Triumph of the Will

Movie by Leni Reifenstahl

Review by Thom Hartmann, originally published at on October 5, 2004

"Triumph of the Will," a movie made in 1934 by the legendary Leni Riefenstahl (who died in September 2003 at the age of 101), documents the 1934 Nuremberg rallies organized by Hitler's Nazis, and won gold medals for filmmaking in Venice in 1935 and in Paris in 1937. The Nazis required that the full or a truncated version of it be played before every other movie in theatres all across Germany, a requirement that stood until the Third Reich fell.

This film is important -- vital -- to see and understand for several reasons, even aside from the cinematic genius of its filmmaker. (There is an excellent biographical profile of her at The last scene of the movie, including its music, was eerily echoed in the end of George Lucas’ first Star Wars movie, and other filmmakers over the years have pointed to "Will" as a seminal influence. Although she became one of the world’s most famous photographers –- her last book published just last year –- she never made another movie after the fall of the Third Reich, as her reputation was so damaged by her association, at the age of 32, with Hitler in making this movie.)

The first non-cinematic reason this movie is still important 70 years after its creation is that it helps Americans demystify the rise of Hitler and helps us understand that the German people of that era were neither cartoon characters nor incarnations of evil, but real and average people swept up in a nationalist hysteria. Keep in mind that this movie was made just a year after the nation's most famous building had been burned in a "terrorist attack" that Hitler blamed first on communists and later on Jews, and he used the attack on the German Parliament Building to consolidate his rise to power. And that this movie was a very large part of the barrage of propaganda Germans absorbed in the 1930s (when you see the film, this realization will take on added significance).

Just prior to the filming of "Will," Hitler had also achieved passage of the famous Enabling Acts (in response to the burning of the Reichstag), which gave the government the power to open people's mail, tap their phones, break into their homes and collect their personal financial data without a warrant, and imprison protesters or corral them into separate zones. The Acts so offended the German parliament that Hitler had to add to them a 4-year sunset provision, so they'd automatically expire should his war on terrorism end within that time span. And they helped insure that there would be no protesters at the 1934 rally documented in "Will," even though at that time -- only a year into Hitler's reign -- many within Germany still openly opposed him. (One of the best books on this is Milton Mayer's "They Thought They Were Free," which you may want to read after watching this movie. Or just read this excerpt:

In the early 1930s, Germany was recovering from the crippling effects of the reparations provisions of the Treaty of Versailles that followed the end of WWI, and Hitler was widely credited with restoring both prosperity and a sense of national identity to the demoralized electorate. He worked hand-in-glove with big business to produce a giant war machine, and the side effect of all this defense-industry spending was a general increase in prosperity. The nation was being militarized while being told their national mission was to create a 1000-year reign of peace around the world. Peace through strength. Preemptive war. Get the terrorists before they can get us. Peace through military power and domination of the world.

As the world knows, Hitler and his closest advisors said Germany must find a "solution" to the "problem" of those dangerous people of middle-eastern ancestry, the Jews -– a "solution" which became the Holocaust. Ironically (or horrifyingly), in this movie you'll see the first major roll-out (by Hess, when introducing Hitler) of a word that Nazi propagandists borrowed from the Zionist movement. They began, in 1934, to heavily use the word "homeland" to promote the idea of "German blood and soil," using this word as part of an overall campaign to transform ordinary nationalism into a "patriotic" cult that quickly swept the nation.

If the first reason for seeing this movie -- aiding your historical understanding of the time and its propaganda -- is important, the second reason is vital. "Triumph of the Will" shows what can happen in a nation when its leader lies to their people, objectifies and then blames a cultural and religious "other" for their problems, stifles dissent, and -- with the complicity of an obedient media -- carefully stage-manages public appearances to seem that everybody totally adores him.

While there are parallels between the rise of George W. Bush and that of Adolf Hitler (I wrote about them just a few months after 9/11 in an article titled When Democracy Failed, which is now also a chapter in my new book "What Would Jefferson Do?"), it is disingenuous to try to draw too many comparisons. Hitler's evils -- and his ambition -- were on a scale unimaginable by Bush, and pointing out the similarities with too shrill a voice can diminish the horrors of the Holocaust and Hitler’s other crimes.

But just as the CIA (then the OSS) fine-tuned its investigative techniques after WWII by learning technique from Nazi spies they brought into the agency, the Bush administration is using today -- for the first time in American history -- many of the same techniques for manipulating the people as did the Nazis in their early days (the Big Lie; controlled, adoring crowd scenes; stifling dissent; hyping terror for political gain; hypermilitarization of domestic police to create the storm-trooper look and feel).

For Americans awakened to today's realities, watching "Triumph of the Will" is an experience at once educational, enlightening, and horrifying. But it's a horror we must face if we are to avoid the same trap so many average Germans fell into in 1934.

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