Equally despised for its celebration of the Nazis and praised for its technical artistry, Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 Triumph of the Will, a unique propaganda film, sits at the top of a controversial pile, indirectly questioning the very nature of artistic freedom and bias in art.
Any reasonably educated person is well aware of the brutality of the Nazis and the unspeakable acts of barbarism perpetrated by the regime. The explosive cocktail of nationalism, racism and self-victimisation, instigated by Adolf Hitler, led to the destruction of Germany and the loss of tens of millions of lives across Europe. It is unnecessary to warn anyone of the evils associated with the National Socialist Party. However, Leni Riefenstahl’s astonishing documentary-cum-propaganda Triumph of the Will [Triumph des Willens] cannot be blamed for the atrocities derived from the ideology.
In September 1934, Adolf Hitler flies to Nuremberg. Riding on an open car from the airport to the hotel, he is saluted by an enthusiastic crowd on the streets. Images of Nuremberg at dawn are shown, with plenty of swastika flags hanging from its buildings . The Führer attends the Reich Party Congress, where several high-ranking Nazi officials give brief speeches. There are party rallies, military reviews, parades and finally the closing of the congress, where Hitler gives a speech about the superiority of the master race. Over a decade will pass before the world becomes aware of the events which give meaning to the quote by Hermann Göring: ‘We will go down in history either as the world’s greatest statesmen or its worst villains.’
It is then ironic that, although history is written by the victors, this magnificent account of the losers endures. As Riefenstahl was commissioned by the Nazi regime to record the 1934 rally at Nuremberg as a document for the ages, she ended up creating a piece of cinema that after 70 years is still considered to be one of the most accomplished documentaries of all time. For the opposite reason of its creator’s intention, the film has become indeed eternal. Unintentionally, Triumph of the Will aims straight at the core problematic of artistic merit, hitting also at questions of objectivity and impartiality.
Since the end of World War II, we have accumulated an extensive body of knowledge on the reasons for the rise to power of the National Socialist Party, the life of Adolf Hitler and half a dozen of influential party members, the nature and functioning of the Nazi regime, etc. Questions of blame, responsibility and accountability have been discussed endlessly. In the last few decades, even the Allies have been taken to the court of history – the bombing of Dresden, anyone? In other words, we know a lot about that period in time. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
Thus, it is fair to ask how much of a film’s artistic merit depends on its political or ethical viewpoint? Is the moral positioning of the filmmaker relevant to the evaluation of the work he or she has created? Is it objectively sound to view a work of art differently as the ethics of its society shifts? Surely one ought to recognise Riefenstahl’s technical artistry independently of Triumph of the Will‘s core message. Moreover, her sympathy for the Nazi cause is totally irrelevant for the evaluation of her films. An artist’s personal life should not be confused with the work of art. Do we dismiss the masterpieces of Wagner, Picasso and Polanski because of their personal lives? I don’t think so.
Disengaging the political from the aesthetic forces us to accept propaganda (allegedly good or bad) as acceptable art. Sometimes a film is made with propagandist intentions, like Casablanca, and it becomes a masterpiece. Sometimes a film depicts important world events in such a grandiose and epic scale, like Eisenstein’s Oktyabr, that its greatness is likened to its sheer ambition. And sometimes, a film shows fragments of historical events, that in retrospect, assume different meanings. When that happens we must recognise the film’s significance: it makes us question the way we look at the world, at art, at history, and especially the way we look at ourselves.
There’s a strange metaphorical significance in Hitler’s personal way of giving the Nazi salute compared to the way the crowd in the film does. It is a little gesture, probably irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, but nonetheless noticeable enough to give food for thought. His arm arched backwards contrasting to the way most people raised their right arm straight in front of them. It is like most Germans felt that he represented their bright and prosperous future; all but him looking ahead. Their leader instead, knew that they were heading to catastrophe; they were going backwards.
Neither highly effective as propaganda nor a masterpiece of subtle images, Triumph of the Will is nevertheless an important and compelling portrait of a nation in thrall of a maniac. Hitler and the Nazi regime are long gone and yet their capacity to stir controversy remains. Their true evil legacy might be the continuation of a mind-set, which blindly censures the enemy’s political message, even when this enemy is dead for more than 70 years.