Lost in the Movies: Triumph of the Will

Triumph of the Will

As I may have mentioned recently, I've been tracking down classics I haven't seen (and re-watching old favorites) in anticipation of a long-awaited, perpetually postponed canonical exercise. On Netflix, I set up a queue of about 50 films which it seemed especially pressing to watch. The list ranged from iconic hits without a great deal of critical acclaim (Saturday Night Fever, A Nightmare on Elm Street) to widely acknowledged classics I had seen only parts of (The Great Dictator, Orpheus) to unseen films by auteur directors (Made in USA, Simon of the Desert, Salo). I proceeded chronologically and finished just before the new year; but at task's end I realized there were still a few films I meant to see which had slipped through the cracks.

One of them was Leni Riefenstahl's notorious 1935 Triumph of the Will, probably the most famous, castigated, and cautiously celebrated propaganda film of all time. Documenting the National Socialist Party rally of '34, when Hitler had just ascended to power but had already taken complete control of the country, the film has been imitated even as it's been held at arms' length. Today, Hitler and the Nazis tend to be viewed primarily in conjunction with the Holocaust but to watch Triumph of the Will in 2010 is to be reminded not just how the Nazis saw themselves but how the world first came to see them. Before his name became synonymous with pure evil, the German dictator and his bizarre, unexpected, and wildly popular movement were regarded with a mixture of awe, dread, and comic incredulity - sometimes all three at once. Triumph of the Will was widely screened and, while scorning the political content, many filmmakers admired the craft and later imitated it for their own propaganda films (once Hitler's Germany had unqualifiably become the enemy). Indeed, seeing this film after the films which followed it, one can see all the sources of the Hitlerite myth, both the one he fostered and the one that sprung up when his toxic brand of fanatical monumentalism encountered foreign sensibilities.

Riefenstahl is an artist, and if the sentiments and sensibilities her film celebrates (her later arguments about political neutrality notwithstanding) are rather naive, her articulation of them is exceptionally subtle and disturbingly effective. Note the way she humanizes (and homoeroticizes) the Nazi youth as they horse around early in the day or the meticulousness with which she follows the program of events for the celebration - every roll call, every tribute to every sub-group, snippets of every speech from every sector of the party, as if this was merely a larger-than-life, particularly malevolent Shriner's convention. In keeping to the human and mundane dimensions at first, Riefenstahl allows the film to build slowly until we are suddenly shocked to find ourselves dwarfed by an immense crowd - those playful youth suddenly standing in columns by the thousands, rigid and at attention; those laughably numerous sub-committees unveiled in precise units marching down the street to cheering throngs, goose-stepping in chilling unison like clockwork; speech after speech merely appetizers for the bloody entree - a screeching, hysterical oration by the Fuhrer himself in which previously subdued subtexts (only one prior speaker mentions racial purity, in passing) come galloping to the forefront. The film - along with the event it captures - is brilliantly structured, so that we can see the development of every thread yet still be surprised when it's unveiled in all its pomp and circumstance.

Watching the conclusion, I found myself in several different frames of mind: both disturbed and impressed by the charismatic appeal Hitler still holds, and prone to shivers of recognition when the curtain was lifted a bit and (with 20/20 hindsight) the parade of corpses trudged before my eyes - the direct result of all this ferocious rhetoric and blind devotion. Yet I was also aware of another sensibility in play. I already mentioned that the film exposes us not just to what Germans thought of Hitler, but what others thought of him at the time. What I mean is that Triumph of the Will, although intended as a orgasmic celebration of the Party, is also how many around the world were first exposed to the dictator (either through the film itself or through the footage of Hitler's other rallies and public appearances, which were in the same spirit). This triggers an appreciation of reactions which with time were eclipsed by sheer horror, hatred, and even numbness. What I was reminded of was the stereotypical American reaction of the time: as Hitler ranted and raved on and on about his glorious Fatherland, I pictured a wisecracking Yankee newsman chewing loudly as he rolls his eyes and jots down every crazed word of the Teutonic loon. This dismissive response, perhaps a form of self-protection as much as anything else (those nutty Germans, they aren't like us commonsensical, democratic folks) has been obscured by the very real damage Hitler unleashed, but watching the film as an American, and one well-acquainted with films like The Great Dictator, To Be or Not to Be, and numerous anti-Hitler Bugs Bunny cartoons, this attitude was reawakened in my mind. Just as Hitler "others" his perceived enemies, so it seemed for a time that he could be partially defused by being "othered" himself.

Another American reaction came to mind: one captured in the Peter Jennings turn-of-the-milennium TV miniseries "The Century." An octogenarian WWII veteran recalls being spooked by newsreel footage of the Germans marching (and God could they march, as Triumph never fails to remind us: it's a shame they didn't stick to their real - and far more harmless - talents). He remembers shuddering at their precision - the fact that they seemed like an undefeatable war machine while Americans were still practicing with wooden weapons and "grenades" filled with baking soda. The b-roll footage played over his reminiscence, in conjunction with the eerie music, bears out this trepidation. The incredulity and the fear: both responses keep us from falling entirely under the aesthetic spell of Riefenstahl's extremely effective propaganda. The very nationalism which enabled Hitler's rise, and was widely condemned in the wake of war, is in this case actually a rescue valve (at least for those of us who aren't German): allowing us to dismiss, fear, or loathe Hitler as something outside of ourselves and our culture. Safely ensconced in our Americanness or Britishness or whatever, we can sneer at him as the evil enemy and not a potential threat lurking within.

Yet, of course, there are universal aspects to Hitler's rise and adulation, and universal aspects to the appeal of Triumph of the Will. The film is aesthetically attractive, but more disturbing is its attractiveness as, well, is ideology the right word? The politics of National Socialism were more an aesthetic than a coherent political ethos. I recently saw a fascinating film about the artistic roots and products of Nazi Germany, called The Architecture of Doom. Its closing lines are worth quoting in full:
"Defining Nazism in traditional political terms is difficult, mainly because its dynamic was fueled by something quite different from what we usually call politics. This driving force was, to a great degree, esthetic; its ambition was to beautify the world through violence. From the first murders of mental patients to the mass-murders of Jews, there is no real political motive. It was not enemies who were liquidated, nor opponents of the regime, but innocent people whose very existence was in conflict with the Nazi dream.

The civilian character of the mass-killing makes it unlike war-crimes. These were civilian murders under a military guise. The obscure mental baggage, the bizarre political notions, which constitute a kind of under-vegetation in European culture, suddenly saw the light of day with Hitler. Hitler went from words to deeds. Without restraint, he transformed an abstract ideology into a hellish reality.
In her famous essay "Fascinating Fascism", Susan Sontag further muses on the latent and residual appeal of the Fascist sensibility Riefenstahl taps into:
"National Socialism - or, more broadly, fascism - also stands for an ideal, and one that is also persistent today, under other banners: the ideal of life as art, the cult of beauty, the fetishism of courage, the dissolution of alienation in ecstatic feelings of community; the repudiation of the intellect; the family of man (under the parenthood of leaders).

These ideals are vivid and moving to many people, and it is dishonest - and tautological - to say that one is affected by Triumph of the Will and Olympiad because they were made by a film maker of genius. Riefenstahl's films are still effective because, among other reasons, their longings are still felt, because their content is a romantic idea to which many continue to be attached, and which is expressed in such diverse modes of cultural dissidence and propaganda for new forms of community as youth/rock culture, primal therapy, Laing's anti-psychiatry, Third World camp-following, and belief in gurus and the occult.


Riefenstahl's current de-Nazification and vindication as indomitable priestess of the beautiful - as a film maker and now, as a photographer - do not augur well for the keenness of current abilities to detect the fascist longings in our midst. The force of her work is precisely in the continuity of its political and aesthetic ideas.
Ironically, Sontag earlier notes that Riefenstahl's aesthetic has not been very influential on documentaries. What she doesn't note is how influential it has been on fiction films, particularly the blockbusters (which developed mostly after she wrote her essay) - many of which are either explicitly (Raiders of the Lost Ark) or implicitly (Star Wars) anti-Nazi in content. Yet when I saw that massive, undeniably impressive shot of Hitler, Himmler, and the leader of the S.A. (whose name escapes me) approaching a giant altar surrounded by an immense mass of regimented men, I thought of George Lucas - and not the various shots of Darth Vader in such formations, but rather the celebration of the Rebel Alliance at the end of A New Hope.

Indeed, one could contend that Triumph and other politically reactionary classics like Birth of a Nation are more honest than many latter-day movies - they tie their aesthetically exploitative and domineering styles to unapologetically fascistic content. Don't get me wrong; I love many of these films that seek to weave a spell over us, to manipulate our emotions, to stir us. But this is precisely why I think value judgements of art and value judgements of politics should exist in different realms. This may seem contradictory, given my previous statements, yet what I'm getting at is this: every sin ranging from totalitarianism to day-to-day egoism can be made attractive onscreen. Indeed, it doesn't even have to be "made" attractive - its attraction exists already inside of us, else these phenomena would never have arisen in the first place.

Aesthetics is all about what's attractive, not necessarily what is good: and recognizing the power of a work is not to say it is morally right. Ultimately, the irony is that a Triumph of the Will may be less ethically dubious than a Star Wars (which is, by the way, one of my favorite films and, I'd contend, a great one). It does not reaffirm questionable values under cover of a recognizable righteousness but rather (unintentionally) exposes them by tying them to a repudiated ideology - it drops the mask, so to speak. This is in some regards a hypothetical argument because I'm not sure all the values Sontag reproaches are entirely flawed - yes, they can lead to fascism, but some of them can also lead to anti-fascism; and to be fair, there's enough ambivalence in her litany of similar movements to suggest she reads them the same. Furthermore, even if the values are reproachable, we still need an outlet for them - and better that outlet be on the screen than on the street. The pity, of course, is that the world Triumph of the Will evokes was manifestly not just on the screen.

Which brings me back to the start of my ruminations: in order to watch this film during my busy schedule and concluding Netflix line-up, I searched online for a streaming copy. There were several on You Tube, but ultimately I chose one on Google Video. Why? Because watching the You Tube clips made me uneasy - many were posted, and all were frequented, by neo-Nazis. The calm with which they discussed their views, eschewing rather than celebrating the Holocaust, scolding rather than excoriating critics of their ideology, only made it all the more disturbing, a reminder that Hitler and his appeal do not belong entirely to the past. Among the residual messages Triumph unveils to us today: the appeal of fascism, if we're honest, has deep roots, and the topsoil which obscures them is perhaps thinner than we'd like to believe. Aside from its aesthetic appeal, its historical impact, its fascinating "inside look," Triumph of the Will is essential viewing for this very reason.

This post was originally published on The Sun's Not Yellow.

This is a Top Post. To see other highlights of The Dancing Image, visit the other Top Posts.


Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Impressive post. Leni Riefenstahl remains enigmatic, never thoroughly de-Nazified, but the power of her carefully interpreted images remains stunning. I agree her films remain effective in part because the most beastial element of the subject still appeals to many twisted individuals(your comments on the YouTube crowd are interesting), but also because she was a director of talent. With her (Nazi) populist platform, we might almost picture her as a Bizarro World Frank Capra.

Thanks for a great essay.

MovieMan0283 said...

Thanks, Jacqueline. The Capra mention is interesting since I had him (and Why We Fight) in mind when talking about filmmakers who studied her work and used it against her. From what I've seen, Why We Fight doesn't exactly echo Riefenstahl's techniques (the parts I've seen were based more on editing existing footage together than on shooting fresh footage) but I have heard that Capra took Riefenstahl to heart before "rebutting" her.

Just Another Film Buff said...

Joel, first things first. This is a stupendous essay, rich for infinite debate. Plaese, please publish it in WitD too, because, Personally, I find that the comment system of Blogspot sucks big time.

Rest assured that I will be returning to this essay regularly. Let me throw here some random points that had been hovering in my mind while reading the essay:

1. I have to ckeck out architecture of Doom. It seems too provocative to be missed. I'm telling this because this film, which you have found fascinating, was called the worst movie to be made about the Holocaust, just ahead of Schindler, by one of my favorite writers, Dennis Grunes:


I have to see the film now and I believe I would like it too.

2. I HAVE to read Sontag's essay too. Is it available online, somewhere?

3. I've been struggling, as you know, to come to terms with the debate between aesthetics and ethics of a film. Lein said: "Today's ethics is tomorrow's esthetics". But I believe, with the new-age media, it has become the other way round.

Can we seperate the politics of a film from its aesthetics? I am reading James Monaco's The New Wave at present, where he clearly presents why he believes one shouldn't seperate politics and film. Briefly, he argues that the photographic property of the medium forces us to see the object and not the form of the image (unlike other arts) and goes on to explain why, hence, film IS politics. I will try to provide the whole text some time soon.

Also, I find the statement "Aesthetics is all about what's attractive, not necessarily what is good" very intriguing. Could you please elaborate on what you mean by "attractive" here?

I saw Chuan Lu's City of Life and Death recently. It is a film that recereates, with considerable visual splendor and skillful compositions, the Nanking massacre during WW2. The film was "attractive" to see, with its cinematography being magical and all. But, otherwise, it was a nauseating exercise in futility. Such films, by incessant bombradment of their images, try to replace "real" truth with their version. The Nazis that we know, now, are almost comical and Hitler himself is no less than Chaplin. If Germany had indeed won the war, then films such as Riefenstahl's would have been the norm and we would have had a completely different view about the nazis. It's all about manipyulating your world view with excessive advertising, which is the same thing that goes on in the TV medium nowadays.

Again, can we actually seperate the politics of a film from its aesthetics? (Reminds me of what Woody's student tells about Riefenstahl's film in Husbands and Wives). When the implicit politics of popular cinema has seeped down to our daily lives and gained acceptance, it is impossible to not consider the politics of popular films, I think. Can a snuff novie, with gorgeous mise en scene and production values, be considered great work of art? Or a 3D movie which presents Jews being knoked off using a sniper by a Nazi officer from a balcony? I'm not sure.

But that does not mean that your political leaning should affect your assessment of the film. Just that, cinema being an evocative medium thanks to its photographic property, there should be some restraint on the content.

This is marvelous work, MovieMan. Deserves to be widely read, even if one hasn't seen Riefenstahl's staggering work. The ideas are floating around in my head incoherently. I will be returning to the article regularly.

Thanks and Cheers!

MovieMan0283 said...

One final thought: isn't it possible that the hysteria over what's "un-showable" and the indignation over Spielberg's representation of the Holocaust (which many Holocaust survivors themselves did not share) has more to do with the overactive ever-"othering", perhaps guilty imaginations of those who weren't there, then it does with the experiences of those who were?

After all, Adorno wasn't in Auschwitz was he?

Not saying this point of view doesn't have some validity or that it doesn't lead to interesting, and perhaps particularly honest, results.

But where are the voices of the survivors in this outcry against Shoah art? Sometimes it seems like the holy fury directed at Spielberg et al. is another case of the intellectual left getting so boisterous in speaking for a suffering group, that they themselves drown out that very group.

MovieMan0283 said...

One last thing - the more I think about the passages I read in that essay, the more they irk me.

It's not enough for him to criticize the ethical implications of Spielberg's approach - which are fair game - or even to impugn the director's motives in savage, incredibly cruel terms (how does he know whether or not Michelangelo cried while painting the Sistine Chapel?). He has to attack the craftsmanship as well, in terms I don't relate to at all. Schindler's List may be many things, but incompetent it's not.

Just Another Film Buff said...

Ah, yes, Mr. Grunes is terribly provocative (and sometimes needlessly ruthless). That's why he is one of my favorite writers :)

"But where are the voices of the survivors in this outcry against Shoah art? Sometimes it seems like the holy fury directed at Spielberg et al. is another case of the intellectual left getting so boisterous in speaking for a suffering group, that they themselves drown out that very group. "

I agree with that. But I also think that the ones who were "there" would find the subject matter too close to step back and analyze how exploitative it the piece of art is.

Another thing troubles me about these "detailed recreations" of the horrors of Holocaust. I mean, we know what all happened. A project that seeks to show HOW they happed seems to me like a pointless exercise, no matter how beautifully or realistically it is made. That kind of a film does not look far from a Final Destination or a Cannibal Holocaust.

But MovieMan, don't you think providing "instinctive and visceral" impact to the audience is relatively an easy task? What I mean is: Wouldn't then film art merely be a question of inventing newer technologies and techniques to agitate the audience for instant gratification?

MovieMan0283 said...

I'm skeptical of the claim that the survivors are too "close" to judge correctly; in the end, while other opinions on the matter are important, the only one I truly value about in terms of ethical condemnation would be their own. Everyone else is just talking out of their ass (including yours truly).

Anyway, one reasonable question - in terms of your "re-creation" - seems to be is it ok for a Holocaust film to move us emotionally, or is that very reaction suspect? Should we only be reached intellectually on the subject, in a cold manner, so that we're not ever guilty of "enjoying" the subject? Is it wrong to compose a tragedy - a form which is intensely moving, and cathartic - out of the subject?

Such questions are reasonable, if a bit perverse, and as I suggested they have much more to do with the queasiness of those who weren't there than the suffering of those who were (who, among other things, have more important things to think about). That's fine, and not a disqualifier, but it SHOULD be taken into consideration especially when the moralistic tone gets out of hand.

To reproach oneself for mishandling or responding in an uncomfortable way is one thing. To reproach others - not just to reproach, but to condemn - when you are in fact no better, strikes me as hypocritical projected self-loathing. But again, we're speaking of a trademark trait of the intelligentsia - the remarkable ability to, in the name of anti-elitism, be staggeringly elitist, and to conveniently impose what's really their own self-criticism on others, in particularly vitriolic terms.

"But MovieMan, don't you think providing "instinctive and visceral" impact to the audience is relatively an easy task?"

Not really. As someone interested in filmmaking myself, I often wish it was! Besides, it's not the only element to a film, but it is a very important one.

MovieMan0283 said...

Actually, not just a very important one - a crucial one, the crux of everything else. Let me again reference Kael (who was also terribly provocative and often unnecessarily ruthless, but was also very funny and refreshingly unpretentious):

"Movie art is not the opposite of what we have always enjoyed in movies, it is not to be found in a return to that official high culture, it is what we have always found good in movies only more so. It's the subversive gesture carried further, the moments of excitement sustained longer and extended into new meanings. At best, the movie is totally informed by the kind of pleasures we have been taking from bits and pieces of movies."

I wholeheartedly agree, and without that belief I never would have made the "leap" from Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars to Citizen Kane and Masculin Feminin. I would love the cinema less if I didn't see these diverse films as, in some odd way, one of a kind. The most crucial connection is, I think, that visceral aspect, as well as the imaginative one (another absolutely essential element to me, and one which I don't think gets mentioned often - especially not in this day and age of flatness, abruptness, and one-dimensionality in which leaving something to the imagination - or provoking it with what's onscreen - is dangerously close to becoming a lost art).

Just Another Film Buff said...

Just saw Architecture of Doom. A brilliant documentary I must say. Puts a lot of things into perspective.

Reading the review after a long time, Sontag's text startles me. She calls "the ideal of life as art" as fascist. It really appalls me. What's wrong in seeing life as art. In fact, isn't Utopia the merging of life and art. I think this is grossly simplistic.

What Hitler did was take forward a flawed sense of beauty to its extreme (the documentary makes it clear that even formally, his tastes were very "lowbrow"). If seeing the ideal of life as art is fascist, why make art at all? Isn't it to improve people's lives?

The National Socialist party thought that class barriers could be overcome by making the proletariat aesthetically knowledgeable (absurd, no doubt). By her argument, can one say that seeking to overcome class differences itself is a fascist notion?

And does "the dissolution of alienation in ecstatic feelings of community;" imply that conservatism is a fascist ideology?

And that's just the first paragraph (I haven't read the whole essay. So I'm just shooting in the dark here). She seems to be wary of every community-forming practice. Man is not an island.

This essay is one of your very best, MM. I say this deserves wider attention.

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks, JAFB (I like this piece too, which is why I put it in the "Top Posts" section, it's definitely the strongest thing I ever wrote for The Sun's Not Yellow). I will have to read Sontag's whole essay again and return to this comment. For now, though, I'd say that her point is not that these things are evil because they're linked to fascism, but rather that they are bound in with fascistic impulses, that indeed a fascist lurks in all of us and sugarcoating Riefenstahl is a way for people to "other" fascism.

"And does "the dissolution of alienation in ecstatic feelings of community;" imply that conservatism is a fascist ideology?"

I would say no, and indeed this notion is more typically seen on left than right (which admittedly makes the association with fascism even more bizarre), but then it depends what type of conservatism we're talking about. Individualist conservatism (economic libertarianism), traditionalist conservatism, or neoconservatism? The first is definitely not concerned with community, the seconnd both is and isn't - on the one hand it's tied to institutions, on the other it's vary wary of "ecstatic" senses of community, preferring something more solid and enduring. The third make a lot of commotion about community but in practice is more interested in elites enacting their "democratic" agenda without much involvement from the public (at least as far as foreign policy goes, and outside of that realm the neocons don't have much to add to the discussion). But I suppose that's another post.

One thing I like about Sontag's passage is that it dissociates fascism from political ideology. Now, I would not want to take this too far - which is why I cannot wholly endorse The Architecture of Doom's final analysis, even while appreciating much of it. Bu it does focus on the emotional forces fascism taps into, and God knows - probably more than any other political movement - fascism is deeply emotional.

I think viewing fascism purely as a political movement tends to lead to bizarre and narrow arguments, like the tedious one Jonah Goldberg makes in his book Liberal Fascism (yes, there are connections between liberalism and fascism, but they are not fundamental ones; to the extent fascism belongs on the ideological spectrum I would place it on the right).

Joel Bocko said...

As for the ideal of life as art, I kind of agree with Sontag there. I've argued before that ethics and aesthetics should not become too intertwined. The reason is that aesthetics/art belongs largely to the Id, while society belongs to the Superego. Art is made of many elements, but fundamentally it is selfish - an expression of individual consciousness, an assertion of will, an immersion into feeling. As Sontag indicates, if these tendencies are given free reign in social interaction they can cloud rational judgements. Communal spirit can be reached through emotional means, to be sure, but all emotions exist in fluctuation, and emotional commitment is not a firm bedrock on which to build a community. Better to utilize emotion (repress it too much and it will come blazing forward in a violent outpouring of the unconscious) but to rest the foundations of law and social relationships on intellect, reason, and common sense - imo.

Just Another Film Buff said...

One reason why I find the documentary so compelling is that it does not claim (except for the seemingly deterministic final lines that you quote here) that Nazism was purely driven by aesthetic visions (Why, for instance, would Germany get into the Blitzkrieg if not for political motivations?).

Every movement - left or right, progressive or regressive- is political in its propagation, but there has to be some philosophical myth that speaks to the heart, to the subconscious, be it the Aryan theory of racial purity or Manifest Destiny so that it appeals to the masses. It just happened to be this idea of beauty for the Nazis.

Totally agree on the art-id relationship, MM. But aren't the objectives of the superego fueled by the id? Freudians say that it was this libidinous energy of the id that was channelized into nationalism. Consumer capitalism strengthened itself because marketing appealed to the id (the Curtis documentary on this is very good). I truly believe that the connection between art and aesthetics can be illustrated by psychoanalysis (and possibly structuralism too).

Likewise, I'd say cinema (the twin sibling of psychoanalysis) has the power to polarize the subconscious towards an ideology - by telling us stories that subtly shape our subconscious and unconscious. That's why I believe it should be highly ethical (yes, that power-responsibility thing that Spidey said).


Joel Bocko said...

Fair points - and I can't really defend my use of the terms "superego" and "id" as I was using them rather casually; I can cop to being not very well-versed in Freudianism! As to the point about art being ethical, in addition to my feeling that art should represent the psyche in all its thorny aspects and not necessarily try to "steer us" correctly (which is not necessarily what you're saying, of course), I also have to admit that many of my favorite films are morally ambiguous at best & I'd hate to lose them!

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