Saturday, July 13, 2019

CANON OF FILM: "TRIUMPH OF THE WILL"

TRIUMPH OF THE WILL (1935)

Director: Leni Riefenstahl




Recently Youtube decided after long-delayed consideration to supposedly begin eliminating all hate-filled and hate speech videos on their platform. Obviously too little, too late doesn’t begin to describe that. I think most were generally in favor of this policy, I know I am. Even if they aren’t Youtube’s a distribution center, and I do believe that they should have the right to decide what they should or shouldn’t allow to be distributed. It wasn’t until I saw a piece by Jordan Ruimy on WorldofReel.com that I was informed that, one of those pieces that got flagged for hate was “Triumph of the Will”, did some take a step-back pause.


(Shrugs) Eh, actually, that's not true. Honestly, I didn’t take pause or a step-back or anything. I mean, I’m all for preserving for the historical record but if “Triumph…”, becomes a collateral damage casualty just to make sure that we stop giving an easy access to whatever idiotic Jordan Peterson disciple knows enough about filmmaking to become an “influencer”, then, sure, we can have this document to hatred, preserved somewhere else. So, no I didn't find Mr. Ruimy's article compelling, but it's an excuse to get this over with.... 

It is undoubtedly clear Leni Riefenstahl is one of the greatest documentarians who ever lived, not from this movie in particular, but it does makes “Triumph of the Will,” particularly horrifying. Personal friend of Adolf Hitler, the only filmmaker to have creative override from Goebbels, who on top of many other positions, ran the German Film Board under the N.S.D.A.P., Riefenstahl swears that she was never a member of the Nazi Party, but as a filmmaker had to work, and worked on what she was told. She started out as an actress, and even s a stunt woman. She lived until she was 100, still making films at the time. She was working on an underwater documentary. She was one of the oldest people to ever get a scuba instructor license. That was in her nineties, and we can see her making that film in a far better documentary called, “The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl,” which was made with her permission.

What to make of “Triumph…,” however; it’s a propaganda movie about the Nazis, shot during their 1934 convention in Nuremberg. Yeah, there’s irony in the location, and despite complete creative freedom, it’s not really that special of a film in of itself; it’s clear she was simply doing what she was told. Nazi or not, she was just following orders. This wasn’t even the first documentary about Hitler that she made or anything, she made several; what distinguishes “Triumph…” is that it was released theatrically as though it was like any other feature film; the Nazis presented it to the world, not so much as a piece of Nazi propaganda, but as a piece of cinematic art. In this respect, the Nazis aren’t alone in this, America made and released many more propaganda films theatrically during this time,  (In fact Goebbels is noted for considering an American film, “Mrs. Miniver” to be one of the greatest pieces of propaganda ever created) but that’s the main distinction of “Triumph…”, the way the film was presented to the world. 

There is skill and technique involved of course, and it does document a real event. The event lasted ten days, she had thirty cameras, covering elaborate spectacles including parades, banner, and disturbing large cult-like behavior. It’s not a film that actually goes particularly deep into the Nazi mind. Roger Ebert believes the film wouldn’t have change anybody’s mind about the Nazi Party and would’ve only been appreciated by those who were already of that mind. I don’t think he’s too wrong. The movie is clearly propaganda, as Dan Olsen in his video review pointed out,  “This right here, is exactly the image that they wanted you to think of, when you thought of them.” (Link to that review is below)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jJ1Qm1Z_D7w

And yes, that influence is powerful, we can all point to examples of it's direct influence, especially in portrayals of other famous fascinst and perhaps it really shouldn't be. This wasn't what the Nazis were. 

As I had decided to force myself through this obligated cinephile viewing, I recall certain statistics. Like that Hitler and the Nazis won power with 32% of the vote. That’s all, 32%. Not even a third, yet by the way this movie presents it, you’d think the entire nation was under a spell of Hitler, as though he was some kind of Jesus-like figure. Swastikas are everywhere. There are thousands of people, around, carrying swastikas, giving the Nazi salute, one even saluting after having climbed a giant pole so as to see Hitler. (Until you realize that it would’ve been impossible for him to salute without falling, and that part of the foot is out of frame.) 

How much of this was staged? All of it was, of course. Some of it by Riefenstahl, based on how she thought best to portray Hitler and the people and the crowds,... mostly however, she seems to be simply documenting events that these thousands of people must’ve been working on for months in advance, she's just, filming it well enough that it’s arguable that she’s making it look pretty, something that she can do because the Nazi Party is funding her. Events that were planned by the Nazis, in order to glorify themselves. 

We see a Nazi parade with all the soldiers or whoever in perfect toe, often carrying swastika banners, moving around in a orderly fashion. Seeing these images, I always think about one of my favorite mantras that Hitler, wanted to be an artist. That's true, he did paint, and there's even a pretty solid movie about Hitler's attempt at pursuing art out there called "Max" for a fictional account of what that might've been like, a portrait of a dictator as a failed artist. There is artistry to the Nazis, but I think he wanted to be an artist not because he was artistic, but because he enjoyed the control one has over one’s art; I suspect he enjoyed that more than actually painting. He just simply uses the people as apart of his brush. It's that reason that I'm sure that he would not have been a good artist. (Anybody who’s actually familiar with Hitler’s paintings always mentions that he was great with buildings and landscape, but he wasn’t usually able to draw people very well; something that sounds eerily reminiscent to the U.S.'s current [finger quotes] “head of state”.)

His appearance was shot separates from the crowd scenes. You should know that, because sometimes it’s hard to tell, but there are subtle clues. He does give amazing oration, although how the crowd of thousands stays silently and then yells all at the same time is disturbingly manipulative. I don’t know how it must’ve looked to people in 1935, but the Nazi following looks like a mindless cult in this movie. What would be appreciated would’ve been interviews with the Hitler’s Youth when the camps he visited, or people in the crowd. There were thirty cameras; did they all simply get large crowd shots and shots of the speakers? Or maybe what somebody would’ve said might’ve disturbed and not been aligned with the message that Hitler wanted to send, although that’s assuming the film was interested in what they had to say at all, which it definitely wasn’t, Hitler just wanted the image. (Well, I say Hitler but Goebbels was actually the one who commissioned this film) Maybe it’s for the best that the most notorious and influential piece of propaganda ever created was in favor of the most vile of humanity’s sinners. Many other German filmmakers made propaganda films for the Third Reich, but nobody remembers who they are, and they shouldn’t. Riefenstahl was commissioned later to make “Olympia,” which documented the 1936 Berlin Olympics. From that movie, particularly Part II: “Festival of Beauty” she revolutionized how sporting events were covered by news footage, broadcast reels and eventually on television, forever. It’s a far more fascinating and better documentary, even after WWII, it was ranked as one of the ten best films ever made; and it’s still a masterpiece. Few female directors even existed at that time, much less were distinguished as equals and geniuses in the world film community.

And yet…. Nope, you can’t really ignore that horrible part about her. It doesn't help that "Triumph...", despite it's own influence, and how the Nazis released the film commercially as a piece of artistic greatness, is actually not one of her better pieces of filmmaking. It is an essential watch though. Chalk “Triumph…” next to “Birth of a Nation,” as films you watch once, because you have to, and not because you want to, and then reflect and debate that political nature of art. Or not.