Friday, April 1, 2011

The Road To Hell

And my White Elephant assignment is...
... Leni Riefenstahl's turgid time capsule, TRIUMPH OF THE WILL. A film that Mick Jagger has sat through "at least fifteen times" (according to a citationless Wikipedia article).

Oh, White Elephant. I give you THE DEVILS and you hand me this?

I'm struck by how little there is to say about this Hitler hagiography. Obviously the whole affair is gilded with a cynical hindsight that the German people, circa 1934, didn't possess. I'm going to approach this thing with a series of random observations culled from the notes I made in illegible handwriting. And then I'm going to cleanse my palate with William T. Vollman's RISING UP AND RISING DOWN. Or a good night's sleep. Whichever comes first.

In brief, TRIUMPH details the September 1934 National Socialist Party Congress, held in Nuremberg. (About twelve years later, many of the prominent members of the Congress -- most notably Herman Goring and Rudolph Hess -- would be tried and sentenced to death in the same city.)

The film is all Sturm und Drang (forgive me): beating drums, mind-numbing marches, impassioned speeches filled with empty nationalist rhetoric, and lots of emphasis on the sheer scope of the damn thing. The numbers are astounding: an undoubtedly slanted Nazi census posits an attendance of upwards of 750,000 Germans.
Riefenstahl's cameras seem to corroborate this:

B-roll of swastika-bedecked buildings and fawning crowds is punctuated by the speeches of party members, most notably those of the Fuhrer himself:

Hitler's jingoistic diatribes are remarkable for their lack of substance and for their mutability. His lines about classless society and a state run by the people can fit interchangeably into our modern day definitions of Left and Right.

BUT HERE IS THE KEY THING, and it's a very important point to note in the age of Godwin's Law: I've lived to see just about every world leader with a modicum of power be compared to Hitler. Every American president from Reagan to Obama has been Hitlerized to suit the needs of partisan cry babies. And the big lesson I walk away from TRIUMPH OF THE WILL with is that we in America have been sheltered from and blessed by NEVER SEEING ANYONE REMOTELY LIKE HITLER.

Sorry to shout. But - unless you're talking about Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, etc. - Hitler comparisons are spurious and reductive and serve no purpose in reasoned, productive discourse. Hitler was a man in the right place at the right time with all of the wrong conclusions. Germany had suffered defeat and humiliation following the Great War. The Weimar Republic had fallen into decadence and wasn't attendant to the needs of regular volks. A populist leader with a patriotic message was needed to unite and rebuild Germany. For some reason, Adolf Hitler fit the bill.

The film is useful as a document of the religious fervor of the crowds. I wouldn't have believed it had I not seen the enraptured thousands.

Women and children press the edges of the crowd, Beatlemania-style, in the hopes of touching the heel of Hitler's jackboots.

It's the innocent, hopeful faces of the crowd that disturb more than anything. So many people wanted to believe in Hitler's hopeful message of a reborn, pure people. His Gospel of self-purification is, in many ways, truly an inverse (or anti-) of Christ's.

Speaking of, there's a pagan feeling to the proceedings. I'm not sure if it's just me bringing the baggage of Indiana Jones's characterization of Nazis as occult obsessives. A lot of the nighttime ceremony footage could be seamlessly intercut with Benjamin Christensen's HAXAN or Murnau's FAUST:

And, on more than one occasion, I thought of THE WICKER MAN. Something about brainwashed children beating on drums I guess:

 Other randoms:

- I now feel wholly justified in my hatred of parades and marching band music. They were, apparently, the drug of choice for these genocidal maniacs.

- I never knew "sieg heil" meant "hail victory."

- While Resnais' NIGHT AND FOG is the obvious antidote for this garbage, there was something about the clean lines and perfectly arranged vectors of the mise-en-scene that reminded me of LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD:

And, it is important to note, Riefenstahl's had an impeccable eye (though I'm not sure how much of the production design and image-molding is due to Goebbels). So many of the images, stripped of their fascistic context, are absolutely stunning.

- I wish I had the time to listen to the historian's commentary and read Susan Sontag's piece on TRIUMPH before I wrote this. Oh well.

- If there's something familiar about the rows of S.S. and phalanxes of Nazi units 

it's because George Lucas and Peter Jackson modeled the armies of Darth Vader and Sauron (respectively) on the Nazis. However, they weren't the first. Expert film blogger Matthew Dessem points out that Eisenstein beat them to it by a few decades.

- There's any eerie foreshadowing of Auschwitz, etc. in the pristine rows of Hitler Youth tents

and the skinny, half-clad denizens of the encampments:

One last note:

Antisemitism is obviously a big part of the subtext here. There are a few vague asides during the rally dedicated to eugenics and maintaining a pure race, but any full-blown hate speech was either cut around or saved for the after party. Sadly, the Nazis were just another chapter in a long history of hatred against the Jewish people. I think everyone should peruse the ADL's handy Myths and Facts to remind themselves that, while we've never seen anything like Hitler in our modern Information Age, the spirit that drove him always remains. At one point in TRIUMPH, Hitler even proudly notes that National Socialism began with a small group of seven people.


  1. I knew I could count on you to chime in with something interesting and insightful. Thanks again for participating.

  2. while we've never seen anything like Hitler in our modern Information Age, the spirit that drove him always remains

    Very apt. And I think it's the confusion over those two things that makes people on the Internet so keen to Godwin every political discussion. This is a really good review of a complicated movie.

  3. Nice! However, I was/am as disturbed by the fawning, cult like masses following Obama, especially in the beginning, as those of Hitler. It is only to the extent that deceived followers worship men like this--and they permit and encourage it--that I would liken Obama to Hitler, or other charismatic charlatans.

  4. another thought about the overuse of the Hitler analogy: a Wisconsin union worker was interviewed on national tv during the tantrums in Madison and said: "Don't forget, first Hitler came for the unions.." as if the next thing Gov. Walker would do is "come for the Jews"! Ludicrous.

  5. I happened to watch this for the first time about two weeks ago, and I had many, nearly identical thoughts. Nice rundown of the film. I have a couple things to add to your list.

    1.) The film is surprisingly dull. Even with the haunting "gilding of cynical hindsight" (great phrasing), it's a film without any intrinsic tension. It's the film equivalent of a bunch of sociopathic cheeseheads shouting "WE'RE NUMBER ONE!" for nearly two hours. As beautifully as the film is shot and as sharply as it's edited, it's basically an oversized pep rally, and I never got into those in high school, let alone in the heart of the Third Reich.

    2.) The Christlike imagery surrounding Hitler is unbelievably risible. He literally descends from heaven, his shadow falling on his beloved people, before alighting on a field to receive the throngs of zealous worshippers. Later on, there's a shot in the interminable parade where the angle looks like his hand is extended in benediction over the heads of the thousands marching past him. Talk about an ego trip.

    Anyway, really enjoyed the post.

  6. I appreciate how thoughtful and objective (as much as it could be, anyway) your review is. I'm a little disturbed that this was submitted to the blogathon, but you did a good job with it.

  7. @ Caroline - Hopefully nobody submits that Goebbels-commissioned laff-fest JEW SUSS for next year's o'thon.

    @ Dad - As far as "fawning, cult-like masses" go... if that's all it takes to liken someone to Hitler, then Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin could easily fit the template too. Even Bush seemed to have an especially rabid following here in the South (a few local churches made the news when they put cardboard stand-ups of GWB on their stage during Sunday sermons). I don't think anyone "earns" a comparison to Hitler until they mobilize an imperial war machine bent on world domination and ethnic cleansing.

    (If I may be a hypocrite, however: a certain now-deceased leader of a particularly popular sci-fi cult is the closest person I've read about as far as Hitlerian ambition/goals go. Thank God he didn't come anywhere close to realizing his sick dreams. And it's no wonder that Germany has great trepidation where said cult is concerned. End hypocritical aside.)

    @ Matt S. - The pep rally comparison is apt. Shouting "Sieg Heil" is akin to saying "yay success!"

    Thanks everybody. Glad to meet everyone and find some great new blogs via this exercise!

  8. I think you are equivocating for some reason, son. Having attended the largest Tea Party event about a year ago, and based on other first hand experiences, the fans of Beck, Palin, Bush etc. don't compare to the devotees of Obama. Nor do Beck, Bush, etc. try to cultivate this type of zealotry like Obama and his handlers do.

  9. "(though I'm not sure how much of the production design and image-molding is due to Goebbels)"

    According to Riefenstahl herself, the design of the film is mostly hers, not Goebbels's. Given that you see some of the same aesthetics in Olympia, I believe her. It's fun watching her defend the movie in The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl. And appalling, too.

  10. @ Dr. Morbius - This definitely made me want to see THE WONDERFUL HORRIBLE LIFE. However, I plan on avoiding OLYMPIA for as long as I can (i.e. until some sicko submits it for next year's White Elephant).