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 Jackson, George 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.