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Documentary and Propaganda

Filmmakers turn their cameras onto real life to make documentaries, or attempt to mold real life to an ideology through propaganda.


Der Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will)

Leni Riefenstahl
(German, 1902–2003)

1936. 35mm film (black and white, sound), 114 min.

In May 1934, five months before Hitler and his accomplices held their second Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg, Germany, Leni Riefenstahl traveled to the city to prepare for the film she would make about this spectacle. She had already impressed Hitler and his minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, with her documentation of the first Nazi Party Congress, Sieg des Glaubens (Victory of the Faith) (1933), celebrating Hitler’s rise to power. They saw in her style the ability to create an operatic image of a Germany imbued with an overwhelming might, order, and beauty that matched their own vision. So they provided Riefenstahl unstinting cooperation and resources, and, together with her, choreographed the Congress to optimize her filmmaking. She was given a company of cameramen and guards and freedom to construct elaborate bridges, towers, and tracks for her cameras. The result was Der Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will)—a Nazi propaganda film widely considered to be among the most effective of its kind.

Screens of text open the film, framing Hitler as a savior whose coming began “the German Rebirth.”1 The text fades to the first scene: Hitler’s airplane flying above clouds, which part to reveal Nuremberg, its streets filled with citizens marching in formation. In fact, the marches had not yet begun. Riefenstahl created the illusion of simultaneity by intercutting footage shot later with that of Hitler’s arriving airplane. As the plane lands, Riefenstahl cuts to throngs of admirers, forests of arms raised in the Nazi salute. Their dictator emerges, like a god descended to earth. The classical music overlaid onto these scenes swells to a triumphant crescendo as the crowds roar, “Heil! Heil!”

From its ecstatic beginning sequence, Triumph of the Will moves into the thick of the events of the Congress in scene after scene—staged for the camera—of rallies, speeches by Hitler and other key Nazi Party leaders, and masses of workers and soldiers standing or marching for Hitler’s review as crowds of Aryan onlookers cheer and salute. Riefenstahl cunningly shot and edited her footage to scramble the viewer’s perspective: she made crowds appear bigger, spaces seem vaster and more complex, and time itself feel alternately elongated or compressed. Extreme high- and low-angle shots of Hitler delivering his histrionic speeches position him as master of a world of impeccably ordered subjects. Swastikas and other Nazi iconography fill nearly every scene. The cumulative effect is a sense of the Nazis’ invincibility and the inevitability that they will remake Germany in their image.

Leni Riefenstahl, Der Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will), 1936, film.

Information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to influence people by promoting or publicizing a particular political cause or point of view.

An unreal, deceptive, or misleading appearance or image.

1. A series of moving images, especially those recorded on film and projected onto a screen or other surface (noun); 2. A sheet or roll of a flexible transparent material coated with an emulsion sensitive to light and used to capture an image for a photograph or film (noun); 3. To record on film or video using a movie camera (verb).

The art of creating and arranging dances or ballets; a work created by this art. A person who creates choreography is called a choreographer.

An image, especially a positive print, recorded by exposing a photosensitive surface to light, especially in a camera.

A representation of a person or thing in a work of art.

A setting for or a part of a story or narrative.

A form, sign, or emblem that represents something else, often something immaterial, such as an idea or emotion.

A distinctive or characteristic manner of expression.

In art, a technique used to depict volumes and spatial relationships on a flat surface, as in a painted scene that appears to extend into the distance.

Subject matter in visual art, often adhering to particular conventions of artistic representation, and imbued with symbolic meanings.

The method by which information is included or excluded from a photograph, film, or video. A photographer or filmmaker frames an image when he or she points a camera at a subject.

Who Was Leni Riefenstahl?
Leni Riefenstahl gained fame, and later infamy, in her native Germany and beyond. She began her career as a dancer and then transitioned to starring in silent films, typecast as a vigorous beauty who dared to scale intimidating Alpine peaks. In 1932, she made her directorial debut with Das blaue Licht (The Blue Light), a drama in which she cast herself in a similar role. Then came the work that she would be associated with for the rest of her life: Triumph of the Will and three other propaganda films made in collusion with Nazi leadership. After World War II, Riefenstahl strenuously maintained that she was devoted to her craft, not to Nazi authorities—a claim ultimately debunked. Though she never succeeded in fully extracting the poison of her Nazi sympathies from her public image, she continued to work, producing a book of photographs of the Nuba people of Sudan and, in her late seventies, embarking on underwater photography.

The Elements of Effective Propaganda
Propagandists like the Nazis, who aim to seduce masses of people into total submission to their ideological worldview, wield modes of communication like weapons. Since film brings together many different modes—including images, music, dialogue, and text—it offers a multi-pronged method through which to manipulate the public. The savvy propagandist understands how to edit together visual-aural-verbal combinations for maximum impact. Among the key elements of the most effective propaganda are a sense of action; symbols associated with parents (Riefenstahl positioned Hitler as the all-powerful father siring a new Germany into being); and messaging packaged as familiar and unthreatening.

An American Use of Triumph of the Will
Triumph of the Will was shown outside of Germany, including in the United States. Among its American viewers was Hollywood director Frank Capra, who served in the Army Signal Corps during World War II. Understanding that everyone went to the movies and people generally trusted what they saw on screen, the Roosevelt administration commissioned Capra to make films justifying the country’s involvement in the war. He produced a series of seven films collectively titled, Why We Fight, borrowing techniques and intercutting scenes from Triumph of the Will with clips from newsreels and war movies. Though Why We Fight was government propaganda, it was made in a different spirit from what Riefenstahl produced: whereas the Nazis’ ultimate aim was total subjugation, the American government sought to encourage support for the war through a stirring combination of facts and persuasion.