Commissioned by Adolf Hitler, “Triumph of the Will” is a terrifying film. It is as if, for a moment, something infernal took control of the camera and caused the audience to be entranced, as it projected a lie into Germany’s consciousness, and then beyond to an unwilling world. As a consequence, 85 million people were to die.
In September 1934, the then celebrated German director and star actress of German cinema, Leni Riefenstahl, began shooting a film. She used 30 cameras and a crew of 150 to film what would be released a year later as Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens). It is a cinematic record of the 1934 Nazi Party Congress held at Nuremberg when hundreds of thousands of Nazi Party members, troops and supporters were “reviewed” by der Führer, Adolf Hitler. Riefenstahl’s film—a film that, according its credits, had been commissioned by Hitler—was no mere recording of what had happened at the congress, however; instead, it was a carefully crafted piece of propaganda, the like of which the world had not seen before.
In 2003, Riefenstahl died aged 101 years old. Following the end of the Second World War, her professional reputation was dogged by the 12 years during which she had acted as Hitler’s propagandist; she spent the last 60 years of her life denying the fact that she acted as such. As a result, she fought more than 50 successful lawsuits in her determination to suppress any suggestion that she knew exactly what she was doing during those 12 years. Yet, in 1939, while filming propaganda of the Wehrmacht’s invasion of Poland, she witnessed the Nazi execution of 30 Jews. She later claimed that she had been held at gunpoint in order to prevent her intervening. Her claim lacked corroborating evidence, however, and was never tested in court. What there is evidence for is that just a few days after this incident she filmed Hitler’s triumphal entry into a defeated Warsaw. Her cinematic legacy, its creation and its purpose, remains as controversial as its enigmatic creator. There is little doubt, however, that Triumph of the Will is the pinnacle of her cinematic achievement, and yet it is a work of genius that only the Nazis could have helped create.
For Triumph of the Will does not simply capture on film an historical moment. It is also a telling portrait of the recently empowered Nazis. They assemble for their 1934 Party Congress with individuality nowhere to be seen; instead, there is the unrelenting massed conformity on display in a demonstration of cinematic might. What follows are long sequences comprising massed formations of infantry, cavalry, artillery groups, and even working men, with shovels carried like rifles. Everyone marches in perfect, rigid formation, stern and serious, past the equally stern Führer, who returns the uniform salute with his right arm upraised. This is newsreel made to look like drama, a drama that is being elevated to the level of myth. The opening sections of the film reveal a god-like Hitler descending through the clouds in the Nazi party plane, before he addresses the outdoor rally of party members and supporters who all stand in formation with mathematical precision. Everyone seems rapt in attention to a speaker who is now more sorcerer than mere politician.
This film marks the moment when the myth on offer seduced a nation; when the answer to all Germany’s woes appeared to be found in National Socialism. By the time the cameras stopped rolling and the editing was complete, Germany was set on a path to wherever the Nazis had decided to take her, to destruction as it happened: physical, emotional, and moral. With its overt militarism, Triumph of the Will was designed to fuel the fires of nationalism, then being stoked that, ultimately, would lead to war on a scale unimaginable.
Today, almost 90 years since its release, Triumph of the Will is shown in Germany only as part of an educational programme. That is, it comes with a health warning. Perhaps the official health warning is warranted but such pronouncements fail fully to grasp the power of Riefenstahl’s images and the force that lies behind them. “Fascist art glorifies surrender; it exalts mindlessness: it glamorises death.” So said Susan Sontag of the Riefenstahl film in her 1975 essay, Fascinating Fascism. Is it coincidence that so much of Triumph of the Will was filmed at night? That so much of its power remains in silhouetted images? Triumph of the Will records a moment in the birth of the Kingdom of the Night, a kingdom that the later Pope John Paul II would describe so aptly as being governed by a Culture of Death.
For this reason, Triumph of the Will is a terrifying film. It is a film that cannot be watched without recalling that it contributed to what came next. It is as if, for a moment, something infernal took control of the camera and mesmerised the audience, causing it to be entranced, as if a spell had been cast on anyone who looked upon the screen to behold the mighty saviour who bestrode it.
The lie is an obvious one, however. The saviour portrayed on film was no such thing, only a deceiver, whose Triumph of the Will projected that lie into a nation’s consciousness, and then beyond to an unwilling world, and, as a consequence, 85 million people were to die.
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The featured image is courtesy of IMDB and has been brightened for clarity.