Believe it or not I think I watched Triumph of the Will (1935) for the first time when I was like 13 or so, and it's significant place in cinematic history was pretty immediately apparent to me. As I recall the other thing that kind of stuck out to me had to do with the rhetorical style of most of the figures documented here. Both of those observations kind of underly a lot of what my career in philosophy has been ever since--how is something being said and what is the significance of the utterance--these are philosophical questions at the heart of my work.

So Mrs. Young said we could write about anything for our last quarter paper in AP European History. My papers previous to that had really all been research essays that were very pre-19th century in their focus. This was something that I had a growing interest in and which I felt that I could just sort of belt out.

The paper is typical of a slightly unrefined style of my high school papers. It meanders though examples and struggles to come together around a thesis. If I had to retroactively put a thesis to this, it might be the early formulation of a proposition that would underscore some of my later work in this area and an early stab at my general formalism about art. (But I didn't know anything about those things at the time.) The thesis to look for might be something like this: the formal properties of a work do nothing to distinguish the ethical standards we want to hold artworks to because, as I will show, formal properties of morally dubious works significantly overlap with the formal properties of ethically praiseworthy works and in fact are deployed in with the same intention from work to work.

So basically I was just shining a light into the morass of the way films are made. The answer I guess I was seeking was "it's complicated, I'll get back to you on it." But let's get into the weeds here and see the kind of crazy work I was doing in high school.

Quarter Paper

Leni Riefenstahl is a singularly controversial filmmaker. While discussing her propaganda films has been common since the fifties, homaging and using her work similarly time honored: watching Triumph of the Will in its original context seems similar to reading Mein Kampf in any context. While propaganda is hardly new, Riefenstahl’s work not necessarily defensible or even unorthodox, it is important to film history in general to understand that the techniques used in Triumph of the Will are significant in their ubiquity and effectiveness, not to mention their pervasiveness in contemporary films, dealing or not dealing with the Third Reich itself, partly artistic rather than purely tendentious. Propaganda requires a direct emotional assault on the viewer, effective propaganda would use a variety of tactics to achieve such an assault but propaganda on the level of subtlety of Riefenstahl’s becomes effective in many contexts beyond persuasion. Thus, regardless of the confines art tries to break from, artistic film also directs the audience’s gaze or emotion with a level of tact and exigence that is similar to the best propaganda. It is important, then, to realize that the images and juxtapositions most effectively used by Riefenstahl in the late 1930s are not tactics purely to engender support for an obviously extreme regime but are devices that are necessary to deal with themes ranging from power to friendship, hopelessness to strength, and the implications of living in the Nazis power.

The content and conditions of her films do little to help Riefenstahl’s controversial status, what is focused on is how Riefenstahl often moved aside questions and allegations about the nature of her films in favor of shameless self promotion.[1] The academic who seems to make this point most clear is Susan Sontag. Sontag’s “Fascinating Fascism” is considered the seminal work on analyzing Leni Riefenstahl’s films in context with the information presented in her later photographic essays. “Fascinating Fascism” presents a compelling case that Riefenstahl’s later works were “full of disquieting lies” and continuities with Nazi sentiments.[2] It seems that after the war, author biographies focused on the fact that she had been acclaimed but not what she had been acclaimed for. This redirection, however, seems logical considering as Sontag does that Riefenstahl was, regardless of for how long, detained by the allies after the war and de-Nazified.[3] Further the megalomania that Sontag describes would be reason enough for Riefenstahl to continue working as an artist. She would hardly be the first so motivated. It seems significant also that, though there were parallels between all her works even though Riefenstahl’s subject matter progressed from Nazis to African tribes to aquatic scenes; progressively further from subjects that might be misconstrued. Riefenstahl herself had a self absorbed drive with highly political connotations in that she used her ego to redirect the flack she should have faced for her films.

While Sontag’s opinion of Riefenstahl the woman seems, ultimately, apt, her characterization of her propagandist work is unconsidered. Sontag comes down on Triumph of the Will hard saying it is “the most successfully, purely propagandistic film ever made, whose very conception negates the possibility of the film maker’s having an aesthetic or visual conception independent of propaganda.”[4] Even if Sontag is correct in her analysis of why Triumph of the Will was made, she does not see a means of assessing it on its own merits. Writing in 1991, however, Linda Schulte-Sasse takes a stance on Riefenstahl that is less extreme and seeks to describe the artistic side of fascist art. Schulte-Sasse wants “to eschew a personalized debate on the exaltation or excoriation of an individual and search for criteria in assessing the films that allow for both historical specificity and problematic continuities.”[5] To critically understand Riefenstahl’s work, it is necessary to distinguish a continuity of Nazi or not (though it would seem that Riefenstahl never really put down the principles behind Nazi art) and significant techniques.[6] Riefenstahl’s work is obviously biased on the first account and, though not necessarily groundbreaking on the second, in cinematic history her films and techniques do have continued influence. Perhaps Sontag is writing at a time before she could see the effects that Triumph of the Will would have on more recent films, but Sontag should also have realized the potential for effective non-propagandist techniques as a critic.

Propaganda has two general forms; commanding and exemplifying. Film, with its principally narrative and dynamic ability to juxtapose images and recreate situations, is uniquely capable of making example-based propaganda. The Battleship Potempkin is a case in point as a reenactment that would demonstrate to the intended average Russian viewer what might be done in the situation of the sailors; rebel against the czarists.[7] Alternatively, the poster (right) comes to the viewer from an assumed position of authority with recommended action. While technically Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will seems to fit the example-based category its technique is totally different; while Eisenstein and others used reenactment or staged situations Riefenstahl used the documentary genera and nearly unlimited resources to create a film that was both immediate and affecting.[8] Here is where Schulte-Sasse’s argument becomes all the more important. Her definition that fascist works represent a combination of something done for aesthetic effect and real experiences is central, they “break down the boundary between the aesthetic and life and thereby lead the spectator into an aestheticized activism” thus becoming propaganda.[9]

Schulte-Sasse, unlike Sontag, believes that it is right to recognize the strengths of Riefenstahl’s films; she no doubt sees their significance in retrospect. Nevertheless Triumph of the Will plainly fits into the camp of fascist films because it “clearly does transgress the boundaries of the imaginary, merging the political and the aesthetic, and permitting the individuals attending the rally and those reliving it through the technological apparatus the experience of a collective decentering… it goes beyond this by trying to introduce the imaginary into the public sphere, by conflating the imaginary with modern reality.”[10] Riefenstahl is less making an argument and more relating conflicting images. Analytically, as a result of Schulte-Sasse’s assertion, one must recognize the importance of the techniques Riefenstahl used in her films to achieve a balanced juxtaposition of themes for propaganda rather than dismiss them because of films made so far as Sontag does.[11]

Riefenstahl’s two part documentary Olympia most effectively depicts her raw ability as a director. Olympia captures the movements of its subjects in a way that can only be described as lucid. The number and variety of angles of single actions is staggering, it is little wonder that it took nearly two years to edit Olympia because of the difficulty there would have been at the time in spooling through reels and reels of not always synchronized footage. At the 1936 Olympics, Riefenstahl would have emphasized the camera movements and positions extensively just to capture shots like the one above which makes effective use of the longest line on the frame.[12] This shot alone demonstrates Riefenstahl’s skill as a director but it is not what she is known for or really representative of her work or the influence her work has had on a variety of movies since. This scene in Olympia while transient of reality in some respects does not accurately reflect what it is that Schulte-Sasse means when she posits “the transgression of the separate realm of the aesthetic, or, more precisely, the introduction of the aesthetic into reality, requires an actual mediation of the instrumental and decentering experiences in a new mode of the political.”[13]

Screen shot 2011-05-15 at 10.19.09 AM.png

Alternatively Triumph of the Will, the most totally propagandistic of Riefenstahl’s films makes full use of the cinematic medium not to make an argument really for or against the Third Reich, but rather to guarantee the audience’s investment and engagement in visuals and motifs which would otherwise seem irrational. When watching so much footage of Hitler orating, a viewer might be overcome by the dramatic excess in his delivery. Thus, context becomes an important tool; the excess which Schulte-Sasse would consider aesthetic--i.e. that done for effect--is mitigated by the “real” context the excess is placed in. In terms of actual technique, Riefenstahl’s answer to the problem is simple; juxtaposition of the aesthetic with a personal reaction. The shot of Hitler above is far from humanizing.[14] Rather it is the classic depiction of the strong leader over his people; reserved, not human. Hitler’s central location perpendicular to the camera makes the viewer feel like this is a glance; good but not great seating at a concert. Yet this cannot be the dominating view of the system Hitler represents in a film glorifying the extreme. Thus another shot is needed to bridge the gap between the aesthetic of the genre and the tacit critical eye of the viewer. The subsequent shot of a soldier espousing similar rhetoric provides the necessary visuals to re-involve the audience in what is supposed to be an emotional experience; it is as though a metaphor of seating is extended, the soldier being another audience member behind the viewer and invested in the event regardless of rationality.

Riefenstahl uses spectators often to capture the belief others appear to have; peer pressuring the viewer by suggesting emotion rather than demanding or reenacting a belief. While the most memorable scenes from Triumph of the Will may be the ones that make use of the cast of thousands, the more interesting ones are those of individuals. Crowds, even when unified can be overwhelming, but one person placed to the side and somewhat obscured in shadow captures the viewers own face-in-the-crowd and creates instant empathy.[15] The technique--closeups of reactions in succession juxtaposed with some apparently greater force--is effective at producing a variety of reactions especially when it is difficult for a viewer to grasp the enormity of the situation. 

The Nazis have the sense of totality and dominance that is difficult to craft an objective response to. This difficulty is perhaps why Triumph of the Will is not a popular movie to discuss even though its theoretical approach to the difficulty of presenting Nazis is perfect. It seems a tasteless comparison to make, but the similarities between the construction of these shots from Triumph of the Will and those of Schindler’s List would emphasize the indelible mark Riefenstahl’s work has had on an effective presentation of the Nazis if nothing else. The following four shots from Steven Spielberg’s magnum opus similarly depict a response to an event the audience may not be able to empathize with (the arrival and conflagration of Nazis) with an image the audience can immediately judge (the boy’s face or the family at dinner).[16] These particular shots make the events of the movie more moving because they demand the involvement of the audience and heighten certain features and feelings by connecting the common with the extreme.

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It is little surprise considering the line between the extreme and the personal that one film that draws most heavily on the style of Triumph of the Will is Star Wars. A movie like Star Wars has to walk the line between the grandiose themes of galactic strife and memorable characters that the audience likes.[17] Thus, at the end of his movie George Lucas copies almost directly from Triumph of the Will to play up the accomplishments of his characters. Not only are the images similar, as the scene from Star Wars progresses the similarities grow and Lucas uses the juxtaposition of the mass of people with the individual responses in the situation to present his characters as consistently a possible; after being overwhelmed by the scale of the initial shots, Lucas reminds the viewer of the endearing traits of the characters by returning, as Riefenstahl would, to the their closeups and idiosyncratic gestures--Han Solo winks, Luke Skywalker smiles at R2-D2--making them comparatively normal heroes despite the galaxy far, far away they come from.

Leni Riefenstahl holds a very peculiar place in cinema because of technical capabilities as compared with her prevailing politics. In her life Leni Riefenstahl generated a gregarious personality to redirect questions meant to target her background as a prominent propagandist for a superlatively destructive regime.[18] But the theoretical strengths of Riefenstahl’s work are not without their tact and artistry, though they are ultimately peculiar to a genre of filmmaking. Triumph of the Will in particular grapples with the difficulties of presenting a regime in many ways so ridiculous that the film required constant returns to personal reactions to create a synthesis of sentiments which could connect the viewer to the action. These techniques which Riefenstahl used to their highest effect in her propaganda films ultimately have left their mark on film history as effective methods of creating emotional involvement in extreme situations. Her methods have a level of ubiquity in that they appear in a variety of contexts as directors present the horrors of the holocaust or the heroics of space aliens. Riefenstahl is not a director who comes out absolved having done art for art’s sake, rather she is a director to be highly regarded in that she made such effective use of techniques which innate to the persuasive aspects of all film media.


  1.  Steven Bach, "The Puzzle of Leni Riefenstahl," The Wilson Quarterly 26.4 (2002).
  2. Susan Sontag, "Fascinating Fascism," Movies and Methods, ed. Bill Nichols, vol. 1 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975) 32.

  3. Sontag, "Fascinating Fascism,"   36.

  4. Sontag, "Fascinating Fascism,"   34.

  5. Linda Schulte-Sasse, "Leni Riefenstahl's Feature Films and the Question of a Fascist Aesthetic," Cultural Critique.18 (1991): 126.

  6.  Sontag does absolutely understand the principles of fascist aesthetics. She eloquently describes them thus: “More generally, they flow from (and justify) a preoccupation with situations of control, submissive behavior, extravagant effort, and the endurance of pain; they endorse two seemingly opposite states, egomania and servitude. The relations of domination and enslavement take the form of a characteristic pageantry: the massing of groups of people; the turning of people into things; the multiplication or replication of things; and the grouping of people/things around an all-powerful, hypnotic leader-figure or force. The fascist dramaturgy centers on the orgiastic transactions between mighty forces and their puppets, uniformly garbed and shown in ever swelling numbers. Its choreography alternates between ceaseless motion and a congealed, static, ‘virile’ posing. Fascist art glorifies surrender, it exalts mindlessness, it glamorizes death.” Sontag, "Fascinating Fascism,"   40.

  7. The Battleship Potempkin, dir. Sergie Eisenstein, Goskino, 1925.

  8. Sontag, "Fascinating Fascism,"   34.

  9. Schulte-Sasse, "Leni Riefenstahl's Feature Films and the Question of a Fascist Aesthetic," 124.

  10. Schulte-Sasse, "Leni Riefenstahl's Feature Films and the Question of a Fascist Aesthetic," 142.

  11.  In retrospect, Sontag’s greatest misconception about Riefenstahl’s films is that “they are not really important in the history of cinema as an art form.” Though Sontag was writing in 1975, before the most prominent examples of Riefenstahl homage--Star Wars (1977) and The Lion King (1994) come to mind--as a theoretician she should have been able to recognize as Schulte-Sasse did the singular nature of Riefenstahl’s films. Sontag, "Fascinating Fascism,"   42.

  12.  Olympia, dir. Leni Riefenstahl, Tobis, 1938.

  13.  Schulte-Sasse, "Leni Riefenstahl's Feature Films and the Question of a Fascist Aesthetic," 142.

  14. Triumph of the Will, dir. Leni Riefenstahl, Universum Film AG, 1935.

  15.  The frame on this page is a most subdued version of the closeup response. While Leni Riefenstahl is far from the first director to use an extreme closeup to convey emotion, she may use this kind of shot more effectively than many other directors. Shots that may only last for an instant in Triumph of the Will are considered for their effect on a spectrum from the bombastic to this subtle response. In this shot the girl is the subject, her smile something that the viewer is supposed to reciprocate but her proximity to the swastika is likewise vital; the girl is anonymous but she can still be this close to the symbol of the party. Triumph of the Will, dir. Riefenstahl.

  16.  Schindler's List, dir. Steven Spielberg, Universal Pictures, 1993.

  17. Star Wars, dir. George Lucas, 20th Century Fox, 1977.

  18. Bach, "The Puzzle of Leni Riefenstahl."

Annotated Bibliography

Bach, Steven. "The Puzzle of Leni Riefenstahl." The Wilson Quarterly 26.4 (2002): 43-46.

This brief study of Riefenstahl late in her life is much more a work consulted than cited. It provided examples of Riefenstahl’s unique aversions to questions about her early work. Ultimately a colorful study.

The Battleship Potempkin. Dir. Eisenstein, Sergie. Jacob Bliokh. 1925.

A noted propagandist film from one of cinema’s foremost theoreticians. The Battleship Potempkin provides a vital contrast in styles between those of the Nazis and the Soviets. Sontag makes similar parallels though with different directors and works.

Star Wars. Dir. Lucas, George. Gary Kurtz. 1977.

Significant in its homage use of World War II battle photography. Early in his career Lucas used a variety of fundamental cinematic tools to create a variety of feelings and memorable characters. This movie draws directly from Triumph of the Will

Olympia. Dir. Riefenstahl, Leni. Leni Riefenstahl. 1938.

One of Riefenstahl’s most well known films. Originally shot in 1936 at the Berlin Olympics, Olympia is a two part film that recorded the games themselves primarily though the Nazis are obviously a subject too. Olympia has had long lasting effects on sport photography with some archetypal shots still appearing in contemporary movies and sports coverage.

Triumph of the Will. Dir. ---. Leni Riefenstahl. 1935.

This is the fundamental Nazi propaganda piece. The imagery from this film is something in the collective memory of anyone who has seen footage of the Nazis or any totalitarian regime as the angles and techniques are at this point the standard in presentation of such subject matter. Triumph of the Will was once a staple of German theaters during the War; today it is banned in Germany. 

Schulte-Sasse, Linda. "Leni Riefenstahl's Feature Films and the Question of a Fascist Aesthetic." Cultural Critique.18 (1991): 123-48.

Schulte-Sasse provides a necessary relief from Sontag’s ultimately dismissive seminal work. Schulte-Sasse allows for reasonable analysis to be made about fascist films by recognizing the leaps they make between some conflicting and always extreme subject matter. 

Sontag, Susan. "Fascinating Fascism."  Movies and Methods. Ed. Bill Nichols. Vol. 1. 2 vols. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975.

In many respects the seminal work on Riefenstahl’s films. Sontag really seeks to dispel any belief that Riefenstahl has significance to film today because of the context she worked in. However Sontag was writing prior to the examples which seem most relevant in suggesting otherwise. 

Schindler's List. Dir. Spielberg, Steven. Steven Spielberg, Gerald R. Molen and Branko Lustig. 1993.

Critically acclaimed Schindler’s List is something of antithesis to Riefenstahl’s work. Nevertheless, Spielberg’s film is based on a keen knowledge of the holocaust and is effective because he presents such a variety of details and subtleties. Schindler’s List is so effective for similar reason’s to Triumph of the Will.