There are many contrasting opinions on the subject. Some believe that the movie is a piece of Nazi propaganda meant to promote the Nazi image and discourage its enemies. Others believe it is a factual presentation of an event, without possessing any intentional propaganda. Whichever the answer, it is well known that Leni Riefenstahl’s career has been haunted by “Triumph of the Will” to this day.
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To properly judge whether “Triumph of the Will” was a documentary or propaganda, an accurate definition must be stated. The word ‘propaganda’ derives from the name of an organization set up in 1622 by the Roman Catholic Church to carry on missionary work, the “Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith” (Congregations de Propaganda Fide). Today propaganda is seen as the systematic effort to manipulate other people’s beliefs, attitudes or actions. The propagandist has a specified goal or set of goals and to achieve these he deliberately selects facts, arguments, images, etc. to present them in the ways he believes will have the most persuasive effect.
A documentary is defined as a work, such as a film or television program, presenting political, social, or historical subject matter in a factual and informative manner and often consisting of actual news films or interviews accompanied by narration. Originating from official documentation released for various reasons, it has since become the standard name of non-fiction programmers which attempt to present their subject matter based on fact.
In 1934 Hitler commissioned Leni Riefenstahl; the only director whom he believed came close to rivaling the work of Eisenstein, to produce an artistic film about the Party convention at Nuremberg, Triumph of the Will. In her book on the film, Riefenstahl notes that ‘The preparations for the Party convention were made in concert with the preparations for the camera work.’ In reality however, the rally was intended from the outset to be the stage for a spectacular piece of film propaganda glorifying Nazism.
Although “Triumph of the Will” was indeed about the Nuremberg Party Congress, preparations for the rally were carefully constructed around the preparations for the film. The Third Reich’s architect, Albert Speer, carefully constructed the groundwork for the event, with grandiose building arrangements and precise plans for marches. The city of Nuremberg became a stage-set for Riefenstahl’s film, with a sea of swastika banners, bonfires and torches. Riefenstahl’s cinematic technique creates a sense of feverish movement and a seemingly endless array of banners and people.
Leni Riefenstahl has always claimed, however, that she knew nothing of the objectives of the Nuremberg Rally. When she described the conception of the film she said, “Shortly after he came to power Hitler called me to see him and explained that he wanted a film about a Party Congress, and wanted me to make it. My first reaction was to say that I did not know anything about the way such a thing worked or the organization of the Party, so that I would obviously photograph all the wrong things and please nobody – even supposing supposing that I could make a documentary, which I had never yet done. Hitler said that this was exactly why he wanted me to do it: because anyone who knew all about the relative importance of the various people and groups and so on, might make a film that would be pedantically accurate, but this was not what he wanted. He wanted a film showing the congress through a non-expert eye, selecting just what was most artistically satisfying – in terms of spectacle, I suppose you might say. He wanted a film which would move, appeal to, and impress an audience which was not necessarily interested in politics.”
In an interview in 1964, reprinted in A Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema by David Thomson, Riefenstahl made clear that she felt “Triumph of the Will” was a recording of an event, not a propaganda film, said, “If you see this film again today you ascertain that it doesn’t contain a single reconstructed scene. Everything in it is true. And it contains no tendentious commentary at all. It is history. A pure historical film… it is film-verity. It reflects the truth that was then in 1934, history. It is therefore a documentary. Not a propaganda film. Oh! I know very well what propaganda is. That consists of recreating events in order to illustrate a thesis, or, in the face of certain events, to let one thing go in order to accentuate another. I found myself, me, at the heart of an event which was the reality of a certain time and a certain place.
My film is composed of what stemmed from that.”
It cannot be denied that “Triumph of the Will” is a record of an event. It is a film of an actuality and happened when and where the film says it did. In an account of the making of the film, Riefenstahl writes that she was involved in the Rally’s planning – and conceived the event with filming in mind. As Susan Sontag (a revered novelist and director) reiterates in her article entitled ‘Fascinating Fascism’: “The Rally was planned not only as a spectacular mass meeting, but as a spectacular propaganda film.” However, by 1993 in The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, Riefenstahl claimed that she was not involved in the design of the Rally – “I just observed and tried to film it well. The idea that I helped to plan it is downright absurd.”
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The film was financed by the Nazi Government, commissioned by Hitler himself, completed with the full cooperation of all involved, with huge resources at her disposal – an unlimited budget, crew of 120 and between 30 and 40 cameras. It stands as a powerful artistic representation of the ideas in Hitler’s book Mien Kemp – work, extreme nationalism, and belief in corporative state socialism, a private army, a youth cult, and the use of propaganda and the submission of all decisions to the supreme leader, i.e. himself. The film, however, reached and influenced far more people than the book ever could. Riefenstahl claimed in The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl that it was “Not a documentary but a work of art, [there was] no commentary in the normal sense of the word. There’s no commentator to explain everything. That’s the way it differs from a documentary or a propaganda film. If it were propaganda, as many say, they’d be a commentator to explain the significance and value of the occasion. This wasn’t the case.”
In contrast, Susan Sontag in ‘Fascinating Fascism’ claims that it is the “most successful, most purely propagandistic film ever made, whose very conception negates the possibility of the film-makers having an aesthetic or visual concept independent of propaganda.”
Just as there are critics who argue that “Triumph of the Will” is the filming of an actual event and, as such, is a documentary, there are others who speak of the sensationalist and propagandist techniques used to promote the event in the film. Images such as the opening scenes, where Hitler’s plane is flying through the clouds, giving a sense of divinity and being “above it all”, and the clever filming of the crowds watching Hitler’s procession on the streets which give the impression that every street Hitler drove on was packed with adoring people illustrate the use of these techniques and indicate more suspicious aspirations from the director.
Of course, there are critics who choose a point of neutrality, favoring each side of the argument equally. They argue that propaganda is a part of all film. Paul Rotha (a famous writer and director of Riefenstahl’s time) said, “In one form or another, directly or indirectly, all films are propagandist. The general public is influenced by every film it sees. The dual physic-psychological appeal of pictorial movement and sound is so strong that if it is made with imagination and skill, the film can stir the emotions of any audience.” Or as Robert Flaherty (often proclaimed as one of the founding fathers of documentary film) so eloquently declared, “Sometimes you have to lie. One often has to distort a thing to catch its true spirit.”
Many can argue the different options regarding “Triumph of the Will”, saying it is a documentary, it is propaganda, or it became propaganda unintentionally. However, three points which cannot be refuted indicate that Leni Riefenstahl intentionally made the film propaganda. The fact that she was chosen and funded by Hitler to make the event “appeal to the masses” would immediately let her know that she needed to produce a film which gave the people the impression Hitler wanted. The angles of Hitler above the adoring crowd as he speaks and the scenes of his plane coming out of the clouds are obvious propagandist techniques to elevate and deify Hitler. Finally, the camera angle manipulation in the film, which made the crowds seem even larger than they were, would not be present in a true documentary which sought to produce the facts. This is obvious evidence of conscious propaganda on the part of Riefenstahl. As such, it is safe to conclude that “Triumph of the Will” was an intentional piece of propaganda meant to persuade the people to follow certain values.
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