Triumph of the Will (1935) Director: Leni Riefenstahl
“Triumph of the Will” (Triumph de Willens) is a remarkable piece of film history. It is an explicit propaganda film, justifying the purpose and showcasing the grandeur of the German Nazi movement shortly before the outbreak of 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 the victimization of Germany, the old wounds from World War I (Treaty of Versailles), and that Germany is rising again. The film explicitly encourages the people of Germany 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 cheer for Hitler. He appears as a god. The film makes use of Sergei Eisenstein montage technique – we see scenes of early morning, German pastoral images, trees and flowers, statues, and cathedrals, all of which hearken back to an early German era -a nostalgia for a more golden age when Germany was great. We see children and mothers reaching out longingly to touch Hitler, with camera angles looking downward toward the crowd of people, while when Hitler addresses 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 “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 all turned to cinema to create a national narrative during World War I and World War II. The goal was to create a universal language, portraying the enemy as brutal and one-dimensional, while appealing to the pathos (or the emotions) of the audience and the crowd.
Unlike other nations, the Nazis operated with full control of all their media, hoping to brainwash their viewers – the message was consistent across all mediums. The film masquerades as a documentary, while eliminating history and context. One is left to wonder to what extent are all films, 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.