Leni Riefenstahl: Documenter or Propagandist?

Growing up, when I first began learning about World War II and the circumstances that caused it, I had a difficult time understanding how an entire country could band together around such a horrific cause. Looking back, I realize that our education on the subject was somewhat watered down, perhaps in an attempt to not scare students who were at such a young and tender age. While I obviously detest the rationale behind the rise of the Third Reich and the Holocaust that followed it, I believe it is important to understand the cause, because if you don’t understand the events and missteps that led up to it, you may very well be doomed to repeat it.

This subject has always fascinated me, so when one of my grad school professors suggested the documentary film Triumph of the Will, I immediately jumped on the opportunity to learn more about this confusing and dark era of Western history. I was not prepared; however, for how much the film changed me. Up until this documentary, the only works I had seen on the Holocaust were in opposition to it, showing the horrors its victims suffered, or showing the brutalities of war. Many documentaries, as well as fictional films such as Band of Brothers, were made from the American point of view, so the only perspective one gets is that of the American soldiers who were fighting against the Germans. With Triumph, I was, for the first time, able to understand WW II and the rise of the Third Reich from the other side, from the perspective of the Germans.

For today's article, we will set out to make sense of the rise of the Third Reich, to understand how this could possibly happen, and how Leni Riefenstahl’s masterpiece played a huge role in galvanizing people around the cause. In exploring these ideas, perhaps we can finally put to rest the decades-old argument that has been associated Triumph. Was the film merely a documentation of a political event, as the director claimed for many years, or was it, in fact, deliberate propaganda?

If there is anything I have learned from studying literature and the arts all these years, it is that in order to understand the work, one must understand the artist behind it. In order to understand Triumph of the Will, one must understand Leni Riefenstahl. Leni was born and raised in Germany, where she grew up having an affinity for the arts from a very young age, involving herself in dance, writing, and the visual arts as a child, and ultimately acting in several successful films. Simply put, Leni was a born artist. She was first introduced to Adolf Hitler at a rally where she became entranced by his flair for public speaking and his ability to electrify a crowd. In A Critical History of German Film, Riefenstahl is quoted stating about Hitler and the rally:

"…the audience was in bondage to this man.

I had an almost apocalyptic vision that I was never able to forget.

It seemed as if the earth’s surface were spreading out in front of me,

like a hemisphere that suddenly splits apart in the middle,

spewing out an enormous jet of water,

so powerful that it touched the sky and shook the earth.

I felt quite paralyzed." (153)

After the rally, she wrote a letter to Hitler asking to meet him, a request to which he responded eagerly that he had never seen anything more beautiful than Leni Riefenstahl on film. Just by her explanation of the rally alone, we see that Hitler was incredibly effective when it came to people and manipulating them. He was a skilled public speaker, and he understood how to poke people’s buttons in a way that made them follow him. Leni was young and impressionable, and was admittedly smitten by his gift. They subsequently formed a close working relationship, at which point he asked her to film two propaganda films, The Victory of Faith and Triumph of the Will. The second film would prove to be one of the best documentary films of all time, not only for its innovation, but also for its effectiveness to unite a people around one cause.

Part of what made Riefenstahl’s film so extraordinary was the “totalizing eye” of her camera. Much of the opening scenes pan to aerial shots and panoramic views of the Nuremberg event, where she has the camera move up and down, making the spectacle appear as larger than life, and aggrandizing the face of the movement: Hitler.

This is in stark contrast to any previous propaganda films that had been seen up until that time, such as Listen to Britain, a film that implored a detached and fragmented style where shots are taken down below, creating a tension amongst the audience, forcing them to listen to the sounds of Britain as the film’s title instructs. Jennings’ film attempted to unify his audiences by unifying the classes. He depicted factory workers and the upper class both going about their respective days, but in the end, all of the sights and sounds of the different classes came together to paint one complete picture of Britain, leaving audiences feeling integrated, as if they all played an important role to the betterment of their country.

Riefenstahl’s way of unifying audiences; on the other hand, was as different as the techniques she used to do so. Her majestic portrayal of the Nazi movement gave audiences a sense of success, a sentiment that had not existed in Germany for quite some time. In depicting the progress that Germany was making under Hitler, audiences were inspired to rally around the man who was leading them to greatness.

Her shots have inspired many modern films, such as Star Wars

Apart from the massive crew she put together to shoot the film, she made Hitler and the Nazi regime look grandiose and untouchable with her totalizing aerial views and her clever shots of Hitler from the ground up that made him look taller and larger than life, almost god-like. She played with day and night, evoking the notion that the sun rises and sets on Hitler, and that the Nazis symbolize the dawn of a new day in Germany. She showed the feasts of food the soldiers were having, signaling the end of the starvation and depression that had plagued Germany for so long since the outbreak of World War I. Each time she showed these positive aspects of German life, she shot back to the Nazis, giving audiences the sense that all of these positive things were occurring because of Hitler. This really resonated with viewers, because up until this time, the idea of plentiful food was a far and distant dream, but never a reality.

I have spoken with my husband's Omi (German for "grandmother") at length since watching this film. She told me many stories of how scarce food was, both before and after the World Wars, so much so that to this day, she has what we call “World War II Syndrome”, which is where she eats anything that is in sight out of fear of letting food go to waste. It’s so severe, that if one of us leaves the table to use the restroom or answer a phone call, we will return to an empty plate because Omi has finished it for us. Every time this happens, she says “I’m sorry. I didn’t think you were going to finish your plate, and we can’t just throw it away.” It’s this appreciation for having a plate full of food that makes me realize how rare this was for the people of Germany during the time leading up to Hitler’s rise to power.

As a privileged American, I have been blessed and fortunate enough to have food readily available to me 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so much so that often times I don’t think twice about throwing food out. Part of being an effective public speaker is identifying your audience’s grievances and persuading them to believe that you have the correct solution to their problem. Hitler had this unique ability, but as an artist, Riefenstahl had the ability to make these solutions come across on film. This is why showing the abundance of food being shared amongst the soldiers was so impactful to audiences around Germany.

In the evening spectacle of the film, Leni’s shots of Hitler speaking as he is surrounded by an operatic fire may give modern day audiences a sense of the devil in his deepest circle of hell, but back then it made the people feel impassioned and emboldened with patriotism. In an article by The History Place entitled “Triumph of Hitler: Triumph of the Will”, there is a famous shot of Hitler where it looks like he is coming out of the clouds, and the caption reads:

“One of the most enduring propaganda images of the Third Reich

– the omnipotent Fuhrer in front of 160,000 Germans

arraigned in perfect geometrical formation” (2).

The article also quotes an American journalist, William L. Shirer, who spent seven years inside Hitler’s Reich keeping a diary of his experience. Of the Nuremberg Rally and Riefenstahl’s film he wrote,

"I am beginning to comprehend

some of the reasons for Hitler’s astounding success.

Borrowing a chapter from the Roman Catholic Church,

he is restoring pageantry and color and mysticism to the drab lives

of 20th Century Germans.

This morning’s opening meeting…was more than a gorgeous show;

it also had something of the mysticism and religious fervor of

an Easter or Christmas Mass in a great Gothic cathedral.

The hall was a sea of brightly colored flags.

Even Hitler’s arrival was made dramatic.

The band stopped playing.

There was a hush over the thirty thousand people packed in the hall.

Then the band struck up the Badenweiler March…

Hitler appeared in the back of the auditorium and followed by his aides,

Goring, Goebbels, Hess, Himmler and the others,

he slowly strode down the long center aisle

while thirty thousand hands were raised in salute…

the intoxicating atmosphere inside the hall was such

that every word dropped by Hitler seemed like an inspired word from on high.

Man’s – or at least the German’s – critical faculty is swept away at such moments,

and every lie pronounced is accepted as high truth itself." (1)

Riefenstahl was masterful in capturing the grandeur of the Rally and of Hitler himself, and it seems that his magnetism wasn’t just palpable to Germans, but to anyone who was part of his audience. By depicting the splendor of the rally, the magnificence of the evening event, and the charisma of the movement’s leader, she created a sense of excitement and patriotism that compelled Germans to unite behind the cause.

A big part of Riefenstahl’s prowess wasn’t just in her clever camera angles and large production, it was also in her editing techniques, a lot of which had not been seen before Triumph. In Stuart Liebman’s “Triumph of the Will by Leni Riefenstahl”, he explains that "throughout the film, Riefenstahl’s editing controls the mood and rhythm of the eighteen major sections and the many subordinate sequences. She wisely cuts the bombastic speeches of party officials down to stirring, at times curiously anodyne, soundbites. She even dares to reduce visual fatigue by cutting away from loving close-ups of Hitler’s frenzied gaze while in the grip of his oratory to record the rapt attention of individual audience members. Presumably, she felt that doing so would enhance the power of his lines, now uttered off-screen, such as 'It is our wish and will that this State and Reich will endure for millenniums to come.'" (47)

I got my hands on the sound and picture outline of the film, and it was plain to see that Riefenstahl’s primary goal was to make every aspect of the Rally and of Hitler look larger than life. She made sure in her edits to keep the sound bites that had the words “shining flame”, “rising from the depths”, “standing”, and “truth”. She makes sure to maintain the sounds of “Heil” throughout the film, and she ends with shouts of victory and shots of the swastika under the clouds in an attempt to electrify audiences, send them into a frenzy, and convince them into believing that the Reich was the answer to all of Germany’s problems.

The entire process of filming proved to be quite the undertaking for Riefenstahl, Robert Gardner points out in “Can the Will Triumph”: The film had no ordinary structure to start with…She worked in four large cutting rooms with 400 screen hours of material hanging against all the walls in specially designed backlighted bins, which permitted her to see every shot and select for qualities such as scale, tone, or rhythm. She says that she thought of nothing except the film for an entire year, that her mother or a friend would put food in her mouth as she worked, and that as far as she can recall the time went by without any interruption whatsoever. Even changing her clothes was a distraction. Her task was enormous and the only way to approach it was creatively. (30)

Riefenstahl was brilliant throughout the development of this film, from designing the blueprint, to executing the production, to editing the final product. Every aspect of the film radiated and came together to form a work of art that spurred a nation to their feet behind a cause that was seemingly hollow in its promises and ravenous in its pursuit. She truly was a gifted artist, and if there is anything that can be said about Hitler, it is that he wasn’t dimwitted when it came to manipulating the masses. When he asked her to make Triumph of the Will, he knew he wanted an artist, not a political figure, to create a film that would inspire the people to rally behind his cause.

As gifted as she was; however, this brilliant film took more than pure artistry to become what it was. It took belief. From her innovative shooting techniques, to her flawless editing, she meticulously went through every speech of the Nuremberg conferences and picked out the perfect, most convincing lines to place throughout the film. She sifted through each soldier’s city of birth so that audiences could see that every town throughout Germany was being represented. She showed the shirtless soldiers laughing and dining together in an attempt to show the unity of the party. She showed One Germany, which was a feeling that had been unfamiliar to the people for years.

After World War I, the German people were disillusioned and depressed for many reasons. Not just because they were hungry, but because they couldn’t find work. Many people felt that the needs of foreigners were coming before their own and that their hospitality was being taken advantage of. There were a growing number of foreign business owners and most of them wouldn’t hire Germans; rather, they would hire their own, forcing the local citizens into jobs that were beneath their education levels. They were working harder than they had ever worked only to be unable to afford something as simple as a loaf of bread. People were frail, and they were forced to do things like build their own houses and hunt for their own food in order to make ends meet.

None of this is to say that their dissatisfaction was correct or justified, but I think it gives us a glimpse into why Triumph proved to be such a compelling film for the German people. Riefenstahl gave audiences pictures of the promises Hitler was making to them, and in the process, she helped him convince them that his solutions were the key to change, and the key to bringing Germany back to the prosperity of the Gothic Era. It was a masterful film because it not only showed the gloriousness of the party (as they wanted it to be shown), but it came from a heartfelt place of belief and faith in the ideology. Even watching it today, knowing the horrors of the Nazi party, one still cannot overlook the grandeur of the film and the sense of promise and prosperity that it leaves viewers with by the end. Riefenstahl may have agreed to do the film for the art of it, but her techniques and convincing portrayal of Hitler and his Germany move the film from a political reality documentary to a powerful piece of propaganda.

Riefenstahl appealed to the people’s sense of patriarchy by making Hitler look stately and impressive through camera angles. She appealed to the German attraction to dominance and order by showing the perfect geometric lines in which the soldiers marched, and by showing the Nazi party symbols coming out of the clouds, as if their power is coming from a divine place. In my first semester at Wake Forest, I took a Rise and Fall of Empires class. The lesson that stuck out to me the most, and that has remained with me to this day, is that every time an empire or tribe of any size try to galvanize its people, they convince them that their particular God is on their side, and that all the murder and treachery that comes with their pursuit is because their God wants it to be that way. By using the daybreak, the sun rises, the sunsets, and the clouds as a backdrop, she made audiences feel emboldened by the idea that God was on their side, and that through any means that Hitler deemed necessary, Germany would return to their glory years, to their manifest destiny.

Riefenstahl always maintained that her masterpiece, Triumph of the Will, was purely a historical film, merely depicting Germany’s current events of the time. According to her, she agreed to make the film upon three conditions; that the film would be free from Nazi party interference, that she would have complete authority over the final cut of the film, and that she would never be asked to make another film for the government ever again. While this very well may have been true at the time that she made these conditions, in later interviews such as in the documentary "The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl", she places the film’s burden on the shoulders of Hitler and a few other members of the Nazi party who were responsible for designing the format of the film, contradicting her set of conditions.

She went on to make another film for the government; again, in contrast to her stated conditions, but to her credit, she may not have had much of a choice at that time. It can be argued that Riefenstahl felt forced to make these films because at the time, saying no to the Reich meant absolute death. However, it appears that there is too much documentation on her admiration for the tyrant for her to have been afraid of him. The entire development of the film was done so meticulously and so perfectly that it seems improbable for it to have been made by someone who was afraid of the cause and was merely documenting a rally.

Her techniques were too imposing, the pictures were too splendid, and the film was too elaborate and grandiose for it to have been a simple recounting of a historic event. Riefenstahl was blown away by Hitler’s enticement and by his ability to draw a crowd in, but what she failed to realize is that she had the exact same gift. Her charm on camera is what drew him in and is what led to him choosing her as the maestro of his campaign film. Her artistic magic is what mesmerized audiences and bolstered them to fervently believe in a cause that they may otherwise have never agreed with had it not been depicted so convincingly.

Leni Riefenstahl was, in fact, a gifted artist who created a propaganda film about a political organization that she passionately believed in. As scholars, we can understand Triumph within the context of our time as a brilliant, groundbreaking film that influenced and changed the way all future filmmakers would produce, not just propaganda films, but even fictional cinema as well. As people, we can learn from its power of suggestion, and realize that even in the face of disappointment and disenchantment, we must always try and seek out the truth, no matter how powerful and convincing the message appears to be.