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History is meant to change the way we think about our past, give us an understanding of what has happened and allow for change to be made to better everyday life. After the havoc of the first world war and the ravaging turnout for Germany, Adolf Hitler tries to reunite the country by using words of encouragement and promoting nationalism throughout his rallies. Nazi leader Adolf Hitler is believed to be one of the most powerful and influential people in the world. Leni Riefenstahl’s film Triumph of the Will functioned as part of this strategy to show the Germans that they are strong people and they did not deserve the outcome of the first world war. It promises that they will become a stronger force for the second war, and not suffer the same fate as in WWI. In further understanding, the film examination of the film and its director are required. While many see this documentary as nothing more than that of propaganda, in reality, it is also a way to bring the German country together through the details and plans of one leader. Hitler was a man seen to be the one that could bring Germany back to the top and restore national pride. The main premise of the story revolves around creating a stronger, reunited country put together by a leader. While propaganda is undoubtedly present throughout the film, the argument can be made that it is a case of strong film art that is looked back as a staple to the history of World War II, which helps evaluate some of our modern-day situations.
Riefenstahl’s film, although today is seen as propaganda, the idea of it being film art is something that is often overlooked. I believe that this is not true, it provides a pathway set at the time to encourage Germans to believe in their country again. After a devastating first war, the Germans lost all they had, Hitler would not stand for such a verdict and brings to life his plan of fighting back to get what he believes was wrongly taken. This film can be seen as a way for Hitler to express that they would bounce back from the first world war and they would do so as a country, this would lead to a successful war and that is what the film tried to portray by showing how excited all of his followers and soldiers looked on the camera. The rallies showed in the film, although are seen as a method of propaganda used in order to pull more people into the war, they acted as both a spiritual and economic booster to the country. This is something that he can say he was successful at, even if it was for a short amount of time. Riefenstahl captures the viewer by using the aspect of physical gaps in her shooting method, it is something that was unique to film that has never been seen in such a way before. It is an aspect that was glorified when first seen. Another aspect was the way she used a method of hierarchy between Hitler and the followers, making him the main focus throughout the film. From the beginning when he comes out of the plane, posing as a God-like figure to all of the people phrasing him. The way it is shot allows for viewers to have trust in him, just like the people on screen already did. something that he knew the people would need in order to become successful. At the time of the documentary being filmed this was seen as not propaganda but as a method of recruitment for German soldiers and a way to inform their people of a positive and big change to the future of Germany. It is considered to be one of the very first observational Documentaries. (Kara Petersen) People would want to be involved with something like that at any given moment and this was taken as an opportunity to embrace their fallen country. Hitler was a successful human when it came to the glorification of war and recruitment for it. The film is seen as propaganda but the soldiers within the documentary are not actors, they are real men that were willing to fight for their country, and convinced that they were doing the right thing because Hitler convinced them of such a decision. Riefenstahl expresses this through her use of camera angles and shots throughout the film that focuses on the mass amounts of crowds gathered to hear what Hitler has to say. Again, this is a way to show viewers of the film that they are not alone in feeling let down, but there are others that are willing to make and be a part of the change that Hitler is leading. With the Germans baring the feeling of devastation from the first world war, Hitler understands this and uses it as a campaign method as any knowledgeable leader would do. He stood up for what the people wanted and targeted the specific group of people that would be willing to follow him until the very end. He built up a campaign that was successful, as the film shows until the actual war commenced. He had the soldiers who were willing to fight because he made them believe in the terrible actions that were later committed. Riefenstahl shows Hitler throughout the documentary in a position or place of power, always being looked up to, this plays a huge aspect as to why he got as far as he did the ability to do this through camera work is something that was never done before in such a way. Leni Riefenstahl was filming the entire week-long Rally. Utilizing thirty film cameras and 120 technicians, she produced an extraordinary film record of the festivities, featuring many unique camera angles and dramatic lighting effects. (TheHistoryPlace.com)
The film is seen as a method of pure propaganda when looking at it from the point of view in today’s society when the first film came out, however, it was really a way to recruit the people needed to help fight a war. As Kara Peterson of St. Edwards University states, “It shows events – parades, mass assemblies, images of Hitler, speeches – that are occurring as if the camera was recording what would have happened…regardless if there were cameras present or not.” (Kara Peterson) Riefenstahl did use various camera tricks when filming to documentary to make the viewer think nothing but positivity towards the idea of following Hitler. She avoided filming any type of gore or torture that happened to the enemies. The risk of death was also never brought up throughout the film which could have led to misinterpretation amongst the Germans that wanted to take part. With all the buildup of hope and pride within Germany, another devastating yet much needed end to the war really took the country down and tore them apart as a whole. Riefenstahl denying to film at first shows that she knew that it was not going to be an easy thing to do because there would be a lot of difficult issues to face while creating, but took on the task because Hitler had promised to supply her resources and saw it as a positive possibility for her directing career. When she took on the task it was specified at specific points that did not show any violence whatsoever. The main focus was the idea of larger groups of people coming together to show their support for something they were unknowingly convinced into thinking was the right thing to go. In Edmund Butcher’s article, he states that Riefenstahl claimed, “Not a single scene is staged […] everything is genuine. And there is no tendentious commentary for the simple reason that there is no commentary at all. It is history – pure history.” (Butcher 10), As seen Riefenstahl claimed the film to be pure Cinéma Verité with nothing done to the film other than the original recording. It is supposed to be a piece of untouched history. The camera is rolling but there are no direct interviews or eye contact with the camera. It is played as though there is no camera to be seen as to interrupt his power. However, Butcher states although there are no direct scripted or rehearsed scenes throughout the film, the aesthetics she uses to portray certain aspects put the film further into the category of Cinéma direct. (Butcher 11) She portrays Hitler as the strongest being throughout the movie, most of the longer shots and close-ups are of him to show the seriousness of the situation, whereas the shots of his followers are not as important so she does not have many close-ups of them this entire method of filming leads toward the genre of cinema direct instead of cinema verité.
The art of the film was something that is studied and talked about still to this day. It has provided the world with knowledge of how Hitler was portrayed while in power. The modern society will look at this work of art and it is not but hard to notice that in some ways we may be looking at seminaries in today’s governments. The way modern-day campaigning is very familiar to that of Riefenstahl’s work in Triumph of the will. Many people have gone as far as to compare United States President Donald Trump to the fascist leader for his actions against his own country and the entire world. It does not take much examination to understand that Hitler targeted the Jewish community and those of disabilities. In Trump’s office, he has repeatedly targeted a group of people as well. The Mexicans have been at the key point of his campaign, blaming them for the loss of American jobs and blaming them for a falling economy. With plans to shut them and all potential immigrants out, this is an all too familiar repeat of history. The way these modern-day conferences are filmed and take place are in many ways corresponding directly to Leni Riefenstahl’s film. In looking at both types of campaigns and rallies, the person of power is the only one to speak while all the others are silent waiting to hear what is to be said. This shows that it is still a key way in which leaders use to persuade and gain their followers. Unfortunately, other modern-day leaders are also showing a repeat of Hitler’s characteristics. Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-Un are leaders that expect their countries to see and believe only what they want them too. Russia is constantly in the news for actions being related to illegal spies, and hacking government official files. There have been threats of war from North Korea under Jong-Un’s leadership that have caused massive amounts of scares to countries all over the world, especially those in North America. The film focuses on the rallies Hitler held to show what a great leader he was and how his supporters followed. This has not changed in the modern media industry around politics, as clearly examined throughout this paragraph.
Riefenstahl filmed this with the idea of a documentary in mind, it was not meant to be a film of propaganda, but one to provide knowledge and information to those that were willing to join and take part in making Germany a “better” place. The film although arguably not shot fully in an unknown, unscripted sequence it still provides viewers with a piece of what was to expect during the rallies in Nuremberg. A large focus on Hitler directs the viewer to think about what being in a position of power has the capabilities of doing. As discussed it is still a thought in the minds of many, years after the events concluded. Leni Riefenstahl’s film, Triumph of the Will, will be looked at and examined by many for years to come. It will continue to bring the controversial aspect of just propaganda or a value in film art.
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- Mike Huggins, Mike O’Mahony. (2011) Prologue: Extending Study of the Visual in the History of Sport. The International Journal of the History of Sport 28:8-9, pages 1089-1104.
- Butcher, Edmund R. “Leni Riefenstahl – Art and Propaganda in Triumph of the Will.” Semantic Scholar, University of Manchester, May 2002, pdfs.semanticscholar.org/1e36/8046af14e1c8a7a604314bd6958b1c8f5502.pdf.
- McLane, Betsy A. A New History of Documentary Film. 2nd ed., Bloomsbury, 2012
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