"Triumph of the Will," says Dan Olson of the analytical video series Folding Ideas, "is not a triumph of cinema." Already the proposition runs counter to what many of us learned in film studies classes, whose professors assured us that Leni Riefenstahl's 1935 glorification of Nazi Germany, despite its thoroughly propagandistic nature, still counts as a serious achievement in film art. "None of the ideas or techniques were new," Olson explains. "It is simply that no one had previously thrown enough money and resources at propaganda on this scale before."
If it has value as nothing but sheer spectacle, does Triumph of the Will (watch it below) amount to the Transformers of its day — and with motives that make Michael Bay blockbusters look like noble, altruistic endeavors at that? Despite doing nothing new with its medium, the film does still showcase certain qualities of propaganda that, more than 70 years after the fall of the Third Reich, we'd all do well to keep in mind and keep an eye on.
Olson quotes "Ur-Fascism," an essay by Umberto Eco (who spent a couple formative years "among the SS, Fascists, Republicans, and partisans shooting at one another") explaining that, for fascist leaders to convince people to follow them,
the followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies. When I was a boy I was taught to think of Englishmen as the five-meal people. They ate more frequently than the poor but sober Italians. Jews are rich and help each other through a secret web of mutual assistance. However, the followers must be convinced that they can overwhelm the enemies. Thus, by a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak. Fascist governments are condemned to lose wars because they are constitutionally incapable of objectively evaluating the force of the enemy.
Here we have summarized both a message that Triumph of the Will wants to convey and the intellectual Achilles' heel of fascist propaganda. It must imply the strength of the enemies even as it makes the strength of the regime crushingly explicit. "To the modern viewer it may seem aimless and shoddily paced," says Olson, "with montages that just go on and on and on long after the point has been made, but that's the point: it is not merely a demonstration of presence, but of volume. The indulgence of it, the conspicuous cost, is as much a message of the film as any other."
The words of Hannah Arendt, who once called science "only a surrogate for power," also enter into the analysis. Olson uses the quote to get into the idea that "one of the main mechanisms of propaganda is to plant the idea of precedent, to alter the audience's own sense of history and the world and appeal to the seemingly objective authorities of god, history and science" in order to, through what Eco called the "cult of tradition," make "new institutions seem older than they really are."
We might find all this a bit funny, given the highly premature termination of a reign the Nazis insisted could endure for a thousand years, but in some sense their propagandists had the last laugh. Whatever its cinematic merits or lack thereof, Riefenstahl's film remains essentially effective. "To this day we continue to use Triumph of the Will as a reference point for our mental construct of the Nazi regime," says Olson. "Our idea of the Nazis is deeply informed by a propaganda film produced by the Nazis for the explicit purpose of creating that mental construct." When we think of the Nazis, in other words, we still think of the images manufactured more than eighty years ago by Triumph of the Will — "exactly the image they wanted you to think of when you thought of them."
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.