All political campaigns worth their salt feature a film to accompany them. We see it with Party Political Broadcasts in the UK and we’ve seen it with the US Presidential Elections. The films serve to boost the parties and their candidates, as well as sling some mud at their opponents. But political campaign films are nothing new. In fact, they went by another name back in the 1930s: propaganda. One of the most influential propaganda films is Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 picture The Triumph of the Will.
Triumph is essentially pro-Hitler propaganda centred around the 1934 Nuremberg Congress, aiming to present “strength and unity,” (Kershaw; 1987;pg.69) showcasing speeches by Hitler and Third Reich as well as imagery of the people who attended the rally, and what they did when they were there. The aim of the documentary, according to executive producer Adolf Hitler himself, was to showcase the political beliefs of the Nazi party in a veiled way so as to target those not interested in politics. The film, to be the perfect propaganda, was “aesthetic, not political.” (Levinson; 1998;pg.237)
Stella Bruzzi claims that “documentary [is] a perpetual negotiation between the real event and its representation” (Bruzzi; 2006; pg.13). A documentary is therefore read based on how the audience perceives the events on screen. Hitler is portrayed as a God-like figure and the saviour of the German people following the devastation the country felt in the aftermath of WW1. The sea of adoring fans greeting Hitler from his private plane showed him in a positive light and begins the task of ushering the viewer into sympathy and even adoration. After all, the masses of adoring fans can’t be wrong, can they? Hitler manipulated the film from the outset and understood that the perfect propaganda couldn’t be too overtly political. Instead, imagery of him laying a wreath on a WW1 memorial did more for boosting his party’s support than outwardly stating their positive points ever could. Hitler wanted something “artistically satisfying,” (Starkman; 1998; pg.51) at the cost of political and economic truth.
A reading of Triumph in 1935 would greatly differ from one in 2017. The most striking aspect would be how normal Hitler appears. It is this normalisation that makes the piece such effective propaganda. A modern day example would be the Leave Campaign’s anti-EU campaign that showed what could happen should the numbers in the National Health Service’s Accidents and Emergency department decline rapidly. Viewing it as simply as presented above, we know that it is nothing more than propaganda, but as the Brexit numbers came in, it seems that not everyone realised the skewing of the scales of negotiation between the real event and its representation. The campaign video pulled on an issue that the people Leave were targeting would care about vehemently: healthcare. By outright lying about the state of the country post-Brexit and the ease at which one could attend hospital, the campaign rested on aesthetics and artistry rather than truth. In fact, the Leave campaign entirely rested upon what hypothetical ‘positives’ would happen should we Brexit. Triumph did the same – the negatives that were swarming around the Nazi Party were ignored.
Contextually, the film was made following the Night of the Long Knives in which Hitler purged party members in order to place his own paramilitary SS as Germany’s martial force. Many key figures were missing therefore from the Nuremberg Congress, yet there is no insinuation as to what may have happened to them. Triumph, as far as propaganda goes, is representative of what would be expected – in any propaganda film it wouldn’t be expected that negatives of the subject would be shown. The film is inherently one-sided, as all successful propaganda should be. Riefenstahl held a high position in the Third Reich and was a staunch supporter and friend to Hitler. Her blind faith destroys any credibility the film may have garnered through the genuine support from the German people. However, Riefenstahl later claimed that she wanted to make an artistic film, and was not interested in the political side. Taking this into account it could be said that the film was only political when viewed in a certain way and is instead open to interpretation. Although, this should be taken with scepticism.
The extent to which Triumph influenced the Western world can be seen in Hollywood. The final scene of George Lucas’s Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) directly references the scene in Triumph during the Royal Awards Ceremony (pictured, above), as does Disney’s The Lion King (1993) in which Scar sings of how he plans to take Pride Rock against a backdrop of drooling hyenas (pictured, below). It appears as “a kind of geometrical backdrop against which Hitler’s stark is profiled…a lasting impression on world culture.” (Brockman; 2010; pg.159)
Riefenstahl has stated that she used “stylistic devices” (Levinson; 1998; pg.237) such as tonal montage and symbolic shots (e.g. Hitler’s plane forming a crucifix shape over the marching SS) to “enrich the film artistically,” and not to drive a political viewpoint. Indeed, it could be true that the film only appears to have a driving political force as Riefenstahl crafted it in such a way that the commonplace appeared to have hidden meaning. Using such techniques means that no documentary filmmaker can appear to sit on the fence on any deeper issue.
Moreover, the film makes no distinction between the Nazi party, Germany and the German people, indoctrinating people into the beliefs of the party by presenting Nazism as the way of life. To quote Fergal Casey’s film blog… “Quite often film historians will rave about the innovation or dazzling techniques employed by its director.” (Casey; WordPress; 2011) This is indeed true as Riefenstahl utilised Eisenstein’s montage technique, juxtaposing shots to create an almost brainwashing indoctrination video. By using such ‘tricks’, Riefenstahl is able to manipulate how she represents Hitler and the Nazis in order to gain the desired effect.
There is no doubt that Triumph not only polarized opinion, but also garnered several direct responses. Frank Capra’s Why We Fight (1943), a series of anti-Nazi propaganda was the US’s response to the film. Capra said of Triumph that it, “fired no gun, dropped no bombs, but as a psychological weapon aimed at destroying the will to resist, it was just as lethal.” (Capra; 1977) Capra praised the effectiveness of how Riefenstahl showcased Hitler’s views. Much like the Remain campaign focused on the negatives of the Leave campaign, the US propaganda machine acted as a counter to the German one.
The same way moving image can evoke such emotion in Hollywood can be said for propaganda documentary. There is a reason that the most successful films seemingly allow the audience to reach their own conclusions about how they feel and those which hammer home the point are relegated to B-list actors during the daytime on Channel 5. Propaganda is probably the most effective use of the tricks of filmmaking that polarise opinion and generate such a feeling from a viewer. The Leave campaign was undeniably undercut by a current of nationalism, racism, and prejudice, yet none of this sentiment was explicitly stated in their films. Through careful manipulation and inference, the audience was allowed to make their own minds up. Evidently it worked.
- Brockman, Stephen; A Critical History of German Film; 2010; Pg. 159
- Bruzzi, Stella; New Documentary; 2006; Pg.13
- Capra, Frank; The Name Above the Title: An Autobiography; 1977; Pg.
- Casey, Fergal; https://fergalcasey.wordpress.com/tag/errol-flynn/; Talking Movies: Violence at the Drive-In Part 2; December 2011
- Kershaw, Ian; The Hitler Myth: Image and Reality in the Third Reich; 1987; Pg. 69
- Levinson, Jerrold; Aesthetics and Ethics: Essays at the Intersection; 1998; Pg. 237,
- Starkman, Robert; Mother of all Spectacles: Ray Muller’s The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (Film Quarterly, Winter 1997-1998)
Written by James Cullen