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Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will: Who Initialized It and What Purpose Did Each Filmmaker Have in Mind?

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Director Leni Riefenstahl was personally commissioned by Adolf Hitler to document the 1934 Nazi Party Congress rally in Nuremberg. She utilized 30 cameras to capture a multitude of images that were brilliantly edited with an imposing musical score, resulting in a dramatic play on the emotions of the German people

Triumph of the Will is associated with Nazi power more than any other film, and has been widely recognized as a "masterpiece" of propaganda. The significance of this film lies both in its powerful use of the film medium as well as in its message.

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The opening of Resnais’ film is similar to Riefenstahl’s. A view from up above the clouds moving downward in a slow tilt that brings into frame rusted barbed wire. “Riefenstahl simulates Hitler’s ‘god’s eye’ point of view, whereas Resnais recreates the point of view of Hitler’s victims”. This shot makes a direct reference to Riefenstahl’s film, and display one of the central themes: the simultaneous importance and impossibility of representing victims of the holocaust. In the other images borrowed from Triumph of the Will, the camera does not move, filming from a low angle as if to appear that it had been crushed or subdued. In his book The Holocaust in French Film, author Andre Colombat, states that the same angles are used constantly to show the horror and the extent of the Holocaust. In Riefenstahl’s film, the opposite effect is intended. The low angle shots, says Colombat, are intended to indicate the strength of the army and the power of the Nazi leaders. By comparison, it would appear that both Resnais and Riefenstahl are guilty of biasness one way or another. However, Resnais’ artistry is one of genuine subtle transitions that bring traces of the past to the present reality, and showcase the social transformation that occurred during the 1930s

Riefenstahl’s reality was constructed to serve the image and therefore not as genuine as the film portrays. Riefenstahl had essentially helped the Nazis achieve their goal of creating a fascist state, while Resnais showed the dreadful results of what fascism had led to. Leni Riefenstahl had always neglected criticism of her film Triumph of the Will and died reluctant in admitting her guilt for the creation of the ultimate propaganda film and more importantly the killing of millions of Jews, Gypsies, Homosexuals and others deemed socially unacceptable to the Nazis. This film is considered propaganda through the eyes of those who condemn genocide or stood idly by as the Holocaust occurred, right in the midst of what appeared to be a normal world. Alain Resnais film Night and Fog, is considered a documentary since the truth behind the Holocaust is uncovered without censorship. Leni Riefenstahl’s admiration for the Nazi ideology and its leader Adolf Hitler paved the way for a film unlike any other. Susan Sontag’s analysis of Triumph of the Will film, argues that the use of subtle techniques and staged events presented a fallacious reality that had become the fabrication of a fascist state. Proving that no matter what Riefenstahl claims, she clearly had intended it to be propagandist and of a fascist nature – and while she may have denied her involvement with the Holocaust itself, it is clear that she also played a pivotal role in its creation.

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Chronicling the Nazi Party Congress held in Nuremberg (1934), Triumph of the Will (1935) catapulted the documentary as mode of propaganda designed to specifically argue a point and influence public opinion. “Documentary cinema is intimately tied to historical memory. Not only does it seek to reconstruct historical narrative, but it often functions as an historical document itself. Moreover, the connection between the rhetoric of documentary film and historical truth pushes the documentary into overtly political alignments which influence its audience (1993Rabinowitw).” Triumph of the Will lionized Germany as a recurring superpower with Hitler at the helm as the authentic leader/savoir. This fundamental thematic message can be found in opening prologue – “20 years after the outbreak of the World War, 16 years after the beginning of German suffering, 19 months after the beginning of the German renaissance, Adolf Hitler flew again to Nuremberg to review the columns of his faithful followers (Triumph).” The opening scene further substantiates the message with an aerial view of Hitler’s plane flying through the majestic clouds and over various parts of Germany. He finally arrives in Nuremberg greeted by ecstatic supporters. The consequence of war is a people spiritually, mentally, and physically downtrodden and inept. Riefenstahl’s revolutionary use of cinematography (telephoto lenses, aerial photography, moving cameras, etc.) and music (German composer, Richard Wagner) epitomizes this escalating German Renaissance which has freed the German people from such a plight. It explains their fanaticism with Hitler.Throughout the documentary German militaristic power, political religion, unity, and pride are highlighted. With these four elements as an integral force, one cannot ascertain a distinction between the German people, the state, and the Nazi Party. Riefenstahl vehemently denied the film served as a propaganda tool for the Nazi Party but rather was an historical film told through an aesthetic lens

Many critics purport differently. Just as Birth of a Nation reeked of racist negative/stereotypical portrayal of African- Americans and shaped the America’s public’s attitude/image about race, Triumph contributed to heightened negative perceptions of European Jewry and anti-Semitism. Hitler’s conquest for German purity emanates from his speeches as well those of his featured compatriots – Goring, Goebbels, etc. Could Riefenstahl have been that naïve and blind to Hitler’s maniacal plans that lay ahead? Objectivity has meaning but in reality it is greatly influenced by the filmmaker’s point of view via perceptions, emotions, etc. thereby determining the extent they can be biased or slant their point of view. Suffice to say, Triumph of the Will authenticated that film has the ability to influence as well as alter how people perceive themselves, aspects of their society/culture as well as other peoples and their culture.

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Overall, Riefenstahl cunningly shot and edited her footage to scramble the viewer’s perspective: she made crowds appear bigger, spaces seem vaster and more complex, and time itself feel alternately elongated or compressed

Extreme high- and low-angle shots of Hitler delivering his histrionic speeches position him as master of a world of impeccably ordered subjects. Swastikas and other Nazi iconography fill nearly every scene. The cumulative effect is a sense of the Nazis’ invincibility and the inevitability that they will remake Germany in their image.

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Rabinowitz, Paula. “Wreckage upon Wreckage: History, Documentary and the Ruins of Memory.” History and Theory, Vol. 32, No. 2. (May, 1993), pp. 119-137. Triumph of the Will (Video). Web.

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