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October 05, 2006

Triumph of the Will: Riefenstahl Consolidating Nazi Power

The Stadium in Nuremberg

Leni Riefenstahl’s film of the Nuremberg Nazi Congress of 1934 has frequently been hailed as a significant artistic documentary film. Reifenstahl died very recently and up until that time she consistently denied any association with the Nazis defending the film as a ‘work of art’. However the fact that she made another film about the Nazi Nuremburg congress in 1933 tends to undermine that argument. Dealing with the film and with Reifenstahl is awkward. As the article below by Marcus points out Reappraising Triumph of the Will it is possibly the most discussed film and director in the history of cinema to date only possibly exceeded by Welles & Hitchcock. However as a quick trawl through the internet will show you there is a lot of not very good discussion and much of it has little or no historical contextual background. Below I focus particularly on the representation of the Army in the film and the underlying issues surrounding this as it appears to have been little covered elsewhere.

Riefenstahl with Hitler

The film itself came out at a highly significant time for the Nazis as it celebrated Hitlers process of consolidation of power which took place during the period from the end of January 1933 through the infamous ‘Night of the Long Knives on June 30th 1934 followed by Hitler becoming Fuhrer after the death of Hindenberg. The film had a lot of work to do to spread the message of consolidation. Below the film is examined with a lot of attention being paid to to the composition of the target audience it was meant to reach. Whatever else the brutality against the Left, Jews and even liberals within the administrative posts in Germany meant that few could be unaware of the course of events. Riefenstahl’s denial rings very hollow.

This extract from the film is at the George Washington University and shows the reception that Hitler got when he landed at Nuremberg. It is the moment which Reifenstahl has been building up to. Reappraising Triumph of the Will
This is a particularly useful recent article. It contains a critical report on an interview conducted by Marcus himself with Reifenstahl. Marcus notes many of the diecrepancies and contradictions with previous interviews that she had given.

This a very useful article because it places Triumph of the Will squarely in the context of the other films which Reifenstahl made for Hitler. She had filmed the Nuremberg rally in 1933 gaining very valuable experience of the place and space of the rallies themselves. She also made a film of the rally the following year. This film was to strongly feature the Werhmacht as the Werhmacht had complained that there was very little about their manoeuvres in Triumph of the Will.

Animated Gif of Nuremburg Images

Marcus spends a brief time on the issue of the army and what he says is perceptive and useful. The role of the army is something which most commentators either fail to consider or skim over. Coming at this film within the context of seeing the film as an important part of the whole of the period of the Nazi consolidation of power rather than a decontextualised psuedo documentary allows us as critics to get a much better handle on the film. Below a representation from Visconti signifying the free reign of terror which the SA had between March 1933 for over a year. However much of what they were doing was alienting the middle and upper class base of support for the Nazis.

The SA practicing on Effigies in Visconti

The role of the army in Hitler’s plans after taking power were crucial. In the first instance the army needed to stand by in a ‘neutral’ fashion whilst Hitler carried out his institutional purges during 1933 & 1934. It was the role of the Army in the future of Nazi Germany which was one of the fundamental points of difference between Roehm head of the SA and Hitler along with his unquestioning supporters such as Himmler and Goebbels the SS.

Ernst Roehm Leader of the SA

An excellent cinematic representation of this difference is shown within Visconti’s much under-rated film The Damned. Roehm wanted the SA to replace the army and be the spearhead for a more fundamental revolution at home and to lead the struggle for Lebensraum the Nazis imperialist plans for eastwards expansion. The Werhmacht were fundamentally opposed to the SA. whilst consolidating his position Hitler had no choice but to buy off the army – he obviously didn’t need a civil war with a fully professional armed fighting force. furthermore the Prussian backbone of the army had much in common with the genral aims of resoring Germany’s place in the World which would ensure a massive expansion of the armed forces. The kind of debauchery which Roehm was engaged in at the time of the massacre was helpful to Hitler in calming disturbed elements of the SA. visconti’s representation of this is largely based upon the reports of William Shirer an American journalist in Germany at the time.

The Debauchery of the SA

The Wehrmacht colluded in the ‘Night of the Long Knives’. It was ensured that they were confined to barracks whilst those identified as the greatest threats amongst the SA were purged. Furthermore it is reported that the Wehrmacht aslo provided logistical support for the SS to carry out the massacre. Shortly afterwards the officers of the army swore their personal allegiance to Hitler as Fuhrer. The seriousness of swearing an oath of allegiance within the Prussian officer code cannot be overestimated. Over the coming years this would prove to be a fundamental pillar of strength for Hitler. Below is an image of von Blomberg who appears on the podium with Hitler watching the manoeuvres. This would be seen by many of the film’s eventual audiences as highly significant.

Von Blomberg a key element in Hitlers rise to absolute power

Whilst the army might have wished to have been better represented the key target audience of the film needed to be the SA and all its supporters who had so recently had their leadership brutally removed. The mass popularity of Hitler and the unifying of Germany as a Nation with even the Saarland – at that time still under occupation – being included. There currently appears to be no evidence concerning the amount and type of footage of the army however it would be extraordinarily if Hitler wasn’t very aware of and had some level of input at the policy level of exactly what was in the film whatever Reifenstahl says. In another section I have placed a brief article on the re-armament policies of the Nazis and the development of these over the course of the early years of the regime. This historical detail will hopefully help to shed light on aspects of Triumph of the Will. I will also be placing a review of the process of the Nazi consolidation of power which I take to be from the end of January 1933 to the release of Triumph of the Will. This film needs to be seen as a spectacular represesentation of a spectacular event with a range of target audiences in mind. As a piece of performative filmmaking which come close to Wagner’s ideal of the gesamtkunstwerk then it is hard to beat. This link will take you to some realplayer downloads. I find it takes them a time to start up. The prelude to the Meistersinger was Reifenstahl’s ‘choice’. The fact that Wagner was Hitler’s favourite naturally had nothing to do with it. But then its a pain having to out up with that anti-Semite as well :-). Wagner was entirely appropriate for Riefenstahl’s score to the film, but then that was art – nothing to do with anti-Semitism at all!


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