How Netflix Helped Me Come To Terms With A Notorious Piece of Nazi Propaganda
Technology confronts us with new facets to familiar problems. The internet does this more than any other technology. How do we protect children from pornography and violence when it’s always a pop-up away? How do we read War and Peace when twitter is right there? How do we formulate a cogent political opinion when thousands of well-argued contradictions to any viewpoint are literally at our fingertips? If you’re reading this, you’re probably encountering something akin to one of these problems right this minute (perhaps you should be doing work instead of reading some guy’s blog, for example). It’s a wonder we haven’t become a nation of agoraphobics.
A few weeks ago, I encountered a new problem that, while seeming to be completely insignificant, has been on my mind ever since. Triumph of the Will is one of those legendary cinematic boogeymen that no one really wants to see, but cinephiles and people who study film feel compelled to watch. Leni Riefenstahl’s most famous film, and the most infamous piece of propaganda to come out of Nazi Germany (or perhaps anywhere), Triumph of the Will has long been considered one of the most important, greatest films of the 1930s. It’s not hard to look at it this way. But after I watched it, I was presented with a dilemma Susan Sontag, Mick Jagger and Roger Ebert never had to face: how do you rate Triumph of the Will on Netflix?
This may sound like a silly question, and it is. If there’s any sort of afterlife, I doubt the grade I gave Triumph of the Will will have much bearing on the scales of judgment. But it’s also a difficult question; it would be easy to write thousands of words about the film from a historical or an artistic perspective, but it’s not easy to say whether I like it or not. The fate of my soul may not rely on whether I rate Triumph of the Will with one star or five stars, but in the end it does say something about me.
Of course, this question isn’t entirely new, just the way it’s being asked. Roger Ebert wrote, in his review of a 1994 documentary about Riefenstahl’s life, The Wonderful Horrible Life Of Leni Riefenstahl, about Triumph of the Will and her other masterpiece, Olympia:
These are by general consent two of the best documentaries ever made. But because they reflect the ideology of a monstrous movement, they pose a classic question of the contest between art and morality: Is there such a thing as pure art, or does all art make a political statement?
Does the political statement a work of art makes matter? Film critics from Pauline Kael to Tasha Robinson have complained about action movies being works of fascist art, yet often these accusations come in positive reviews. I often see the same things in these movies, with their dolce et decorum est attitudes toward military service and their almost sadistic love of violence, but I don’t think I’ve ever held these fascist attitudes against an action movie that I thought was truly great. So why do I have a problem with giving Triumph of the Will the same five-star rating I’ve given to Predator?
Perhaps the moral objections I have are borne less from the actual political statements presented—as reprehensible as they are—than the way they are presented. When I first started thinking about the dilemma of how to rate Triumph of the Will, I looked back at how I rated another important film that espouses political beliefs that I find disgusting: D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. The Birth of a Nation is generally considered to be the first major full-length motion picture, but cannot be mentioned without referencing its blatant racism and glorification of the Ku Klux Klan and victimization of the South after the Civil War. I rated it five stars on Netflix, seemingly without a second thought. Why? Because it’s not propaganda. It wears its racism and revisionism on the sleeve of its white robe. There’s only one reference to any sort of bigotry in Triumph of the Will, when Hitler claims that Aryan blood must be kept pure. But compared to the Kristallnacht and the pogrom that ensued and finally concluded with 6,000,000 Jews dying horrible deaths in the Holocaust, this one mere mention of impurity, not even directly referencing the Jews, is nothing. The Nazi Germany we see in Triumph of the Will is merely an efficient, nationalistic country full of patriotic youth who take honor in their heritage. The Birth of a Nation seems downright honest in comparison.
There’s also the fact that while Griffith is most often associated with his disturbing film from 1915, in the ensuing four years he made two movies that seem to completely contradict the opinions presented in The Birth of a Nation: 1916’s Intolerance, a monumental production which looks at cultural and personal intolerance and alienation through the ages, and 1919’s Broken Blossoms, which presents us with cinema’s first great interracial romance—which, of course, being a movie from 1919 wasn’t exactly racially enlightened, but was still ahead of its time. Add to this that the historical viewpoint presented in The Birth of a Nation was an accepted view at the time, and it almost seems that history has been unkind to it—almost.
While The Birth of a Nation benefits from context in Griffith’s other work, Riefenstahl followed Triumph of the Will with the aforementioned Olympia, which does for the 1936 Olympics what Triumph did for the 1934 Nuremberg Rally. Her last film, Tiefland, was financed by Hitler and the Nazi party (though it was completed long after the end of World War II), and since its release it has been revealed that as a direct result of the production, some of the gypsies used as extras were sent to concentration camps. Riefenstahl tried to end her career as something other than a propagandist, but, in the end, she was never able to balance the evil she helped accelerate.
There are other filmmakers who have done things so notoriously disgusting that it affects how people look at their films. Roman Polanski is, perhaps, the most famous example; I’ve talked to plenty of people who refuse to watch a Polanski movie, and, honestly, it’s hard to blame them. But I’ve never had a problem separating an artist from a work of art. Maybe it’s because I had seen and loved Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown before I knew about the fact that he drugged and raped a 13-year-old girl, but sitting through a Polanski movie doesn’t have the same effect on me it has on some others.
Riefenstahl, on the other hand, is less notorious as a person than she is as a filmmaker. She claimed, until the day she died, that she was never a Nazi. She claimed that Triumph of the Will and Olympia were both merely the products of cameras capturing the events of the day. While it’s been suggested that she was more involved in the planning of the Nuremberg Rally than she admitted, I don’t know if she was lying. People did horrible things in Nazi Germany, some out of hatred, some out of cultural hysteria, some out of fear. I can’t pass judgment on her for her actions; I can only pass judgment on what survives of her actions: her films. Triumph of the Will has all the notoriety that Rosemary’s Baby lacks.
I’ve written about 800 words so far comparing Triumph of the Will to other movies with which many film-goers and critics take issue. And it’s been surprisingly easy. It’s easy to talk about a movie like this. Easier than most, even. I doubt 800 words about 24 Hour Party People would have come so easily to me. But that’s the point. I have no problem giving 24 Hour Party People five stars when it comes time to rate it on Netflix, and I’ll have no problem rating Berlin Alexanderplatz, The Piano Teacher, A Taste of Cherry, and Certified Copy when it comes time to click the right stars below the titles. I will never be comfortable with the number of stars below Triumph of the Will. It won’t haunt me, but it will give me pause every time I come across it in a search.
There’s a critical cliché about movies that “defy easy categorization”. Usually it’s used to describe avmovie that jumps effortlessly between genres, like Blade Runner, which applies noir style and plotting to a science fiction plot, and went on to be one of the best examples of both genres. But it also applies to Triumph of the Will. It’s a work of propaganda, pure and simple, but it’s also a work of artistic genius. Propaganda is not supposed to be art. Propaganda is the opposite of art, some would say. James Joyce described art as static, and everything else as pornography (I’m simplifying for the sake of brevity). But Triumph of the Will somehow excels at being both. The Germany we see in the film is a strong, efficient, beautiful nation which may be graced by God Himself. The camera moves with such deftness, the images are constructed with such clarity, and the shadow the film casts is so long. Nazi Germany got what it wanted, and the world of art got what it wanted. In the end, Triumph of the Will‘s greatest achievement may be the fact that it functions so well in two such separate worlds.
And that’s what makes it so hard to rate. It’d be easy to throw one star at a lesser work of propaganda, and I give five stars to great works of art all the time. But how am I supposed to rate something that does both equally well? The easy solution would be to give it three stars and say it was the average of the two, but that feels cheap. Three stars means mediocrity, and Triumph of the Will is anything but mediocre. Quite the opposite is true, I think; Triumph of the Will may be the most singular, exceptional movie ever made. It’s unique in the fact that it’s so blandly hard to watch. It’s not Salo or Irreversible; there’s no shock, no vomit-inducing, head-turning moments. But it has all the cultural cachet of the history that we know behind it. When we see Hitler giving a speech, the images conjured in our minds are the horrible things we’ve seen and read about Auschwitz, Treblinka and other Nazi concentration camps. In 1960, Erwin Leiser recut Triumph of the Will to juxtapose footage of the Nazi rally with footage taken from concentration camps and released it as Mein Kampf. I haven’t seen Mein Kampf, but to me, it seems completely unnecessary. Hitler, the swastikas, the imagery of innate superiority, they all carry so much weight as mere signifiers already. Why would I need a movie to juxtapose these images with Holocaust footage when my brain does it automatically?
About a month before I watched Triumph of the Will, I had the great opportunity to see Shoah at the Gene Siskel Film Center. I spent a Saturday sitting in a dark theater with about 30 other people, watching 9 hours of interviews with survivors, perpetrators and witnesses of the Holocaust. It was perhaps the most intense experience of my film-going life (and one that I recommend to everyone who has the chance to see it). When I walked out of the theater after midnight that night and got on the red line train to head home, I thought for a long time about what made Shoah so visceral and new when I’ve been seeing movies and reading books about the Holocaust for years and years. How can a story I know so well be told in a new way? The fact that Claude Lanzmann based the film entirely on interviews, on stories told by people who were there, often spoken over images of the sites of the camps as they are now, might have made the Holocaust seem distant in another film, but every time a man, 40 years after he cut the hair of Jewish women headed into the gas chamber, asks the camera to stop and balks at telling his story, every time we hear the song a man who survived by going into town to get supplies for the Nazis sing the same song he sang back then, every time a former Nazi tries to wash his hands of this tragedy but is forced, again and again, to face the atrocities he committed, it does for the Holocaust what no picture or memoir could: it makes it human.
In a way Triumph of the Will does the same thing, if only accidentally. Watching the marching soldiers, the marching workers, and the orating Nazi leaders, I kept thinking the same thing over and over: These were human beings. These were people. Hitler, Goebbels, Bormann, they were genetically no different from any person you passed on the street this morning, your roommate, or any person you love. We can call them monsters, but what happened in the concentration camps and ghettos wasn’t the work of monsters, it was the work of human beings. Shoah shows us the faces of people who survived the Holocaust; Triumph of the Will shows us the faces of people who made the Holocaust. It doesn’t contain a single frame of Holocaust imagery, and only a single direct reference to racial purity, yet Triumph of the Will is more important as a Holocaust document than most actual Holocaust documents.
Obviously, I can’t simply dismiss Triumph of the Will as a mediocre but important piece of propaganda, but what about the other option? Why can’t I just give it one star? It’s a piece of Nazi propaganda! Who would blame me? No one. Not even myself. I’d be perfectly happy just to say “Yeah, it’s beautifully shot but it might as well have been called Nazi Supermen Are Our Superiors” and go on with my life. But I can’t. Not only is it a beautiful film, it’s an important film. It’s a film I think everyone should see. It may be a piece of political propaganda for one of the most horrible and deadly dictatorships that the Earth has ever seen, but as Roger Ebert asks above, is there anything that isn’t political? The fact that I’ve written for so long and wracked my brain about a simple five star rating on Netflix for almost a month is a testament to the fact that some works of art are much more political than others, but Triumph of the Will is still a work of art, and in my mind, I need to grade it as one.