And now for something a little different. This is a controversial one. It’s been called one of the most technically brilliant films ever made. The trouble is, it’s a Nazi propaganda piece about the 1934 Nuremburg Rally. What is remarkable is that the director, Leni Riefenstahl, was an actor and dancer who had only recently discovered directing. She had made one feature film which came to Hitlers attention and led to a close friendship. She may have been green but she had the instincts of a great director. She got full financial backing from the National Socialist German Workers Party, with all the resources and manpower that came with it, and was able to follow those instincts to create a groundbreaking film.
The film documents the 4-day rally and features speeches by some of the most prominent Nazi figures including Hitler, Goebbels and Hess. The first section captures Hitlers arrival in Nuremburg, his journey through the city to his hotel and the candlelit vigil that took place outside that night. In the second section the Army is camped out in a vast swathe of tents near the rally site, the opening speeches are delivered and the Labour Service perform an outdoor display. The third section starts with the Hitler Youth rally, continues with a military display and ends with the one-year commemoration of the party coming to power. The final section is the climax as Hitler addresses the SA and SS and delivers his closing speech. Riefenstahl concentrates heavily on children and young men in the film which mirrors much of the content of Hitlers speeches at the rally.
It is held in such high regard as a piece of filmmaking because it is technically brilliant. Riefenstahl was employing techniques that were relatively new at the time like montage, cross fade and panning. All the grandiose rhetoric and insignia of the Nazi party is there but there is also a very subtle artistry to the way Riefenstahl employs the camera. Hitler wanted propaganda material that would appeal to the emotions of the German people rather than to their sense of reason. He chose Riefenstahl specifically because he believed she could deliver a film which was ‘artistically satisfying’ in this way. He was right.
In the beginning, the audience is transported on a serene flight through columns of fluffy white clouds that part to reveal the historic city of Nuremburg stretching out below. It’s like the sweeping aerial shots of Salzburg in the opening of The Sound Of Music, but filmed 30 years before. It’s really captivating until you see the huge lines of soldiers marching in unison below. Then the plane lands and you realize you were on the same flight as Hitler. He’s just disembarked in front of you and is now waving at the frenzied crowd. During the first motorcade scenes we are practically in the car with him. He occupies one half of the frame and we watch, as he watches, the hordes of people joined in salute to him. It’s as if they’re saluting US. The panning shots make you feel as though you’re in the parade ground, rather than looking through a fixed perspective. Riefenstahl draws you in and puts you right at the center of things so you find it difficult to maintain your objectivity and not get swept up by the spectacle of it all. If I were a German watching this in 1935 I’d be thinking, ‘Wow, what an exciting time to be alive.’ If I were British and watching this is 1935 I’d be thinking ‘Bloody hell, we might be in trouble.’
The montages are artistic, beautiful sequences. It brings to light just how emotionally manipulative film can be. Which is a terrifying and fascinating idea in itself. The fact that this manipulation was used to celebrate and promote of one of the worlds most callous and destructive political movements is utterly chilling. I find it equally impressive that Riefenstahl manages to weave a clear narrative from the goings on. All this combines to make the events of the film seem like a dream. Like it’s not actually happening, it’s just a really good story. Which is why I think it should be mandatory viewing for all schoolchildren as an aid to developing critical thinking skills. In fact, scrap that, it should be mandatory viewing for everyone as a lesson in how insidiously manipulative media can be.
The down side is that it is very repetitive. It’s two hours of motorcade journeys, marching soldiers, speeches and cheering crowds. It’s not a film to watch if you’re just a bit curious. It requires an iron will to make it through to the end. It’s the great cinematic flourishes that make it worthwhile. But in any case, I’d recommend watching this to cheer yourself up afterwards.
Leni Riefenstahls relationship with the Nazi Party was the one thing that put the brakes on her career. Despite her refusal to publicly admit her support for them, she was an ardent admirer of Hitler, many of her films were funded by the Party and there were even rumors that she used concentration camp prisoners as extras in her films. Triumph of the Will won several awards in different countries for its technical excellence but Riefenstahl had nailed her colours to the wrong mast and never achieved the status she might have been capable of. Ultimately, women directors sometimes make bad films. And sometimes they make very good films, but for all the wrong reasons.