Movie and Film Reviews (MFR) Action The Triumph of the Will

The Triumph of the Will

             What is most impressive about Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary The Triumph of the Will (1934) is the enormity of its scope.  This film gives DeMille and Griffith a run for their money with its use of sets and cast.  The vast landscape of the hundreds upon thousands of men, women, and children standing to attention with their arms erect and smiles flashed upon their eager faces, waiting for the arrival of their leader, is fascinating, yet disconcerting when we discover whom they are waiting for.

            The film begins with one of the most incredible opening sequences in the history of cinema as their fearless leader parades his way through the city.  The townspeople behave as if Jesus himself has come down from the sky to bless them with his presence.  Riefenstahl even edits a shot of a cat turning round in its windowsill to see him go by; this man of power: Adolf Hitler.

            What follow for the next hour and a half are nothing more than speeches and vignettes, beautiful landscapes scored with beautiful music.  This film does exactly what propaganda is supposed to do.  Notice how she shoots the Nazi training camp, making it like one big fraternity, even showing a young man all smiles writing a letter home to his girl or his mother.  She films a beautiful piazza overlooking a lagoon draped in the Nazi flag, conveniently placing one in a pot of flowers to symbolize how natural this political party is in Germany.  Riefenstahl hits us over the head with the image of “the spider”, habitualizing us to its chronic visibility as she scores the scene with classical music.  Watching this film seventy years later, this becomes a juxtaposition filled with irony.

      Another credit to her direction is the film’s structure.  A lesser filmmaker might have prematurely ejaculated by having Hitler speak right away, but we do not hear him give a speech until almost half way through, saving the best for last.  I found myself questioning, “What is it that makes Hitler stand out?  What makes him the leader?”  The same thing that all great leaders have: charisma.  I have always felt German to be a brutish and unattractive language, but Hitler makes it dance like music with the rolling of his “r’s” and the intense passion for what he speaks.  He makes you want to believe, want to be a part of this powerful group ready to take over the world.

      Something they do is quite strange, anathema even, to Americans: they allow their sacred flag to touch the ground.  Do they feel they are better than the rest of the world, therefore covering the ground with their presence?  Or do they feel what they are doing is so right they are one with nature?

     The most arresting image comes about three fourths of the way through: thousands of soldiers are marching in impeccable unison carrying their beloved flags.  The camera then shows only the flags moving in harmony; faces and bodies are nowhere to be seen.  This completely summarizes what Nazism is all about: leaving behind your individuality to become a part of a mass where you forget you are human to participate in the greater “good”. 

      The film tends to drag a bit, but maybe that is Riefenstahl’s point: to anesthetize us with the unification, the speeches, and make us feel that the Nazi Party belongs right where they are.

     I saw The Triumph of the Will at Anthology Film Archives in New York City and someone made a conscious decision to not use a subtitled version.  Why?  Maybe they felt it would destroy the integrity of the film.  More likely, however, it was to keep us with an objective sort of viewpoint so we were not offended or worse yet, we understood it and believed it.

2 thoughts on “The Triumph of the Will”

  1. well, what can someone say about this film?

    as a photographer i learned alot of style tips from this movie and the work of albert speer. this movie is stylistically amazing.

    as a black man i love gone with the wind. its a great bit of storytelling.

    no one in my family will sit through gone with the wind for more than ten minutes before they are high holy pissed.

    i wonder how an elderly jew feels about triumph of the will?

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