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Boston, US
Posts: 205


In class you will have already watched portions of Triumph of the Will (1934), a film by filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl.

In case you missed any portion of the film, here is what we should have watched by Friday May 7

The times noted are visible on the time count on the video. Feel free to watch more of this film if you

choose (it’s approximately 1 hour 30 minutes total) but definitely make sure you watch all 5 of these

clips at minimum.

  • Clip #1: from the beginning of the film to Hitler’s arrival at his hotel in Nuremberg 0:00 through 9:08
  • Clip #2: at “Camp Nazi” the Hitler youth preparing for their rally. (Don’t miss look-alikes Draco Malfoy and Rolf from The Sound of Music.) 12:23 through 17:57
  • Clip #3: the labor ceremony of loyalty; Hitler addresses the Reich Labor Corps 31:23 through 35:56
  • Clip #4: Hitler addresses the Nazi youth rally and does a motor tour of the crowds 45:36-51:31
  • Clip #5: Hitler reviewing the parade of storm troopers with the flags and ensignias from regions
  • throughout Germany 1:01:08 through 1:04:52

(1) Excerpt from the amazing film on Leni R: The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (dir: Ray Mueller, 1993). You can find this film (which in its entirety is 3+ hours long) online at I only ask that you watch this portion, from 1:01:20—> 1:32:04

(2) A few pages from Leni Riefenstahl’s massive autobiography: Leni Riefenstahl, excerpt from Leni

Riefenstahl: A Memoir, New York: Picador, 1992.

(2) Leni Riefenstahl’s obituary: Alan Riding, "Leni Riefenstahl, Filmmaker and Nazi Propagandist, Dies at 101," New York Times (September 9, 2003)

We’ve now had a look, albeit a partial look, at Leni Riefenstahl’s monumental documentary film, Triumph of the Will (1934). Many of you no doubt recognized pieces of this film because so much of it has been used subsequently in virtually every film—documentary or fictional—about the Nazis and the Holocaust.

Virtually everyone who writes and talks about this film considers it to be a work of propaganda. Many critics and scholars, however, consider Riefenstahl [note spelling: everyone gets it wrong!] one of the greatest documentary filmmakers of the twentieth century. It seems contradictory. After all, a film is a film, right? It’s up there on a screen. It can’t reach out and grab us. Right?

Riefenstahl, who died in 2003 at the age of 101, considered herself to be first and foremost an artist. She was creating a work here for hire. Lots of trouble for her, she suggests. (You’ll read a bit about this in the excerpt from her autobiography.) But the results—the film--didn’t trouble her. In fact, she was enormously proud of it. She did her job. She did it well. You will hear what she had to say about it in the excerpt you will watch, as part of this assignment, from The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (1993) and in the small section of her autobiography that she devoted to the film.

And it may interest you to know that even though Riefenstahl later asserted that she did not support the Nazis, a new document that has come to light recently contradicts that. In a telegram Riefenstahl sent to Hitler after the Nazis conquered Paris in 1940, she wrote: “Your deeds exceed the power of human imagination. They are without equal in the history of mankind. How can we [the German people] ever thank you?”

Many Germans cited seeing Triumph of the Will as an event that persuaded them to support the Nazi government. By the time it was shown, the Nazis had been in power more than 2 years. Clearly the film made an indelible impression. After the war, Riefenstahl was required by American forces (who occupied the area where she was living) to go through “de-Nazification” following charges that she was a Nazi and/or Nazi sympathizer.

I’d like you to reflect thoughtfully on this film—from its design and execution to its effect on audiences, from its maker’s intent (based on what she tells us as well as what we independently can conclude from her remarks and her actions) to the maker’s response to its reception. You must read through the readings listed above and incorporate them into your post.

And then consider the following questions:

  • If Triumph of the Will was indeed hypnotic and compelling viewing, encouraging many to follow the Nazi party, what responsibility does Riefenstahl have for what happened during the Nazi era and the Holocaust?
  • How do you assess what she said about her motives for making the film and her awareness of what unfolded as a result of the film?
  • Should she be held responsible for what the film contains and the very powerful effect that it had on audiences? To quote Isaac, “Is she a perpetrator, bystander, or enabler?”
  • If Leni bears some responsibility, should she have been punished? If yes, then what sort of punishment? If not, then why not?
  • In short, what responsibility does an artist have for her work and the reaction it provokes? And should an artist be held responsible for its consequences?

Finally, take a look at the post that precedes yours (the first poster in the thread (after my initial prompt) gets to pick any question that is posted later and respond to it). That post will contain a question related to the position that that writer took. Your task is to respond to the question the person preceding you has raised.

And after you have responded, it’s your turn. Post an open-ended question about the position you have just taken. The person who posts immediately after you should address the question you posed.

This is a bigger question that applies to many artists, politicians, writers, activists, etc., not solely to Leni Riefenstahl. Support your position with references to what we saw on the screen as well as with references to the information contained in the readings and the film clip.

Boston, MA, US
Posts: 25

Failing to Understand the Power One's Actions Have

Riefenstahl’s propaganda raises a lot of difficult questions. The biggest problem is that her works, especially Triumph of the Will, undoubtedly glorified the Nazis and the 3rd Reich, winning over new sympathizers in its audience and thereby contributing to the atrocities that took place during approaching war. Riefenstahl, however, claims she was not politically motivated and was rather interested in creating a brilliant work of art. So how do we deal with the gap between professed intent and impact? Though we should consider what she says in these sources with the significant blowback and criticism she’s gotten in mind—she might be revising her words and actions to seem less sympathetic to the Nazis—I still think we can credibly say that politics wasn’t Riefenstahl’s primary motivation for making this film. As she says, she wasn’t a Nazi member herself and she heavily resisted taking part in the film, even asking that she never be commissioned to make another Nazi film again after Triumph of the Will as a condition for her participation. And of course, while we view Hitler from the lens of what he would later do, Riefenstahl at the time only knew of what he’d done so far, and we should remember that we’re prone to focus on the anti-semitic and otherwise alarming actions he’d taken up to that point, because we’ve learned about Hitler through the lens of his evils. But people weren’t necessarily looking at him through that lens at the time—especially those who weren’t directly harmed by them, like Riefenstahl, viewed the Nazis more in a far wider context as their governing party and responsible for significant improvements in quality of life—for those whose identity conformed to their ideal society, that is, which of course includes Riefenstahl.

Not that I think her actions were justified for one second, of course. I just find this information to be important for making sense of them. I think her problem was that she was too apolitical, in fact: she cared too little about politics and viewed herself as a meaningless outsider to the workings of the world. This is a pretty common problem, actually: individual persons don’t realize that they are society, their actions have the power to change the world, and I don’t mean that in the empowering sense. Riefenstahl had a limited outlook on what she was doing; she saw it from a personal perspective. She was enlisted to do work for the government, and didn’t want to do it because she preferred acting. They convinced her to do it, and so she pursued it artistically, like she did all her projects. What more is there too it? Well, a lot actually, if you care to zoom out for a moment, but Riefenstahl wasn’t doing that. We can see this in her words in the film: she prefers to state her actions as plain and simple, saying “I just observed and tried to film it well,” or that “I’d have made exactly the same film in Moscow, if the need arose.” And she’s probably telling the truth here. She, like far too many in Nazi Germany (and still today), felt too removed from the progress and regression of society, and was presumably not civically engaged enough to care about the gradual but obvious erosion of the rights and humanity of minorities in Germany. It goes back to that famous “first they came for…” quote. Well, they were never going to come for Riefenstahl, so she never cared that much. And anyway, she was just one woman, doing her thing and pursuing her passions—what power did she have?

Because of this tricky issue of self-perception, it’s difficult to label Leni. She wasn’t a highly deliberate perpetrator, in that she didn’t necessarily want to spread Nazi ideology. Yet she still glorified the Nazis somewhere along the way, which makes her an accomplice, and, by extension, a perpetrator. Perhaps we need a new label, then, for those whose own failure to see themselves as intrinsically empowered to help or hurt the lives of many whether they intend or not leads them to do terrible harm, accidentally or out of chosen ignorance. Of course, Riefenstahl wasn’t living with her head in the sand, and she still would have known at least some of the Nazis’ bad deeds and sinister aims by 1934. So she’s also a bystander, for not using her power to do anything (“Should I have been a resistance fighter? There were very few of those,” she says), and a bystander is an enabler, so she bears that title as well. Should she have been punished? Too tricky to answer…. Her film was propaganda, but can it be decisively proved as such? As she points out, nothing was staged, there was no political commentary, and in her mind it was a primarily artistic pursuit. Part of what makes propaganda usually punishable is that it directly incites the listener to violence and spews lies, hate, and distortions of fact. Triumph of the Will did not do these things directly. Perhaps she could be punished simply for associating and promoting a criminally abusive government, but I’m not a legal expert—can people get really charged for such things?

Turning to the responsibility an artist bears more broadly, I think it varies from case to case. Just because an artist’s work provokes violence doesn’t necessarily mean they should be charged—nobody would make the case that Stravinsky should have been arrested for inciting a riot, for example. One key is therefore intent- was the artist including provocative or objectionable themes in good faith, with people’s best interests at heart? And, did they realize the extent of the damage they might cause? Riefenstahl should unquestionably have realized the harm she was doing with this film, so she bears responsibility, but in her mind, she was making it in good faith and without understanding of its potential impacts, so those criteria alone are insufficient.

My last thought is about Riefenstahl’s own thoughts about the Holocaust. She barely mentioned the Holocaust in the memoir and movie experts we watched, but of course this was the catastrophic destination of the Nazi regime. Has she thought about it much? Has she visited the Auschwitz museum? Has she talked with or listened to survivors? Or has she just blocked that part out altogether? I suspect if she spent more time reflecting on the Holocaust she might be more repentant about her actions—that is why they were bad, after all. But she seemed more focused on saying why she hadn’t wanted to promote the Nazis than acknowledging how their despicable actions made any voluntary association with unacceptable.

What do people think about what she claims was the primary message of the film: peace? Did anyone notice that theme throughout it? I didn’t, and was confused when she said that was the message of Triumph of the Will.

brighton, ma, US
Posts: 21

Is Lack of Empathy the Source?

I think there’s no objection that Triumph of the Will was an incredibly compelling documentary. However, I disagree with the claim that it is hypnotic, as @earnest has mentioned, this is a perfect example of propaganda that glorified Nazi power which of course added to the numbers in the party, however it would not completlely turn it’s opposers against their own ideas. As Riefenstahl states that she was not a part of the Nazi party and oftened distanced herself with being a part of the project, her reluctance and her stance on making the movie speaks volume to the movement as a whole. By making this picture perfect version of the Nazi power, only adds fuel to how powerful the Nazi party was. Riefenstahl states that her main purpose was to spread beautification which she ultimately had accomplished, and due to her own little knowledge of the inner workings of the party, it is hard to tell where her true loyalties lie. Consequently Riefenstahl takes responsibility to adding to the propaganda of the Nazi party and the Holocaust wheather she meant to or not.

When assesing her motives for the film itself, I found it profoundly interesting to hear from her autobiographical testimony after the Holocaust where she claimed to be an artist first and foremost and was proud of her work due to it’s success. I think this sentence is incredibly compelling as she spoke of being proud of her work however, she continued to lack empathy as she is fully aware of the impact the film has had on the lives of targeted populations. In addition, she was required my American forces to go through “de-Nazification” following charges that she was a Nazi and/or Nazi sympathizer which may have altered how she views her art if she was sympathetic to the Nazi government or was part of it herself. As she looks back and speaks about her film and life in Germany, she barely mentions the Holocuast as a whole which may have been affected due to her de-Nazification. Although she never claimed even during the filming of the documentary that she was in-fact a Nazi or a Nazi sympathizer, she merely knew the infomation that was propgated by them during the time period however never took the idea that her art and her influence had as much of an impact. Replying to @earnest’s point that Riefenstahl was too apolitical, I agree that she never fully understood her own impact and how her art would affect others. Maybe that falls into the realm of being too apolitical, but after hearing her recount of her documentary after the holocaust, it is clear to see that she lacks great empathy and consideration to others. Of course this is an extension of how people view society and how many during Nazi Germany were “removed from the progress and regression of society” however I feel that one doesnt grasp the amount of power the arts held especially during this period. In being ignorant of her own voice with the addition of being less than empathetic and considerate, she created a film that only furthered the perception of Nazi power.

I think in the time period, she was in such a fragile state being a women in the arts that was seeked by the Nazi party to form a piece of propaganda that she at the time never knew the impact of yet. However, after hearing her statement after the Holocaust, she puts herself as a perpertrator as she is so far removed between the work and passion she put into the project versus it’s actual meaning. I think that overall, she is held responsible as she is labeled by this film, however I think it’s more of a question of will she hold herself accountable to the effect the documentary had on everyone. I wonder if it was because of its success that she focuses more on how her cinematography was celebrated, or if it is because of her removal nature from the project itself and more of an emphasis on the art of filmmaking. Some may argue that because she wasn’t directly spreading Nazi ideals, it may not mark her to be a perpatrator, however even if the intent was not clear, she still carried out the act. The film although not stage was undoubtedly a work of glorification and focused on the strengths of Nazi power. Looking at documentaries as a whole from a 2021 point of view, the best ones are incredibly raw that show both good and bad. Therefore I would argue that as it glorifies the Nazi governement, Leni bares some responsibility for the film. I think that partially she has received at least a portion of the punishment as her name will forever be teathered to the Nazi party and her best known work is still considered a work that propogates. However, I don’t know if more of a more formal punishment is needed? She is now dead so where would these punishments be given?

Artists should be accountable for the work they bring into the public eye. The decision for their works should be deliberate and carefully done as especially now in this day and age can spread incredibly quickly. Being mindful of the message and overall effect a piece of work has is incredibly important. The reaction of the piece of work will vary and cannot be controlled however being mindful of it prior to it’s exposure is crucial. An artist should be held responsible to an extent, in the circumstance where they did not understand a topic correctly and made an earnest mistake and continues to make amends and take responsibility will have a different punishment than one who doesn't make an effort to make amends. As a political statement that many may not agree with I feel like it really depends on the circumstance and punishment or acceptance will vary.

To answer @earnest’s question, I was equally confused when watching Triumph of the Will. Especially her claiming the primary message of the film was peace was something I never expected. I found it to be more of a documentary of power than anything else. However it also comes with the fact that we understand what happens afterwards as well as we can never be in the mindset of a person living in Germany during Nazi power and can only imagine. Maybe in her eyes, the control the Nazi power had over people would allow these people to live in peace? In the documentary many of the scenes consisted of individuals smiling at the camera under this heavy control which maybe in her eyes allowed peace?

My question is one I mentioned earlier on in my post, now that she is now dead, where do you think it is fair to give punishment, if one is needed in your opinion?

Boston, Massachusetts, US
Posts: 25

Triumph of the Will: Apolitical intent v.s. Political Impact

There is no question that Triumph of the Will had a powerful impact on its audience and influenced many people to join the Nazi party or become a Nazi sympathizer. In this way, Riefenstahl’s film is known as one of the greatest documentaries but also a work of Nazi propaganda. However, Riefenstahl did not see her film as propaganda. According to The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, Riefenstahl explains that she did not see the politics while filming but she simply saw everything as it was: parades, speeches, and marches. Furthermore, she tried to defend herself by saying that “if an artist dedicates himself totally to his work, he cannot think politically.” Riefenstahl solely saw the film as a job that she had to do well. It was a technical matter to her and she felt that she had to perfect every scene. In addition, she asserted that she insisted on turning down the project because she did not feel confident enough to do a job for Hitler and not because of political disagreements. She was also hesitant to direct the film because of the amount of time and effort that this film would take, preventing her from pursuing projects and opportunities that actually interested her. Moreover, she made it clear in her autobiography, Leni Riefenstahl: A Memoir, that she faced many challenges like having full artistic freedom and spending most of her days for months in her editing room trying to perfect her film, and Riefenstahl nearly reached a point in which she would abandon the project all together.

Despite lack of interested in the project and her apolitical motive, I think Riefenstahl still holds some responsibility for the role that her film played during the Nazi era and the Holocaust. Yes, her film did not explicitly mention anti-Semitism and the race theory but it still promoted the Nazi party. The film portrayed the party as a savior that secured work and peace for the German people, ignoring the evil committed by Hitler and the Nazis. She should have acknowledged the strong effect that it had on the German people at the time, even though she might not have intended it to have the impact that it did have. I am sure that she wanted her work to have some kind of impact since she put so much effort into making it look cinematic and visual pleasing. In fact, Riefenstahl was so particular about the execution of her film that she scraped Ruttmann’s footage, re-edited Schaad’s reel, and composed a whole orchestra herself to synchronize the music and the marching in a parade. To echo @thesnackthatsmilesback, I believe that it is crucial for an artist of any kind to think about the message they wish to convey in their work and the impact that it might have. Although no one can ever fully anticipate the impact of their work or actions in advance, an artist should be prepared for the criticisms that they might receive. They need to be willing to face the consequences for any harmful messages or effects that their creations might trigger.

Like @ernest, I think that Riefenstahl did not care enough about politics to an extent upon which she separated herself from society. She did not realize the impact that an individual can have on their community, nation, and world at large. Additionally, her lack of compassion and sympathy for the victims and survivors of the Holocaust is a reflection of how Riefenstahl responded to her film and her motives in making the film after World War II. It could have been likely that she wanted to move completely passed it and ignore the significance that her film had during the Nazi era. Triumph of the Will and her other films that followed are evidence that she was an enabler because her work glorified the Nazi party and brought upon perpetrators who were swayed to be a part of the party. There is also evidence that she had business with Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda minister. Riefenstahl is also a bystander because she did not take any efforts to denounce the Nazi party or help those who were subjected to violence and discrimination during the Holocaust. Instead, she seemed almost indifferent to the idea of being an upstander as she questioned the difference that it would have made because very few people resisted and opposed Nazi ideology.

It is also important to recognize that Riefenstahl went to de-Nazification camp, which was required by both American and French officials. With this in mind, she could have very easily altered her intentions and her accounts about her interactions with Hitler and other members of the Nazi party. Even though she claimed that she was not a Nazi or an anti-Semitist, I suspect that she had some degree of fascination with the Nazi party and its leader. The New York Times article reveals that Riefenstahl wrote a letter to Hitler after hearing him speak at a rally and she said “I must confess that I was so impressed by you and by the enthusiasm of the spectators that I would like to meet you personally." She also congratulated him on his victory via telegram after he successfully occupied France. Thus, I have some doubts about her apolitical stance.

To answer @thesnackthatsmilesback’s questions, Riefenstahl definitely needs to be held accountable for her film and the indirect contribution that it had to the Nazi party and its agenda. Since she is no longer alive, it would be hard to give a punishment that would directly impact her. However, when she was alive, I think that she should have been prevented from releasing other films of any kind, whether it was about coral reefs or Nazis. Ultimately, her artistic ability was used for the worse so I think it would have been fair to ban her from producing more films. Yet, we know the reality was quite the opposite as she went on to make Wild Water, Olympia, Lowlands, and Impressions under Water. In terms of what needs to be done now, we need to tell others about Leni Riefenstahl and the influence that her works had on Nazi Germany. By examining Triumph of the Will and its director, we can see the detrimental message and outcome that the film brought about. From this, we can learn to recognize films and other forms of media that propagate false or toxic ideas so that we can intervene.

Back to my previous comment, Riefenstahl put in so much work and time to make her film visually pleasing and overall cohesive so she must have wanted to send some message to the audience with her film. My question is what do you think Riefenstahl’s intended message was with her work if she says that it was not meant to elevate or promote the Nazi party?

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