Saw Leni Riefenstahl’s infamous Nazi propaganda movie Triumph of the Will last night on a big screen at the University of Southern California. I’d never seen it before, although of course I knew about it.
The movie could convince nearly any viewer that vast masses of Germans had united in passionate devotion to Hitler. It’s all hero worship and martial fervor, without a trace of dissent, only 18 months after Hitler became chancellor. Whether that message thrills or appalls will vary from person to person.
And Riefenstahl’s filmmaking is superb. Her cameras slide smoothly above, below, and through crowds and scenery, catching rich images of good-humored ordinary folks and militaristic strength. She always chooses the most striking angles and intensifies their power with genuinely stirring music.
But after about 90 minutes, enough becomes enough, and then too much. If you don’t know and care about the Nazi Party’s leadership and structure, the speakers and groups passing before the camera can become monotonous: Shot after shot of massed rows of precisely arranged uniformed men, speech after speech by Hitler and other Nazi officials. The movie simply overstays its welcome.
Before the movie, three professors — one specializing in Jewish studies, one in history and one in cinema — discussed the film and took the audience’s questions. And comments: Some audience members seemed more interested in making speeches than asking questions.
One man, for instance, said that it was time to forgive Riefenstahl because (among other reasons) the Berlin Philharmonic has been allowed to perform in Israel. But as one of the profs said, Germany has acknowledged and repented its participation in Nazi activities. Riefenstahl never did.
Back to the movie: I’m glad that I saw it. It’s an important part of history.
But I have no desire to see it again.