Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will: Still Scary After All These Years

I have a confession to make: I had not seen Leni Riefenstahl‘s Triumph of the Will till Friday evening. I’ve talked about it, seen clips from it, read critical essays on it, and even seen a biographical film–The Wonderful, Horrible, Life of Leni Riefenstahl–about its director, but never seen Triumph Des Willens itself. On Friday night, thanks to its availability on Netflix, I fixed this gap in my movie viewing.

An unavoidable response to a cinematic document that is so beautifully constructed but that has such malignant associations is to experience violence done to our vocabulary of aesthetic predicates: Which parts of our language of critical appraisal can we bring to bear in describing the movie without feeling they have been tainted by such association? This question, explored almost endlessly in all scholarship on Riefenstahl’s masterpiece, is not going to find any particularly perspicuous answers being mounted here, other than for me to note that I am now familiar with the visceral nature of the dilemma it poses for anyone perplexed by his appreciation of the movie.

More chillingly, when noting the date of the movie, and its location in the series of denouements that culminated in VE Day, the viewer cannot but wonder if there are records of our age that will be viewed in the future with the same mixture of fascinated horror; we too, like the ecstatic crowds that greet Hitler in Nuremberg, do not know what lies ahead.  Hitler’s joyous reception in Nuremberg, with its images of smiling, laughing, exulting, women and children, running toward the Führer to welcome him to their city, also makes us wonder how many of those same citizens died in the war to come, how many of them realized this visit by the Nazis to their city was the foreshadowing of a death sentence as the Nazis took Germany, Europe, and the rest of the world into war. The pictures of massed Seig-Heiling crowds are by now passe, but there is still a curiosity to them, to witness the orchestrated maneuvers that made the raised arm the most famous and enduring symbol of fascist power.

Riefenstahl, having mastered the grammar of propaganda, utilizes much else to establish the Nazi vision of collective power. Her shots of virile young men engaged in eating, bathing, and wrestling, are as important in this project as any of the more well-known massed parade or marching shots.  Ironically, so sensitive has the viewer become to the racial politics of Nazi Germany that it is with a slight shock that one realizes, all over again, just how little so many of its party functionaries resembled the blond, blue-eyed robust Teutonic ideal, and how many instead, appear pale, sweaty, obese, undistinguished specimens of mankind. (We are also relentlessly, inevitably, reminded of the clichéd banality of evil as these officials issue boring party progress reports at the Nazi Congress.)

Perhaps I can best sum up my response to TOTW by noting a little moment of heightened sensitivity that it had created in me. At the twenty-one-minute mark, as Hitler inspects the Youth brigades of the Nazis, I noticed a young man, standing in the ranks for inspection as the Führer walks by them, who seemed to possess the semitic features that Nazis were so keen to isolate. With bated breath, I wondered if the Führer would notice. But he does not. I exhaled, feeling slightly ridiculous; the carnage to follow would still claim its terrible toll.

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