Playback: Leni Riefenstahl' 'Triumph of the Will'
Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl's fetishistic film about Hitler's 1934 Nuremberg rally, is a controversial choice for "Playback," but not a perverse one. We recently sat down to watch it as we were preparing to make The Pink Fuhrer, a documentary about the controversy that Hitler might have been gay. For us, controversy is a critical ingredient for documentaries, whose raison d'etre is to look reality dead in the eye, and not be a hostage to political correctness or consensual thinking. A great documentary should not be afraid to ask the unaskable, even if it doesn't have the answers.
Of course it could be argued that a title card declaring "Produced by Order of the Fuhrer" signals that this film is less documentary than mere propaganda. But every documentary is animated by an argument or an agenda, and every documentary is inevitably a subjective record, one of many possible perspectives. Whatever we may think of Reifenstahl and her Nazi sympathies, what documentarian, in retrospect, would pass up the opportunity to get an access-all-areas pass to the story of the 20th century—the rise of Fascism, World War II and the Holocaust? And in contrast to so many of the noble, award-winning films made about this subject since, here we have a rare opportunity to look directly into the eye of the man who was the lead actor in mankind's ultimate horror story.
The first thing we noticed was that he wasn't a very good actor. Ranting at the podium, he just comes off as a bad silent movie star. Standing uncomfortably far from the microphones, he shouts and screams and gesticulates in a risible performance. But the audience reaction, the adoration, the hysteria are equally incomprehensible. We were going to write that this was "the chilling spectacle of a nation enthralled by a lunatic," but the truth is, it was less chilling than it was tedious. Even the fantastic camerawork could not transcend the tedium of the endless marching to bombastic military tunes. The tedium was occasionally disrupted by unintentional hilarity, as when a phalanx of men carrying spades pranced past the camera. These were "The Order of Spades from Friesenland," although they seemed to belong in a Monty Python film.
As the spectacle went on and on, it was clear that Hitler and his cronies knew how to mine camp, conjuring up a display that mixes Versace with Abercrombie and Fitch, on a Jerry Bruckheimer scale. Perhaps this is the true horror: the film's familiarity. The rally is pure Hollywood, and only since Sept 11 have we seen so many flags. The Fuhrer's 'I believe the children are the future' is everyday political schtick, and the emphasis on showering and hygiene no different than soap and deodorant commercials on TV. Capping it all off, the way the film is shot and edited even feels at times like MTV.
Perhaps Evil is not some other force from Middle Earth, but something right here, lurking among us. The idea made our hair stand on end, and this is why Triumph of the Will, while certainly not our favorite documentary, is perhaps one of the most important—a record of a nation enthralled by spectacle at the dawn of the media age, and a witness and a warning from the past.
Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato are co-directors of The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Party Monster, and Monica: In Black and White, among others.