Triumph of the Camerawoman

The influential propaganda film, Triumph of the Will, directed by Leni Riefenstahl, will be shown at Rider University April 17. Documentary filmmaker Joe Dorman will lead a discussion following the screening.

By: Jim Boyle
   It’s easy to underestimate the power of film. It has the ability to affect us in deep and personal ways and can shape the minds of an entire nation. Few people understood film’s scope in the first half of the 20th century, and even fewer used it as successfully as Adolf Hitler.
   "He is clearly one of the first political leaders to really understand the power of the image," says filmmaker and producer Joe Dorman. "He was one of the shrewdest politicians when it came to public identity. Once he was in a position to do so, all pictures of him and the Nazi party had to be authorized. He controlled the public image."

Leni Riefenstahl (third from left) directed the powerful and influential Triumph of the Will. The film was the second in a trilogy of films about the Nuremburg rallies.

   The influential propaganda film, Triumph of the Will, will be shown at Rider University April 17. Mr. Dorman will present the film and lead a discussion afterward regarding documentary filmmaking and the responsibilities of directors.
   A Detroit native, Mr. Dorman graduated from Brown University and taught English at a private school for three years. Combining his love for film and increasing interest in politics and history, Mr. Dorman decided to try making movies.
   While working for shows on PBS and New York stations, he began research for his first documentary. As he prepared for this foray in the late ’80s, Mr. Dorman formed his own production company, Riverside Films. In 1998, he released Arguing the World to critical acclaim. It followed four men, Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, Irving Howe and Irving Kristol, and tracked how their political ideologies changed.
   As a filmmaker, Mr. Dorman recognizes the importance and impact of Triumph of the Will, and the moral ambiguities that result from discussions about it.
   "It has a double nature," says Mr. Dorman. "It’s a cinematic tour de force about one of the most repellent subjects feasible. Just watching the film as a film is fascinating. It’s a good example of the nature of film and why it is so powerful. It provokes you in a visceral way."
   In 1933, Hitler commissioned Leni Riefenstahl to produce a trilogy of films about the Nazi Congress at Nuremberg. He and Joseph Goebbels wanted to follow the example set by the Russians, who used films such as Sergey Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin to spark a revolution.
   "The Nazis studied the Soviets," says Mr. Dorman. "Making a film like this was a logical step in the road to creating a mythology of heroism. The congress was there to discuss ideology, but the real reason was to make this film. Everything was staged for the movie."

"I don’t know exactly what (Ms. Riefenstahl’s) politics were," says Joe Dorman. "She claimed to be completely non-ideological, but there is certainly a fascist sensibility to the movie."

   Ms. Riefenstahl was born in 1902 and grew up in Berlin. She became a dancer and eventually moved to acting, finally settling on directing. When she agreed to make the films, it is unclear whether she actually believed in the Nazi party.
   "She was a very ambitious woman and an opportunist," says Mr. Dorman. "I don’t know exactly what her politics were. She claimed to be completely non-ideological but there is certainly a fascist sensibility to the movie."
   Whether or not she supported Hitler’s campaign, Victory of Faith, Triumph of the Will and Day of Freedom — Our Army became black marks on her career. She made another documentary, Olympia, about the 1936 Olympics, but after that found it nearly impossible to get financial support for her work. After World War II, she was tried for war crimes. Even though she was found innocent, the accusations were enough to keep people from working with her.
   Ms. Riefenstahl’s last motion picture, Tiefland, was released in 1954. It took more than 14 years to complete. During that time, she had been imprisoned three times, had her equipment and footage taken by the French and was accused of being Hitler’s lover. She switched to photography, spending two years with the Nuba tribe in Africa, learning their language and customs.
   In the’ 70s, she learned to scuba dive and began taking underwater photographs, which she continues to this day. In 2000, at age 97, she survived a helicopter crash in the Sudan. Even though she was exonerated of any Nazi affiliations, her work for the party still haunts her. In 1997, an exhibit in Hamburg of her photography was met with protest.
   Despite the animosity Triumph of the Will has met, it is still considered a masterpiece by many circles. Many shots Ms. Riefenstahl used are employed by directors today.

Above, a scene from Triumph of the Will.

   "She plays around with heroism," says Mr. Dorman. "She used a lot of low-angle shots to create that larger-than-life feeling. She also had the shots of large masses of people that created a sense of unity. These images permeate the film."
   There is a certain moral ambiguity when it comes to examining and learning from films such as Triumph of the Will and Birth of a Nation. There is a certain admiration for the artistry and techniques used, along with disgust at the slant toward the subject matter.
   "It’s something that crops up in any number of ways when dealing with art," says Mr. Dorman. "I certainly think it would be foolish not to look at and understand the power. If we learn from it, we can inoculate ourselves from falling for it again. When you take the notion that the events at Nuremberg were staged for the film, you see the same thing today with the Democratic and Republican conventions. The events there are staged purely for the viewers at home. We know that now, because we have become more media literate."
   In the ’30s, film was a relatively new art form. Since then, audiences have become more aware of the ways in which the industry manipulates the medium. Because of this increased awareness, documentary filmmakers have to be more careful about crossing the fine line into propaganda.
   There was controversy surrounding A Beautiful Mind, the fictional account of John Nash’s life. Many claimed that facts were ignored or blurred. Most critics gave the inaccuracies a pass because it was ultimately fiction. A documentary with the same approach would not receive the same treatment.
   "It shouldn’t get a pass," says Mr. Dorman. "Early documentary makers were looking for higher truths. They didn’t feel that they were slaves to the facts. If the film does not have integrity, then it is an extreme disservice to the subject."
Triumph of the Will will be shown at Student Center Theater, Rider University, Route 206, Lawrenceville,
April 17, 6 p.m. Joe Dorman will lead a discussion following the film. Free admission. For information,
call (609) 896-5000. On the Web: