On March 28, 1935, “Triumph of the Will” – directed, produced, edited and co-written by Leni Riefenstahl – was released. The film documents the 1934 Nazi Party Congress held in Nuremberg Sept. 5-8 of that year. Over the course of those four days, more than 700,000 Nazi supporters attended some portion of the carefully choreographed proceedings.
Since its first showing in 1935, “Triumph of the Will” has been acclaimed as one of the greatest propaganda films of all time. During the four days of filming, Riefenstahl orchestrated a crew of 150, utilizing 30 bulky cameras; she managed to transform the Nazi Party rally into an aesthetically stunning pageant of “marches, parades, speeches, and processions,” according to Wikipedia.
Employing her directorial magic, she was even able to turn the filming of the feeding, clothing and sheltering of Hitler youth camped outside the city limits of Nuremberg into a cinematic celebration of youthful energy and innocence.
As editor of the ambitious project, Riefenstahl faced the onerous task of reducing 61 hours of raw film footage into just under two hours of playing time.
Over the years, I have watched “Triumph of the Will” three or four times. Each viewing has left me frightened, angry and somewhat confused by Riefenstahl’s immense, and admittedly seductive, talent. Her cameras create heroic, even beautiful, portraits of the cast of characters, but the problem is that the characters are all from hell: Adolf Hitler (Der Fuhrer), Heinrich Himmler, Herman Goering, Martin Bormann, Joseph Goebbels, Rudolph Hess and Reinhard Heydrich … just for starters!
Perhaps the most ominous words of the entire film come from Deputy Fuhrer Rudolph Hess, who, as the opening speaker of the Nazi Party Congress, turns to Hitler and proclaims: “Sie sind Deutschland!” (“You are Germany!”). When one man becomes the stand-in for an entire nation, that nation is doomed.
And yet, and yet … Riefenstahl has claimed that back in 1934, when she was in her early 30s, she had no knowledge of Hitler’s genocidal intentions. Indeed, she has claimed that her film was not propaganda at all, but rather pure documentary. She has said in her defense – and she happens to be correct in this regard – that “Triumph of the Will” contains “not one single anti-Semitic word.” Indeed, the word “Nazi” is not spoken in the film either.
Nevertheless, during each of my viewings of the film, I have felt a haunting sense of menace. The fact that Riefenstahl almost, but not quite, seduces me with her artistry serves to deepen my sense of menace and confusion.
After all, I know what actually happened in the years following the Nuremberg Nazi Congress of 1934. I, like most of you, have borne witness to those photographed piles of corpses; all of us live after Auschwitz. With all her artistic genius, Riefenstahl’s brilliant work of propaganda cannot turn the events she documents into a ceremony of innocence.
I recently had the opportunity to share my confused reactions to “Triumph of the Will” with my friend, Phil Rosen, who taught film for many years at Brown. During our back-and-forth, Rosen pointed out that Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), a noted German-Jewish philosopher and cultural critic, may have an explanation for my emotional confusion: Benjamin, in essence, has written that Fascism aestheticizes the political.
That is to say that Fascists/Nazis attempt to turn their politics, as ugly and brutal as that might be, into something beautiful.
While Riefenstahl tries to beautify and ennoble the Nazi politics of “Sieg Heil,” outstretched arm salutes, torchlight military marches, and adoration, indeed worship, of Adolf Hitler, even her most skillful work cannot turn propaganda into true beauty.
The Nazis brought not beauty but the ugliness of moral depravity into our world – the untruth of the triumph of the irrational mob.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is a rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.