A Haunting Movie

I’m trying to prep a few weeks worth of lessons in advance, because things are about to get very crazy at school, due to a conjunction of Spring Break, then music, academic, Latin, and sports activities that will have me filling in for almost everyone else for a week, while 4/5 of the students will be out on some field trip at any given point during the week. So I sat down to re-watch Triumph des Willens, or in English Triumph of the Will. It creeps me out every time, and also makes me sigh for lost history.

Sigh for lost history? In that movie?!?

Yes. Watch the opening between the prologue and when the JU-88 lands. There are cloudscapes, and then aerial shots of Nürmberg  (Nuremberg). The camera shows the towers of a church, then the camera plane swings around and traces a path through the old pre-war city, a warren of medieval and Renaissance buildings, around the municipal castle on its hill, over more old city with tile roofs and canals, then over beautiful bridges and into the outskirts of the city. All that is gone, aside from one or two pockets or reconstructions.

Skip past the landing and torchlight parade to Hitler’s first entry into the city. The camera, on  a boat this time, floats down one of the river channels within the city walls, past old mills, houses, lovely Renaissance warehouses… You will see men and women in a variety of traditional costumes from around the German-speaking lands, including areas now part of Poland and Russia (Königsberg, now Kaliningrad). And more city. Fast forward again to an hour and ten minutes or so into the film, and more old medieval city (and gorgeous cars. Oh, I would give my eye teeth for some of those interwar cars [and a stock of spare parts and instruction manuals and access to real gasoline for them, and…]

Those parts of the film I could watch over and over, especially if I could crop out Hitler and his associates. I’d love to go back in time to a soft spring or crisp autumn day in the early 1930s and stroll through the city, to see what it was like, to get a sense of what disappeared during the war. A great deal, I can assure you, because very little effort was made to rebuild most of the city into a tourist show-piece. Like Stuttgart, people rebuilt to meet their needs, not to please the historical sense of foreigners.

The rest of the movie chills me. Granted, in 1934 Adolf Hitler was not yet Adolf Hitler!!!!!!! and Leni Riefenstahl organized and scripted things very well. But to see so many people, so willingly cheer and adore the man, to see the enormous masses of people who were brought together for the event? It raises the hair on my neck. Especially the Hitler Youth rally, the kids scrambling to get catch a glimpse of their Leader, to watch the 7 and 8-year-old boys drumming with fierce concentration? Some of those kids look far too much like my students for my comfort.

Also troubling is that I can get sucked into the film. I prefer to watch it without subtitles when I’m checking timings and adjusting what I intend to show, and concentrating on the language plus Riefenstahl’s skill pulls me into it. I do not like that sensation. Was she that good? Did the speakers hit points that resonate for some reason in me? Do I have the kind of personality that is attracted to that kind of power and mass emotional sensation? I can tell you that the answer to the last question is yes, which is one reason speeches aimed at the heart repel me even if I agree with the speaker. I can feel the movie manipulating me and the feeling terrifies me.

I do not have that problem in the class room. Instead I am just drained, in part because I am running two languages simultaneously as I listen to the audio while adding commentary for the students at appropriate points. The creepy factor overrides everything else.

The movie disturbs students. They have seen Hitler’s watercolor paintings, which also bugs them because it makes them realize that he was a normal person in some ways. And then they see HITLER and the adoration and worship and it jars them. It isn’t just words in a textbook anymore. This was real, these were real people, not story-monsters.

I’m glad it is preserved and available to show. I wish the occasion for it had never occurred.

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5 thoughts on “A Haunting Movie

  1. Whoof. Chilling.

    …And this is why we need this to be available, and free speech. Because if you can’t freely discuss why something was a very bad idea… sooner or later some idiot will try it again. Or worse.

  2. Hitler was a mesmerizing, charismatic speaker in the early days. This film, thanks to Riefenstahl, catches the essence of that in a world barely recovering from WWI. Germans are ‘proud’ people and hated the thought of defeat. Hitler played on those sentiments, enthralling the masses with his ‘vision’. And yes, it’s truly scary… Then and now!

    • He was, and he played history so well, as did Riefenstahl. If you know German history after 1850, say, there are all kinds of points she’s nodding to, and things that resonate strongly with “What Germany Could Be Again.” The scene with the foresters for instance, links to the original lyrics of “Deutschland, Deutschland über Alles,” and the importance of Germany before your own province, and to Wilhelm I’s reclamation projects.

  3. This may be slightly off topic, but have you read 1924: The Year That Made Hitler by Peter Ross Range? It’s a fairly recent book. I read it last year, and it shows how the failure of the beer hall putsch actually allowed Hitler to come to power a few years later.

    • Not yet. Right now I’ve got to finish “Midnight’s Furies” about the Partition of India, and Dikoter’s book about Mao’s Famine before I can pick up anything European again (hole-filling for teaching).

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