At the start of the documentary, Triumph of the Will (1935), we watch German Chancellor Adolph Hitler from the back of his open-air car. He is being driven through the streets of Nuremberg while spectators cheer like he’s a rock star.
He stands in the front passenger side of the car, surveying the throngs while the camera surveys him. We (the audience) seem so close to Hitler, we can almost touch him. We see the small smile beneath his mustache, the wind gently tousling his neatly-trimmed hair, and the smooth, crisp lines of his collar.
The footage is uncomfortably intimate. Judging by some of the Nuremberg women gazing longingly at him, we wonder if director Leni Riefenstahl wanted audiences fall in lust with Adolf Hitler.
On the surface, Triumph of the Will is a documentary about the 1934 Reich Party Congress in Nuremberg*, highlighting speeches and rallies held during the six-day conference. Speakers talk about “the general requirement to work” and “the purity of race” and, at the end of the film, “Hitler is Germany as Germany is Hitler.”
It’s a fascinating, but chilling, historical document, edited with precision. Marching soldiers are timed with endless military music. Rally spectators are herded into straight-edged patterns. This new, Nazi Germany is Organized.
The film tries to offer moments of levity, however contrived. There is a visit to a youth camp, where the young men display unflagging cheerfulness while hauling firewood or preparing lunch. All for the Führer, their actions say.
But you have to give Riefenstahl this: She was creating a piece of complex cinema. Her film is demagoguery, disguised as documentary, dressed in artistry.
The impact of Triumph of the Will was tremendous when released in 1935. Germany, still suffering from post-WWI reparations, was experiencing high unemployment, skyrocketing inflation and a pervasive sense of defeat.
Riefenstahl’s film tells Germans they have a sacred mission. In promising employment and new infrastructure projects, Hitler implies he has been Chosen to lead the nation. “This [rally] has been a great spiritual meeting of old fighters and comrades in arms,” he says.
These pseudo-religious overtones are not lost on Riefenstahl. Her footage of the nighttime rallies is impressive, with Nazi guardsmen holding torches and swastika banners bathed in spotlights. Riefenstahl’s cameras treat this pageantry with reverence.
She also knows the value of a good performance. When Hitler addresses the youth camp, Riefenstahl’s camera moves in a slow semi-circle around him as though underscoring his words. When he pauses for effect, the boys cheer and the camera examines their faces: They are riveted, almost worshipful.
In her memoirs, Riefenstahl claims she didn’t want to make this film. “[T]he Führer had insisted that I alone was to make the film,” she writes. “Even so, I was determined to resist taking on this assignment.”†
Whether or not that is true, Riefenstahl pursued this project with the same intensity that made her a popular dancer and film actress before she became a director.
Riefenstahl hired 18 cameramen for this film, each with their own assistant. Her focus was to have movement, not static shots, so in addition to building tracks and rails for the cameras, she allegedly taught the cameramen how to rollerskate.‡ When you see the effect of these 18 cameras, you realize a gifted filmmaker was at work.§
We recommend Triumph of the Will for two reasons: (1) it’s useful to study the past to see if patterns are being repeated today; and (2) Riefenstahl’s technical and artistic abilities are noteworthy.
*After WWII, Allied powers chose Nuremberg to host the War Crimes Trials that prosecuted Nazi leaders.
†Riefenstahl, Leni (1992). Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir. New York, NY: Picador USA, p. 157.
‡ibid, p. 159.
§Triumph of the Will is not considered Riefenstahl’s masterpiece; that would be 1938’s Olympia, her documentary of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games.
Triumph of the Will: starring Adolf Hitler, Hermann Göring, Walter Ruttmann. Directed by Leni Riefenstahl. Written by Leni Riefenstahl, Walter Ruttmann & Eberhard Taubert. Leni Riefenstahl-Produktion, 1935, B&W, 110 mins.
This post is our contribution to the Early Women Filmmakers Blogathon hosted by Movies Silently and sponsored by Flicker Alley’s Early Women Filmmakers: An International Anthology.