Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Lessons from "Triumph of the Will"

Last night my film aesthetics class watched Leni Riefenstahl's Dokument of the 6th (1934) congress of the NSDAP.

Wow, what an amazing work that is. And I don't mean amazing in a good way, either. We've all read and heard so much about the Nazis, but it's all from the point of view of outsiders -- opponents, appeasers, victims. Here is a rare chance to see them as they saw themselves, and as they wished others to see them. Every time I see this marvelously ghastly film, I connect a few more dots, get another piece of the big picture. Here are some thoughts from this year's viewing.

There are a lot of speeches in this film. And there are a lot of gaseous abstractions in the speeches, but there are also elements that gel into a more or less coherent glob of beliefs and ideals. This glob is extremely simple, but that is what you should expect. No movement will command the obedience of millions unless it is simple. All the main tenets of either Christianity or Islam can be jotted on one side of an index card, and without missing any of the subtleties. There are no subtleties. Subtlety only arises in the many conflicting interpretations of these simple ideas. Hitler had a very firm grasp of this basic truth.

What do the speeches say? The message is in a way somewhat confusing. Hitler tells the faithful, "The state does not command us, we created this state." In other words the state, ordinarily an abridgment of freedom, is actually an instrument of their freedom and power. On the other hand, another Nazi tells them, "We know only to obey the orders of the Fuehrer." So they practice unquestioning obedience, and thus aren't free at all. A contradiction? Well, not exactly.

The film itself contains the key to solving this little puzzle, which is to be found in the Nazi conception of freedom. In shot after shot we see rows and columns of humans flooding across the screen (see above). Dozens, hundreds, thousands of helmets and extended arms. In one shot, there are at least 160,000 of the Nazi faithful, which the camera renders as vast, curving rows of little white dots, each individual counting for no more than a sixteenth note in a vast symphonic composition (see below).

The message is clear: As an individual, you do not count. You only count as part of a swarm, like a bee, an ant, or a termite. The "we" who created the new state and so rose to total power is that swarm. Your unquestioning obedience is the very thing that creates the swarm and leads to control of the new state. The price of total power and absolute freedom then is a small one: to lose your individuality.

If I were a non-Nazi German viewing this movie at its premiere, I would have thought: Look at all those Nazis! They are so united! All doing one thing, all thinking one thought! Resistance is futile! We are doomed! That of course is part of the message.

There are many references to self-sacrifice in the film: the Fuehrer's sacrifices to the cause and our sacrifices to him. There is the Bloody Flag, whose touch seems to have magic powers. There's the line in the Horst Wessel Lied, which ends the picture, about the comrades killed by the "Red Front and the reactionaries." And of course there's Wessel himself, who opened his door one day in 1930 and was shot in the face by a Communist. The Party took this poem he had written, had it set to a rousing tune, and made it their anthem, thus transforming a nasty little thug into a martyr, and another symbol of sacrificial devotion.

One way of reading this would be to say something like, "How like the Nazis, to hide behind noble ideals like self-sacrifice!" This I think would be a very serious mistake, missing the historical lesson of these events entirely. The talk of sacrifice must be completely sincere or it will not work. There are many things in this film that are fake, but the theme of sacrifice cannot be one of them. Without it, the swarm falls apart, resolving itself once more into mere individuals. The army ants can only cross the puddle because each one of them is willing to charge into the water and let its comrades trample indifferently over its drowning body. Like unquestioning obedience, self-sacrifice is needed if the swarm is to exist and grow to become an agent of history.

People often say that what makes this film so creepy is that it takes someone who, on the basis of the world outside the film, we know to be a monster and makes him attractive. It projects him in terms of the party's ideals rather than in terms of what they actually did. For my part, I do not find this picture of him attractive at all. It might even be argued that the Nazi ideals are worse than what they did, because they made the subsequent horrors possible, perhaps even inevitable. After all, if they are happy to sacrifice themselves, ant-like, for the good of the race, what do you think they will be willing to do to you?
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