Triumph of the Will and the Cinematic Language of Propaganda
November 17, 2019
This one is by popular request so ‘Triumph of the Will’ and the cinematic language of propaganda. ‘Triumph of the Will’ is not a triumph of film-making. I just want to lay that out before we even start. Chances are good that you’re familiar with ‘Triumph of the Will’ by reputation but have never actually watched it beyond referential clips, and a sizable portion of that reputation is in its value as an advancement of the art of filmmaking. This is propaganda. Like, that belief is in and of itself propaganda. Nazi sympathizers spent a lot of time between the film’s release in 1935 and the war promoting the idea of ‘Triumph of the Will’ as an advancement of filmmaking. It was an intentional message to promote Nazi state art as superior, to suggest that the Nazi mechanism can produce better more proficient art than the artist the Nazis were busy throwing in jail. It is however not a triumph of filmmaking; it is a triumph of budget. None of the ideas or techniques were new it is simply that no one had previously thrown enough money and resources at propaganda on this scale before. We’ll come back to this and develop it in more detail, but I want to be upfront with the fact that you should be highly suspicious of any messaging surrounding propaganda. ok so vocabulary groundwork: we’re going to make a distinction about what we mean when we say propaganda. Broadly speaking propaganda is just any goal-driven ideological message, and a lot of stuff incidentally falls under that umbrella. For example any official message from an activist community meets the literal definition. Signs encouraging you to, like, pick up after your dog. So the first thing that we need to make note of is the textural difference between the literal definition of propaganda and how people actually use the word. Contextually propaganda is used derisively, not merely used to describe the literal characteristics of some text or another, but carries with it a value judgments with the implicit understanding that propaganda is bad. Memetically, propaganda represents not just rhetoric but some degree of dishonesty: not an attempt to persuade but to deceive. Not an attempt to inform but to inflame. And even by this metric there’s still plenty that qualifies as propaganda from white nationalists spreading false statistics about crime to corporations trying to paper over the damage they do to bloggers being paid to pretend to like a video game. So what we’re going to do here is draw a fine line between propaganda and PROPAGANDA, the distinction being a difference between general propaganda and propaganda generated by and in service of governments. I feel like this is an important distinction to make because there is a potent contextual difference between, say, the propaganda tracts and memes spread by hate groups and those spread by the state. That distinction is order of magnitude. The sheer reach and spending power at the disposal of government is so far beyond the scope of even corporations that it’s a laughable comparison. The US federal government’s annual revenue is 3.6 trillion dollars. The largest corporation in the world, Walmart, sees an annual revenue of 482 billion dollars. The 10 largest corporations combined still fall almost a trillion dollars short. Global box office revenue comes in around 38 billion dollars, and Pirates of the Caribbean four is ranked as the most expensive movie ever made at 378 million dollars but on the scope of federal budgets, especially those related to the military, its budget is a rounding error. And this isn’t even touching on the power that government have to enact and enforce the underlying policies that propaganda supports. The point is that large, motivated governments can effortlessly outspend any other organized entity on the planet and as a result their potential for producing and disseminating propaganda exist on an entirely different plane of operation than any other form. When you add in the potential outcome, that propaganda influencing the lives of millions or even billions of people, the stakes to dwarf everything else. It is for this reason that we’re not going to be talking about propaganda in the abstract but rather is very specific kind of propaganda, and with that established Triumph of the Will Leni Riefenstahl film Triumph des Willens isn’t the beginning of propaganda, it’s not even the beginning of motion picture propaganda, heck it’s not even Riefenstahl’s first propaganda film for the Nazis, and i’m going to use that as a segue into some contextual history. In 1933 Riefenstahl documented the annual Nazi Nuremberg rally in the film Der Sieg Des Glaubens, Victory of Faith, however that film is significantly less well-known. Filmed at the August 1933 rally celebrating Adolf Hitler’s appointment to the position of chancellor of Germany in January of that year, the film heavily features founding Nazi Party leader Ernst Röhm. Röhm would be executed a year later in July 1934, during the Night of Long Knives, a sweeping ideological purge of socialist and working-class leadership in the Nazi party, after which it was ordered that all known copies of Victory of Faith be destroyed as part of an attempt at rewriting history, erasing Röhm’s contributions to the Nazi Party. Due to the high profile of many of the people killed in the purge it was impossible to cover up the illegal executions, so Hitler had the cabinet just make them legal after-the-fact. A month after the purge, August 1934, president Hindenburg died, and by the middle of August the roles of President and Chancellor were merged, making Hitler both the head of state and the head of government. With all of that in mind: a number of very high-profile crimes followed by a complete restructuring of the government, in September 1934 Hitler and his party had a vested interest in reinforcing the perceived legitimacy of the regime and preparing the populace for the wars that were to come. And to that end they hired Riefenstahl to make a second propaganda documentary at the now annual Nuremberg rally. Now let’s talk about the language of propaganda. From a filmmaking perspective propaganda uses all the same grammar as any other example of the medium. Contrast, association, implication, these are all the bread and butter of assembling any visual narrative. As an example we’re going to look at something a little lighter than Nazis and take a look at Return of the King. so Return of the King has a scene where Denethor has sent Faramir out to die on the battlefield and the film cross-cuts between the battlefield and the hall at the palace where Denethor’s having dinner. The three main things of interest are Denethor’s eating, Pippin’s singing, and Faramir’s riding. The film pays particular interest to the squishy sounds and sloppy process of Denethor’s eating, which when juxtaposed with Faramir’s suicide mission create thematic implications: that Denethor is a careless sloppy glutton who consumes the lives of the people around him. He discards his son’s life with same grace as he squishes a tomato. Where Pippin and Faramir are highlighted by their faces, their personages, Denethor is largely viewed from severe angles and segmented, reduced to his hands and his giant consuming mouth, a visual parallel matched by the deformed orc Gothmog. Denethor breaks bones and blood runs down his chin, images which are juxtaposed with the blood streaking the faces of the orcs preparing to slaughter Faramir’s troops. This is all compounded by Pippin’s song, which essentially just commentates the contrast as it happens. The messaging here is pretty straightforward: Denethor is villainized, a parallel is created between him and the orcs. Heck, if anything it’s ridiculously heavy-handed. The point of this example is to drive home the fact that there really is no difference in the editing grammar used in one genre versus another. The same process of creating implications, of villainizing or lionizing through juxtaposed imagery, works the same regardless. Where propaganda diverges is in the nuances of how the message is delivered. One of the sand traps of discussing ideology in cinema is the demand of narrative. Story, at least in the European tradition, requires conflict. characters must be flawed, they must make mistakes, their opponents must get the better of them. Things in some way shape or form need to get bad, need to entertain uncertainty. In Return of the King, a conventional story, Denethor’s actions must bring Pippin and Gandalf and Faramir low in order to create the tension that will be relieved later in the story when the conflict is resolved. However these basic mechanisms of narrative tension are at odds with the needs of propaganda, because weakness, failure, and uncertainty are anathema to the propagandist. The subject of propaganda has no arc but upward, they begin strong and stronger, they crush all that oppose them, their opposition is flimsy and victory is trivial. They win so much that the audience gets tired of all the winning. This is the point. Triumph of the Will is no different: it is interminable in its assertion of the strength of the Nazi Party, the promise of victory, and the uselessness of the opposition. Alright well actually it is a little bit more complicated. See propaganda does still require a worthy foe, or more accurately a foe that justifies the volume of force that the propagandist is trying to rally. Triumph of the Will, and Nazi ideology in general, is obsessed with both the unstoppable might of the party and the need for that unstoppable might to be levied against the paradoxically week degenerates who secretly control everything. Umberto Eco in his 1995 essay Ur-Fascism describes this particular ideological quirk: the followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies however the followers must be convinced that they can overwhelm the enemy’s thus by a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak. Fascist governments are condemned to lose wars because they are constitutionally incapable of objectively evaluating the force of the enemy. Let’s back up and revisit previous accusation: Triumph of the Will is not a triumph of cinema, but of budget. One of the central arms of attack that Triumph of the Will uses is in its very essence, its existence as a grandiose, long, expensive, complex production. None of the filmmaking ideas used were new. putting a camera in the back of a car wasn’t new. tracking shots weren’t new. low angle shots weren’t new. aerial shots weren’t new. the only thing new was scope. Every scene goes on and on for minutes at a time. there aren’t a few aerial shots, there are hundreds. there’s not a camera observing the parade as it passes, there are dozens of cameras embedded in the very fabric of the parade. to the modern viewer it may seem aimless and shoddily paced, with montages that just go on and on and on long after the point has been made, but that’s the point. it is not merely a demonstration of presence but of volume. the indulgence of it, the conspicuous cost, is as much a message of the film as any other, intended to tell the viewer that the economic might of Nazi Germany is so great that even their propaganda is casually one of the most expensive productions to date. every visual implication of wealth strength and power is made and then repeated and repeated and repeated. Hitler descend from the majesty of the heaven. the old and weathered architecture of Nuremberg is peppered with Nazi icons, tying the new regime to the perceived wealth and stability of ages past. children gaze in awe their glorious humble leader, a man so blessed by the gods that even cats take notice of his passing. the Reich is juxtaposed with churches, with the pastoral calm of the rising sun, with efficiency, with a bounty of food, and, of course, with an endless supply of soldiers. troops march and march and march and march. the Nazi army does not merely exist it goes on and on and on and then on a little more after that. now there is no arc to the film because there is no conflict. “look at us we’re amazing.” there is no story, there is only message. oh it’s mostly lies by the way internally the Nazis were a mess. They had after all just assassinated a number of their own high-ranking officers and the army, which outnumbered the SA and SS, was still very much on the fence about their support for the regime following the death of Hindenburg. Germany was still very much at risk of tipping into a civil war between the Nazis in the Wehrmacht. the whole point of the rally was to make the film and the whole point of the film was to project an image of an unstoppable overwhelming wealthy happy fed and unified Nazi Germany to demoralize opponents and embolden supporters. in fact there’s a message back there that you probably wouldn’t even catch, that whole thing about the army. the actual german army, the Wehrmacht, is barely in the film. there’s one scene of cavalry being inspected but that’s about it. all the rest of that endless sea of troops are SA and SS troops which were organs of the Nazi Party not of the Armed Forces. it is a conscious exclusion meant to establish a pecking order between the Nazis and the Wehrmacht, to make the potentially disloyal members of the army feel small overwhelmed unimportant and outnumbered. Throughout the film the odious aspects of the Nazi ideology, the concentration camps which had already been operating for a year by that point, the political assassinations, the racism, these are all downplayed or absent, left unstated. the message is clear and singular we are strong and prosperous and anything we choose to do is justified because it works and religious imagery has been tapped to consecrate that justification with divine favour. historically this is also where we start to really see the public beginning of Nazi paganism with a parade of Nazi flags being ceremonially consecrated by touching them to the Blutfahn, a flag that they claim had been carried by the Nazis killed during the beer hall putsch. Now the relationship between the Nazis and religion is super complex and interesting and you should definitely look into it lots of books out there on the subject but if you can get your hands on a copy definitely check out the Urania’s Children it’s a really interesting short read about astrology that’s been out of print for decades and The Occult Roots of Nazism. The short of it is that Nazism was a theological goulash. They made heavy use of Christian symbology and tried to turn the numerous German churches into an organ of the party through the Confessional Church, but this was largely a means to an end. they didn’t tap into Christian imagery because they shared Christian values, they did it because those images have emotional meaning to the people. simultaneously to this they were co-opting any religious symbols that they felt supported their own claim to power, adopting the disparate trappings of both Odinism and Hinduism. This goes just as well for their approach to science and their embrace of pseudoscience: it doesn’t matter what form it comes in as long as it reaches the desired conclusion. In the words of Hannah Arendt science is only a surrogate for power. This is actually important: one of the main mechanisms of propaganda is to plant the idea of precedence, to alter the audience’s own sense of history and the world and appeal to the seemingly objective authorities of God, History, and Science. one of the most common use of propaganda is to make new institutions seem much older than they really are by injecting themselves and their ideas into history, what Umberto Eco described as a cult of tradition. Nazi architecture is monumental in design, evocative of classical Greek and Roman. Triumph of the Will places the new Nazi Party alongside centuries-old churches Nazi eschatology dredges up old Norse runes to suggest an unbroken pure lineage between the ancient & the present. Nazi pseudoscience says that the murder of Jews and Roma is acceptable because of blood. The point of it all is to center the party in every aspect of life, to make the party the mouthpiece of the gods. this is why there’s all that bunk about Riefenstahl being a visionary director the legacy of Triumph of the Will is muddled because it was intentionally muddled. The party was trying to inject itself into everything, into history, into art, into religion. They made their own movie and had their own critics praise it, to make it important. despite being funded entirely by the government, Triumph of the Will was released commercially, to distance it from the party just enough to add a patina of legitimacy, to suggest that Riefenstahl had captured something unique and organic. And it worked. To this day we continue to use Triumph of the Will as our reference point for the mental construct of the Nazi regime. Which I want you to think about that. Our idea of the Nazis is deeply informed by a propaganda film produced by the Nazis for the explicit purpose of creating that mental construct. This right here is exactly the image they wanted you to think of when you thought of them.