Skip to main content Skip to footer site map
Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership
MIDN 1/C Jordan Foley

MIDN 1/C Jordan Foley

A Nazi Blockbuster

Triumph of the Will and the Ensuing Influence that Changed Nazi Control of Cinema

Under pressure from Darfur activists, Steven Spielberg resigned his post as artistic advisor to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. In some opinions, China - the world's top consumer of Sudanese oil - had been financially fueling the genocide ravaging Sudan for years. China's complicity angered activists and the Beijing Olympics was the perfect stage to launch a protest and recall a bit of history dating back to 1936 Europe. Actress Mia Farrow wrote in a Wall Street Journal editorial that if Spielberg were to go through with the film he would "go down in history as the Leni Riefenstahl of the Beijing Games." Days after the piece was published Spielberg wrote an open letter to Chinese President Hu Jintao eluding to his intention to quit his advisor position if China did not make progress in combating Darfur's genocide problem. Changes were not made and a few months later Spielberg had formally resigned. Farrow's comparison to Riefenstahl reawakened a great artistic debate regarding propaganda and film. Specifically Farrow was referring to famous German director Leni Riefenstahl's film Olympia, a paean to the 1936 Berlin Games, which earned her and Germany fame and accolades for its beautiful screen shots and cinematography. Undoubtedly a talent, two years earlier Riefenstahl had directed her most well-known film Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens) funded by the Nazi party for propaganda purposes. Triumph later won international film festival awards and acclaim as one of the greatest films in history. These two successes and a number of other films closely associated Riefenstahl with the Nazi party, although she was not a member. After the war Riefenstahl tried to separate herself from the Nazi regime claiming that her allegiance lied in her art not in the Nazi party ideals portrayed in her films. Despite her efforts Riefenstahl was never able to overcome her association with the propaganda films she made during the early Nazi period. In the crucible of success, Triumph ignited a fierce coagulation of entertainment and indoctrination later to be exploited by The Reich Ministry of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda RMVP (Reichsministerium fur Volksaufklarung und Propaganda) head Joseph Goebbels. Although Riefenstahl's legacy is under debate the influence of Triumph on Nazi Germany changed the model of propaganda dissemination financially, operationally, and socially in the medium of film for the remainder of Nazi rule. By 1938, Goebbels had assumed total control of cinema and would not relinquish power until his suicide and collapse of the regime in 1945.

Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will was shot at the Nuremburg Rally in 1934 and premiered in March 1935. Within two months the film had earned over 815,000 Reichsmark and considered one of the most profitable films of that year. Cinema, still under private control until 1938, saw a revival of a genre that had been slowly dying out in Germany, "political films." Political films had existed since 1925 and were used by the Weimar Republic to some extent, but never gathered much popular interest. With the restoration of Germany under Hitler taking place, cinema clawed its way back to being an effective form of propaganda. During the transition period from the Weimar Republic to NS intentions in the mid 1930's, cinema had remained a private enterprise. Under strict state influence, film was rarely contradictory to Party ideals, however, profits still ended up in private hands. The Party saw itself commissioning directors and then not being able to collect enough money earned by the film to break even. The state was losing money, but at the cost of being able to disseminate its message. In 1934, Hitler commissioned Riefenstahl to direct a film centering on the Nuremberg Rally. To further entice the reluctant artist Hitler gave Riefenstahl unlimited resources and full artistic license. After copious amounts of Reichmarks were spent making the film it was ready to debut in 1935. Triumph's success was unprecedented. Riefenstahl's preceding work, Der Sieg des Glaubens (The Victory of Faith), shot at the 1933 Nuremberg Nazi Party Rally, had not come close to the popular appeal of Triumph. An astute observer of media influences and master of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels made a note of this, and with his appointment to Minister of Propaganda in 1938 he quickly placed cinema under total state control. Now the Party would produce and collect all the profits from the films. It was a double edged sword. The Party could now commission films and recycle profits to make new ones without reaching into its own pocket. The cinema mechanism was now in place. Goebbels was so satisfied with his decision that he wrote in his diary, "movie production is flourishing almost unbelievably despite the war. What a good idea of mine it was to have taken possession of the films on behalf of the Reich several years ago! It would be terrible if the high profits now being earned by the motion-picture industry were to flow into private hands," (Goebbels Diary 21.12.1941). The lucrative appeal made evident by Triumph resulted in the ensuing shift of cinema management that lasted from 1938 until war's end in 1945.

The inception of state control of cinema existed before the success of Triumph in 1935, but not until 1938 did Minister of Propaganda Goebbels place film under total party control. From 1933 until 1938 the state had considerable influence in theater producing State-commissioned films (Staatsuftragsfilme). Elimination of Jewish contribution to film was the first step taken by the RMVP early in the Nazification process, but soon after the Ministry moved to not only censor all film, but collect the profits. Operationally, cinema management changed after Triumph's debut and massive success. In the years leading to 1938, all media had been fiercely censored. As U.S. Consulate General George Messersmith stated in 1933, Germany's free press had been placed under government control to a degree greater than "has probably ever existed in any country. The press censorship may be considered an absolute. " Press censorship was not a paradigm shift by any means. It had been occurring ever since Hitler's appointment to Chancellor in 1933. Censorship and control were pre-Triumph truths, however, 1938 marked the year for the elimination of any free hands in media, both press and cinema alike. Furthermore the RMVP took all media from private control, consequentially directing all radio, press, and cinema profits straight to the Party. With that said total cinema control meant maintaining audiences and not straying into producing only state-run propaganda messages. Now the RMVP was burdened with not only producing films in line with Party ideals, but also retaining and attracting audiences. Goebbels understood that cinema had to be both lucrative and educational for the Party to reap full benefits. The Minister of Propaganda made an operational change and began commissioning Entertainment films (Unterhaltungsfilme) instead of the more didactic State-commissioned films. In fact, by 1939 the number of "purely political" propaganda films only amounted to one seventh of overall film production. The RMVP understood the need to appeal to a kaleidoscope of interests, needs, and aesthetic expectations, and they did so. Propaganda films soon mixed entertainment with indoctrination. Goebbels placed so much importance on film being a form of entertainment rather than strictly preaching nationalism and ideology that, in 1942, he personally denied German director Alfred Rosenberg's Dienstetelle, a series of ideological films. Goebbels did so on the grounds that he believed balanced entertainment and indoctrination could more effectively promote "total" ideological, cultural, and political goals than a heavy-handed educational cinema could ever do. The operational management of cinema under the RMVP expounded upon the idea of state-run media for entertainment and profiteering purposes, a post-Triumph epiphany. Triumph proved to the Party and Goebbels that film could both indoctrinate the masses and provide a form of leisure. This was far more effective than any strictly educational mechanism; almost subconsciously the RMVP was able to disseminate its message without any hindrances while collecting one-hundred percent of the profits. The challenge of appealing to the masses while still being educational was surmounted. Goebbels grasped the social pulse of Germany and manipulated cinema to both entertain and indoctrinate.

The period from 1938 through 1945 marked complete NS control of cinema. During this time every film was produced by the state and all profits came to the Party. The RMVP hired top directors to produce its films and often times the films blurred the boundaries of art and propaganda to the extent that the products were enjoyable for audiences. During the war, German theaters remained crowded as a way for the people to escape hardships. The public had responded well to the RMVP's control of cinema and the state continued to run its propaganda through cinema. The films had two definite goals: to promote nationalism and cultural homogony. Any subversive films were never shown nor would anyone dare to produce such a message. The Party had total control of the theaters. Goebbels understood cinema's dual purpose of entertainment and indoctrination, and, more crucially, he understood how the two were interdependent - specifically how "light entertainment" could enforce cultural homogony. Inspired by the Wagnerian influences of Triumph, Goebbels intended to use historical films as both devices of making politics by combining rich visual entertainment and political messages to bolster German nationalism. The RMVP saw the effects of cinema not only bound the national community through a concurrent message, but physically bound the masses in the theater resulting in a force known as mass psychology. In the years from 1938 until 1943 this proved to be true, but as the German war effort waned, so did public support of propaganda films. The nationalism created by Triumph was slowly dying out, and soon not even the RMVP could hold German spirits high. Cinema remained one of the highest earning forms of media throughout the NS period of control and can be considered one of the more effective means of propaganda. The theaters provided a group gathering space that radio and newsprint did not. Triumph promoted Nazism through shots of jubilant assemblage and provided a physical means for social gathering in the theater. The success and positive response to Triumph was the foundation of cinema's impact on Germany during the period of NS control.

1934 was a precarious year for the Nazi regime. Much uncertainty existed in a struggling Germany and Hitler was in the midst of filling a vacuum of power. In the early years, Riefenstahl used film to legitimize Hitler as a ruler. Triumph most certainly did this and, after seeing how effective film could be, led to total state control of cinema. Triumph, with its evocative images and innovative film technique is widely regarded as one of the most masterful propaganda films ever produced. Other directors like Veit Harlan created works like Jud Suss and Kolberg, which were also considered propaganda films for the NS regime. Triumph, however, was seen more as a documentation of Nazism and campaign propaganda to join the Party. Harlan's works were more anti-Semitic and did not have the magnitude of effect on nationalism and cultural homogony that Triumph did. Cinema was always destined to become state controlled regardless if Triumph was ever produced, however, the effectiveness of propaganda dissemination through film is owed to the precedent changing influence Triumph had on German propaganda films. 

go to Top