Over the weekend I was in the redwoods, working with Dave Trowbridge on our massive rewrite of our space opera. Dueling computers, with occasional gusts of laughter, and sometimes Deborah, Dave's wife, who is staying with a friend through her hast days. She could be present on Skype so we could all talk writing.
I don't know if you can see it, but there is a stream far below this bridge I was standing on. (Dave and I walked the three miles into the small town for dinner one night.)
When I got home, there was my Netflix waiting, and first up was Triumph des Willens
, the Nazi propaganda film made by Leni Riefenstahl in 1934, a year after Hitler took power.
Getting on toward half a century ago (it seems to weird to type that, but it's true) I first saw it, on one of those occasions when the German profs showed us significant German films. This particular time they used a room off at the film school I guess so that casual passers by couldn't look in, and with this peculiar atmosphere partly grimness, partly disgust, partly the almost-embarrassment of academics studying sociology looking at a famous porn flick, they hitched up the projector, we sat in those horrible plastic chairs popular at the time, and they let it roll.
I'd been dreading it. By then I'd spent my year in Austria, and I'd talked to a lot of folks, young and old, about the war years. That shadow was still long in 1971. I already knew plenty about atrocities, and if this was a party film, I was expecting clips of the sort of stuff Hitler had loved at private showings. (You can imagine; I'll stop here, but I heard even more details a few years later, when I was working in the film industry, and one of the older screenwriters talked about his days in the signal corps, having to review and catalogue the private film stashes of Nazi commanders, captured after the fall of Berlin.)
But what did we get? The film starts out high above the clouds, an exalted view of the sky overhead and all around amazing air-castelated cumulous. Then we descend through the mists (we are on Hitler's private plane) and there below is old Nuremberg, a fantastically beautiful city with a complication of slanted roofs juxtaposed over medieval and Renaissance times up and around the spires of famous churches. A castle or two. All to be bombed flat, of course, a few years later--and then apparently rebuilt pretty much as it had been. (I think that was still going on when I drove through there in '72, at least, all I remember is a lot of scaffolding.)
The shadow of the plane soars along a main boulevard down which precisely squared rows march toward the central gathering area at city-center. It's called Adolph Hitler Platz in the film; I don't know what it was before, or is now. The camera swoops down and makes love to glimmering reflections of old buildings in the peaceful waters, shows castle and homely (but picturesque) farmhouse, street and statue, and all of them--every one--flying the new flag of Germany, with the swastika (Hakenkreuz, or hooked cross) they'd pinched from the Aryans of India, under the supposition that the master race had conquered there and gone north, I guess blondifying as they went, until they reached the pinnacle of racial purity in Germany.
Everywhere at the roadside and hanging out of the streamer-bedecked windows and climbing precariously on centuries-old statues of saints and commanders, are people waiting to see Hitler. Blonds, mostly; though Hitler and his middle-aged, constipated-looking senior staff (except for the cadaverous Goebbels with the hooded gaze) were stodgy and dark-haired--Riefenstahl couldn't do anything about that except to shoot them from below, making them as imposing as she could--she and her camera linger on the fair-haired. There is a lot of speechifying about Germany and a reference to racial purity, though Hitler, when he speaks, reveals a very strong Austrian commoner's accent.
That is the best part of the film. Most of the rest are various sustained set pieces shot over the week-long "Party Day" get-togethers, which Hitler hosted every year until 1939, when he dispersed his peace-loving, state-serving boys off to slaughter and be slaughtered. The centerpiece is a long sequence I guess meant to show the solidarity of the S.A. with the S.S. as this was shot a bare month or two after Hitler bloodily purged the S.A. of 'undesirables.' Including the president, von Hindenburg, whose memorial is lengthily and unironically displayed in the film.
There is a second film, which is all military parade all the time, which makes me wonder how much Leni R. had had to fight the party honchos to get her vision over their demand for More Military Might. (According to the history professor who did the 2000 re-release film commentary, there was plenty of debate, for example, the old cavalry units wanted their time in the film but only got four minutes.)
The speeches are as creepy as you'd expect, the torchlight parades and all the rest pretty much what we've seen displayed in endless fiction since that time. But what got to me were Leni's own touches: the shots of Hitler from behind, from over his shoulder, so that the adoring crowd are framed between the side of his head and his upraised arm; the lingering on his profile with sunlight limning his head; and above all, the upward, heart-lifting shots of beautiful blond boys and girls, their hair sun-kissed, looking up adoringly at their leader. These shots are what I remembered all those years later, when the rest of it had faded.
1934. It got me wondering if this film was intended to sell the Nazis to the rest of the country, because it seems to me (and of course I stand to be corrected, as I've only been there twice, and can only read and listen from a distance) that Hitler might have finagled control of the government (which was a mess, coming out of post-war depression, and the humiliation of Versailles), and he undoubtedly did have all these thousands of followers, but he did not actually have the entire country behind him. It's interesting to note who is left out of that film, like the old army, commanded for centuries by the warrior caste. You get a couple brief shots of distinguished Junker army chiefs, in the audience at the speeches, not speaking themselves. There is absolutely no sign of German's once-vigorous intelligentsia. Instead we have Young Germany as Hitler envisions it, everyone in either in uniform, or in traditional garb when celebrating fealty to Hitler's person.
It occurred to me that this particular film was as effective as it was because of the female view, this lingering on the beauties of the city, the ancient buildings, the lovely smiling faces of girls and women. Sweet shots of the scuffed backs of children's shoes as their tow-headed wearers stand on tiptoe eagerly trying to catch a glimpse of the motorcade.
The party boys wanted (and got, in the sister film, which is stunningly boring except to the historian), military matchings and arms swinging, boots smacking the ground in unison, row after row of artillery with barrels jutting upward at an aggressive angle, medals glinting on uniforms. Leni Riefenstahl twines her message around the heart of the watcher, which is far, far more insidious.
It got me thinking about women who, while not in power, used their gifts to serve power, and how very dangerous they were.