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|Triumph of the Will|
German theatrical poster
|Directed by||Leni Riefenstahl|
|Produced by||Leni Riefenstahl|
|Written by||Leni Riefenstahl|
Other Nazi Leaders
|Music by||Herbert Windt|
|Editing by||Leni Riefenstahl|
|Distributed by||Universum Film AG|
|Running time||114 minutes|
|Triumph of the Will|
German theatrical poster
|Directed by||Leni Riefenstahl|
|Produced by||Leni Riefenstahl|
|Written by||Leni Riefenstahl|
Other Nazi Leaders
|Music by||Herbert Windt|
|Editing by||Leni Riefenstahl|
|Distributed by||Universum Film AG|
|Running time||114 minutes|
Triumph of the Will (German: Triumph des Willens) is a propaganda film made by Leni Riefenstahl. It chronicles the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg, which was attended by more than 700,000 Nazi supporters. The film contains excerpts from speeches given by various Nazi leaders at the Congress, including portions of speeches by Adolf Hitler, interspersed with footage of massed party members. Hitler commissioned the film and served as an unofficial executive producer; his name appears in the opening titles. The overriding theme of the film is the return of Germany as a great power, with Hitler as the True German Leader who will bring glory to the nation.
Triumph of the Will was released in 1935 and rapidly became one of the best-known examples of propaganda in film history. Riefenstahl's techniques, such as moving cameras, the use of long focus lenses to create a distorted perspective, aerial photography, and revolutionary approach to the use of music and cinematography, have earned Triumph recognition as one of the greatest films in history. Riefenstahl won several awards, not only in Germany but also in the United States, France, Sweden, and other countries. The film was popular in the Third Reich and elsewhere, and has continued to influence movies, documentaries, and commercials to this day.
The film begins with a prologue, the only commentary in the film. It consists of the following text, shown sequentially, against a gray background:
|Am 5. September 1934|
[On 5 September 1934]
|20 Jahre nach dem Ausbruch des Weltkrieges|
[20 years after the outbreak of the World War]
|16 Jahre nach dem Anfang deutschen Leidens|
[16 years after the beginning of German suffering]
|19 Monate nach dem Beginn der deutschen Wiedergeburt|
[19 months after the beginning of the German rebirth]
|flog Adolf Hitler wiederum nach Nürnberg, um Heerschau abzuhalten über seine Getreuen|
[Adolf Hitler flew again to Nuremberg to review the columns of his faithful followers]
Day 1: The film opens with shots of the clouds above the city, and then moves through the clouds to float above the assembling masses below, with the intention of portraying beauty and majesty of the scene. The cruciform shadow of Hitler's plane is visible as it passes over the tiny figures marching below, accompanied by music from Richard Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, which slowly turns into the Horst-Wessel-Lied. Upon arriving at the Nuremberg airport, Hitler and other Nazi leaders emerge from his plane to thunderous applause and a cheering crowd. He is then driven into Nuremberg, through equally enthusiastic people, to his hotel where a night rally is later held.
Day 2: The second day begins with a montage of the attendees getting ready for the opening of the Reich Party Congress, and then footage of the top Nazi officials arriving at the Luitpold Arena. The film then cuts to the opening ceremony, where Rudolf Hess announces the start of the Congress. The camera then introduces much of the Nazi hierarchy and covers their opening speeches, including Joseph Goebbels, Alfred Rosenberg, Hans Frank, Fritz Todt, Robert Ley, and Julius Streicher. Then the film cuts to an outdoor rally for the Reichsarbeitsdienst (Labor Service), which is primarily a series of pseudo-military drills by men carrying spades. This is also where Hitler gives his first speech on the merits of the Labor Service and praising them for their work in rebuilding Germany. The day then ends with a torchlight SA parade in which Viktor Lutze speaks to the crowds.
Day 3: The third day starts with a Hitler Youth rally on the parade ground. Again the camera covers the Nazi dignitaries arriving and the introduction of Hitler by Baldur von Schirach. Hitler then addresses the Youth, describing in militaristic terms how they must harden themselves and prepare for sacrifice. Everyone present, including General Werner von Blomberg, then assemble for a military pass and review, featuring Wehrmacht cavalry and various armored vehicles. That night Hitler delivers another speech to low-ranking party officials by torchlight, commemorating the first year since the Nazis took power and declaring that the party and state are one entity.
Day 4: The fourth day is the climax of the film, where the most memorable of the imagery is presented. Hitler, flanked by Heinrich Himmler and Viktor Lutze, walks through a long wide expanse with over 150,000 SA and SS troops standing at attention, to lay a wreath at a World War I Memorial. Hitler then reviews the parading SA and SS men, following which Hitler and Lutze deliver a speech where they discuss the Night of the Long Knives purge of the SA several months prior. Lutze reaffirms the SA's loyalty to the regime, and Hitler absolves the SA of any crimes committed by Ernst Röhm. New party flags are consecrated by letting them touch the Blutfahne (the same cloth flag said to have been carried by the fallen Nazis during the Beer Hall Putsch) and, following a final parade in front of the Nuremberg Frauenkirche, Hitler delivers his closing speech. In it he reaffirms the primacy of the Nazi Party in Germany, declaring, "All loyal Germans will become National Socialists. Only the best National Socialists are party comrades!" Hess then leads the assembled crowd in a final Sieg Heil salute for Hitler, marking the close of the party congress. The entire crowd sings the Horst-Wessel-Lied as the camera focuses on the giant Swastika banner, which fades into a line of silhouetted men in Nazi party uniforms, marching in formation as the lyrics "Comrades shot by the Red Front and the Reactionaries march in spirit together in our columns" are sung.
Shortly after he came to power Hitler called me to see him and explained that he wanted a film about a Party Congress, and wanted me to make it. My first reaction was to say that I did not know anything about the way such a thing worked or the organization of the Party, so that I would obviously photograph all the wrong things and please nobody - even supposing that I could make a documentary, which I had never yet done. Hitler said that this was exactly why he wanted me to do it: because anyone who knew all about the relative importance of the various people and groups and so on might make a film that would be pedantically accurate, but this was not what he wanted. He wanted a film showing the Congress through a non-expert eye, selecting just what was most artistically satisfying - in terms of spectacle, I suppose you might say. He wanted a film which would move, appeal to, impress an audience which was not necessarily interested in politics.
— Leni Riefenstahl
Riefenstahl, a popular German actress, had directed her first movie called Das Blaue Licht (The Blue Light) in 1932. Around the same time she first heard Hitler speak at a Nazi rally and, by her own admission, was impressed. She later began a correspondence with him that would last for years. Hitler, by turn, was equally impressed with Das Blaue Licht, and in 1933 asked her to direct a film about the Nazis' annual Nuremberg Rally. The Nazis had only recently taken power amid a period of political instability (Hitler was the fourth Chancellor of Germany in less than a year) and were considered an unknown quantity by many Germans, to say nothing of the world.
In Mein Kampf Hitler talks of the success of British propaganda in WWI believing people’s ignorance meant simple repetition and an appeal to feelings over reason would suffice. Hitler chose Riefenstahl as he wanted the film as “artistically satisfying" as possible to appeal to a non-political audience, but he also believed that propaganda must admit no element of doubt. As such, Triumph of the Will may be seen as a continuation of the unambiguous WWI-style propaganda, though heightened by the film’s artistic or poetic nature.
Riefenstahl was initially reluctant, not because of any moral qualms, but because she wanted to continue making feature films. Hitler persisted and Riefenstahl eventually agreed to make a film at the 1933 Nuremberg Rally called Der Sieg des Glaubens (Victory of Faith). However the film had numerous technical problems, including a lack of preparation (Riefenstahl reported having just a few days) and Hitler's apparent unease at being filmed. To make matters worse, Riefenstahl had to deal with infighting by party officials, in particular Joseph Goebbels who tried to have the film released by the Propaganda Ministry. Though Sieg apparently did well at the box office, it later became a serious embarrassment to the Nazis after SA Leader Ernst Röhm, who had a prominent role in the film, was executed during the Night of the Long Knives. All references to Röhm were ordered to be erased from German history, which included the destruction of all known copies of Der Sieg des Glaubens.
In 1934, Riefenstahl had no wish to repeat the fiasco of Sieg and initially recommended fellow director Walter Ruttmann. Ruttmann's film, which would have covered the rise of the Nazi Party from 1923 to 1934 and been more overtly propagandistic (the opening text of Triumph was his), did not appeal to Hitler. He again asked Riefenstahl, who finally relented (there is still debate over how willing she was) after Hitler guaranteed his personal support and promised to keep other Nazi organizations, specifically the Propaganda Ministry, from meddling with her film.
The film follows a script similar to Der Sieg des Glaubens, which is evident when one sees both films side by side. For example, the city of Nuremberg scenes - even to the shot of a cat included in the city driving sequence in both films. Furthermore, Herbert Windt reused much of his musical score for that film in Triumph des Willens, which he also scored. But unlike Sieg, Riefenstahl shot Triumph with a large budget, extensive preparations, and vital help from high-ranking Nazis like Goebbels. As Susan Sontag observed, "The Rally was planned not only as a spectacular mass meeting, but as a spectacular propaganda film." Albert Speer, Hitler's personal architect, designed the set in Nuremberg and did most of the coordination for the event. Pits were dug in front of the speakers' platform so Riefenstahl could get the camera angles she wanted, and tracks were laid so that her cameramen could get traveling shots of the crowd. When rough cuts weren't up to par, major party leaders and high-ranking public officials reenacted their speeches in a studio for her. Riefenstahl also used a film crew that was extravagant by the standards of the day. Her crew consisted of 172 people, including 10 technical staff, 36 cameramen and assistants (operating in 16 teams with 30 cameras), nine aerial photographers, 17 newsreel men, 12 newsreel crew, 17 lighting men, two photographers, 26 drivers, 37 security personnel, four labor service workers, and two office assistants. Many of her cameramen also dressed in SA uniforms so they could blend into the crowds.
Riefenstahl had the difficult task of condensing an estimated 61 hours of film into two hours. She labored to complete the film as fast as she could, going so far as to sleep in the editing room filled with hundreds of thousands of feet of film footage.
— Reporter William Shirer
Triumph of the Will is sometimes seen as an example of Nazi political religion. The primary religion in Germany before the Second World War was Christianity. With the primary sects being Roman Catholic and Protestant, the Christian views in this movie are clearly meant to allow the movie to better connect with the intended audience.
Religion is a major theme in Triumph. The film opens with Hitler descending god-like out of the skies past twin cathedral spires. It contains many scenes of church bells ringing, and individuals in a state of near-religious fervor, as well as a prominent shot of Reich Bishop Ludwig Müller standing in his vestments among high-ranking Nazis. It is probably not a coincidence that the final parade of the film was held in front of the Nuremberg Frauenkirche. In his final speech in the film, Hitler also directly compares the Nazi party to a holy order, and the consecration of new party flags by having Hitler touch them to the "blood banner" has obvious religious overtones. Hitler himself is portrayed in a messianic manner, from the opening where he descends from the clouds in a plane, to his drive through Nuremberg where even a cat stops what it is doing to watch him, to the many scenes where the camera films from below and looks up at him: Hitler, standing on his podium, will issue a command to hundreds of thousands of followers. The audience happily complies in unison. As Frank P. Tomasulo comments in Triumph, "Hitler is cast as a veritable German Messiah who will save the nation, if only the citizenry will put its destiny in his hands."
It is our will that this state and this Reich shall endure through the coming millennia.
Germany had not seen images of military power and strength since the end of World War I, and the huge formations of men would remind the audience that Germany was becoming a great power once again. Though the Labor Service men carried spades, they handled them as if they were rifles. The Eagles and Swastikas could be seen as a reference to the Roman Legions of antiquity. The large mass of well-drilled party members could be seen in a more ominous light, as a warning to dissidents thinking of challenging the regime.
Hitler's arrival in an airplane should also be viewed in this context. According to Kenneth Poferl, "Flying in an airplane was a luxury known only to a select few in the 1930s, but Hitler had made himself widely associated with the practice, having been the first politician to campaign via air travel. Victory reinforced this image and defined him as the top man in the movement, by showing him as the only one to arrive in a plane and receive an individual welcome from the crowd. Hitler's speech to the SA also contained an implied threat: if he could have Röhm, the commander of the hundreds of thousands of troops on the screen, shot, it was only logical to assume that Hitler could get away with having anyone executed."
As soon as our own propaganda admits so much as a glimmer of right on the other side, the foundation for doubt in our own right has been laid.
It was very important to Adolf Hitler that his propaganda messages carry a unified theme. If a country isn't unified in saying the enemy is bad, the audience starts to have doubts. Unity is seen throughout this film, even in the camps where soldiers live. The camp outside of Nuremberg is very uniform and clean; the tents are aligned in perfect rows, each one the same as the next. The men there also make a point not to wear their shirts, because their shirts display their rankings and status. Shirtless they are all equals, unified. When they march, it is in unison and they all carry their weapons identically, one to another.
Hitler's message to the workers also includes the notion of unity:
The concept of labor will no longer be a dividing one but a uniting one, and no longer will there be anybody in Germany who will regard manual labor any less highly than any other form of labor.
Children were also used to convey unity:
We want to be a united nation, and you, my youth, are to become this nation. In the future, we do not wish to see classes and cliques, and you must not allow them to develop among you. One day, we want to see one nation.
Triumph has many scenes that blur the distinction between the Nazi Party, the German state, and the German people. Germans in peasant farmers' costumes and other traditional clothing greet Hitler in some scenes. The torchlight processions, though now associated by many with the Nazis, would remind the viewer of the medieval Karneval celebration. The old flag of Imperial Germany is also shown several times flying alongside the Swastika, and there is a ceremony where Hitler pays his respects to soldiers who died in World War I (as well as to President Paul von Hindenburg who had died a month before the convention). There is also a scene where the Labor Servicemen individually call out which town or area in Germany they are from, reminding the viewers that the Nazi Party had expanded from its stronghold in Bavaria to become a pan-German movement.
The Party is Hitler - and Hitler is Germany just as Germany is Hitler!
— Rudolf Hess
Among the themes presented, the desire for pride in Germany and the purification of the German people is well exemplified through the speeches and ideals of the Third Reich in Triumph.
In every speech given and shown in Triumph, pride is one of the major focuses. Hitler advocates to the people that they should not be satisfied with their current state and they should not be satisfied with the descent from power and greatness Germany has endured since World War I. The German people should believe in themselves and the movement that is occurring in Germany. Hitler promotes pride in Germany through the unification of it. Unifying Germany would force the elimination of what does not amount to the standards of the Nazi regime.
To unify Germany, Hitler believes purification would have to take place. This meant not only eliminating the citizens of Germany who are not of the Aryan race, but the sick, weak, handicapped, or any other citizens deemed unhealthy or impure. In Triumph, Hitler preaches to the people that Germany must take a look at itself and seek out that which does not belong: "[T]he elements that have become bad, and therefore do not belong with us!" The elimination of the 'inferior' people of Germany would, in theory, return Germany to its once prideful and powerful former self. Julius Streicher stresses the importance of purification and the effects of what happens when purification does not take place. These standards and regulations of the Nazi Party would underline the racial injustices suffered throughout the rest of the Nazi reign in Germany.
Hitler preaches to the people in his speeches that they should believe in their country and themselves. The German people are better than what they have become because of the impurities in society. Hitler wants them to believe in him and believe what he wants to do for his people, and what he is doing is for the country's and people's benefit. Hess says in the last scene of Triumph, "Heil Hitler, hail victory, hail victory!" Everyone in attendance yells in support. This verbal sign represents their faith to their leader and his most trusted advisors that they believe in the Nazi cause. This is directly following Hitler's yell, "Long live the National Socialist Movement! Long live Germany!" and the crowd erupts with cheering and the fulfillment of pride for themselves and their political party.
In the closing speech of Triumph of the Will, Hitler enters the room from the back, appearing to emerge from the people. After a one sentence introduction, he tells his faithful Nazis how the German nation has subordinated itself to the Nazi Party because its leaders are mostly of Germans. He promises that the new state that the Nazis have created will endure for thousands of years. Hitler says that the youth will carry on after the old have weakened. They close with a chant, "Hitler is the Party, Hitler." The camera focuses on the large Swastika above Hitler and the film ends with the images of this Swastika imposed on Nazis marching in a few columns. His speech brought attention to the rally and created a huge turnout in the following years. He attracted many people in the way that he addressed the issues and his people. He spoke to them as if it were a sermon and engaged the people. In 1934, over a million Germans participated in the Nuremberg Rally.
Triumph of the Will premiered on 28 March 1935 at the Berlin Ufa Palace Theater and was an instant success. Within two months the film had earned 815,000 Reichsmark, and Ufa considered it one of the three most profitable films of that year. Hitler praised the film as being an "incomparable glorification of the power and beauty of our Movement." For her efforts, Riefenstahl was rewarded with the German Film Prize (Deutscher Filmpreis), a gold medal at the 1935 Venice Biennale, and the Grand Prix at the 1937 World Exhibition in Paris. However, there were few claims that the film would result in a mass influx of 'converts' to fascism and the Nazis apparently did not make a serious effort to promote the film outside of Germany. Film historian Richard Taylor also said that Triumph was not generally used for propaganda purposes inside the Third Reich. The Independent wrote in 2003: "Triumph of the Will seduced many wise men and women, persuaded them to admire rather than to despise, and undoubtedly won the Nazis friends and allies all over the world."
The reception in other countries was not always as enthusiastic. British documentarian Paul Rotha called it tedious, while others were repelled by its pro-Nazi sentiments. During World War II, Frank Capra helped to create a direct response, through the film series called Why We Fight, a series of newsreels commissioned by the United States government that spliced in footage from Triumph of the Will, but recontextualized it so that it promoted the cause of the Allies instead. Capra later remarked that Triumph "fired no gun, dropped no bombs. But as a psychological weapon aimed at destroying the will to resist, it was just as lethal." Clips from Triumph were also used in an Allied propaganda short called General Adolph Takes Over, set to the British dance tune "The Lambeth Walk". The legions of marching soldiers, as well as Hitler giving his Nazi salute, were made to look like wind-up dolls, dancing to the music. The Danish resistance used to take over cinemas and force the projectionist to show Swinging the Lambeth Walk (as it was also known), and, says Erik Barrow, "The extraordinary risks were apparently felt justified by a moment of savage anti-Hitler ridicule." Also during World War II, the poet Dylan Thomas wrote a screenplay for and narrated These Are The Men, a propaganda piece using Triumph footage to discredit Nazi leadership.
One of the best ways to gauge the response to Triumph was the instant and lasting international fame it gave Riefenstahl. The Economist said it "sealed her reputation as the greatest female filmmaker of the 20th century." For a director who made eight films, only two of which received significant coverage outside of Germany, Riefenstahl had unusually high name recognition for the remainder of her life, most of it stemming from Triumph. However, her career was also permanently damaged by this association. After the war, Riefenstahl was imprisoned by the Allies for four years for allegedly being a Nazi sympathizer and was permanently blacklisted by the film industry. When she died in 2003, 68 years after its premiere, her obituary received significant coverage in many major publications, including the Associated Press, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and The Guardian, most of which reaffirmed the importance of Triumph. Though the actual effectiveness of Triumph of the Will is hard to measure, in terms of numbers or statistics that actually state its effectiveness, its response from the people is well documented with the amount of views and the popularity of the movie during the time period.
Like American filmmaker D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, Triumph of the Will has been criticized as a use of spectacular filmmaking to promote a profoundly unethical system. In Germany, this movie is classified as Nazi propaganda and its showing is restricted under post-war denazification laws, but it may be shown in an educational context. In her defense, Riefenstahl claimed that she was naïve about the Nazis when she made it and had no knowledge of Hitler's genocidal policies. She also pointed out that Triumph contains "not one single antisemitic word", although it does contain a veiled comment by Julius Streicher that "A people that does not protect its racial purity will perish." However, Roger Ebert has observed that for some, "the very absence of antisemitism in Triumph of the Will looks like a calculation; excluding the central motif of almost all of Hitler's public speeches must have been a deliberate decision to make the film more efficient as propaganda."
Riefenstahl also repeatedly defended herself against the charge that she was a Nazi propagandist, saying that Triumph focuses on images over ideas, and should therefore be viewed as a Gesamtkunstwerk (holistic work of art). In 1964, she returned to this topic, saying:
However, Riefenstahl was an active participant in the rally, though in later years she downplayed her influence significantly, claiming, "I just observed and tried to film it well. The idea that I helped to plan it is downright absurd." Ebert states that Triumph is "by general consent [one] of the best documentaries ever made", but added that because it reflects the ideology of a movement regarded by many as evil, it poses "a classic question of the contest between art and morality: Is there such a thing as pure art, or does all art make a political statement?" When reviewing the film for his "Great Movies" collection, Ebert reversed his opinion, characterizing his earlier conclusion as "the received opinion that the film is great but evil" and calling it "a terrible film, paralyzingly dull, simpleminded, overlong and not even 'manipulative,' because it is too clumsy to manipulate anyone but a true believer."
Susan Sontag considers Triumph of the Will the "most successful, most purely propagandistic film ever made, whose very conception negates the possibility of the filmmaker's having an aesthetic or visual conception independent of propaganda." Sontag points to Riefenstahl's involvement in the planning and design of the Nuremberg ceremonies as evidence that Riefenstahl was working, not as an artist in any sense of the word, but as propagandist. With some 30 cameras and a crew of 150, the marches, parades, speeches and processions were orchestrated like a movie set for Riefenstahl's film. Further, this was not the first political film made by Riefenstahl for the Third Reich (there was Victory of Faith, 1933), nor was it the last (Day of Freedom, 1935, Olympia, 1938). "Anyone who defends Riefenstahl's films as documentary", Sontag states, "if documentary is to be distinguished from propaganda, is being disingenuous. In Triumph of Will, the document (the image) is no longer simply the record of reality; 'reality' has been constructed to serve the image."
Brian Winston's essay on the film in The Movies as History is largely a critique of Sontag's analysis. Winston argues that any filmmaker could have made the film look impressive because the Nazi's mise en scène was impressive, particularly when they were offering it for camera re-stagings. In form, the film alternates repetitively between marches and speeches. Winston asks the viewers to consider if such a film should be seen as anything more than a pedestrian effort. Like Rotha, he finds the film tedious, and believes anyone who takes the time to analyze its structure will quickly agree.
The first controversy over Triumph occurred even before its release, when several generals in the Wehrmacht protested over the minimal army presence in the film. Only one scene, the review of the German cavalry, actually involved the German military. The other formations were party organizations that were not part of the military. Hitler proposed his own "artistic" compromise where Triumph would open with a camera slowly tracking down a row of all the "overlooked" generals (and placate each general's ego). According to her own testimony, Riefenstahl refused his suggestion and insisted on keeping artistic control over Triumph of the Will. She did agree to return to the 1935 rally to make a film exclusively about the Wehrmacht, which became Tag der Freiheit: Unsere Wehrmacht (Day of Freedom: Our Armed Forces).
Nicholas Reeves writes that "many of the most enduring images of the Third Reich and Adolf Hitler derive from Riefenstahl's film."
Extensive excerpts of the film were used in the Swedish box office hit Mein Kampf. This prompted Riefenstahl to sue the production company Minerva for copyright violation. Although her case against Minerva was unresolved, she won a temporary injunction against the German distributor. Subsequently in order to release the film, the German distributor agreed to pay Riefenstahl thirty thousand marks for Germany's release and a further five thousand marks for Austria's.
In 1942, Charles A. Ridley of the British Ministry of Information made a short propaganda film, Lambeth Walk - Nazi Style, which edited footage of Hitler and German soldiers from the film to make it appear they were marching and dancing to the song "The Lambeth Walk". The film so enraged Joseph Goebbels that reportedly he ran out of the screening room kicking chairs and screaming profanities. The propaganda film was distributed uncredited to newsreel companies, who would supply their own narration.
Triumph of the Will has also been studied by many contemporary artists including film directors Peter Jackson, and Ridley Scott. The first known movie to use Triumph imagery is Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator.
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