Triumph of the Will (1935) Director: Leni Riefenstahl
Triumph of the Will (Triumph de Willens) is a remarkable piece of film history -an explicit propaganda film justifying the purpose, and showcasing the grandeur, of the Nazi movement shortly pre-World War II. The film takes place over four days in September of 1934 as the Fuhrer goes to speak to the Nazi party in Nuremberg.
The overarching theme of the film is that Germany has been wronged (Treaty of Versailles), and that it is rising again, and encouraging the people of the nation to rise with the growing movement. The opening scenes of the film show some of the only script in the whole film: the scene is set with the time and location and the reason for the gathering, with the backdrop of a peaceful plane flying into Nuremberg carrying Adolph Hitler, above gently rolling clouds. The city of Nuremberg draped in Nazi flags appears quietly through the clouds. As they land, hundreds of thousands of Germans are there to cheer Hitler on and greet him. He appears as a god. The film makes use of the montage (recall Sergei Eisenstein) – we see scenes of early morning, German pastoral images, trees and flowers, statues, and cathedrals which hearken to an early German era -a nostalgia for a more golden age where Germany was great. We see children and mothers reaching out longingly to touch Hitler, with camera angles looking downward, while when Hitler speaks to the party, the camera is positioned below him, looking upward. Nothing new is presented in the cinematography, however the scale of the budget for the film is remarkable.
As with all propaganda, the control and elimination of the narrative or context, is primary. One of the earliest propaganda films was the “Tear Down of the Spanish Flag”, a short reel film shot in New York showing the tearing down of the Spanish and the rising of the American flag, part of the propaganda of the Spanish-American War. The Soviets, the Americans, and the British turned to cinema to create a national narrative during World War I. The goal was to create a universal language, portraying the enemy as brutal and one-dimensional, and appealing to the pathos, the emotions, of the audience and the crowd.
Unlike other nations, the Nazis operated with full control of all their media with the goal of brainwashing all viewers – the message was consistent across all mediums. The film masquerades as a documentary, while eliminating the history, the context. One is left to wonder, to what extent all films are, in one way or another, a kind of propaganda vehicle?
Triumph of the Will is a good film, primarily as a milestone in the history of cinema and as a propaganda film. Otherwise, the message it stands for is revolting, as in the case of other notable films – such as The Birth Of A Nation.