Triumph of the Will (Leni Riefenstahl, 1935)

01Aug10

Adolf Hitler, Josef Goebbels, Martin Bormann, Walter Buch. Directed by Leni Riefenstahl. Rating: E. Running time: 114 minutes.

This is fascinating. It’s also absolutely petrifying beyond words, but it is, first and foremost, just fascinating. How on earth did it happen? How can one man indoctrinate a nation so deeply that he goes from being an imprisoned political dissident to becoming a German deity revered beyond comprehension in the space of little over a decade? You won’t find the answer to that sociological puzzle here, because Riefenstahl was appointed to make a propaganda film, not a scientific one. We’re given the situation in Nuremberg at the 1934 Nazi Party Conference straight forwardly, as it was. That means we hear lots of triumphant music, see lots of impassioned and worrying speeches, and observe crowds in the tens of thousands, lining the streets to pay their respect to that man, Adolf Hitler.

It’s very, very hard to separate style from substance when the scenario facing you is as extreme as this, but there’s a reason why, whilst the film is male-dominated to put it mildly, it’s maker was nevertheless, quite remarkably, female. That reason is Leni Riefenstahl and her stunningly high levels of talent, which, in this context, become disturbing. Aerial shots to show the grandiosity of the conference were unheard of back then, neither were distorted lenses used to bring focus to the man in the centre of the frame gathering all the attention. It’s also no coincidence that almost all shots of Hitler are taken from the ground, him appearing to stand high and above in the heavens. He even descends from the clouds at the beginning, for Christ’s sake, landing on the ground to showers of applause. Every single face we see is in complete awe of the man they’ve submitted themselves to. He was going to make Germany great again, and he was their God.

Of course, it goes without saying that it drags. How could it not? Two hours of, let’s admit it, pretty repetitive footage being drummed into you of march after march and speech after speech will get tiresome for anybody except the Germans of the time swept away by it. But the content of the speeches, which must be mentioned, definitely gets increasingly shocking as the film goes on. Hitler starts with vague promises relating to future economic prosperity, moves on to talk of racial purity and the liberty the National Socialist party will ensure, and ends with a cry out to his foreign critics: “The state doesn’t order us! We order the state! We created the state!” That’s right; as his right-hand man puts it: “Hitler is Germany and Germany is Hitler!” He has a huge mandate, and the rapture of applause and sight of mesmerised faces serves as a reminder to anyone who dares question his democratic credentials.

“I had an almost apocalyptic vision that I was never able to forget. It seemed as if the Earth’s surface were spreading out in front of me, like a hemisphere that suddenly splits apart in the middle, spewing out an enormous jet of water, so powerful that it touched the sky and shook the earth.” That’s Riefenstahl on her first encounter with the oratory of Adolf Hitler. It’s safe to say your reaction to him won’t be quite that positive, but Triumph of the Will is nevertheless going to have a pretty good go at trying to convince you of his God-like greatness.

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