Triumph des Willens (1935)
Dir: Leni Riefenstahl
This is perhaps one of the most widely contested and yet respected non-fiction films of all time. While Riefenstahl had over twenty films to her credit (either acting or directing) this is the film she is most known for, and with good reason. The film chronicles the 1934 gathering of the National Socialist German Workers Party in Nuremburg Germany and firmly solidifies not only the propaganda of the Nazi Party but much of it s visual stylistics as well. As a director, Riefenstahl had total control over the event and was able to choreograph all the marches and speeches to fit the needs of her camera, resulting in a film that feels more like a Busby Berkeley musical than the heavy handed propaganda of the Third Reich.
It is not easy to separate the art from the message and that is the greatest power of the film. Perhaps more than any other work of art, Triumph des Willens challenges us to decide if we can appreciate her stunning visuals without being caught up in what she is actually filming. Make no mistake, the film clearly glorifies and even deifies Adolph Hitler in an attempt to further his image and support. The film is loaded with men, women and children waving the symbol of the Nazi party and saluting him with the frightening “sieg heil.” However, the way in which Riefenstahl captures the images, edits them together does manage to make for a beautiful film.
This film is a little long and is often very difficult to watch. I would recommend turning the sound off occasionally and just watch the images as they go by and realize that the emotional manipulation you are feeling is entirely intentional. It is difficult (read almost impossible) to not get caught up in the emotional response that we have to the images of the Nazi rallies that we have developed since the end of the war, and that often clouds the viewers ability to appreciate the filmmaking. This film is definitely not for every one.
If you just can’t bring yourself to watch this film, and I understand if you can’t, then I would recommend watching her Olipiad films (there are two films and I have only seen the second, which I understand is the better of the two). These films were shot during the 1938 Olympic games held in Germany and while the Nazi influence is shown through the games, the main focuses is the athletes and allows you to see her filming technique (which is truly beautiful) and not have to wade through Nazi propaganda to do so. Another interesting film to check out is Die Macht der Bilder: Leni Riefenstahl (“The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl”, Ray Müller, 1993) a documentary on Leni Riefenstahl, which provides an fascinating look at the woman behind the camera.