A very old lady died recently in Germany. She was born in 1902 and was 101 years of age at the time of her death. Leni Riefenstahl is considered by many to be the greatest female filmmaker of all time. Her most famous film is “Triumph of the Will”, which was released in 1935. In that year, it was awarded the Gold Medal at the Venice Film Festival and in 1937 it won the Grand Prix at the World Exhibition in Paris. This is a propaganda film recording the rally at the Nazi Party congress in Nuremberg in 1934.
The film pioneered new techniques such as aerial photography, moving cameras, telephoto lenses and the use of multiple cameras simultaneously. This film cannot to this day be shown in Germany for the purposes of entertainment. It is banned under Germany’s denazification laws and its display is only permitted in the course of educating the public about the evils of the Nazi regime. It was in that context that we saw clips of it, when we visited Nuremberg in September 2010.
We saw the film in a museum called the Dokumentationszentrum Reichparteitagsgelande. Even for the German language, it must be some kind of record to include no less than thirteen syllables in only two words. This museum is located in the remains of the Congress Hall in what was formerly the middle of the Nazi party rally grounds in Nuremberg. This was where rallies were held annually between 1927 and 1938 and huge numbers of people attended. The rallies were discontinued when World War Two began. The museum contains an exhibition called “Fascination and Terror”, which examines the causes and consequences of national socialism. Leni Riefenstahl’s famous film is a valuable part of that exhibition, which lays out the entire nightmare in chronological order. We see the beginnings of the party in 1919 in the beer halls of nearby Munich and then, step by step, we move through to 1946 and to the trial of these murderous criminals before an international tribunal sitting in Nuremberg. One sees how their seizure of absolute power was a gradual process. One is reminded that a frog will jump out, if dropped into a pan of boiling water, but that it can be boiled alive when the water is initially cool and then heated gradually. What happened provides a useful lesson for US citizens of today, who must never give up their civil liberties in the name of national security.
The Russians wanted the trial of the war criminals to take place in Berlin, but the western allies believed that there was greater symbolic value in holding it in Nuremberg and so it took place there. Nuremberg may be a small city, when compared to such German cities as Berlin, Munich, Hamburg and Cologne, but Nuremberg occupied a special place in the history of the Nazi era.
Nuremberg was the site of the huge Nazi rallies in the twenties and thirties. It was during the 1935 rally, the Reichstag was ordered by Hitler to convene in Nuremberg and to pass laws revoking German citizenship for all Jews. It was therefore appropriate that Nuremberg was where most of these war criminals were convicted and executed.
There are several examples of Nazi architecture to be seen in Nuremberg, including the Kongress Hall where this museum is located. Nazi architecture represented, and was meant to represent, “an intimidating display of power”. Those are not my words. They are the words of the leading Nazi architect, Albert Speer, writing in retirement in 1978. He had somehow persuaded the Nuremburg War Crimes tribunal to spare his life in 1946, and to impose instead a long prison sentence. It was Speer who devised the so-called “cathedral of light”, which involved the use of many searchlights pointed skyward and which was always a memorable feature of Nuremberg rallies.
What happened to Leni Reifenstahl ? Her direction of “Triumph of the Will” turned out to be something less than a career enhancing item on her resume. Her work in 1934 was seen to be favorable propaganda for the Nazi regime. The world was later so repelled by the unspeakable crimes of that regime that she found few opportunities for film direction during the rest of her very long life. Her genius as a filmmaker was seen as no excuse. She was arrested after the end of World War Two and was detained for four years, either under house arrest or in detention centers, during which time she was tried four times as an alleged Nazi propagandist. She was never convicted. Later in life, she would sue for defamation anyone who claimed that she had been a Nazi. She won 50 such libel cases. Yet it cannot be denied that she was a prominent figure in pre-war Germany, who was on friendly terms with leading Nazis. However, in her defense, it can be argued that her work for the Nazis occurred shortly after they came to power and before it became evident that they were a manifestation of pure evil. Furthermore, there is nothing hateful in “Triumph of the Will”, even though it idolizes Hitler. In particular, there is nothing remotely anti-semitic in that film. This is not the place to consider her guilt or innocence, but her life is a story of wasted genius.