I watched "Triumph of the Will" last night. Before the emotions cool, here are some subjective experiences of a person who's not entirely dispassionate about the goings-on in Germany in the mid 1930s. The movie's been hailed as a masterpiece of direction and cinematography. It is not. It is campy, overwrought, slow, boring, and pedantic. It is also terrifying. The sequences with Adolf Hitler orating are frightening because he's such an effective speaker.
The Viewer's Background
My father was a German officer in Hitler's Waffen-SS unit. SS stands for SchutzStaffel, or protection unit. (The Waffen-SS might be roughly compared to the Army's Green Berets.) After starting out as an officer in Romania's cavalry -- yes, he owned a horse... that kind of cavalry -- he wound up being absorbed into the German army. (Many ethnically German officers from Romania, Hungary and the Balkans had this happen to them). Before the war he was a superb athlete, having been Romania's best decathlete for four years. He'd missed the Olympics in 1936 because of the call to arms. His fitness level would prove advantageous to his staying alive in later Kriegesjahre.
He was conscripted into Gen. Manstein's Prinz Eugen division, a fairly elite group that saw action in the Balkans. The last, disastrous mission for him was the epochal battle of Stalingrad. Manstein's troops sought to extricate Gen. Paulus's troops from the pincer movement that the Soviet army used to enclose the German forward army. Manstein got within 6 kilometers of Paulus' army but could not break through. Many of Paulus' army died in the brutal winter of 1941 (I believe) or in the march to prison camps after Paulus surrendered to the Soviets. On a personal note, my father lost a tip of a finger in the battle, likely due to frostbite. He rarely talked about his war experiences. He only used the word "Stalingrad" once, and only then in a one-word sentence. I was only able to find out about his war time action from his brother and from war records after my father passed away.
The men on the Eastern Front were starving due to lack of supplies, so cavalrymen donated their horses to the cause. The cooks slaughtered them and cooked the meat for the soldiers. There wasn't much left, since the horses were malnourished as well.
He wound up in a POW camp first in Russia for about 6 months and then in an American camp. He was interrogated numerous times by OSS officers who believed, after stories of the existence of the concentration camps went out, that all Waffen-SS soldiers were involved in the death camp cruelties.
When I was growing up in an urban northern city of the United States, my parents mercifully shielded me from the bitterness of their wartime experiences. Since we spoke German at home, I was called a Nazi by some kids in the neighborhood, but it didn't bother me. Seems like every kid was a dumb mick or a wop or a kike, so being called a Nazi didn't seem any different than anyone else. It was only a word.
My mother had gone to youth camps in the mountains of Romania. She was a textbook German mädchen: braided blonde hair with rosy cheeks, wearing dirndls, strong and healthy. She had gone to the Hitler youth camps in the summer time and pronounced them fun.
My parents' friends were all Germans. They were from all over. Some were from Germany proper. Most were from the Danube-Swabian region of Austria-Hungary, where many southern Germans moved to over six hundred years ago. They still maintained their German schools and language lessons.
In high school I began to read war books from cover to cover, and the world history section of World War II was mind-blowing. It was amazing to me that such proper people as my father's friends and associates could have permitted this great evil to spring up in their land.
I'd heard several people talk of Hitler as if he was a demonic presence. In him was apparently combined German blockheadedness and stubbornness (politely called an iron will by Joseph Goebbels) with war experience in World War I, with a powerful ability to give speeches that resonated with the Jungian mythos that is at the heart of the German self-image. Several German parents urged us young kids not to listen to his speeches, fearing that if we'd heard his siren song, we'd be enchanted by his speeches and do something stupid like join a neo-Nazi group.
I survived high school somehow, even though I spoke German as well as English, wasn't ashamed of my family's background, and kissed my father goodbye as he had always kissed his father before him. It helped to be hanging out at a Lutheran grade school and high school, where the majority of students were German Lutheran.
In college I met a few neo-Nazis from Chicago who were intrigued by my background. They heard my father was an SS officer, and thought I'd have a natural affinity to their kooky political leanings. One kid had some of Hitler's speeches memorized and asked me to comment on his German pronunciation. He'd stand in the bathroom commons area, look at himself in the mirror, and begin a Hitler speech. Guys from the dorm, who were used to this, would come in and brush their teeth. " 'Morning, Dave," they'd say. He'd continue with his speech as if he hadn't seen them. Completely bizarre. Their neo-Nazi interest was a thinly cloaked anti-black racism masking itself as the triumphant return of the Aryan people. They weren't happy when I called them poseurs, denounced their misguided thoughts, and said I wanted to have nothing to do with them. Another faction of college students played war games. They especially liked to analyze World War II battles. Again, when they heard of my father's background, they thought I would magically know everything about the war. I hadn't the foggiest idea of how Paulus ran the Eastern Front campaign. I knew even less about the blitzkrieg actions, except what I'd learned in high school.
It was only many years after college, when I was challenged to read William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, that I picked up this thick book and read it with growing fascination and horror at the insidious nature of the rise of Naziism within Germany. So much of Shirer's writing was echoed within my own life. As children there was no escaping sitting with the adults at dinner tables when friends were over, and inevitably the men would talk of World War II, and Hitler and his policies... I listened to the men talking but I didn't have the context to interpret what they were really meaning. Shirer's book gave me that needed context.
A Primer on Adolf Hitler, About Which the Reader Doubtless Already Knows
Adolf Hitler began as a trench-running messenger in World War I, a corporal whose bitterness was fueled by Germany's loss and its crippling post war reparations. He was also furious at what he perceived as the incompetent nature of the German Army's officer corps. He was a firebrand. After incendiary speeches and an abortive coup in Munich he was thrown in jail for a few years, where he wrote Mein Kampf, one of the least-read books ever printed. But he never gave up. He articulated the vision of a phoenix-like rise of the German Volk, and with repetition brought others into the vision. Financed by old-money industrialist families, his political party the Nationalist Socialist party created labor camps, youth camps, and active political regional neighborhoods called Gaus that fomented a sort of revolution within Germany. Older political leaders such as Hindenburg tried to keep a lid on him, unsuccessfully. There was too much momentum after a while. The rest is history.
Background on The Movie
Triumph of the Will
captures pre-war Germany in the 1934-1936 years. It is a paean
to Hitler's political presence. He wanted a documentary that captured the pre-war buildup before the war, so that in later years the triumphant German Volk could view the rise and splendid war in all of its terrifying efficiency.
The talented director Leni Riefenstahl was just coming off several critically acclaimed movies. She began as an actress and gradually transitioned to becoming a director. She was young, slim, pretty, and knew what she was doing. Goebbels urged her to direct a sequence of important political rallies. She accepted, with her usual demands to have total control over everything: camera angles, equipment, crew, access to Hitler, and editing. New low-light Agfa film was developed; she was the first to use it for evening torch-bearing ceremonies.
Goebbels and his political flacks interjected themselves a number of times, demanding she film this particular angle or person. She was so fed up that she went to Hitler himself, who had Goebbels back off. It was a rare loss of face for Hitler's Minister of Propaganda, and it earned her his enmity. Nevertheless, she finished the movie. It was regarded with great fanfare among Hitler's crowd. The reaction among critics outside of Nazi Germany was a decidedly ambivalent one.
Many film critics do not disagree that this is a technically marvelous movie. But they regard the subject matter as too heinous to give an objective opinion about its quality.
The Movie, Finally
It begins with a long sequence of an aircraft flying above the clouds. The aircraft is a boxy looking Junkers trimotor, looking trim and modern. The countryside below is Germany. The airplane flies over the lovely wooded countryside, and the brilliant lighting showcases the natural beauty of southern Germany.
Some of Germany's cities are shown. The streets are oddly quiet, but flags fly in many of the windows: patriotic flags of Germany, and patriotic Nazi swastikas.
A motorcade drives through a town: Hitler in a gleaming black Mercedez Benz. The crowd is overjoyed to see him. Some of the cheesiest shots show closeups of expectant faces. He gets out of the car and shakes hands with some of the regionally costumed mädchen. Every now and then he flips back his right hand in a somewhat desultory manner, "sieg heil" or whatever, as the crowd gives a formal stiff armed salute.
A long sequence shows a youth camp. Boys and men together in horseplay, in Kämpfe, training for victory, training their bodies in some sort of it's-kinda-like-an-army-but-it's-not-really manner. This was the breeding ground for Hitler's SA and early political SS units. This is an awkward, campy, and downright boring part of the movie.
Of greater interest to me were the huge 200,000-man stadium rallies featuring Hitler's speeches. I heard Goebbels' voice for the first time. That was chilling. He was a bloody good speaker. But Hitler's speeches were amazing. They were direct and to the point. I've never heard such inflammatory rhetoric in my life. I've gone to religious rallies and heard some marquee preachers, and while they were good, none matched Hitler. He used precisely the right phrases and precisely the right words for a sentence. I will eventually add bits of his speeches here. But for right now, suffice it to say I can see why a stadium full of already charged up German men would go to war for this man. He was nuts, but in a compelling way.
There were other parts to the movie that were bizarre. For instance, before one of the rallies, Hitler and two henchmen (one was Heinrich Himmler, an ex chicken farmer who became the head of the most feared political unit in all of Germany: the German State Police, or Gestapo) deliver flowers to a massive state funeral of Hindenburg, who died in his 90s resisting Hitler every step of the way. Hitler hated the old man's guts, because Hindenburg controlled the Army, and the Army was nervous about Hitler's rise to power. The old officer corps had a fealty relationship with Hindenburg they did not have with Hitler. Hitler used Hindenburg's funeral as a way of establishing a relationship with the Army by honoring Hindenburg as a great man. It was bold and direct and shocking in its brazenness, but it worked. Hitler became an irresistable force in his rise to the top. After Hindenburg's funeral, no one in Germany could challenge him for supremacy. Shirer's book gives such background details, but they are not apparent in the movie. All we see is magnifcent footage of Hitler, Himmler, and a third man slowly marching up a long open column to Hindenburg's massive grave. To the left and right are thousands and thousands of soldiers in tight formation. The sheer scale of the funeral and the number of people that took part was incredible. It was supposed to be awe-inspiring. All I felt was like screaming at the television, "Don't you see what he's doing here? He's DECEIVING YOU!" The powerlessness I felt watching the footage was surely felt even more acutely by the Germans who were outside of the columns of power and who knew Hitler for what he was, but were helpless to stop the tide.
The thing that grabbed me most about the movie was seeing the pristine German countryside, then seeing Hitler build up his power, and thinking of Allied footage of Air Force bombs raining down on the cities and factories. Years later as a child my parents took me to Munich. I was taken aback that 25 years after the war, half the city was still in rubble. The forward-backward nature of my concept of time while watching this old movie made for a very disturbing evening.
I urge you to watch Triumph of the Will if you have the chance. As a cautionary tale, it is second to none.
Thanks go to: anthropod, montecarlo, Simpleton, and haze for providing boatloads of corrections. Montecarlo reiterated the fact that there's an important distinction between the SS and the Waffen-SS, the latter which was the army unit, and that I'd gotten careless in mixing the two.