April 16, 2007

Movies for Grown-Ups: Triumph of the Will

(Tired of seemingly all discussion of movies in this country anymore sliding towards poop fests and other kiddie fare? Me too, which is why I decided to dedicate my Netflix account to nothing but "grown-up" movies, and to write reviews here of each one I see. For a master list of all reviews, as well as the next movies on my "queue" list, click here.)

Triumph of the Will (1935)
Written and Directed by Leni Riefenstahl

In our modern times, the term "propaganda" has been saddled with a bit of an evil reputation; its original definition, however, used to be a much more neutral thing, referring to any piece of media that specifically tries to further a specific opinion (as opposed to journalism, for example, which attempts to remain objective). Where the term first started picking up a bad connotation was during the first half of the 20th century, when its aims were suddenly taken a lot more seriously by a series of modern governments; it was the particular ease by which Fascist states accomplished propaganda, to be specific, that then made the term acquire the modern bad aftertaste it now has. In fact, in the decades since the governmental form first came into popularity, it's been proven how crucial propaganda is to any fascist state's success, and how it is the easy manipulation of the masses through media that can many times prolong a fascist government's overall lifespan.


Leni Riefenstahl's 'Triumph of the Will'

This of course is the ultimate irony of German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl's 1935 documentary Triumph of the Will, is its near total success as a piece of governmental propaganda; it is so successful as a tool for swaying hearts and minds, it can be nearly impossible for many to see it simply as a film to be judged on cinematic terms. Because make no mistake, the film is an extremely important one in cinematic terms -- one of the first to utilize dolly shots, one of the first to utilize crane shots, one of the first to feature moving cameras of stationary orators, among many of the firsts the shoot racked up, not to mention it being made by a forward-thinking woman at a time when most of the world shunned and punished such women for their initiative. But it's impossible to deny -- it's also a two-hour tale about how great it is to be a Nazi, and it's done so well that it's still convincing people to become one almost a century later. And that, as they say, makes things a lot more complicated.


Leni Riefenstahl's 'Triumph of the Will'

Now for those who don't know, this isn't any old movie about Nazis; it covers a very specific weekend, in fact, a sort of national convention the Nazis threw every year in the picturesque town of Nuremberg, a combination rally for the faithful and demonstration for the uninitiated, with both a little Bible camp and a little Rock 'N Roll Fantasy camp thrown in for good measure. It was a bizarre enough spectacle on its own, something that can only be accomplished in a fascist state where such insane budgets can be dedicated to such a thing; but then Hitler gave Riefenstahl carte-blanche privileges to go anywhere and do anything she wanted in pursuit of the movie, done it's now widely believed because he had a crush on her, of all things. (In fact, Riefenstahl on her own has this fascinating history; a former professional athlete, she was one of the world's first cinematic stuntpeople, as well as one of the world's first extreme skiiers, which is how she first got famous; she used this fame as an actor and hottie athlete, then, to write and direct her own movies.) The result, then, is a bizarre amalgam of film styles; part straight-ahead documentary of a historical event, part justification for why you should support the subjects of the film, and part cultural document regarding how such a monstrous thing as Nazism could've captured the imagination of such a large part of an otherwise smart and humane public.


Leni Riefenstahl's 'Triumph of the Will'

Because let's not ever forget -- before the existence of the Holocaust became widely known, there were millions of otherwise sane people who publicly supported the concept of fascism, who in fact believed that it was a better form of government than democracy, including such notable Americans as Charles Lindbergh and Henry Ford. These days, of course, after nearly 70 years of propaganda ourselves, we can barely picture a world where millions of people voluntarily support the idea of a despot over the idea of free elections; but that's a world that existed in 1935, an attitude that was rapidly taking over Europe, partly by force and partly by choice. And this issue of course takes on even more immediacy post-9/11, when we've seen an American public that has suddenly embraced more of fascism than many ever thought possible. It's still a very relevant question to ask, of what leads societies to embrace such environments or at least tolerate the attitudes they foster; that's why I think that watching such movies as Triumph of the Will is still so relevant, even though the film itself is weighed down with so much political baggage on its own by now.

So instead of a traditional review of this particular DVD, then, as befitting the fractured nature of the film itself, perhaps I'll simply type in the notes I took while watching it, along with some stills from the movie I found online that will hopefully help illustrate my points. And then maybe I'll try to wrap things up again in a traditional way at the end.


Leni Riefenstahl's 'Triumph of the Will'

--So first of all, it's so easy to forget what a beautiful place a fascist state can actually be, to the people for whom that fascist state is designed to benefit. Nuremberg in Triumph of the Will seems like a grand fairytale throughout the two-hour movie -- a literal throwback to a time of ogres and the Grimm brothers, of enchanted forests and medieval cobbler housing. This is of course part of the danger of a fascist state, and why we need to be especially careful here in America right now; that sure, a society can look really great when you're the one benefitting from all the horrors being perpetrated.


Leni Riefenstahl's 'Triumph of the Will'

--And then there's the second thing I noticed, which is that the famous images we have of the movie only actually comprise half its length; that on top of the big daytime rallies featuring tens of thousands of soldiers in neat little grids (an image that's been copied by everyone from George Lucas to Peter Jackson), an entire half of the weekend was devoted to nighttime rallies as well, giant Teutonic things featuring torches and dozens of drums, whose images are not only completely obscure compared to the daytime sections of the movie, but even almost don't exist online in still form. Why is that, I wonder? Because the nighttime sections of Triumph of the Will, frankly, are an endlessly fascinating part of the movie, and give us a glimpse of Nazi life that we rarely get in these propaganda tools; you know, the mystical part of Nazi life, the aggressive and primal Goth/Barbarian part of the Aryan mythos, largely made up out of bits of the past that used to be true, much like most of what we know as "traditional" European history invented in the 19th and 20th centuries for Nationalist purposes.


Leni Riefenstahl's 'Triumph of the Will'

In fact, I'd go so far as to say that this is a big part of many Americans' perpetual fascination with the Nazi era, in that it combined two very different historic parts of the German character; it meshed the modern German tendencies towards order and efficiency with this lost romantic ideal of German as Bloodthirsty Pagan. As mentioned, this is when all the national myths in Europe were first cemented in the public mind, as elaborate justifications for the endless wars their nobles were constantly instigating; and it's no surprise, I think, that of all the historical periods and romantic ideals from Germania's past to become fascinated by, those of the Weimar era would choose the violent, independent Goths/Barbarians/Pagans/Teutons. Let's not forget, after all, the entire reason the Nazis were able to gain power in the first place was because they were masters of exploiting anger and frustration; anger over losing World War I, frustration over the way the conquering Allies were treating them, and the massive amounts of resources they were taking as war booty (including such ridiculous numbers as 80 percent of Germany's coal, 70 percent of its iron, etc). Meanwhile, the Allied-installed Socialist government in Weimar had burnt through 19 different constitutions and 19 different presidents in 18 years, with still not a stable leader anywhere in sight; so is it any wonder that many of these unemployed, angry, drunken Germans would turn to a time in their history when fate was more in their hands, and done so through violent means to boot?


Leni Riefenstahl's 'Triumph of the Will'

Like I said, I'm surprised that the images from these nighttime rallies haven't caught on over the decades like the daytime ones have, because they're really striking in this Teutonic, Nationalist way; these giant bonfires within these naturally formed outdoor stadiums, full of obviously drunken shirtless young men who are in a constant state of yelling and physical pushing, brass bands playing in the corner as the entire thing plays out like some grand Orwellian hate orgy. It is quite a jarring image to come across, even 71 years after it was originally captured, and I'm surprised that I can find no still images of it anywhere on the web.


Leni Riefenstahl's 'Triumph of the Will'

--Of course, I also find it fascinating to see what weirdo random things the Nazis ended up embracing -- how they were into diet and exercise, for example, nudism and giving up smoking, mysticism and the occult, even as they were into genetically engineering a master race at the same time. One of those random obsessions, in fact, that becomes clear in the movie, is the almost supernaturally noble regard Nazis gave towards blue-collar jobs; how there are two different rallies in the movie, for example, devoted not towards soldiers but literally ditch-diggers, and who literally carry shovels during the rallies instead of guns. It just struck me, I guess, how out of place such odes to the Industrial Age now seem anymore; how you would just never see the modern media, not in a million years, ever call ditch-digging America's most noble profession, much less devote two entire parades to dudes with shovels.


Leni Riefenstahl's 'Triumph of the Will'

--In fact, speaking of the weirdo things that Nazi leaders were into, one could almost argue that Triumph of the Will represents the ultimate gruesome act of childish geek revenge that one could ever perpetrate; with the nerdiest losers of the entire school now suddenly in charge, wearing ridiculously overmasculine military-style costumes to mask their nerdy loser cores, suddenly in charge of all the guns and all the laws, and with a million drunken violent thugs who now worship them like gods. It's easy to get lost in the pageantry and monstrosity of the Nazi era, which is why it's important for a film like Triumph of the Will to still exist; it shows quite plainly what a bunch of nerdy losers were at the center of it all, calling all the shots and meticulously creating the mythos that held it all together. And especially in the case of someone like Goebbels, who is easily featured more in the film than any other Nazi besides Hitler himself, and is such a sincerely weaseley little vermin that you just find yourself shouting "Nazi rat!" whenever he's on-screen.


Leni Riefenstahl's 'Triumph of the Will'

--Among lots of other interesting technical shots, Riefenstahl swings the camera around Hitler as he orates in a stationary position. It's a staple of modern cinema, of course, so is something you'd think wouldn't even make you blink an eye; but the fact that it's being done in a movie made in 1935 is what makes it stand out even more than normal, the fact that such an old piece of film is showing such a contemporary thing. Just another reminder of what a technical master Riefenstahl was, and of how many innovations she brought to the world of cinema (not only during her Nazi years, but also later in life as an underwater nature filmmaker).

--Damn, when exactly do these Nazis sleep during the Nuremberg weekends? I guess that's the point; the giant steam-covered natural stadium in the woods in the middle of the night is bizarre enough, I guess, much less when added to sleep deprivation. Funny how many brainwashing techniques a fascist state must adopt in order to perpetuate itself, while never being able to admit publicly that they've adopted brainwashing techniques.


Leni Riefenstahl's 'Triumph of the Will'

--Interesting: the most famous scene from the movie (the tens of thousands of soldiers standing in a grid) was originally a memorial service for soldiers who had been killed that year, filmed with silence from the crowd and a solemn soundtrack. Then the whole thing turned into a massive public oath of fealty towards Hitler from tens of thousands of soldiers at once. What a sight! Man, you just never see things like that anymore, do you? I guess for very good reason.


Leni Riefenstahl's 'Triumph of the Will'

--It's astounding, I think, how well Albert Speer (Hitler's main architect) was able to flawlessly combine the then-cutting-edge elements of Art Deco with Classical Greek architecture, creating no less an image at these rallies than that of Nazism actually being thousands of years old, with Hitler simply adding contemporary touches to structures that have been around since ancient times, and using those places for holding his massive public rallies. You can of course get a sense of this from still photos of that period; but there's something about watching an entire hour-long rally within such an environment that really drives it home. Say what you will about the ultimate aims and successes of fascist architecture, but Speer was a freakin' genius when it came to quasi-historical impressive structures.


Leni Riefenstahl's 'Triumph of the Will'

--And finally, how's this for an odd random detail? In all the crowd shots throughout the movie, you wouldn't believe how many guys have Hitler mustaches. And this ultimately may be the strongest argument of all over why Triumph of the Will should still exist, and why it's still important to occasionally rent and view such films; because that's a detail about German life that would've never occurred to me, frankly, how so many of the men would of course have Hitler mustaches, and something that you'd likely never learn about everyday German life without such project as Triumph of the Will. I know it's tempting to bury such historical documents when societies get to a certain point of enlightenment; to pretend that those days never existed, in other words, or at least not to rub it in people's faces by making such work readily available. As someone who loves obscure cultural artifacts, though, I think it's dangerous to have such an attitude; it not only increases the power of such images, in my opinion, but also dooms us to repeat our mistakes. As vehemently as we might disagree now with the message of Triumph of the Will, it exists not only as a technically brilliant film, but also a clue as to how such a society could've ever gotten to such a point, as important to us now as footage of yellow ribbons on the backs of SUVs will be to historians of the future. I encourage you to view such movies with this attitude in mind.

Out of 10:
Writing: N/A
Acting: N/A
Directing: 8.0
Cinematography: 9.5
Overall: 9.2

Best viewed: Once or twice in your life, sober, with notebook and pen in hand. For bonus points, identify the exact moment in the movie George Lucas rips off for Star Wars.

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Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:01 PM, April 16, 2007. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |