It's Been Real
Triumph of the Will
It's Been Real sets out to examine and analyze the documentary in all of its forms, looking at differing forms of expression, variant approaches to subject matter, and at our unending tendency to dramatize true events as a way of understanding our engagement with them.

"Produced by order of the Fuehrer."-Prologue

That the Nazis were bad guys is so completely ingrained into global culture there is very little debate about that fact. People can argue endlessly about the real evil that caused World War I or about the political differences that divided Russia and the United States during the Cold War (though let's not forget the mass genocides involved in that case, either), but everyone pretty much agrees that the Nazis were villains. This complicates the viewing experience of Triumph of the Will, a documentary commissioned by Hitler himself and filmed as a pro-German lovefest by ace propagandist Leni Riefenstahl. I am of two minds about the film, which means I will be looking at it from two perspectives.

On the one hand, I find the film fascinating. Filmed in 1934 at the Nazi Party Conference and released in 1935, the film depicts Hitler and the top officials of the Third Reich less than two years after their rise to power and several years before the invasion of Poland and the beginning of the Holocaust. At the time, Hitler was less a threat to global security and more a curiosity to the outside world, as can be seen in the quick cuts to foreign dignitaries visiting the ceremony. This is not to say that there wasn't concern about Hitler at the time, both within Germany and around the world, but none of this is dealt with in the film (none too surprisingly).

Reports vary about how willing Riefenstahl was to make the film, after her previous effort at a propaganda documentary, Victory of Faith had failed due to technical problems and Hitler's unease in front of the camera. Yet she received assurances that her film would not be tampered with, and that Hitler wanted the film to be an artistic spectacle rather than a pedantic examination of the political significance of the event. Visually, the film is nothing short of a groundbreaking masterpiece, and Riefenstahl has been often and justly praised as something of a technical genius; that Triumph of the Will is anything more than a historical curiosity over 75 years after it was filmed is a marvel in and of itself. Riefenstahl utilized moving cameras (a technique that was nearly unheard of at the time), long focus lenses, aerial photography (including a breathtaking opening scene of Hitler's flight to Nuremberg which captures the plane's flight and the clouds around it so fluidly I actually wondered how she managed to get the shot with the technology available at the time), and an outright revolutionary use of music and cinematography to capture the spectacle of the event and her film is nothing short of a visual tour de force.

Additionally, watching the likes of Hitler, Goring, Goebbels, Streicher and other Nazi leaders give speeches is very compelling stuff, and it's easy to see why the Nazi Party was able to seize and maintain power in Germany during the period. The leadership communicates an unwavering faith in Germany and a belief that the Third Reich will last for thousands of years, making Germany the greatest country on Earth once again, and while it's clearly political posturing, these guys are a lot better at selling it than you would expect future mass murderers of being. A lot of the archival footage and almost all of the Hitler parodies I've seen involve him screaming and pounding the podium as he speaks, but here he possesses a confidence and almost genteel authority I had never seen before. This is very possibly Hitler at the top of his game, prior to the outbreak of war and the long, painful downfall, and if nothing else, I found it interesting to get a feel for what exactly that looked like.

On the other hand, a lot of Triumph of the Will is kind of boring. I am almost definitely more interested in aerial shots, long lenses and the way the moving camera, the music, and the cinematography have influenced so very many films (perhaps most famously Star Wars: A New Hope) than the average viewer, and ultimately a lot of the film's appeal is its technical marvels. Large swaths of the film are devoted to watching German people clamor to get closer to Hitler's motorcade or examining elaborate marches celebrating Germany's military superiority, and while these sequences are usually shot and edited in very interesting ways, they eventually boil down to little more than a half an hour of people marching. The speeches, too, are historically fascinating, but the Nazis were very skilled political propagandists, which means many of them tend to hit the same points home again and again. The film is nearly two hours long, and the vast majority of its runtime is dedicated to sequences that serve no narrative purpose whatsoever, other than to show that the Nazis knew how to march. Hitler asked Riefenstahl to give him a spectacle, and this she readily accomplished; I'm just not convinced that Triumph of the Will is anything more than that.

It's hard to evaluate the film as a documentary when it is so blatantly propaganda, but the film fails to dramatize the events of the 1934 Nazi Party Conference in any interesting ways. There is very little narrative flow here, there's no story, just an aimless recording of the events as they occur; what we see is that the Conference began, continued for four days, and then ended. If this were a more journalistic endeavor I might see it as less of a weakness and more an attempt at complete objectivity in the C-SPAN vein, yet at a piece of propaganda I was very surprised there wasn't a more obvious narrative to give the film a thorough-line. This early in the existence of the documentary, talking heads had yet to be integrated and the genre was more dedicated to the simple act of impartial observation (or feigned observation, as in Nanook of the North), yet more effort could have been put into dramatizing the events at this monumental historical gathering.

Ultimately, Triumph of the Will is an important film, and in some respects even a great film. It's influence is vast and it paved the way for decades worth of technical innovation in the realm of cinema. From Chaplin's The Great Dictator to Lucas' Star Wars, and beyond into the work of Ridley Scott and Peter Jackson, Leni Riefenstahl is doubtlessly one of the most influential filmmakers of the 20th century. The film may be a narrative failure (at least, as I see it), but its technical mastery cannot be oversold, and will not soon be forgotten.

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Coming up on It's Been Real:

12/25: Young at Heart

1/8: March of the Penguins

1/22: Man with the Movie Camera

2/5: Political Documentary Month: The War Room
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