Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 film Triumph of the Will is easily the most important and enduring work of Nazi propaganda created, and possibly is the most important propaganda film ever made. While broadly known for its innovative film techniques and for its comprehensive visual account of the 1934 Nazi Party congress and rally in Nuremburg, its historical value lies particularly in its borrowings from other early modernist films, its exploration of Nazi pastoral romance, its presentation of Nazi civic religious themes and mechanization, and in elevating Hitler to become the German nation. In presenting these various elements in concert, Riefenstahl strikes a key notion of the incoherence of Nazi social policy as discussed in David Schoenbaum’s book Hitler’s Social Revolution, showing how the anti-modern agrarian party myth was to be achieved by modern means.
Leni Riefenstahl’s cinematography is probably the most evident modernist trait in Triumph of the Will, presenting the Nuremburg rallies with revolutionary film techniques akin to the constructivist and artificial cutting and collage employed by Sergei Eisenstein in his film October. From the very first scene of the approach to Nuremburg through the clouds (Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, circa 00:02:00), Riefenstahl employs a romantic lens through which modern technology, represented by the airplane in this case, is implicitly celebrated, representing a celebration of man as the automaton (Harte, 2-26-18) and exemplifying the influence of earlier modernist films such as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (Gerstein, 3-19-18). Recognizing the propagandistic nature of the film, we see Riefenstahl employing constructivist film techniques similar to those employed by Eisenstein to create artificial narratives and associations to in effect construct a new reality. These are used liberally in the early rounds of speeches by Hitler and other senior party members at the opening ceremony, where the camera cuts back and forth between the fanatical faces of the audience and the most stirring moments of each speech (Triumph of the Will, circa 00:23:00). A further technique was the bird’s eye view of the rally itself. The sweeping view of the 700,000 participants, coupled with the mis-en-scene of the neoclassical porch where the senior members stand, symbolizes the clashing of ideology and technology on display, exemplifying the use of modernist filmmaking techniques to deliver an antimodernist message (Gerstein, 3-19-18).
Taking a closer look into the content and message of the film rather than its presentation, Triumph of the Will explores the Nazi concept of the ‘Volk’ and its role in the party’s ostensible social revolution against the ‘contaminated, international, industrial, Jewish élite’ (Gerstein, 3-19-18), representing their antimodernist and pro-peasant message. David Schoenbaum approaches many sides of the Nazi social revolution, in effect zooming in on the ‘Socialistische’ and ‘Arbeiter’ elements of party policy to examine the reality of the supposedly upward social mobility of the Third Reich (Gerstein, 3-5-18). Cheering crowds in the more pastoral and medieval town center of Nuremburg speaks to the party’s popularity among all classes, especially among the labor/working classes, contrasting with the more modernist urban center of Berlin for example, as a place to host the party congress. Schoenbaum expresses this nationalist ‘Gleichschaltung’ as “not economic but … spiritual equality” among all the old classes (David Schoenbaum’s Hitler’s Social Revolution, p. 77), showing how, at least materially, Nazi obsessions with ‘volkishness’ centered on kindling a national unifying identity rather than by drastically pushing materially effective social policy. This theme of unification is used in Triumph of the Will in the scene of the Reich Labor Service sounding off their home regions (circa 00:32:00), expressing Gleichschaltung in the pursuit of common work through military drill. More broadly, even linguistic elements illustrate the volkish unity pushed by the Nazis, with party officials using the informal 2nd person pronoun ‘du’ rather than the formal ‘Sie’ with fellow members to express ‘spiritual equality’. In this way, the fetishizing of the ‘volk’ social myth contrasts with both the modernist film and the automaton elements to contribute to the film’s presentation of ideological incoherence.
Two further themes explored in the film lend themselves to contrasting when covering both pro and anti-modernist topics, namely Nazi civic religiosity and the mechanization of man. Nazi ideological incoherence is fully present in this comparison, since both function to totally inspire and effectively weaponize the wider population. Schoenbaum mentions the ‘Blut und Boden’ pastoral fetish of an agricultural and Hobbsian ‘state of nature’ (Hitler’s Social Revolution, p. 154), which served as a kind of creation myth for Nazi leaders to inspire the masses in a religious way. Civic religion and man becoming the automaton are closely linked, since the nascent Nazi ‘liturgy’ of fostering a national united consciousness demanded direct participation (i.e in the Hitler Youth, Labor Service, the SS, etc.) rather than mere spectatorship from the public (Gerstein, 3-19-18). What serves as the hardest evidence of the totalitarian nature of Nazi social effects was the replacement of Christian salutations (i.e. ‘Gruß Gott’) with ‘Heil Hitler’; images in the film of reverberating Seig Heil’s at both the rally and when Hitler greets fellow party members afterwards (circa 01:04:00 and 01:10:00) show the extent that Hitler became the German nation, becoming a symbol of both cultist fanaticism and as a ‘Gleichgeschalt’ or typical German figure. In this way Nazism produced a mechanized religious fervor among the public, acting as another piece of evidence for Nazi ideological incoherence.
In illustrating various Nazi social policies as explored in David Schoenbaum’s book Hitler’s Social Revolution, Leni Riefenstahl’s film goes to the heart of the ideological incoherence of Hitler’s social program through its modernist cinematography, its obsession with a nationally unifying peasant mythos, and through idealizing this medieval and anti-modern myth religiously through modern means. Thus, Triumph of the Will could be most appropriately classified as a definitive piece of Fascist Neoclassicism, a work of propaganda that combines the Cubist Futurist constructivism of October with the anti-Bauhaus, Goethe-esque pastoralism of Blut und Boden. More specifically, Riefenstahl produced a cinematographic complement to a Wagnerian opera, a composition with modernist constructions and yet pursuing a thoroughly anti-modern social ideal.