My dad is a history buff, with special interests in ancient Rome and WWII, and when, after graduating from college, I started stressing about my intellectual future, and whether I’d be able to stay curious and keep educating myself without a professor to hold my hand through the tough stuff, he told me that he gets these 800-page books about Churchill or whatever, the recovery of Berlin or the Battle of the Bulge (stuff that, to me, looks dense and intimidating), and reads each one pretty quickly because, having once upon a time trudged amateurishly through similar books, he goes into these newer volumes knowing the characters, knowing the events, and this apparently quickens his eyes’ movement over the page. He said that basically the difficult stuff will eventually become accessible if you just keep hitting your head against it.
Triumph of the Will, a propaganda film out of Nazi Germany, is unsettling, for sure, but mostly it’s just painfully boring, largely because Leni Reifenstahl, the director, devotes huge amounts of time to shots of just the crowds at these Nazi rallies, which are huge. She lavishes just as much attention on aerial shots of Germany, which are beautiful, shots of young soldiers horsing around, of parades – propaganda. It’s almost everything you’d imagine when you hear the phrase “Nazi propaganda” (I was surprised by the lack of hate speech, though). So I do think that the movie is inherently interesting as an artifact, and I figure it’ll inform my approach to Nazi-related material going forward, but I was really bored while watching it and would recommend this movie to nobody save those for whom, like my dad, a familiarity with the subject matter might hasten the experience. And while a part of me wanted to be moved with fear or anger throughout the movie, what I ultimately found most remarkable is its banality. It’s an enormous pep-rally that we know, from a historical perspective, is frightening for its enormity and for the zealotry of its crowd — but if there’s anything intriguing about Triumph of the Will in respect to its capacity for seduction, its how insidious that seduction is. Nowhere is there mention of a murderous agenda, the hatred that defined it. According to the camera, this is just pride. Emphatic, triumphant, muscle-flexing pride. Underneath those appearances of jocularity and of patriotism, however, is the film’s submission of a heavy statement to the viewer: we are Legion.
I guess Triumph of the Will is also boring to somebody like me because it was specially made for people who knew, before they sat down to watch it, that they’d agree with what they saw. That this movie is clearly meant to strengthen its audience’s pre-existing beliefs about the party. Lots of production value, sure, but the demographic is pretty decidedly limited to people who’ve already knelt at this altar.
What did interest me, after the movie, was the fate of its director. Riefenstahl is the subject of ongoing debate, in respect to what she really felt about the Nazi party, but she’s on record extolling Hitler as like a cosmic Savior. She was close with Goebbels, and other Nazi higher-ups, but also apparently went and appealed to Hitler’s sympathy after she saw some citizens shot down in the street. Ostensibly to distance herself from the party she immersed herself in a four-year film production, Lowland, for which she used unpaid prisoners of a camp. Riefenstahl was arrested after the war, charged with knowing about Nazi war crimes, but she claimed innocence. She was subjected to four trials before being labelled a Nazi sympathizer and, unable to regain her professional footing in cinema, resorted to still photography. She died at 101 shortly after retracting — and apologizing for — a statement she’d made long ago: that all of the prisoners she used for unpaid labor in her production of Lowland survived the war.
Yeah, super boring on its own, but super interesting in a historical context. Prior to Nazi takeover Germany was in a very bad place. The had lost WWI, the peace terms were crippling and humiliating. Insane inflation in the twenties, the depression hit particularly hard in Germany and a series of politically weak governments. Then comes this: Order, optimism, direction, progress and pride. People were ecstatic and this movie shows this.
This is the recipe for populism anywhere and a warning what is to come if not checked. For this reason this is a must-see. Watching you understand why populism is so alluring and warns of of the signs.