Review: _Triumph des Willens_ or _Triumph of the Will_
Last night, with little foreknowledge on the film, I viewed Triumph des Willens, the 1935 documentary/propaganda film that chronicles five days of the 1934 congress of the NSDAP, or the National Socialist (Nazi) Party in Nuremberg, Bavaria. I did, however, know that Triumph is a landmark in both documentary and propaganda, and that Leni Riefenstahl is often mentioned as the greatest female director of the 20th Century.
The film is both insidious and ingenious, and works in its propaganda with modern cinematic techniques. Further, the film works as propaganda in its overwhelming spectacle. Throughout the film, I noticed audiovisual techniques that have stayed with film nearly as strongly as the spectre of Hitler has haunted the 20th Century.
As documentary-propaganda, the film spiritualizes what one could easily interpret as a boring political conference, similar to those held in the United States today: mass gatherings, parades, speeches, and rabble-rousing. The "ingenius" part is how Riefenstahl moves the yearly conference of the Nazi congress into both an intellectual discussion on what makes a great society and creates a devastating sense of awe. The film demands that we engage on equal footing with the politics, objectives, and vision of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party. In 1934, perhaps this was possible, but now, after understanding the nightmares of WWII and the Holocaust, Riefenstahl's brilliance will leave you with better understanding of How It All Went Wrong.
As historical document, Triumph make contributions: expansive views of the city of Nuremberg, visual documentation of its people and of the Germans of "the movement" (as the Nazi party is called in the film), public speaking styles of nearly all Nazi party officials, the cult of the Fuhrer, and the organization structure of the Nazi party.
But in documenting these things so well with forward-thinking modern film techniques, Triumph functions as insidious, effective propaganda, masking the grave and unthinkable implications of the above. I recall and will remember many visuals and sounds from Triumph des Willens, many of which are still utilized in film today:
*The aerial photography of Hitler's descent into Nuremberg, complete with clouds and the shadow of the airplane
*The overwhelming number of Nazi symbols: the swastika or "hooked cross" everywhere,
*The architecture of political spectacle (i.e. speech platforms)
*A Nazi flag shimmering on water
*Outdoor lighting at night (for party rallies)
Coupled with these cinematic tropes, indelible visuals of Nazi iconography:
*Thousands of boys, girls, and men marching in lockstep
*The shouting of "Sieg Heil" or "hail victory" with the classic arm movement
*Hitler's Mercedes-Benz convertible and airplane
*Hitler in front of the Frauenkirche or Nuremberg's Church of the Holy Mother Catholic church
*Rousing speeches that detail the attractive (without critical thought) ideology of Nazism, such as Hitler's notions of "cleansing" and "loyalty"
*The fanaticism of all of those Germans: children, women, men; even people in windows
The film creates a self-justifying vision for German society after WWII, and what the film lacks should be noted:
*Any voices of even facial expressions in opposition to the Nazis (which was very strong in Germany throughout their reign from 1933 to 1945)
*Any single person out of formation during parades
*Any disagreement from party members with the Fuhrer
Regarding the film's structure, it's pretty basic: march, speech, march, speech, and so on. But the cavalcade of images keep one's attention.
It's funny to think that there has been an actual debate about "whether the film is propaganda or not." It's simply that Triumph des Willens is the best propaganda: one that works from sympathetic premises to persuade the audience to unthinkable conclusions. We must grant that the Nazis were human, and we must also grant that their symbology and propaganda methods were intoxicating.
The film should be interpreted historically, and as propaganda. And we should read it against our own ideology, which upholds the right of dissent -- and dissent's honor -- within a tolerant society, the likes of which we know is constantly under threat from groupthink.