“Triumph of the Will” with my own disclaimer

August 21, 2020 • 12:00 pm

In 2019, YouTube removed Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 film “Triumph of the Will” from its platform because it was considered “hate speech,” and if any film is ever considered hate speech, this would be the one, for it documents a famous rally for Hitler in prewar Germany and glorifies the Führer, showing a lot of his speech.  YouTube’s grounds for removal were that its guidelines mandated removal of any videos “that promote or glorify Nazi ideology, which is inherently discriminatory.”

I watched it several years back on YouTube, but we can’t any more, though you can find it, with critical commentary, on the platform if you look hard enough. But it can be seen in full on Daily Motion, at the preceding link, which carries only the brief notice, “The infamous propaganda film of the 1934 Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg, Germany.”

And infamous it is—it’s propaganda in the service of a hateful and odious cause (about a third of it is excerpts from Hitler’s speeches), but it’s also art and history. Riefenstahl’s novel cutting technique, her aerial shots, her camera angles, and other innovative techniques were highly influential, and even won prizes outside Germany. Riefenstahl, clearly smitten with Hitler and his regime, put all her skills to work to glorify the man. After the war, Riefenstahl’s reputation lay in tatters because she made this and other propaganda films about Hitler, and she spent the rest of her long life defending her making of the movie and distancing herself from the Holocaust. She did go on to do other admirable art that had nothing to do with Hitler, including beautiful photographic books about the people of Nubia.

A bit about the movie from Wikipedia:

Triumph of the Will was released in 1935 and became a major example of film used as propaganda. Riefenstahl’s techniques—such as moving cameras, aerial photography, the use of long-focus lenses to create a distorted perspective, and the revolutionary approach to the use of music and cinematography—have earned Triumph of the Will recognition as one of the greatest propaganda films in history. Riefenstahl helped to stage the scenes, directing and rehearsing some of them at least fifty times. Riefenstahl won several awards, not only in Germany but also in the United States, France, Sweden and other countries. The film was popular in the Third Reich, and has continued to influence films, documentaries and commercials to this day. In Germany, the film is not censored but the courts commonly classify it as Nazi propaganda which requires an educational context to public screenings.

I’m not sure what that educational context is, but I’ll try to provide my version below.

The movie is certainly worth seeing as a historical and artistic document. But for more than that as well. It inspired other filmmakers not only to adopt some of Riefenstahl’s cinematic methods, but also to counter her “speech” with anti-Nazi films. Again, Wikipedia on its influence (I’ve omitted the footnote markers, which you can see on the original site):

Triumph of the Will remains well known for its striking visuals. As one historian notes, “many of the most enduring images of the [Nazi] regime and its leader derive from Riefenstahl’s film.”

Extensive excerpts of the film were used in Erwin Leiser‘s documentary Mein Kampf, produced in Sweden in 1960. Riefenstahl unsuccessfully sued the Swedish production company Minerva-Film for copyright violation, although she did receive forty thousand marks in compensation from German and Austrian distributors of the film.

In 1942, Charles A. Ridley of the British Ministry of Information made a short propaganda film, Lambeth Walk – Nazi Style, which edited footage of Hitler and German soldiers from the film to make it appear they were marching and dancing to the song “The Lambeth Walk“. The targeted-at-Nazis parody of “The Lambeth Walk” (a British dance that had been popular in swing clubs in Germany which the Nazis denounced as “Jewish mischief and animalistic hopping”) so enraged Joseph Goebbels that reportedly he ran out of the screening room kicking chairs and screaming profanities. The propaganda film was distributed uncredited to newsreel companies, who would supply their own narration.

Charlie Chaplin‘s satire The Great Dictator (1940) was inspired in large part by Triumph of the Will.  Frank Capra used significant footage, with a mocking narration in the first installment of the propagandistic film produced by the United States Army Why We Fight as an exposure of Nazi militarism and totalitarianism to American soldiers and sailors.  The film has been studied by many contemporary artists, including film directors Peter JacksonGeorge Lucas and Ridley Scott. The opening sequence of Starship Troopers is a direct reference to the film. In Golden Kamuy, the gestures Lieutenant Tsurumi did in one of his speeches were identical to those of Hitler.

One of the parts I found mesmerizing when I first watched the film was the “roll call” sequence beginning at 31:55 and lasting four minutes.

If the film was that influential, and was studied by famous modern directors, then it is surely worth watching. And it is—I consider it a must-see if you want to understand the adulation of Hitler that permeated not just Riefenstahl’s psyche, but all of Germany in that era.  This is not a crude white supremacist film with no redeeming value, and I wouldn’t recommend films like that. The redeeming values are the art and the influence, which carries on today in modern films. How can you understand that without watching it? (And, of course, there is the resonance of our own would-be dictator Trump today.)

Further, I can’t imagine that anybody—except somebody already prone to bigotry and white supremacy—would be moved to embrace those attitudes by watching this film. Everybody knows how horrific Hitler and his regime were. To ban the film, as YouTube did, just drives it underground, making it more attractive. And it takes away the referent that prompted the responses above. Remember that the ACLU defended, on the grounds of free speech, the American Nazi Party when it decided to march through the Jewish suburb of Skokie in 1977. And they were allowed to march, and display the swastika, by both the U.S. and Illinois Supreme Courts.

So what disclaimer should be given before this film? If I were teaching it—and I don’t teach cinema—I’d say. “This film is a piece of propaganda for Hitler and his regime that was not only popular at the time in Germany, but has also been cinematically influential ever since it was produced. What it glorifies is of course abhorrent—when it was made, concentration camps were already in operation—but it documents an important piece of history, one we must understand if for no other reason than to prevent its recurrence.” And then maybe we’d have a class discussion after the showing. It would be really nice to talk about whether and why the movie should be shown or banned.

That introduction takes about a minute to say, or about 30 seconds to read. I don’t think an “explanatory” introduction needs to dwell at length at the horrors of Nazism and the Holocaust, because everybody watching it already knows about them. It would be patronizing to spend three minutes explaining why Hitler was bad, at least to an adult audience.

If you have an hour and 45 minutes, I recommend you watch the movie. I am not endorsing its viewpoint of course; after all, I am of Jewish ancestry. But it doesn’t offend me. Rather, it educates me.

Riefenstahl shooting “Triumph of the Will.” Source: ArtForum


48 thoughts on ““Triumph of the Will” with my own disclaimer

  1. It is rather hard to be educated about things when you refuse to look at them. I remember being eyed-sideways by an English Phd candidate when she I had a copy of William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich on my bookshelf. It had a swastika on the cover and that was enough to freak her out and suspect me of being a closet nazi.

    1. They really used to love putting swastikas on the covers of books about Nazis, didn’t they? I was reading an old one like that early this year, and decided I couldn’t take it on a plane.

  2. I well remember seeing Riefenstahl’s “Olympiad” (about the 1936 Berlin Games) at an artsy theater in Berkeley when I was an undergraduate. It was stunning. It also was intended to glorify the Third Reich, but Jesse Owens rather spoiled it for them. Bad (or maybe just misled) people can produce great art.

    1. Not sure how true that is, but I read somewhere that Jesse Owens was well received by Germans and was quite popular during the games.

      1. From Wikipedia: “And then;… wonder of wonders;… I saw Herr Adolph Hitler, salute this lad. I looked on with a heart which beat proudly as the lad who was crowned king of the 100 meters event, get an ovation the like of which I have never heard before. I saw Jesse Owens greeted by the Grand Chancellor of this country as a brilliant sun peeped out through the clouds. I saw a vast crowd of some 85,000 or 90,000 people stand up and cheer him to the echo.”

        Robert L. Vann, Pittsburgh Courier, 8 August 1936

  3. How did a ordinary man, a failed artist no less, rise to become the most powerful human on earth, responsible for 50 million deaths? I would say that is a rather important historical question. Triumph of the Will is part of understanding the answer to this question. You-tube is very wrong to ban it as “hate speech.”

  4. I am not sure, in general, of the value of disclaimers. They are really just people saying, “I don’t agree with this,” which begins to sound like virtue signaling. Do people really think that because “Triumph of the Will” was on YouTube that Google supports the extinct NSDAP or its policies? And if YouTube has to comment on TotW, doesn’t it have to comment on everything? They might be thought to prefer Red Vines over Twizzlers because of a user’s review.

    I first saw “Triumph of the Will” on a double bill with Riefenstal’s “Olympia” at the old Parkway Theater on North Clark Street by Diversey (now a Lens Crafters). A couple years later, I was waiting before a class on the second floor of Cobb Hall at UC, when I heard a voice, and thought, That sounds like Hitler. I walked over to the auditorium, and they were screening TotW. (The Parkway was incidentally where I saw the best double-feature, “Casablance” and “Play It Again, Sam.”)

    1. I think introductions to old/historical books and movies can have a lot of educational value, since you can’t expect a young person to understand the context of something written 50, 100, or more years before they were born. Why was it made? What were the authors trying to do? Why did they do things that way and not some other way? While these questions can be discussed at length after watching it, sometimes a bit of an answer before you watch it can be helpful. Heck, sometimes I have to explain to my kid that the characters in a movie didn’t just call someone/call for help because smart phones didn’t exist “back then.”

      A disclaimer (vice an introduction) shouldn’t really be necessary, but reading Jerry’s proposed statement, for example, seems to me to be far more informational than normative. Why are we showing you this old film? Because it was very influential at the time, and because as a piece of cinema it was quite revolutionary to the industry. Etc.

  5. Gita Sereny’s book ‘Albert Speer – His Battle with Truth’ is the closest I’ve found to describing, but not explaining – how could it? – Hitler worship.

  6. I too watched Triumph of the Will on Dailymotion, but was left a bit befuddled. Far from getting excited about Nazism, my feeling was that it would be dreary to be standing in formation for hours, expected to chant as told and worship the leader uncritically. Perhaps I’m missing something?

      1. No, I’m not. I found the members of my parents’ church gullible and could not imaging attending it unless I believed in its tenets. I had to read in books that religion has a social aspect, having intuitively imagined faith as a machine made out of doctrines.

      2. Me neither. Reading the Book of Revelation and its depiction of how the faithful were going to spend eternity was enough to make me question the whole enterprise.

  7. The targeted-at-Nazis parody of “The Lambeth Walk” (a British dance that had been popular in swing clubs in Germany which the Nazis denounced as “Jewish mischief and animalistic hopping”) …

    There was an American film in the early 1990s, Swing Kids, about the swing-dance craze in late Wiemar Germany on the eve of the Nazi take-over. The flick never really caught on with critics or audiences, but I thought it was a decent effort. You can watch the trailer here.

    I believe there is never a basis to censor ANY movie on ANY subject, so long as its making did not involve the criminal abuse of children or non-consenting adults. Full stop.

    Informed adults should be able to watch any film they damn well please.

  8. Interesting. I’ve always thought of Triumph of the Will as something that we more or less required students to see at some point in their education, if only to get a sense of the magnitude of the Third Reich.

  9. I can think of a very good use for films containing hate speech. They can be compared to speech we here today, which might serve as a warning that history is about to repeat itself.

  10. “Riefenstahl, clearly smitten with Hitler”

    The question I always ask is how would I have reacted as a young German in the 1930’s.
    Would I have been a Nazi or a Communist?

    Perhaps it would have depended on your upbringing or a personal experience like witnessing a friend being beaten by the brown shirts.

    Riefenstahl early infatuated with Hitler is perhaps understandable in context, however does anyone know if she supported the anti-Jewish laws/policies in the 30’s, and if she remained an enthusiastic nazi during the war?

    1. A lot of Communists became Nazis. They used to have a nickname for them, something like beefsteak–brown on the outside, red on the inside.

  11. I suspect that the same could be said about “Birth of a Nation” that was brilliantly made, highly influential in terms innovations ( tracking shots, close ups etc ) but whose subject matter all decent people find odious.

  12. “(And, of course, there is the resonance of our own would-be dictator Trump today.)”

    I contemplate a parodic/satirical video of Trump spouting his choicest and most narcissistic non sequiturs and absurdities, with audio of Hitler in German.

    (Maybe one has been made.)

  13. “Triumph” was available on the now defunct “Internet Movie Archive” which aspired to maintain a digital online copy of every single public domain film ever made. (No worries about terms of violation.)

    It is now available on the comparable “Internet Archive” which also has print stuff in addition to many public domain movies, but they still have “Triumph”. (Perhaps the Internet Movie Archive was merged into this.)


    (Courtesy of the Internet Movie Archive, I actually on a Saturday afternoon in the summer of 2006 watched BOTH Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” AND “Triumph of the Will” on the same day!!!)


    Surely the use of “Triumph” in Erwin Leiser‘s documentary Mein Kampf constitutes “Fair Use”. But perhaps laws about this in Europe are different!


    If I had a copy of “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” with a swastika on it, I would cover it over with one of those multi-colored Tibetan Buddhist swastikas like this.


    It was the 3rd or 4th time I saw Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” that I realized he had modeled scenes in it on “Triumph of the Will”. But it was the 5th or 6th time that I realized that the background music in BOTH the dictator’s balloon globe dance AND the Jewish barber’s final speech on behalf of democracy and freedom is the “Holy Grail” motif from Richard Wagner’s opera “Lohengrin” (sic- not “Parzival”).
    Totally phuquing brilliant!!!!

  14. I’ve got this film and Birth of a Nation on my current “to watch” list (along with ~200 other classics) because I recognise they’re historically significant films. I don’t think either film will change my moral position on race and nationalism, but I do worry both being early cinema will test my patience. Not expecting Sherlock Jr whimsy…

    What you said about understanding the mindset is, I think, crucial for anyone wanting to effectively oppose right-wing nationalism and systemic racism. How can you effectively reach someone if you don’t understand why it is they believe what they do?

  15. When I took a film class in college, our professor had each of us go to the library separately on our own time and watch the movie there, alone. We then had to write a paper on it. He didn’t provide any commentary beyond the fact that it was a very famous and influential film and that it was, obviously, a propaganda movie made for the Third Reich.

    I always appreciated that my professor didn’t feel the need to educate us about how bad Nazism/Hitler was before we watched the film. He forced us to watch it without any outside influence beyond what we already knew (not even influence from fellow classmates — he actually checked the library logs to make sure we each rented it) and write a paper about what we each took from the film. He actually trusted us to have minds of our own, and to do something that’s becoming increasingly rare in education — use them to draw our own conclusions.

  16. Coincidentally, I was thinking today I should go to my university library and pick out a movie to watch over the weekend. I know Triumph of the Will is there (maybe not for long if universities use the same standards as YouTube!), so perhaps I should get around to it. To add on to the movie’s importance, Roger Ebert reviewed it as part of his “Great Movies” series on his website. That’s the first time I had ever heard of it.

  17. I am get so tired of people telling each other what they can watch, read and say.

    On another note, I believe that any platform that is close to a monopoly (e.g. Youtube, Facebook) should not be allowed discriminate because viewpoint. I understand that First Amendment is only for governments but when YouTube is so powerful, it needs to be broken up or be universally accessible.

  18. Ah yes the Skokie case. I had to refresh my palate by pulling up the Blues Brothers bridge scene.
    [Jake: “I hate Illinois Nazis…”]

  19. LOL, Folks humanity has been making the same sort of mistakes since before recorded history, only the scale has changed.

    When I was a kid there was a movie called “Jesus Christ, Superstar.” This Roman guy asked the Jesus, “We both have truths, are yours the same as mine?”

    Got me to thinking,as I was a follower of Jesus at that time. Now I am pretty sure I have no answers. There is a truth for you.

  20. In related news, Amazon is removing listings for “The Birth of a Nation” (the only two left are from smaller distributors; none of the superior Blu-Ray editions are listed anymore).

    This isn’t exactly censorship, but it is corporate cowardice (ass-covering, in cruder terms). And it’s pointless too. Today’s fascists and MAGA crazies don’t take their cues from a silent film made in 1915, and the school of history represented by BOAN is thoroughly discredited. The film has reached the point of being least capable of doing harm, and that’s when Amazon so bravely decided to ban it.

    All Amazon is doing is making it harder for scholars, students, and those interested in film history to see one of the most important and influential films made in America. Some people will wisely decide to directly purchase the film from its distributors; many others will watch one of the horrible-quality public domain copies that remain online. (Take it from me, even a good silent film is much less enjoyable with poor visuals, so if you wish to see BOAN, try the Blu-Ray editions by Kino, Twilight Time, or the BFI–the latter looks as if it was filmed yesterday).

    If Amazon’s wish is to ride itself of hateful racist works, why does it continue to sell Mein Kampf? Should Amazon argue that Mein Kampf has historical value, absolutely the same goes for BOAN. And whereas BOAN has not led to any recent revivals of the KKK, Men Kampf is still being avidly read by neo-Nazis and the alt-right.

  21. As always, the US political context rubs me the wrong way. I quote the Swedish Wikipedia:

    If you show the swastika in public in Sweden today, it can, for example, be counted as annoying behavior or fall under the law on incitement against ethnic groups, and thus be punishable. The symbol is banned in Germany, [10] and Austria. [11]

  22. It bears mentioning that when TDW was filmed in 1934, none of those involved had seen Schindler’s List. I guess that is obvious, but a great deal of what looks to us as sinister foreshadowing was just not there for the participants. Poland had yet to be invaded, Auschwitz was still just a Polish army camp that nobody had ever heard of.
    To me, the inclusion of Julius Streicher probably elicits the most emotion. He was a thoroughly odious person, even by the standards of the time and place. I have a copy of his “Der Giftpilz”, which is pretty horrifying.
    But overall, TDW is scary and sinister because we know how it turns out.

    We watched “Godspell” the night before last, because my wife mentioned that she had never seen it, and my kids had no idea who the Jesus Freaks were. Seeing it again, I was struck by how very prominently the Twin Towers were featured. I get sort of a sick chill when I see those buildings, which makes the film even more creepy now.

  23. I’ve heard so much about it but never seen it in full. I’ll watch it. To “ban” things like that is insane, you’re right. Infantile.

    Can’t they just contextualize it in a few sentences with some links to documentaries detailing what the Nazis were all about? For those who don’t know (maybe students… kids…?)

  24. A [translated] quote from Leni Riefenstahl, how she viewed Triumph of the Will:

    “Triumph of the Will’ is a documentary film about a party congress, nothing more. This has nothing to do with politics. Because I recorded what really happened and exaggerated it to the extent that I made no comment on it. I tried to express the atmosphere that was there through pictures and not through a spoken commentary. And to make this understandable without text, the visual language had to be very good, very clear. The pictures had to be able to say what you normally speak. But that’s not why it’s propaganda.”


  25. I never saw the full Triumph, only excerpts with full audio. Even those few bits made clear why this is a “great” film. In addition, the bit of Hitler addressing the crowd helped me understand why he succeeded – to copy a quote from I-forget-where, “he was radioactive with belief in himself”. Before seeing those bits, Hitler was a funny little man with a funny little mustache and sociopathic impulses – why would anyone follow him? In Triumph, however, one can see how the sheer energy of his delivery would have drawn a beleaguered people (Germany after WWI) to follow him to a new and glorious future (the same one which had been promised them pre-WWI). Happily, post-WWII Germany had learned its lesson about following charismatic tyrants and vowed never to do so again. We can only hope the US will learn from the experience of the present administration and never do that again.

  26. But isn’t Christianity and Islam more of hate speech? —> If you sin a little you will go to hell FOR EVER! And these two religions haven’t they killed cumulatively more people than the nazis? the difference: nazis lost the war but these two religions won the war and established themselves. Everything is judged a posteriori depending on who prevails – the winner always defines what is virtuous and what evil – the pagans are evil because they lost and so on and so forth … To kill a chicken to eat is OK according to human morality, but isn’t it a gruesome murder from the viewpoint of the chicken? At least the nazis did not eat their victims …

    1. gruesome murder from the viewpoint of the chicken”

      Chickens have a concept of murder? Do they apply it to insects they eat?

              1. That notion leads to considerable failure of communication. Indeed, it means there’s no reason to take anything you say seriously since all your words are idiosyncratic confections.

  27. I saw this film in college. It profoundly affected me. I saw how propaganda works. It *did* have strong emotional appeal. Chilling. I’ll never forget. Ominous.

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