Hitler–Führer and Filmmaker
In late 1934, the Nazi party found itself in disarray. Adolf Hitler had begun to feel the growing pressure of dissenting political factions across the country. It had been uncovered that one of Hitler’s closest allies and friends, Ernst Röhm, was leading an underground revolution to overthrow the Nazi regime.
Under the suggestion of his most trusted advisors, despite much reluctance, Hitler decided to carry out a series of illegal executions in order to purge the country of his opposition and consolidate his power in the nation. Soon after, the President passed away and Hitler became the new Head of Government. This sudden destruction of the status quo did not sit well with the German armed forces. In these trying circumstances, with the party in chaos and his own army against him, Hitler desperately needed something to help unify the people and bring order to the nation.
Since its invention by the Lumiere Brothers in 1896, the visual medium has always had an uncanny ability to influence people with a certain vigour that no other medium can. The most powerful example of this takes us to Germany in the mid-1930s. With a World War in the offing, state propaganda would reach what is now known as the Golden Age of Propaganda. It would come to shape dynasties across the world, and ultimately change the course of history.
In early 1933, Hitler had become captivated by the work of a young woman by the name of Leni Riefenstahl. He singled her out as a visionary auteur and asked her to direct an hour-long film covering the annual Nuremberg Rally of 1933. The film, called the Victory of Faith, heavily featured founding Nazi party leader, Ernst Röhm. Following the purge of 1934, where Röhm was assassinated, all copies of the film were burnt and destroyed and all records of its existence were erased. A year later, after the death of President Hindenburg, Hitler turned once again to his trusted friend Leni. They set out to produce a piece of propaganda on a scale that the world had never seen before.
The Triumph of the Will, or Triumph des Willens, was a documentary film released in 1935 that covered the 6th Annual rally in Nuremberg hosted by the Nazi party. Every shot of this film was carefully crafted to exude the unending power of the Nazis. In the opening sequence, we are shown the image of an aircraft coming through the clouds to reveal the grand city of Nuremberg.
We are shown the majestic St. Lauren’s Cathedral wrapped in Nazi flags, firmly establishing the connection between religion and the Nazi party. Hitler’s entrance into the film occurs as he exits the aircraft, framing him as a Messiah, emerging from the heavens. In fact, throughout the film, most shots of Hitler are taken from a lower angle. These made him appear larger than life by framing him as higher and more important than everything beneath him.
It is important to note, at this point, that The Triumph of the Will is not a good film. At least not by the standards of a modern commercial audience. It has no plot, no story arc, and no real conflict. It doesn’t create any new groundbreaking cinematic techniques. It is filled with endless meandering montages and hundreds of repetitive aerial shots. Today, we would find it difficult to even sit through the whole film. But that is the intention. The film is nauseating in its excess by design.
The reason it stands out in history is its audacious budget. Never before had a state used the full force of its fiscal power to produce such a gigantic feat of propaganda. Dozens of cameras were embedded in the very fabric of the parade. Bridges, towers, and ramps were specifically constructed in the city to help boost the image of the party. The whole rally, with thousands of people, spanning four days, was staged to help carefully construct a powerful image of the party.
Good propaganda picks a small set of ideas and then hammers it home repeatedly until everybody believes it to be true with absolute certainty. This is why the film contains hundreds of the same shots of the huge German army and aerial shots of the large crowds that came to see Hitler speak. The Nazis implanted these images in the viewers’ brain so strongly that they would remain forever. Even today, in the 21st century, the images from the film are an inescapable reference point in all books and movies about this time period. We continue to see their legacy through the exact lens that they wanted us to see them through—a false construct that became indisputable reality.