“It is our will that this state shall endure for a thousand years. We are happy to know that the future is ours entirely!”
‘Triumph of the Will’, directed by Leni Riefenstahl in 1935, is a German propaganda documentary and raises some challenges with this review. It’s almost impossible to set aside the knowledge of the following ten years of horror and war and to not let this knowledge infuse any reading of ‘Triumph of the Will’, and maybe it is right that it shouldn’t. The film presents four days of the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg, from Hitler’s arrival by air to his climactic closing speech in which he challenges any non-Party members as being un-loyal and traitorous to Germany. Between these we see romanticised footage of the medieval town, shots of adoring German soliders and civilians and speeches from other notorious high-ranking Nazi officials such as Joseph Goebbels, Alfred Rosenberg and, finally, Rudolf Hess. It was a sequel to a film made a year earlier that was suppressed after the Night of the Long Knives and the assassination of SA leader Ernst Röhm. The intention of this ‘second shot’ at a propaganda movie seems to have been to edit Röhm out of history, and to call for a unification of both the German people and, importantly, the Nazi party itself after the potentially schismatic effects of Röhm’s elimination. The whole film, therefore, is very effectively designed to highlight stability and unification with the vast columns of soldiers, a focus on the pomp and decoration of the Nazi party and the use of Nuremberg as a microcosm for Germany itself. The figure of Hitler is often shown at a distance as a remote, untouchable and therefore mythic character, which seems to plant him indelibly within the fabric of the town, as natural and immovable as the medieval buildings and concrete parade grounds. Watching this is an uneasy experience, but you also get a feeling of a time passed, with the knowledge of Nuremberg’s almost total levelling by British bombs, the suicide of Hitler both in 1945, and the execution of most of the senior party members following their trial in the same city. This knowledge retools Riefenstahl’s movie as a macabre memorial for a time, place and people that passed, and as a warning to the future.
Would I recommend it? With reservations, perhaps. Maybe watch with footage from one of Donald Trump’s rallies to get a sense of how much danger might lie in the future.