Triumph of the Will: The Power of Propaganda

Triumph des Willens/Triumph of the Will (1935, Dir. Leni Riefenstahl) has a narrative and visual style that works to put across a precise political ideology, acting as powerful propaganda for the Nazis and their fascist regime by trying to highlight an apparent strength, power, and unity.

Triumph des Willens “was made mainly in order to bind the leaderless SA to the Party, after the Rohm putsch and the ‘night of the long knives”[1] and works to promote a face of power and stability in the Nazi party following this night of betrayal and execution in the ranks of the SA. As Hitler himself shouts out to the crowds in the film, “The SA has as little to do with this shadow as any other party institution…that a crack has appeared in our movement are mistaken,” turning the situation to his advantage in attacking other parties and putting on an illusion of absolute strength not just with this central speech in the film but also the film itself – a piece of propaganda to promote and maintain the Nazi party and their fascist goals amongst the people of Germany. This is done primarily through its lavish and indulgent style, using the power of spectacle to advance the primary message of strength, power, and unity being hand in hand with Nazism and Fascism. The spectacle is so great in fact that the film transcends its propaganda roots and becomes to this day a “triumph of form over substance…because it is a box of photographer’s tricks, blended with point of view editing techniques picked from feature film-makers”[2]

From the beginning, propaganda through spectacle drives the film, opening with high angle shots from the perspective of a plane looking through the clouds and down onto the city of Nuremberg as the clouds part like stage curtains to reveal the object of focus and center of Nazism – Germany itself. Within the plane, Hitler is given the god-like attributes, overlooking the city and the rows of soldiers marching, touched by the shadow of the plane like God or even an angel in the image of outstretched wings. Immediately, Hitler is given power and made to be an almost deity amongst the people of Germany. When he finally appears from the plane, Riefenstahl cross-cuts between cheering audiences looking off camera at Hitler to him being revealed, highlighting their pride and joy in witnessing him as spectators just like the audience itself in the theatre spectating him. As we follow their gaze and Hitler rides through the crowds, we are kept close to him which would have powerful effect on his supporters; the use of point of view and over the shoulder shots give an immediacy that offers a taste for the people of his power and strength while humanising him to an extent, trying to boost his popularity and relatability. All of Germany is shown to have eyes on Hitler, even the city itself with Riefenstahl inserting shots of cats and statues staring at him between shots of the crowds gazing; the old architecture of Nuremberg is draped in both the German flag and the Nazi Swastika to create the impression of the party and fascism as integral and an older institution in Germany than it truly is. With all eyes on Hitler, it is clear that his role as the one and ultimate leader of the fascist state and Nazi party is being emphasized; showing his power, success as a leader and the pride the people of Germany have for him. His entire “status in the film derives from, and is motivated and signaled by, the fact that he is structured and marked as the privileged object of the gaze”[3]

As a documentary, Triumph des Willens depicts the Nazis in one of many grand rallies, offering an almost ‘slice of life’ dimension to the film that would have humanized the Nazis and make their ranks and policies look more appealing to the German people.  The scenes of young men washing and shaving, well fed and with wide grins, really does make life as a young Nazi look appealing to audiences of the time and hides the true death and cruelty behind the smiling face of the party as “all the signifying mechanisms of the cinema – camera angles, editing, music, set design, lighting, and narration – are marshalled to appeal to the irrational character structure of its malleable mass audience.”[4] Riefenstahl frequently uses extreme wide shots of the soldiers in symmetrical lines to create what is the equivalent of supra-human spectacle, highlighting each soldier’s importance as one of a whole, blending together in an image of ultimate unity – one of the key benefits of fascism according to the Nazi regime. The detail and scale of organization shown in the fields of countless identical forms create such an impression on the audience through the spectacle that they would associate the Nazi forces with power and strength and, for foreign audiences, a great fear would be instilled as we track through the rows of soldiers. Mid shots of specific soldiers singing praises to Hitler depict him as an image of pride and fascination with the soldier’s looking at him offscreen and “what counts is not the instance of looking as observation, but rather as fascinated gaze.”[5] These techniques that highlight the unity and importance of the Nazi party are also used in the depiction of the crowds of German people cheering in awe at Hitler and the grand rally, making it seem that they are just as important and strong for the fascist regime as the men they are watching. Hitler stands on the balcony over them in a repeated low angle shot, appearing as a figure of dominance, power and even pope-like. As he speaks to the Nazi youth, Riefenstahl uses arcing tracking shot around him to give added momentum and weight to his words, making him an object of spectacle put upon an almost pedestal for both the audience in and out of the film world.

Cutting between him and his spectators, “variations are established in a variety of ways – scale and distance, angle, gesture and so on, each measured against the fact of Hitler’s presence.”[6] All these elements of spectacle culminate in the procession where three powerful figures in the party, Adolph Hitler, Heinrich Himmler and Viktor Lutze, walk through a crowd of over 150,000 SA and SS troops that, with Riefenstahl’s telephoto lens, is magnified by “compressing and welding the crowds together cinematically, thereby conveying the ideological point that the masses are closer together (United) and solidly behind their chancellor.”[7] The scale and symmetry of the extreme wide shot depicting the three lone figures amidst a sea of troops is so impressive in coordination that the skill and expenses it would have taken add to the illusion of a powerful, rich Germany under the Nazis rule. The smooth camera movement as we track left embodies the omnipotent perspective of the camera depicting spectacle. The repetition of the supra-human spectacle and awed gaze of the people to Hitler, made to look powerful and almighty, reflects the indulgence of the Nazi party with this film. The cyclical nature of rally, speech, and procession throughout hammers the message of wealth, strength, power and unity within the Nazi party and Fascism in general; the seemingly endless nature of the procession and the mass of troops within the film suggests to the audience that they are truly an endless and undefeatable force. In the final shot of the film “the effect is one of order and national purpose, a national purpose made manifest in the final shot of the sequence: the Labour Services men marching toward the camera, their image superimposed over Hitler’s raised fist.”[8]

The right-wing fascist ideology of Riefenstahl in Triumph des Willens is extremely evident from its exaggerated style; creating a documentary that acts as propaganda to support the image of power, strength, and unity within the Nazi party and kill doubts of instability following the ‘Night of the Long Knives’.

 

Citations

[1] Thomas Elsaesser: “Leni Riefenstahl: The Body Beautiful, Art Cinema and Fascist Aesthetics,” in Pam Cook and Philip Dodd [eds] Women and Film: A Sight and Sound Reader, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993): 186-97.

[2] Thomas Elsaesser: “Leni Riefenstahl: The Body Beautiful, Art Cinema and Fascist Aesthetics.”

[3] Steve Neale: “Triumph of the Will: Notes on Documentary and Spectacle,” Screen 20, no 1 (1979): 63-86.

[4] Barry Keith Grant and Jeannette Sloniowski, “Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video,” (Wayne State University Press, 1998): 102.

[5] Steve Neale: “Triumph of the Will: Notes on Documentary and Spectacle.”

[6] Steve Neale: “Triumph of the Will: Notes on Documentary and Spectacle.”

[7] Keith Grant, Barry and Jeannette Sloniowski, “Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video”: 102.

[8] Mary Devereaux: “Beauty and evil: the case of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will,” in Jerrold Levinson [ed] Aesthetics and Ethics: Essays at the Intersection, (Cambridge University Press, 2001): 234.

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