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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries

DAY FIFTY TWO Making Triumph of the Will

Susan Sontag emerged from the pack of bright young things when she boldly fired a depleted uranium feminist missile at that unreconstructed chauvinist, Norman Mailer. The event was a public lecture, so she risked return fire. From the same intellectual armoury came the missile aimed at Leni Riefenstahl, and this too was a daring shot, because it firmly nailed Riefenstahl and her aesthetic to the Nazi totem. Sontag was one of the first to maintain that artists need not be detached from their historical context, and she hailed Triumph of the Will as both art and political propaganda. While she made 'huge claims for the quality and power of Riefenstahl’s film as both art and political propaganda', she seems to have been the first to break with the 'earlier insistence upon the separation of artist from historical context'.

Other commentators in the cottage industry of Riefenstahl reappraisal have thought differently. Media scholar Brian Winston (who, like Sontag, is Jewish) has argued that Triumph “might better be seen as the antithesis of persuasive propaganda and that it is more powerful as a warning against the very political and social ideas the film espouses rather than a successful projection of them.”

Winston certainly captures the sense of revulsion that the viewer feels: history turns the film into a terrible portent. But Sontag is right, too, if the question is: did Leni Riefenstahl have a Nazi aesthetic when she made Triumph. Taking aesthetic to mean 'a set of principles underlying the works of a particular art movement or theory' and delete the word 'art' then Riefenstahl is firmly in the frame.

Riefenstahl with Himmler during filming

Triumph shows that she espoused core principles of Nazism: ruthlessness, deceit and dominance – and, in the film's own terms, unity, purity, and salvation through the Fuhrer.

The film is ostensibly a documentary on the three-day gathering of Nazis in Nuremberg. Goebbels was adamant that, to be effective, any propaganda message should be hidden. Not that Triumph was was immensely subtle: Hitler descends god-like in his silver aircraft through the clouds and drives through streets adorned with swastikas and lined by adoring crowds. After a few short snippets from the opening speeches, torchlit groups wander through Nuremberg singing patriotic songs, including the Nazis' own anthem, the Horst Wessel Lied. At dawn, a blimp flies over the quiet streets of the city.

The action now cuts to a vast array of tents where perfectly-formed young men (Sontag made the parallel with the Nubian wrestlers) wash their perfect bodies and await a plentiful breakfast. They eat and sing and play lusty games, smiling the while. Who could fail to be inspired by this vision of satisfied manhood in harmony?

The sequence of outdoor scenes continues – of costumes from the regions to show how inclusive the Nazis really are, not just Prussians; smiling children in the Hitler Youth. Then comes an extraordinary passage where Hitler reviews a parade of 52,000 'workmen' from fields, quarries, factories all over the country, marching together with shovels at their shoulders:

Heil my workmen!

Heil, my Fuhrer! We stand ready to carry Germany into a new era! Forests and fields, land and bread … One people, one Reich, one Fuhrer, one Germany!

The film powers on: more torchlight; more regimented rows of soldiers stretching to infinity in Speer's coliseum; another motorcade through adoring crowds; and the climax – an impassioned speech by Hitler.

the quintessential Nuremberg image

Considerable resources were thrown at the project: a vast budget; a crew of 74 by my reckoning, including a pilot for the blimp and a special effects photographer; and time for rehearsal after rehearsal - some scenes were rehearsed fifty times before being filmed.

But as you watch the film, you wonder how much of it was actually Riefenstahl's own vision. Much of the mise en scene was natural, not created - the quintessentially German city of Holy Roman Emperors but also of common folk, like the plebeian Hans Sachs. In itself, the location underlined the Nazi inheritance of legal and spiritual authority over the German Volk.

And then, of the elements of the film that were newly constructed, many were the responsibility not of Riefenstahl but of her production designer, Albert Speer - a close ally of Hitler who rose to become Reich Minister of Armaments and War Production (in which capacity he introduced the use of slave labour).

By training, Speer was an architect and Hitler turned to him to build the Reich Chancellery; to imagine a 'Street of Magnificence' in Berlin with a triumphal arch dwarfing the Arc de Triomphe; and, of course, to create the film's famous backdrop, the huge Zeppelinfeld stadium holding 340,000 people.

Speer also seems to have been very influential in how scenes were lit. He insisted that “as many events as possible be held at night, both to give greater prominence to his lighting effects and to hide the overweight Nazis.” He created one of the greatest lighting effects in cinema history - a 'cathedral of light' formed by scores of anti-aircraft searchlights slicing through the darkness like a guard of honour. (We saw a scaled-down version of this effect in a production of Sicilian Vespers where John Dexter lit the stage from directly above with rows of powerful drumlights. The memory of that tangible curtain of light remains after forty years).

I have made a good many films over the last decade or so and the regular sound guy, Michele Caruso, always insisted on the importance of the soundworld. If you compare Triumph to the film linked below – a 1942 Ministry of Information lampoon showing Nazis Doing the Lambeth Walk - you'll see what Michele means. Sound certainly got to Goebbels: the Lambeth Walk provoked him to kick over the chairs in the projection room.

Triumph's soundworld is made from crowds in the streets; scripted snippets, such as in the workmen scene; and the prepared speeches of the Nazi demagogues. And also music.

The score for Triumph is an amalgam of three of the regime's favourites: Wagner (given no credit), Horst Wessel (the anthem he wrote for the Nazis) and Herbert Windt. Ironically, Windt's teacher was a Jew, Franz Schreker, considered Germany's leading opera composer until the Nazis arrived: sacked from his post as Director of the Musikhochschule in Berlin, Schreker died six months before filming for Triumph began.

Windt's score evokes an heroic world, partly by exploiting themes from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, German folk music and, of course, the Horst Wessel Lied. With this melange, Windt makes the aural suggestion that German identity is embedded in the Nazi Party.

One can almost feel sorry for Riefenstahl working with true blue Nazis in every key position. Even the conductor of Windt's score was a Hitler crony - John Mueller, the SS Musikmeister of Hitler's personal bodyguard. She didn't even have control of the script: Goebbels' shadow was omnipresent and she had two official co-authors. One was a real filmmaker, Walter Ruttmann – who made some beautiful abstract experimental sequences and is best known for Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis (link below - much more original than Triumph and probably influenced by Ulysses).

But the other co-author was a horror - Eberhard Taubert – a senior official under Goebbels. Nicknamed Mr Anti, he scripted the anti-Semitic Der ewige Jude (lit. The Eternal Jew) and was responsible for the law requiring Jews to wear the Judenstern, the yellow badge.

Mr Anti's presence raises an interesting point about Triumph – apart from one allusion in a speech, there is no anti-semitism. Obviously a deliberate omission, the thinking is that 1934 was not the right time: the Nazi machine was growing stronger each day but public opinion was still a potent force. There was enough to do at this point to smooth over the recent murders of Roehm and the other SA officers. By 1935 things had changed: then came the rules finally defining the status of Jews in Germany - the infamous Nuremberg Laws.

A second noteworthy point is that, apart from a passing troop of cavalry, the regular army is not represented. The troops you see are SS and SA - and the message is clear: they are higher in the Nazi pecking order. But the army was so offended by their omission that a film devoted to the Wehrmacht had to be quickly rushed through.

With script, music, production and lighting design largely imposed on Riefenstahl, what was left? Mostly, she got to point the cameras and brought in her long-time colleague, Sepp Allgeier, who, like Riefenstahl herself, had learned his trade as assistant to Arnold Fanck. This experienced and creative duo produced nothing particularly original - most of what they did had been done before - but their shots, perhaps because of their notoriety, resonate to this day.

Some of the camera work in Triumph is exquisite - though one has to forgive the propagandist's tricks of shooting from below to indicate authority and vice versa for subjection. The message of adoration comes through head shots of people in the crowd. This was a reality experienced by William L Shirer, who recorded the scene outside Hitler's hotel in Nuremberg:

I was a little shocked at the faces when Hitler finally appeared on the balcony for a moment. They reminded me of the crazed expressions I once saw in the back country of Louisiana on the faces of some Holy Rollers ... they looked up at him as if he were a Messiah, their faces transformed into something positively inhuman.

Altogether some 60 hours of film were shot – and edited down ostensibly by Riefenstahl to about an hour. Some of the film was spoiled and Rosenberg, Hess and some others had to pledge their loyalty to Hitler again some weeks later, without audience – or indeed Hitler - in an ersatz set mocked up by Speer.

Susan Sontag expressed her opinion of Riefenstahl while the filmmaker was still a creative force. What now are we to think of Triumph of the Will? Should we agree with Richard Barsam, writing for the Film Society of Lincoln Center, that:

Her film is true to the reality of Nuremberg, however dishonest and misleading that convention may have been. But more than a mere record of events, it is a cinematic expression of the Nazi mystique. A masterly blend of light, darkness, sound, and silence, it is not just an achievement in cinematic form. It has other essential elements - thematic, mythological, narrative, psychological, and visual - and it is in the working of these elements that Riefenstahl transcends the genre limitations of either the documentary or the propaganda film.

A work of art? I don't think so. To my mind, the film itself is painting by numbers placed by others to a pre-existing pattern. And she herself was a Nazi who never recanted. Undoubtedly she had huge talent: had she gone to the States like Dietrich, she might have become one of the great directors of the twentieth century.

Anyway, the only thing to do at this point is to take hold of some calming SemmelKnoedel (bread dumplings) – or, if they have them today, SpeckKnoedel (bacon dumplings). And perhaps a bottle or two of Nuremberg Rotbier. And maybe a slice of Kasekuchen: it's been a long day in the film archive.

Lambeth Walk: Nazi Style by Charles A Ridley (1941) -

This is Billy Cotton's original recording of the Lambeth Walk in 1938 -

Here again is the link to Nathaniel Wolshuck's presentation of Triumph of the Will – the only way to see most of the footage -

Triumph of the Will and the Cinematic Language of Propaganda -

Berlin - Symphonie einer Großstadt (1927) by Walther Ruttmann -

Franz Schreker's opera Die Gezeichneten (abridged) conducted by Kent Nagano from the Salzburg Festival in 2005 -

And at some point after the SemmelKnoedel – Martti Talvela:

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