Saturday, March 28, 2015

Riefenstahl Really Delivered for Hitler in 'Triumph of the Will'

In the annals of filmmaking, the influence of German director Leni Riefenstahl is unique.

For one thing, she was a woman doing essentially what had long been (and, for that matter, remained almost exclusively) a man's job, directing films. She started out as an actress and dancer, but she gravitated to work behind the camera when she reached her 30s and was no longer suitable for the roles she was typecast to play — adventurous, athletic. Sometimes she played a pretty peasant or a dancing girl.

(Eventually, of course, anyone in an athletic profession must concede that time conquers those athletic attributes. It is a big reason why so many professional athletes retire from their chosen sports in their 30s.)

For another, she was a trailblazer in the field of propaganda. There is a pretty good case to be made that, without her, Hitler might not have become as powerful as he did — because it was thanks to "Triumph of the Will," the filmed record of the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg that premiered on this day in 1935, that he was able to consolidate his support from many groups.

I suppose "filmed record" is being generous. Much of what was shown in Riefenstahl's film was staged. It was not a record of a spontaneous response to what took place in Nuremberg that year, but it was Riefenstahl's masterful manipulation of what she did see — and her creation of staged events — that made it so effective as propaganda.

It is so easy, after all, to become blinded to unpleasant facts by appealing imagery. It must have been even easier 80 years ago. There was no internet, no cable, no satellite TV. How many alternative accounts of events could have been available? Not many, I'm sure.

Besides, the real objective of the movie was not to present a faithful "filmed record" of what really happened but to produce a celebration of Hitler and national socialism.

It was in "Triumph of the Will" that Riefenstahl pioneered techniques that are still used by filmmakers today.

She very skillfully established Hitler as a Messianic figure from the start, opening with shots of clouds above Nuremberg, then rising above the clouds and appearing to float over the crowds below. The shadow of Adolf Hitler's plane could be seen as it passed over; on the screen, the image was accompanied by an orchestral arrangement of the Nazis' anthem — which had been the party's anthem since 1930 and had been the co–national anthem since Hitler seized power in 1933.

That was truly a Valhalla–esque scene.

(Had it been up to me, I would have preferred to play "Ride of the Valkyries" — a la "Apocalypse Now" — as the soundtrack for Hitler's descent from the clouds.)

It should be noted that, during the opening sequence, there was a prologue on the screen — the only commentary in the entire movie, which was nearly two hours long. That prologue said, in German:
"On 5 September 1934
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 rebirth
Adolf Hitler flew again to Nuremberg to review the columns of his faithful followers"
Any other words that were spoken were clips from the speeches given by Hitler and the other Nazi leaders during the rally.

Riefenstahl was reluctant to take on the assignment, telling Hitler that she knew little about the Nazi Party and its organization — on top of the fact that she had never made a full–length documentary. Hitler told her that was why he wanted her to do it. Someone who was more knowledgeable might tend to pander whereas Riefenstahl's lack of knowledge left her free to explore things that interested her. If they interested her, they would interest ordinary Germans. The Nazis had taken power during a period of instability in German government, and they were still largely unknown to many Germans, let alone the rest of the world. Hitler wanted to make a good impression on his people and the world.

It wasn't Riefenstahl's first film for Hitler and the Nazis. After her first meeting with Hitler, she was asked to direct an hour–long documentary on the 1933 Nuremberg rally. Riefenstahl, incidentally, had asked to meet with Hitler, beginning her close association with the Nazis that would haunt her later in her career. She read Mein Kampf when Hitler was a candidate for office in 1932 and, by her own admission, was strongly influenced by it. She accepted his request, and it was Hitler's turn to be impressed. He was so impressed, in fact, that he asked Riefenstahl to film the 1934 rally.

In Mein Kampf, Hitler wrote of his admiration for the success of England's propaganda during World War I. He believed it was the difference between victory and defeat for Britain, and he wanted a film that would be "artistically satisfying" for German audiences. In short, he wanted something that would win over those Germans who still had doubts whether he could revive Germany from the economic burden it had carried since World War I.

Riefenstahl accepted the challenge.

And she delivered what Hitler wanted, I think — or, at least, what he said he wanted (given his actions for the next decade, I believe he was already making plans to conquer Europe and the world and to purge it of its Jewish population, plans he kept mostly to himself — except for what he wrote in Mein Kampf — until later in the 1930s. But that is another story for another time). In fact, it was probably more than he expected.

Riefenstahl, as I said, pioneered many techniques that are still in use today — camera angles, the use of panoramic shots — but that is negated in some people's minds by the knowledge that she manufactured some of the things she filmed.

As a student of history, does it bother me that much of the footage that was used was apparently staged? Yes, but not as much as — and probably not for the reasons — you think.

I think it has a lot to do with the fact that, as someone who holds two degrees in journalism, I have studied propaganda, and I know that it is always produced with an ulterior motive. Documentary makers often have agendas, too, but the best documentaries I have seen were done by people who had no agenda, really, except to share with others something that they found interesting for one reason or another.

When there is good reason to believe that something that is being promoted as documentary is really propaganda, that changes the rules and the expectations. If I know something is propaganda, I don't expect it to be a faithful record of an event. I have worked for newspapers as both a reporter and an editor, and I know the difference between reporting and editorial writing. While it almost certainly contains some facts, the knowledge that the one who is producing it has more than a commercial interest in how it is perceived or a dedication to the truth tends to lower the expectations bar.

By the time I was old enough to know anything about "Triumph of the Will," I knew it was propaganda, which I have always considered to be a special kind of fiction. It always has some truth in it — but you don't order a cheeseburger and expect to get filet mignon.

I believe "Triumph of the Will" really must have been more than Hitler expected because it broke so much new ground, going beyond what Hitler hoped to duplicate.