Like pornography, it is impossible to write about Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl’s notorious documentary record of the 1934 Nazi Congress rally, without explaining why you are interested in something most would prefer to sweep under the carpet, even as the reason is patently obvious. The desire to ignore is understandable, but simply denying the film’s power is more short-sighted than wise. Condemn the politics, but first accept Triumph’s continued ability to move and the reasons why.*
It should first be recognized that Triumph is not terribly effective as an explicit statement of Nazi ideas. There are lengthy speeches by Hitler, and shorter ones from many of his minions, but the virulent hatred typical of Nazi ideology is largely absent. For example, a crudely anti-Semitic speaker like Julius Streicher is given short shrift. And all of the speakers, including Hitler, seem more like tense, sweating, visually unappealing clockwork creatures than charismatic leaders.
Which does not make the film ideologically innocent, however, because its power derives not from spoken ideas, but unspoken ones implicit in the way things are expressed. Famous for its seemingly endless footage of massed figures marching, marching, marching, Triumph turns hundreds of thousands into moving objects in an architectural composition. This radical objectification reduces men to how good they look in uniform, while in this film directed by a woman, women exist as nothing more than members of a crowd. The reduction of humanity to props is an indirect, thus insidious expression of the Nazi Weltanschauung.
Riefenstahl claimed she did not want to make the film, and was persuaded to do so by Hitler personally. This appeal was unusual, for Hitler normally left cinematic matters to Goebbels (who reportedly detested Riefenstahl). There is a tremendous irony in Hitler’s support, because the dictator notorious for, among other horrors, destroying modernist art and its creators ended up commissioning a modernist masterpiece.
For Triumph verges on an abstraction worthy of the most rigorous modern art. It exults in the beautiful and form for form’s sake. The massed crowds are enhanced by the attention to the fall of light, the play of the weather, the drama of clouds, fire, smoke and water, as well as the charms of Nuremburg’s Medieval architecture. Every detail contributes to an overpowering, stultifying, yet intoxicating affect light-years removed from the contrived gemütlich narcosis that was the regime’s preferred mode of expression.
Despite the contradiction between anti-Modern attitudes and Modernist execution, or perhaps because of it, Triumph is, indeed, paradigmatic Nazi art. Even Hitler’s bitterest enemies acknowledged how his masterful mise-en-scène could overwhelm rationality through sensuously compelling spectacle. There is nothing subtle about the affect and there is no appeal to any value beyond conscienceless euphoria. It was the catastrophic accomplishment of work like Triumph of the Will to prove one can overwhelm all reservation by appealing and surrendering to the basest instincts. Only by acknowledging that reality is there hope of dealing with the results.
* I discuss some of the issues around censorship of Triumph in a video here.