In 1934, the Nazis commissioned filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl to document their annual party congress, a six-day event that would take place in Nuremberg, Germany, in early September. The resulting film, TRIUMPH OF THE WILL (Hitler's title), had major effects, both positive and negative, on
Riefenstahl's subsequent career and reputation: along with OLYMPIAD (1938), it established her as one of the cinema's most gifted documentarians, and it laid her open to postwar accusations of having been a Nazi or Nazi sympathizer, an indictment that has plagued her throughout her long life.
In March 1933, Germany conferred full dictatorial power on Adolf Hitler. In August 1934, he was officially designated "fuhrer." TRIUMPH OF THE WILL begins with the arrival of Hitler's flight at Nuremberg's airport on September 5, 1934. Hordes of ecstatic citizens hail their fuhrer as he is driven
to his hotel. That evening, he appears on the hotel balcony to oversee a brass band concert. The next morning, as the city of Nuremberg awakens, thousands of German soldiers, in town to participate in the mass celebration, can be seen emerging from their tents and preparing themselves for the
The remaining 85 minutes of the film are devoted to a series of official rituals and rallies, most of them featuring speeches by Hitler: (1) the opening ceremonies, introduced by deputy fuhrer Rudolf Hess and incorporating statements by several of the Party's highest ranking officials; (2) an
outdoor rally in which masses of militarized laborers perform for and are addressed by Hitler; (3) a nocturnal rally of stormtroopers, complete with fireworks and bonfires; (4) a Hitler Youth rally; (5) a procession of cavalry and armored cars; (6) a massive ceremony at Zeppelin Field, dominated
by flags and torches; (7) an awesomely grandiose memorial service at which Hitler lays wreaths for the dead and consecrates a series of battle flags; (8) a lengthy sequence in which German military units of every description pass in review through the streets of the city as the fuhrer looks on;
(9) the closing ceremonies, which conclude with still another Hitler speech, followed by the last spoken words in the picture, a statement from Hess: "The Party is Hitler! But Hitler is Germany, just as Germany is Hitler! Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil!"
The purpose of the film, to quote one of the propaganda organs of its Nazi sponsors, was to present an "epic picture of the new Germany created by the victory of the movement as a triumph of the will on which it was based." The first section of the movie was originally intended to document the
20-year history of the Party, but this prologue never materialized.
Riefenstahl initially attempted to beg off the project, but relented when Hitler granted her total creative control, unlimited time for editing, and his assurance that this would be her last official assignment. She assembled a crew of 170, including 18 cameramen, some of whom she equipped with
roller skates. During the six days of the Nazi Party congress, she discovered, she said, that she "had a definite talent for documentaries." During the five-month postproduction period, Riefenstahl, confronted with a distributor's deadline, worked up to 16 hours a day, whittling 61 hours of
footage down to two.
When TRIUMPH OF THE WILL premiered in March 1935, Party bigwigs cheered, Hitler was pleased, and Riefenstahl fainted. Despite a disappointing reception by the German movie-going public, the film went on to win Germany's National Film Prize and, more surprisingly, the grand prize at a French
exposition. After the war, Riefenstahl was arrested by the French and spent several years attempting to clear her name of the taint of fascism. Although ultimately she was officially deemed a "mere follower" of Nazism, and thus innocent of war crimes, the onus created by TRIUMPH OF THE WILL has
haunted her ever since.
Virtually everything of artistic value in TRIUMPH OF THE WILL occurs in its first two reels, a visually symphonic prologue free of synchronized sound, oppressive oration, or stiffly formal ritual. Riefenstahl seemed to be happiest filming the almost abstract cloud formations that begin the film,
and the early morning shots of nearly naked German soldiers engaged in happy horseplay provide a revealing illustration of the filmmaker's arguably fascistic (small f) attraction to youth and physical beauty, a preoccupation that would blossom to epic proportions in OLYMPIAD, Riefenstahl's
monumental documentary of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.
23 minutes into the film, when Hess opens his rather misshapen mouth and says, "I open the sixth Party congress in respectful memory of the deceased chief of state, General Field Marshal, President von Hindenburg," the fun ends and the film's real business--the display and celebration of
Nazism--begins. Riefenstahl may have been accorded so-called creative control, but how free in fact was she? Could she show the fuhrer picking his nose? The result is a film that is simultaneously monotonous and horrifying--a historically important but artistically bereft fascist "industrial," a
movie that, despite its almost constantly tracking camerawork, is stillborn. Riefenstahl couldn't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear; the most she can be credited with is producing a silk ear.
How complicit was Riefenstahl? Not surprisingly, different statements she has made at different times reflect different attitudes. In a 1935 booklet (possibly ghostwritten), she praised Hitler and his cause to the skies. After the war, she insisted that TRIUMPH OF THE WILL was "not a propaganda
film....It is history. A pure historical film." One thing she is clear about: "I have never done anything I didn't want to do, and nothing I've ever been ashamed of" (1965).
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- Review: In 1934, the Nazis commissioned filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl to document their annual party congress, a six-day event that would take place in Nuremberg, Germany, in early September. The resulting film, TRIUMPH OF THE WILL (Hitler's title), had major effects… (more)