, they only revealed their intellectual poverty by doing so, since Moore’s approach to film making is nothing at all like Leni Riefenstahl’s.
The early scenes depict Hitler’s arrival in Nuremberg for a party rally. The creepy thing about these scenes is how normal they seem. Take away the gaudy uniforms and raised arms and Hitler could be just your ordinary politician, shaking hands with people, smiling for the camera, and engaging in small talk with the plebeians. It’s not until Hitler addresses the Reichsarbeitsdienst, a sort of paramilitary construction group, that we begin to sense that something profoundly weird is going on here. From a visual standpoint, this is the best part of the film, because there is something slightly surreal about the sight of hundreds of uniformed men marching around with shovels as if they were rifles. This cuts to a spooky scene of storm troopers gamboling in the woods at night. (At least I think that’s what they’re doing. It’s hard to tell.) Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from there: seemingly endless scenes of people marching around, with an inexplicably large number of them carrying Nazi flags, occasionally interspersed with speeches by Hitler.
The most striking thing about this film, however, is how physically unimpressive the Nazi leaders are. Many of them are fat: Goering, Wagner, Ley, Streicher. Wagner, Rosenberg, and Ley sweat profusely. Schirach has sweaty armpits. Hess, however, looks underfed, and he has a strangely high-pitched voice. (I must say, though, he did know how to give a crisp salute.) Lutze also has an annoyingly high-pitched voice. (Did Hitler have a thing for male sopranos?) Goebbels looks like a weasel. As for Himmler, why didn’t they just put at bag over this guy’s head? Seriously, he could have had a lucrative career as a character actor in Hollywood, playing ignorant rubes who get taken in by the likes of W.C. Fields. (“Here’s all my life’s savings, mister. Give me all the bottles you can of that there miracle elixir!”) Even the storm troopers and SS men are unimpressive. They look a bit scrawny, and their uniforms often don’t seem to fit quit right. Hitler, however, looks well-fed. Yet the plumpness of his face makes you uncomfortably aware of how silly his tiny moustache looks. And he has too much Brylcream in his hair. (Or whatever was the German equivalent of Brylcream in the 1930’s.) And his uniform makes his ass look huge. (This is true of some of the other people in this film. I wonder, did Hitler think that having a big ass was a sign of racial superiority?)
The reason I bring all this up is that it has often been said that Triumph of the Will was a highly effective advertisement for Nazism. I find this hard to believe. This film is mostly boring. A lot of it is just people marching around to bad music. Riefenstahl knew that rapid cutting and moving the camera around can make things appear more interesting than they actually are, but these tricks can only do so much, and sometimes they can even be counter-productive. When, for example, we see the stage at a rally from a camera that’s being lifted upwards, the effect is merely showy. Indeed, it actually seems a bit naive. True, this was the 1930’s, but they were already using more sophisticated techniques than this in Hollywood – or in Germany’s own cinema, for that matter.
Early in the film, there are evocative shots of the amazingly beautiful city of Nuremberg. Alas, these are marred by the ubiquitous presence of Nazi and German imperialist flags.
Even the speeches are not all that interesting. There are repeated calls for “national unity”, as well as a lot of talk about how the Nazi Reich will last thousands of years (heh, heh). I must say, though, that Hitler did occasionally inflect his voice in interesting ways. There are, however, some ominous references to the notion of “racial purity” in the speeches of Hitler and of Streicher.
In her later years, Riefenstahl collected many awards from film festivals. (Her fellow propagandist, Streicher, was hanged.) Since Triumph of the Will was, far and away, her most famous movie, one must wonder about the people who decided to give her all these honors. Riefenstahl claimed that she was a neutral observer, but this assertion is contradicted by her own film. At the beginning, it says it is Das Dokument der Reichsparteitag 1934 – hergestellt im Auftrage des Fuehrers. (The Documentary of the Reich party conference of 1934 – produced according to the Fuehrer’s instructions.) Well, you can’t get any more explicit than that, can you? Also, it’s clear just from watching this film that Riefenstahl could not have made it without plenty of help from the Nazis. Also, there are some scenes that were clearly staged specifically for the camera.
There’s one scene in the film in which we see Hitler and his cronies watching soldiers riding around on horseback. While I was watching this, I was reminded of the fact that during World War II, 90% of the German army’s supply transport was horse-drawn. The truth was that Germany was actually under-prepared for the war. My father rarely talked about his wartime experiences, but one story he did tell more than once was about when his unit captured a German army base. In the mess hall there was a gigantic soup tureen, which was apparently what everyone ate from. It always amazed my father that a government that could only afford to feed its soldiers gruel actually believed it could conquer the world.