Wednesday 14 November 2012

Triumph des Willens (1934)

Viljens Triumf
Okay, I think I have just seen the scariest movie on the list so far and frankly I do not think it gets much worse than this.

The first question one must ask watching “Triumph des Willens” is: Why on Earth are you watching this movie? Well, for me the answer is rather simple: It is on the list.

But that is only a lame excuse really. The real answer is that this is a very important document of where the greatest evil of the previous century started. Everybody ought to see this movie really, partly as a warning and partly because it explains so much.

Whereas Leni Riefenstahls other entry “Olympia” is recognized as a technical and artistic masterpiece that discussion entirely disappears when it concerns “Triumph des Willens”. Oh, I suppose it is very well made, but it is the content and the message that shines through.

I see two ways to look at this film.

One way is with the hindsight of what all this led to. That is a view full of horror and warning. Seeing Hitler speaking to the crowd, the soldiers marching and the adulation of the crowd gives me the shivers.

What the film does is sending a message of unity. The Nürnberg rallies were basically about tying the German people together for a common cause. All the speeches, all the demonstrations and all the vows are about forming a single unit with a common purpose. What this purpose is is as yet obscure, but whatever it is it is intended to lead Germany to greatness. Well, we know what it led to, but the people in Nürnberg did not. Instead they a happily got carried away and seemed to be craving to be shaped into this unity.

The symbols of unity are everywhere. The common purpose, the flag representing the party, the uniforms everybody seems to wear that makes the individual part of the group. All the marching (and there is a lot of marching!) are in super tight formations, everybody moving as one unit, and the mass ceremonies, whether it is for swearing fealty or commemorating Hindenburg has the function making the participants part of the bigger picture.

Another technique used, though less in the movie than I expected, is to declare enmity to outsiders. The classic trick to find a common enemy to unite the people. The Nazi’s did that plenty in other respects and the monster is also visible here. Foreign countries, the enemy of WWI, racially different people, opposition to the party etc.

All this unity, this mighty instrument which is the people with a common purpose, is played right into the hands of Hitler. Even if he was not insane already it is no wonder that he could not help using this tool so willingly provided him for all his misdeeds. It is as if the people are begging him to be abused.

One of the very scary aspects of this is that all this demonstration of unity is not uniquely nazi. This is just the most extreme case I have ever seen of it. We see it at election campaigns, we see it at sports events and there are still political movements around who actively pursue a strategy not unlike what we see in the movie. If I was not already suspicious of right wing groupings and uniforms in general “Triumph des Willens” would definitely do the trick.

The message is simple: Either you are with us or you are against us.

There is a second way to see the film as well, one that is much harder because of what we know happened later on. That is to see it from the perspective of the Germans living back then in 1934.

The aftermath of WWI was very hard on Germany and the Germans. It was the pursued policy of the victors of the war that Germany should be punished, never to be able to rise again. Of course when you get right down to it WWI was a common mess up with everybody equally guilty, but in this way the victors could promote the idea that it was the Germans fault. They badly needed a scapegoat.

Germany had a series of weak governments and suffered hunger, hyperinflation and it was in Germany the depression hit the hardest in Europe.

On to the stage come the Nazi.

They preach strength, progress, wealth, pride, all the things the German people were desperately craving and not least scapegoats. If you can blame somebody else life gets so much easier. And most importantly; they could deliver.

In short the German people were ripe for the nazi and from their point of view this was a glorious celebration of this fantastic new world that would heal all that was wrong with pre-nazi Germany. In that light you can almost understand why they so gladly embraced Nazism. Almost. Even as deprived as the Germans were before the nazi it must have frightened at least some all this marching and hard men in uniforms and talk about sacrifice for the common good. The signs were really not good.

Beware of men in uniforms preaching strength and unity. Beware of nationalism. And be very much aware of people who tell you it is somebody else’s fault.


  1. Good reflection on an extremely controversial film. This is the epitome of the cult of personality and should serve as a warning for future generations.

    1. Indeed, and that is also the importance of the film although it is difficult to watch evil incarnate.

  2. There is another way to look at this, and that is completely dispassionately. It's not easy, and I was not completely successful in this myself (although I tried). In that respect, the film is a piece of near perfect propaganda.

    The problem with this is that it's a hard film to judge. On the one hand, you can praise something that is itself promoting one of the most vicious and horrible regimes that ever existed. Or you can put yourself in the position of saying nothing but ill about a film that, for all it's terrible purpose, is expertly made.

    1. I know and I agree, but that third position, which I actually found easy to take with "Olympia" entirely drowns for me here. I know on the concious level that this is expertly made and the message come through very clearly, testament of supreme skill on the side of Riefenstahl. But on a deeper level I just do not get to that point. I see the horror and I see the total devotion and both are so overwhelming that I barely register anything else.
      And scariest of all: This is not something cooked up in a demented Hollywood scriptwriters imagination but very very real.

    2. I agree. I couldn't do it, either. There's such an instant gut reaction to seeing these men depicted as larger-than-life heroes, that I couldn't prevent feeling ill.

  3. I do admit that I was impressed by the sheer scale of the events and the pre-planning that would have had to have been done in order to pull them off. Other than that I don't have much good to say about the film.

    True story: when I was in high school I tried to read Mein Kampf because I couldn't understand how Hitler could basically lay out his entire plan for the world to read and no one picked up on it. My (cynical) opinion became that the book was so poorly written and boring that no one actually read it. I stopped after the very first chapter, set it aside, and then returned it to the school library. A couple months later I took it out again, determined to read it. I made it to the end of the first page of the second chapter before setting it aside again, and that was only because I was stubborn enough to force myself to read one more page than the previous time.

    I was a voracious reader as a child/teen and this was the first time in my life that I did not finish a book that I had started. I never did try to read it again.

  4. That is a book I do not think I could bring myself to read, even in the interest of understanding the history. In that respect this film is plenty enough. I also think my wife would throw it out the moment she saw if I ever should get the interest (she is jewish).
    It is entirely chocking that a man who already told the world how demented he is in his book could take over a major country and make the people love him for it. Triumph des willens helps explaining that paradox and that is why it is so important.

    I read some stupid things in my time. Trying on the phonebook I think took the price. Once I tried reading a medical textbook I fainted and broke my nose...