It has been 80 years since the 1935 premier of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will)
Turner Classic Movies, TCM, compiled a list of the 15 most influential films. I agree with the first two choices, D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation 1915 and Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin 1925; but inexplicably missing from this list is a film that is generally considered the most influential documentary ever made
I can understand why this film was omitted, because in addition to being the most influential, it is also the most infamous and controversial film. But can we reject it outright without at least discussing the obvious influence and artistry of the documentary?
Can we appreciate the importance of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will without embracing the racist and detestable politics of its star, Adolph Hitler? Does not the film use the 1934 Nuremberg Nazi Party Rally to fashion a grotesque yet monumental glorification of his barbaric ideals? Can we possibly praise Leni Riefenstahl’s pioneering and persuasive marriage of art and artifice?
Riefenstahl was an accomplished (albeit politically naïve) dancer, actress and film director, she was persuaded by Hitler at the last minute to film the 1933 Nuremberg Confab, a crude and chaotic festival recorded in “Victory of Faith.” The documentary was a disaster and she vowed never to make another film for her Fuhrer, however he convinced her to film the 1934 Congress of the National Socialist German Workers Party (Interestingly, the term “Nazi” is omitted).
Riefenstahl left nothing to chance, she recruited and supervised a film crew of 172 (all in uniform), 16 camera operators with 30 cameras and 29 newsreel cameramen to film from fixed positions as well as roller-skates, fire truck ladders, zeppelins and even an elevator on a flagpole (more than a dozen cameras can be spotted in the film) Riefenstahl spent five months editing a massive amount of footage The film was scored with the powerful yet derivative, music of Herbert Windt. The film opened to great acclaim and received many awards: German Film Prize (Deutscher Filmpreis), a gold medal at the 1935 Venice Biennale, and the Grand Prix at the 1937 World Exhibition in Paris. Riefenstahl was hailed as the greatest female film-maker of the century.
Triumph has always been criticized for its adulation of Hitler, who was still consolidating his power in 1934. The film opens with Hitler descending god-like from the skies in his Junkers tri-motor. He is framed larger-than-life against the massed crowds, to chilling effect. In a famous scene, Der Fuhrer and his two lackeys, Himmler and Hess are monumentalized as they stride up to the podium flanked by hundreds of thousands. Hitler praised the film as being an “incomparable glorification of the power and beauty of our movement.” To her death in 2003 Riefenstahl claimed she was never a Nazi and that Triumph was “just a job,” ; insisting that aesthetic achievement should be separated from politics. But can art ever be truly separated from politics? As a student of art and history, I think not.