Triumph des Willens
(Triumph of the Will)
A contextual analysis in relation to its form as either a true documentary work or an article of propaganda, with reference to represented and implied political ideology and subsequent forms of directorial presentation.
By Matthew Lipscomb
Under Hitler’s Shadow: Europe 1929-1945
Dr. Anthony J. Steinhoff
Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will holds the distinction of being one of the most controversial films in the history of cinematography. No student of cinema and film can make it very far in their academic studies without being confronted both by its majesty and its controversy. Filmed in 1934, and subsequently released the following year, it deftly purports itself as a documentary of the Nazi rally in Nuremburg. Its critics have historically ardently proclaimed an alternative agenda to be inescapably at work.
The film begins with the simple footage of Adolf Hitler’s plane, first as it flies through the soft and seemingly celestial embrace of the sky, and then its subsequent descent and its feverishly anticipated arrival in Nuremburg. Admittedly, the sense of excitement and welcome that is demonstrated by the citizens of Nuremburg is not unlike anything that would be found in the enthusiasm, emotion, and energy of any modern political rally. Riefenstahl integrates the visual display of military might; the ever marching columns of marching soldiers into the essence and earthiness of the German people; which was itself an integral aspect of the NSDAP’s collective metanarrational ethos. An example of this, is the shot of the relatively well-known Gänsemännchen Fountain in Nuremberg. The ‘little duck man’ fountain features a presumed farmer holding two ducks, with water streaming out of their beaks. Still a part of Nuremberg’s collection of iconic fountain art, it is representational of the earthiness that the Nazis sought to espouse, which was sometimes referred to “Blut und Boden” or “Blood and Soil.” Riefenstahl also incorporates the imposing architecture of the stone buildings of Nuremburg – which easily iconically resonate with the thematic ideals of the age & strength of the German people and their culture – along with the majestic waving of the ever-present Nazi banners and the ever smiling and beautiful throngs of people. In an age of poverty and humiliation functionally imposed by the Treaty of Versailles, it would seem natural that this would have been a welcomed sight and a wonderful event to have participated in for a very tired and beleaguered nation. Riefenstahl offers a vision of what must have been greatly welcomed and unquestioned; that of a vibrant restoration of national pride – the focus of which was power, capability and personal responsibility – all seeming fully embodied in a unified and unquestioned political party, logically and unquestionably led by Hitler.
Riefenstahl – as she quickly reveals herself to be – is not a ‘disinterested observer;’ as is the ideal relationally-ideological position of a good documentarian. A good director of a good documentary archetypically strives to show alternative conclusions of potentially controversial subjects, insofar as they could potentially be posited by a half-way educated viewer. Here, there is no such attempt made. Contrarily, there are gratuitous metanarrational aspects that are subtly employed, such as Riefenstahl’s before mentioned lengthy shot of the airy clouds during Hitler’s flight to Nuremburg – as if to hail a messianic-like arrival; one decidedly of a heavenly or divine-like nature. It seems clear, that even in the beginning, the vestiges of the film as being documentarian vs. propagandistic quickly fade into a brute force reality that is as subtle and gentle as the night sticks wielded by the Nazi soldiers it portrays.
It should be noted, that at the time of its release – many of the cannons of Nazi ideology were not strictly regarded as being anathemas. A steady stream of books and related articles – unabashedly trumpeting the so-called ‘science of Eugenics’ – could still be ubiquitously observed both in print and in the popular media and were regarded as high-brow intellectual reading materials and apt social topics; all of which were very much still-respected components of the conversational stream among respected politicians, studious scientists and sincerely caring health professionals, not just in Germany – but elsewhere across the world. To question the notion of a Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’ was a logical if not completely acceptable notion, even when extended into the potential morass of a racial context. It was not until the abject horror of the Nazi’s ‘Final Solution’ and its infernal machinery was forever indelibly sublimated into the historical conscience of post-war Europe and the rest of the world, that Eugenics became a thoroughly anathemized idea that dare not be ever mentioned. At no point does Riefenstahl make any attempt to juxtapose any apposing views. We are only continually entreated to the carefully ordered and imposing forms of orators and their aduelent throngs – all of whom make no attempt to hide their views on race, their intrinsic supremacy, and the seemingly limitless power that they proposed to be able to yield through the purposefully combined unity of them.
Throughout the film, we see an unwavering and adoring public. Hitler is posited as a supreme and unquestioned leader. The only point at which any of this is even indirectly questioned, is buried in the skillful rhetoric of Hitler himself -who notes that other nations and peoples who have essentially not gone through what the German people have, have no right to question or wonder how and why they have arrived at the conclusions and methods that they, the Germans, have. It is important to note the rhetorical prowess that Hitler exerts in his speechmaking – as other Nazi speakers sometimes come across sounding shrill, unmetered and almost monotone in their at times hysterical enthusiasm. Hitler makes skillful use of pauses – and is firmly in control of the delivery of each of his words; demonstrating the masterful oratory that he had employed to enthrall not just all of Germany – but much of the still unsuspecting world.
Riefenstahl’s work is a calculated deposition of intent: that of the individual farmer and that of the ditch digger; the common soldier and his fellow comrades in their elite guard units. That – as the title aptly suggests – there is more at work here then just a spirited pep rally, reminiscent of a high school football game at its best. Military historians sociologically correspondingly extrapolate the nature of the Japanese national spirit, as well – that it was likewise rooted in a belief in an intrinsic superiority – theirs, in the fact that their leader, the emperor, was believed and accepted as an actual god among themselves. The Germans, that there was a natural and ingrained superiority as true as the genetic makeup it was supposedly written upon. It is purported that the Japanese national spirit was not militarily broken, until the emperor renounced his own divinity; and that of the Germans – until they had actually experienced their first decisive loss on the battlefield. Each of these nationally ethoic dynamics arguably come into play and are wordlessly argued in Riefenstahl’s narrative. Though not strictly asserted – it is more then passively implied: that Hitler is a virtual God – if not fully embodied as such within the embrace of the German mythological cannon. Many of the Germans at the rally would have been familiar with the legend of the 12th century Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, who was said to “lie asleep in a cave, ready to spring to Germany’s aid whenever the black ravens circling overhead warn him that the sacred soil of his First Reich is in danger.” Surely it would have been easy for them to reach back into just such a storyline – probably told to them all as beloved bedtime stories – and contextually see him as just such a mythologically-prophesied and hoped-for, once again-returned savior.
Was Riefenstahl’s guilty of creating a progandistic slideshow – or can it be argued that she was just doing what she intended to do: to show us Nazism and the nature of its spirit, the corresponding ideologies, and the subsequently contiguous ethoic assertions intrinsic to the parties beliefs – all of which were openly manifested over the course of those few days in September 1934? Was she a collaborator – or an expositor? Arguably – she is guilty of both. There is no glossing over or shying away from the stated ideals of the Nazi ideological platform as she related them to us. However totalitarian or lampoon-worthy they might be viewed as being by today’s audiences – they were seen as arguably innocuous by many in the national and international communities. After all – Hitler never says or implies anything in any speech that he makes that he has not already explicitly spelled out for universal perusal and rumination in his book, Mein Kampf. Nothing should be shocking. Nothing should be unexpected. Nothing – it seems – was.
There are – and will always be – certain historical events, which, because of their contextual relations to both history and the experience and story of humanity, will never be fully exhausted – and which, arguably, are rediscovered and re-learned by each generation. The sinking of the Titanic. The stories of the Roman gladiators. Or “how the West was won,” to name just a few. But even when we are all bored with icebergs, and both sword and gun fighting – one chapter will forever fascinate us – and we should pray that it never ceases to, less we forget the consequences that it bequeathed; that of a national transfixment and the meteoric rise of an Australian paperhanger to absolute dictator of one of the most advanced and intellectually, artistically, and theologically gifted nations in the world. If ever we forget it – then Leni will be there to remind us; with grey smoky torch lights and unfurled banners; the ideas, passions and fervor of a people – and of their will.
 For a more detailed expository documentary on this, see Ben Stein’s Expelled, which includes a historical narrative of this time period as it relates to Evolution, Darwinian Selection, Race Theory and popular opinion regarding Eugenics, as they related to Nazi policies and practices, using the debate between Creationism/Intelligent Design and Materialist-Secularist Evolution schools of thought as corresponding contextual arrays.
 As recounted in the first chapter of The Arms of Krupp, by William Manchester, Anvil of the Reich, pgs. 3-4.