Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will Wasn’t a Cinematic Masterpiece; It Was a Staggeringly Effective Piece of Propaganda

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.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch Lam­beth Walk—Nazi Style: The Ear­ly Pro­pa­gan­da Mash Up That Enraged Joseph Goebbels

Edu­ca­tion for Death: The Mak­ing of the Nazi–Walt Disney’s 1943 Pro­pa­gan­da Film Shows How Fas­cists Are Made

Umber­to Eco Makes a List of the 14 Com­mon Fea­tures of Fas­cism

Han­nah Arendt Explains How Pro­pa­gan­da Uses Lies to Erode All Truth & Moral­i­ty: Insights from The Ori­gins of Total­i­tar­i­an­ism

Noam Chom­sky on Whether the Rise of Trump Resem­bles the Rise of Fas­cism in 1930s Ger­many

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.

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  • Randy says:

    It was plain­ly a cin­e­mat­ic mas­ter­piece, as much as any­thing could be at the time.

    It could not have been a “stag­ger­ing­ly effec­tive piece of pro­pa­gan­da” oth­er­wise.

  • bob beadle says:

    Polit­i­cal­ly cor­rect non­sense. The use of the usu­al con­ven­tion that Nazis per­son­i­fy evil to degrade the val­ue of the film to the lev­el of mere pro­pa­gan­da.

    Of course it’s pro­pa­gan­da! So is the very best of the most artis­ti­cal­ly devel­oped adver­tis­ing attempt­ing to sell the anal­o­gous evils of alco­hol, cig­a­rettes and sta­tus-seek­ing con­sump­tion. Or would the writer per­haps claim there are “vary­ing degrees of evil”- some are accept­able , some aren’t, depend­ing on the socio-polit­i­cal eye of the behold­er?

    The writer might do well to define his ideas of “art” and “pro­pa­gan­da”. Also, review the non-sequiturs that pep­per his pol­i­tics-defines-valid­i­ty-of-art theme.

  • Joachim M:uller says:

    H:atten WIR gesiegt es w:urde
    diese Schweinerei nicht !!


    It is Ok . WHAT IMPPRESS ME , IS THAT HELL , MADE BY THE PEOPLE AND GREAT CIVILISATION OF GERMANY , HAPPENED, NOT IN THE PRE MEDIEVAL TIMES OF THE ^HUNS^ BUT , IN THE TWENTY CENTURY,80 ? YEARS AGO…!!! In the GENERATION OF MY FATHER AND MOTHER…(Even , and y quote,^ Nazy/fascism is the mou­ve­ment of His­te­ria against Marx/lenin comu­nism^ .lili, you most than knew it. Very thanks. AS ALL GERMANS , from the
    RIZE AND MAINLY THE FALL OF THE THIRD REICH !!! Aloy­suo healey de Salles.

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